Reading the Bible Better: Understanding Biblical Genres

One of the few things that unites all Christians is a love for the Bible. But, the Bible is a difficult document — or rather, library of documents — to approach, having been written by dozens of voices in different cultures and languages, across a period of roughly a thousand years, the most recent pieces of which are two thousand years old now. This means that the Bible needs to be approached with care and consideration. It must be interpreted. Last year, in the first series in a larger ‘Reading the Bible Better’ project, I explored the different ways people of faith have approached understanding the Bible across history. My goal was to demonstrate that, if nothing else, there has never been just ‘one way’ of reading the Scriptures, and when we read them ourselves, we’re making interpretive choices — whether explicitly or implicitly — on how we do so. This Spring, in phase two of ‘Reading the Bible Better’, I’m going to look at different biblical genres. These are the different styles of literature in which the Bible was written. Just as we don’t expect a Shakespearean tragedy to function the same way as a poem by e.e. cummings, or a romance novel to play by the same rules as a piece of literary fiction (as problematic as that term is), so too is the Bible written in different genres, and we do it a great disservice when we fail to recognize that and flatten it and treat every part of it as though it were playing by the same rules. Understanding literary genres can help us to read the Bible on its own terms, even as we recognize that we always come to it from our own terms, values, and expectations.

There is always a sense among some Christians when such ideas are introduced that this is somehow a liberal plot to weaken the Bible’s authority. I disagree wholeheartedly — and as it happens, in this at least, I am in agreement with the most important conservative statement of belief about the Bible, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), which says: “history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.” So, even if thinking about biblical genres and the historical origins of our sacred texts makes you uncomfortable, it is not a question of ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’. It’s simply a matter of finding tools to help us understand better what the Bible is trying to say.

To get a better sense of this, let’s look at some of our own culture’s genres and what conventions and expectations govern them:

  • Romance: This is probably the most formally structured genre we have right now. For something to be considered ‘romance’, it must: focus on a romantic relationship, tell the story according to one of several common tropes (’love at first sight,’ ‘enemies to lovers,’ ‘friends to lovers,’ ‘fake dating’, ‘forced proximity’, and so on), and end with a ‘happily ever after’. This last characteristic is becoming a bit more controversial as societal expectations surrounding what makes a ‘successful’ romantic connection change, but is still identified as a core part of the genre, such that to break from it is at least considered to be a subversion of the genre from within. Even older works recognizable as romances, such as Pride and Prejudice, follow these rules: The work centres on the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, who start off as enemies but end up falling in love, and they settle into a happy life together after their marriage. Other, less central, conventions of the romance genre include a ‘darkest moment’, normally at around the 80% mark, at which point the couple breaks up (or at least strongly contemplates it), and a ‘grand gesture’, through which the couple reconciles. It is also generally accepted that the romantic partnership should be healthy and aspirational. It’s a kind of fantasy that projects our hopes and dreams for the possibilities of romantic partnership in the world.
  • Fantasy: Another contemporary genre with strong conventions is fantasy. While this genre has changed quite a bit over the past twenty years or so, vastly expanding who the hero within it can be, the core conventions have remained remarkably intact. Fantasy generally follows the famed ‘hero’s journey’ (or its close complement, the ‘heroine’s journey’). There’s a hero, often a child or teenager, who starts off in a position of marginalization, who receives a summons that throws them into an adventure for which they feel unprepared. (Traditionally this was often an orphan boy — think of Harry Potter living under the stairs, or Luke Skywalker living on a desolate desert planet, but we can also think of Sunny in Akata Witch, who is marginalized in her Nigerian village as an American-born albino, or Amari in Amari and the Night Brothers, who is marginalized in terms of her race, socio-economic status, and by being raised in a single-parent family.) Often this call to adventure is symbolized by an introduction to a magical or supernatural world about which they had previously been ignorant. Through mentorship and alliance-building, they rise to the challenges before them, but there comes a moment of truth when they must go it alone and sacrifice themselves to save the day. Because fantasy is all about a person on the margins rising to the occasion, it is strongly linked with themes of coming of age and fulfilling one’s potential.
  • Haiku: For something completely different, let’s look at a poetic genre, haiku. This form of traditional Japanese poetry is highly stylized: it is comprised of seventeen syllables spread across three lines, with five, seven, and five syllables respectively. This marks haiku as being different from other forms of poetry, such as the Sonnet, Twelve-Bar Blues, or a freestyle rap.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring some of the common genres we see in the Bible to see how understanding their conventions can help us to better understand and apply our Scriptures. The genres I’ll look at are: Myth, Legends & Folk Tales, Genalogies, Law, History, Poetry, Prophecy, Apocalyptic, Wisdom, Psalm, Proverb, Parable, Gospel, and Epistle.

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