14 July 2017

The bible’s genres.

GENRE 'ʒɑ(n).rə noun. Type or category of literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, and subject matter.

Our word genre originates from the Old French word gendre/“gender.” ’Cause while men and women are both human, we’ve still got some important, distinctive differences. (Not as many as our culture dictates, but still.)

There are many types of literature. Stop by the local public library, and you’ll notice how the books tend to be lumped into categories so we can find them easier. Whether your library uses the Dewey system or the Library of Congress system, you’ll notice the gardening books are on one shelf, the photography books on another, the legal books on another, the biographies on another.

Now when the average person picks up a bible, they assume they’re picking up one category of literature: Non-fiction religious instruction. After all, that’s where we’ll find bibles in the library.

Thing is, the bible’s an anthology, a book collection. Yes, it’s religious. Yes, it’s mostly non-fiction. (You know the parables never literally took place, right? Jesus was just making ’em up to illustrate his lessons? Hope you knew this.) But within its pages are several books and letters of several different types: Commands and instructions. Logical arguments. Wisdom. Parables. Histories. Creation stories. Gospels. Poetry. Prophecy. Apocalypses.

Christians who figure it’s all one genre, and try to interpret the whole of it literally, are gonna get the bible wrong.

Problem is, even though many Christians know there are multiple genres in the bible, they figure these differences really aren’t that great, and don’t entirely matter. One part’s prose, one part’s poetry; this bit is prophecy, that part is history. But all they really care about is religious instruction, and figure they can be instructed by all parts equally.

After all, didn’t Paul say so?

2 Timothy 3.16 KWL
Every inspired scripture is also useful for teaching,
for disproving, for correcting, for instruction in rightness.

Every inspired scripture. All the bible. Every bit of it can be used for instruction in rightness, so they’re gonna try to pull that instruction right out of it. After all, the bible’s our “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” our guidebook for life, with all the answers to all our questions—if we analyze it just right.

So to them, genre doesn’t matter. We can find instructions in the wisdom writings or the gospels; doesn’t matter whether we quote the apostles or Moses. It’s all bible. It’s all inspired. All good. Right?

Well, let’s take apart these claims a tad.

Instructional. But directly or indirectly?

You can tell whether people actually read their bibles by the sort of things they claim about it. When they claim the bible has all the answers, fr’instance: No it doesn’t. God tells us what he feels we humans universally need to know. Jesus teaches us what God’s kingdom looks like. The LORD hands down his Law to the Hebrews. That’d be the direct instruction: God commands, and we obey.

That, or we seek loopholes like the Pharisees did. Like figuring the Law was only for the previous dispensation. Or figuring the Sermon on the Mount is for the age to come, not the present. That Jesus was being metaphorical instead of literal, or vice-versa. Whatever helps us evade God’s instructions.

That, or we seek different commands. “Basic biblical principles” are what Christians call it when they don’t care to follow God’s direct instruction, so they hunt down what we call indirect instruction: Historical stories, from which they extract a moral to the story, and teach the moral as if it’s a command. Proverbs which they treat, not as good advice, but likewise as commands. Actual commands in the Law which they don’t care to follow—but they think they’ve deduced a common theme in ’em, and turned the theme into a command. And so forth.

Or, more often, they have their own rules which they’d like everybody to follow. They figure they can confirm these rules with the bible. (Especially once they bend the scriptures to fit.) As a result, some of these “basic biblical principles” look way more like upper-class 18th century American etiquette than 15th century BC middle eastern patriarchy.

True, every inspired scripture is useful for teaching. But only when we’re teaching it properly, and not by taking the scriptures out of context so they suit our agendas. Pagans use it to spread irreligion; heretics use it to spread heresy. Misinterpreted, it’ll misinstruct. So let’s not do that.

In a nutshell, the main genres.

These are the main genres. There are a lot of sub-genres; there’s more than one kind of poetry, more than one kind of history, more than one kind of letter, and so forth.

APOCALYPSES. Visions meant to reveal heavenly secrets through representative or parabolic images.

Apocalypses aren’t literal. Prophecies about the End in particular: God doesn’t wish to give us details about the future, so his prophets see creatures and actions in their visions which only stand for future people and events. Think of ’em like parables in visionary form.

