The Bible: it’s not what you think it is

It’s quiz time again. I promise this one is easier than the Shakespeare quiz from the Reading the Bible as Literature post.Bashaw

Identify the type of literature from which each of the following are excerpted:

1) Pierce squash 5 to 6 times with tip of a sharp knife.  Place on a paper towel in microwave oven; microwave at High for 10 minutes or until soft, rotating once.  Let stand until cool enough to handle.  Cut in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds.  Scrape strands of squash with a fork into a bowl.  Keep warm.

2)  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…

3) Hope” is the thing with feathers -

      That perches in the soul -

      And sings the tune without the words -

     And never stops – at all –

4) Oeuvre — (noun) The total output of a writer or artist (or a substantial part of it). Synonyms: body of work. Usage: The musicologist studied the entire Wagnerian oeuvre.

I assume it was fairly simple to identify the kind of writing each of these represents, even if you were not familiar with the exact work.  Cookbooks, novels, poetry, and dictionary entries represent just a small portion of the many kinds, or genres, of writing we encounter every day.

We are socially conditioned and taught in school to read each of these genres of literature differently. Each genre has its own set of rules and expectations to which we adapt when reading.

In a cookbook, we expect measurement short hand like tsp. and we anticipate direct and terse descriptions.

In a novel, we unconsciously translate metaphors and other figures of speech and we are trained to notice plot, characterization, and irony.

In a poem, we look for rhyme and rhythm and meter we often enounter purposeful brevity.

In a dictionary article, we read bare facts, synonyms and antonyms, and do not read expecting to be moved emotionally or challenged ethically.

As 21st century readers we have become experts in interpreting a wide variety of genres with their separate rules and expectations.

If that is the case, then why do 21st century readers tend to read and interpret the Bible without distinguishing between the various genres found within it?

I think it is because we have been neither socially conditioned nor taught in our churches to read the Bible for what it is–a collection of many types of genres, each with their own rules and expectations.

For example:

Genesis is an ancient narrative that makes use of several sub-genres such as genealogy, mythology (before you stone me, note that mythology need not imply fiction or falsehood!), and short story (Joseph’s narrative is one of the earliest examples of a well-crafted short story)

Exodus is a mixture of the genres of law, narrative, and poetry

Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job are wisdom literature fused with bits of poetry and song

The rest of the Old Testament is an amalgamation of prophecy, history, and narrative

The New Testament includes the diverse genres of gospel (which is a unique genre in literary history), epistle, homily, and apocalyptic literature.

Sadly, though, when the typical Christian sits down to read the Bible or hears it read in church, he or she has no clue what genre they are reading, much less which rules or expectations to apply in interpreting it. We display more literary intelligence while reading a cookbook with all its specialty terms and abbreviations, than we show when reading the word of God, the collection of books we claim as authoritative in the life of the Church.

Donald Miller, in a recent blog post, describes our contemporary misuse and misreading of the Bible in this way:

“Imagine reading a newspaper article from a century ago, bound with a series of love letters and the score of a musical and then trying to interpret that compilation as a comprehensive guide for living life, studying science and establishing a democracy. That’s what we tend to do with scripture but that’s not what God intended for the book.”

Miller gets to the heart of the matter—we are not reading the Bible for what it is. Instead, we cram this multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-voice symphony of writings into whatever little box gives us the most peace of mind.

  • Those who want to live their lives (or want others to live their lives) adhering to a strict, black-and-white set of do’s and don’ts…read the Bible as a rule book, ignoring the rich stories depicting the complicated relationship between God and humanity.
  • Those who would like to experience clarity in the practical, everyday matters of life…read the Bible as a self-help book or a how-to manual, ignoring the fact that the Bible does not address every problem known to humanity and is not designed to be handy guide to life.
  • Those who would like to have univocal answers to every theological question we ask today… read the Bible as a propositional treatise that lays out a philosophy of Christianity, ignoring the fact that very few of the biblical authors intended to explicate theology and those that did wrote to a particular audience at a particular time addressing their particular problems.
  • Those who want to feel warm fuzzies about God and people and the church…read it like a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book, searching for nuggets of “feel good” wisdom and ignoring the laments and clear promises of persecution in the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles.

The Bible is not any of these things we make it out to be. It is something wholly other, something we do not expect it to be, something we could never dream up on our own. It is so complex and so diverse that it can speak to people living in any time in history and any place in this world. It is a messy, human-narrated, human-tarnished, living, God-breathed, God-designed, masterpiece of mismatched literature.

And until we learn to read it for what it is, learn recognize the variety of genres and know what rules and expectations to have for each, we will continue to miss the prismatic beauty of its truth.

jgb

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Jennifer Bashaw

Assistant Professor of Religion at East Texas Baptist University

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One thought on “The Bible: it’s not what you think it is

  1. Pingback: Top Ten ways to avoid misreading and misleading |

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