Hey guys, so, C.S. Lewis once wrote, “the first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is — what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.” In order to most effectively understand and use the Bible, we need to know what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. Today we’re going to be looking at just one key factor that will help us in that process. We’re going to talk about the importance of genre recognition. Let’s do it.
Determining the genre of a modern book usually comes quite naturally. When you open a book today and it starts with the phrase, “once upon a time,” you instantly know that the story you’re about to read likely belongs to the genre, “fiction.” It’s not going to be a true story. When you open the encyclopedia you’re going to be able to tell right away that it isn’t a sci-fi novel. It belongs to the reference or information genre. You can also have multiple genres mashed together. For instance, Pride and Prejudice is primarily a romance novel. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies combines romance and satire and action, etc.
The word “Bible” comes from this Greek term meaning, “the books.” The Bible is not just one book. It contains dozens of different books, written at different times, by different people, with sometimes different purposes. And not every book is part of the same genre. There’s historical narrative, there’s poetry, there’s apocalyptic literature, there’s allegory, etc. The challenge is that the books of the Bible are translations of ancient documents that didn’t come with an explanation of which genre each book belongs to. Determining which genre the original writers intended for their work is oftentimes really difficult. Sometimes, because we say the Bible is “true,” we assume that everything in it must therefore fit squarely into the genre, nonfiction. But that’s not an assumption the text itself backs up. And we cause problems for ourselves when we misinterpret a work’s genre.
For example, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Is it nonfiction? Is it a true story? Think about it. At the beginning, it says that this stuff happened in England in 932 A.D. England is a real place. 932 A.D. was a real time. Some say that even King Arthur might have actually existed. So, is this story true? No! Of course not. It is very clearly a satirical comedy. If you don’t catch onto that, though, this movie is going to leave you with some significant questions about history and a potentially debilitating fear of rabbits.
Let’s look at an example from the Bible: The parable of the prodigal son. Is it historically accurate? Did the events described actually happen? No. It’s a parable. It’s a fictional story meant to teach us a lesson. Nobody has an issue with the parables being fictional because their genre in the New Testament is fairly clear. Before we move on let that idea sink in — it’s not a problem that the Bible sometimes uses fictional stories to teach us divine truth. It was like… Christ’s preferred method of teaching.
So Christ’s parables are obviously fictional and nobody bats an eye. People get more defensive, though, when genre in the Bible is less clear. For example, what is the genre of the Book of Jonah? Now, this is a controversial subject and most Christians (including Latter-day Saints) might disagree with me on this. Granted, this probably isn’t an issue where your salvation hangs in the balance, but the genre you assign the Book of Jonah will influence the questions you ask about it. There are many fantastic Christians (including Latter-day Saints and past Latter-day Saint leaders) who believe Jonah is straight-up narrative nonfiction — historical fact. Many other fantastic Christians believe that the original author intended this work to be a sort of extended satirical parable. Personally, I’m in the parable camp, but you’re certainly free to disagree if that’s what makes the most sense to you. And if you’re thinking, “well Jesus references Jonah in the New Testament so it has to be a true story,” go read this article by Ben Spackman. Hebrew Bible and Old Testament scholar Steven Mckenzie wrote,
“The attempt to read Jonah as history gives priority to an assumption about its genre over its actual content. A historical reading ignores or struggles to explain the clear exaggerations, caricatures, and ridiculous features that are essential to the nature of the story as satirical fiction. Worst of all, the historical reading of Jonah … runs the risk of missing the book’s richness. It misleads the reader into focusing on relatively insignificant details—such as whether a man could live in a whale for three days—and missing its main point—the stupidity of bigotry.”
The story of Jonah seems intentionally saturated with rich irony. Everyone and everything is more faithful to God than the prophet himself. The pagan mariners are offering sacrifices to Jehovah, the fish obeys God, the wicked Ninevites, and even their animals are repenting, while Jonah, the prophet, is being a bit of a turd the whole time.
Not getting the genre of a book right can be distracting, leading to the wrong questions, and can even lead to challenges of faith. If Jonah’s story is a parable, questions about whether people can survive inside of fish are irrelevant and totally missing the point of the story.
But, to be clear, Jonah is not a parable just because the fish thing may be hard to believe. I believe in miracles. All Christians who believe Jonah is parable obviously still believe in miracles. This isn’t about taking stuff you find hard to believe in the Bible and giving yourself an out by reinterpreting it as symbolic or metaphorical. This isn’t about lacking faith or doubting what God is capable of doing. This is about being aware of our assumptions and trying to understand how the original authors of the Bible intended their works to be read from the get-go.
And that takes time and study. If you want to dive more into this subject I’ll leave you some resources in the YouTube description. In terms of Latter-day Saint scholars, you’re going to want to read, watch, or listen to a lot of Ben Spackman’s stuff. Most of what I’ve said in this video shamelessly just echoes the really great stuff he’s been teaching for years. So check those resources out. Watch some of our other videos we’ve done about the Bible while you’re here, and have a great day!
Here is a shamelessly long list of Ben Spackman resources you should check out:
— “Episode 45: Misunderstanding the Bible — Ben Spackman” (LDS Perspectives podcast): https://bit.ly/2YmP6MM
— “Jonah— the Insufficiency of the New Testament argument”: https://bit.ly/3ldYCuI
— “Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 32- Job: https://bit.ly/3imejOf
— “Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 33: Jonah and Micah”: https://bit.ly/3l0Q5v1
— “Truth, Scripture, and Interpretation: Some Precursors to Reading Genesis”: https://bit.ly/2WqMAnW
— “Virtual Sperry Fireside on Reading the Old Testament in Context”: https://bit.ly/3mjN5JE
— “Resources for Studying the Bible in Context”: https://bit.ly/3m6Q4Vm
— “Interpreting Scripture, History, Science, and Creation: A Free Course by Me!”: https://bit.ly/39V7RJM
— An interview of Spackman (in 8 parts) in which he talks about subjects like Genesis, evolution, concordism, etc.: https://bit.ly/3kjoLaY
— “The Scientific Deformation and Reformation of Genesis: How ‘Science’ Messed It Up, but Also Fixes It”: https://bit.ly/3kjmj41 (And a corresponding article here: https://bit.ly/2XzIv1o )
—“Jonah and Genre” by Steven McKenzie: https://bit.ly/3D1I2Eg
—“Don’t Put God in a Box – Unless You Want to be Swallowed by a Fish,” by Pete Enns: https://bit.ly/3ixPEGG
—“Focus on Jonah” via Oxford Biblical Studies Online (Brent A. Stawn): https://bit.ly/3Fv02cn
—“A Rant about Scriptural Literalism” by Ardis Parshall: https://bit.ly/3ipV726