Of course, like parables, Christians abuse ’em by taking them literally. Or vice-versa: Interpreting non-apocalyptic things as if they’re really apocalypses.

COMMANDS. Orders from the LORD through Moses and the prophets, or from Jesus’s own mouth, telling God’s people how to live.

They fall into many sub-categories, usually based on:

  • Whom they’re to: Ancient Hebrews, early Christians, all people.
  • What they’re about.
  • Whether Jesus’s new covenant supersedes any of ’em. Like the commands about ritual cleanliness. (Although do keep washing your hands after you use the bathroom. For all our sakes.)

CREATION STORIES. The stories about how the world, humanity, and Israel came to be. Genesis is full of such stories: The six days of creation, Adam and Eve, the serpent, the fall, the Flood, the tower of Babel, the genealogies of nine-century-old men, and so forth.

Are they meant to be interpreted literally? There, Christians debate like crazy.

Epistles or Letters. Advice and instruction from the apostles to various churches or elders.

In every letter, the advice is to and about that specific church and culture. Of course much of that advice applies to every Christian everywhere. But we need to discern which parts apply to us, and which parts don’t. And again, Christians abuse ’em—applying parts which don’t apply, and dismissing parts which totally do, where convenient.

GOSPELS. Manifestos: Declarations that Messiah has come to Israel, who he is, what he taught, what he and his followers achieved, and what his kingdom is like.

I know; people tend to claim they’re biographies of Jesus. Any biographer will point out they lack all sorts of details which we oughta see in proper biographies. They’re not really about Jesus’s life and times. They’re about his message.

Arguably Acts falls into this category too, ’cause its stories tell of what happened once the apostles began to follow Messiah.

HISTORY. More accurately divine history—these are the stories of the major events which involved God in Israel’s and the church’s history. It’s foremost about God. Humans are secondary.

Naturally divine history includes a lot of information about the Hebrews and early church, ’cause their story overlaps with God’s. But because God’s the focus, there are big gaps and missing details in the human part of the timeline. The writers were trying to make the case that Israel’s prosperity was tied to following God, and they skipped any history which didn’t support their hypothesis. Likewise Luke, in writing Acts, only covered major acts of God and major movements; not so much the small ones.

Parables. Fictional stories, used as an allegory for a greater truth. Jesus specialized in parables. A lot of the prophets used them too.

Christians throughout history have abused the idea: They treat other scriptures in other genres (fr’instance Song of Songs) like parables; or they treat parables like End Times prophecies. Sometimes because they wanna extract “secret wisdom”; sometimes to avoid what these parables actually teach.

POETRY. More a type of writing than a genre of literature, ’cause poetry is found everywhere in the bible. Hebrew-style poetry has to do with repeating ideas instead of sounds. Which really aids us in biblical interpretation: If an apostle is teaching in poetry, and one line is unclear, the next line repeats the idea, or adds to it, or otherwise helps clear things up.

But poetry is rich in metaphor, and for this reason it’s best to be careful we don’t interpret the metaphors literally.

PROPHECY. Statements from the LORD through his prophets. Usually to remind the Hebrews to stop sinning and follow the Law.

Sometimes prophecies declare the future, and those who know squat about prophecy tend to treat it all as if it’s predictive. Or assume God’s statements about then-present-day Israel, actually have to do with End Times events.

WISDOM. Observations about the universe, and advice for how to live in it.

Advice, not commands. Sometimes proverbs don’t apply. Which is why it takes wisdom to know where they apply, and how to apply ’em. But many legalistic Christians have mined the bible’s wisdom literature for “biblical principles” which they indiscriminately, unthinkingly apply to every situation… and so much for using wisdom.

As you can see in my descriptions, a lot of these genres are about trying to instruct us about God in one way, and Christians try to interpret them entirely different ways. Metaphors, parables, and apocalypses are interpreted literally. Prophecies are projected forward into the future. Gospels and history are treated as if they’re not skipping the things historians find relevant, simply because the authors didn’t likewise find ’em relevant.

This is why it helps to know our genres. Keeps us from going wayward.