We read the instruction manual for our car differently than we will read Shakespeare’s sonnets, right? We read the Declaration of Independence different than we read Huckleberry Finn. As we should. The authors of each of those documents are utilizing different literary genres to accomplish a purpose.
Genre is a fancy word that just means “category.” It is often used to describe different kinds of literature or movies or music. The Bible, too, includes poetry, lists, history, law codes, letters, parable, prophecies, and more. Therefore, one of the first things we should do when we start reading something in the Bible is ask, what genre am I reading?
That goes back to what we already said when we discussed inspiration: the author of each books in the Bible is actually two authors, a combination of God and humans. God inspired humans to write, so both are the author. Thus we ask what did God and the human author try to communicate to us? One of the first steps to determining the message of the text is to answer another question: what literature category or genre did they use to try to communicate?
We are so used to asking and answering this question that we do it without thinking. You do it all the time.
When you pull out your car’s owner’s manual, you are in information mode. You brain automatically assesses that this an instruction manual, and therefore you aren’t going to treat it like poetry.
Think about it. Imagine trying to read your car owner’s manual using the principles that we would use for reading poetry! It would go like this: “The spare tire is located in a hidden compartment in the trunk? Hmmmm…That must have a double-meaning and Honda is trying to tell me something…but I’m so bad at figuring out this stuff…why don’t they just speak plainly???” Uh…no…all that manual is trying to say is that there is actually a spare tire hidden in a compartment in the trunk.
Likewise when I am reading the Psalms in the Bible, I am reading a collection of poetry. If I want to understand what God and the human author are trying to communicate, I will need to read each psalm like I read poetry because God and the human author used the principles of poetic writing to create the psalms.
And that brings us to the idea of taking the Bible literally. Remember our second phrase that we are fact-checking? “If everything in the Bible is not literally true, the whole thing falls apart.”
What people mean when they say that the Bible is 100% literally true is that it is actually inspired by God. This is where we would differ with other religions who say that their holy books are also from God. We believe that only the Bible is divinely inspired. Therefore the Bible is trustworthy as teaching God’s truth.
That is not to say that other holy books or movies or songs only and always teach lies. If a book or song includes the teaching, “Love everyone,” we Christians can affirm that as truth, because it is consistent with the teaching in the Bible. If another book or movie or song taught something like, “it is okay to hate people who are jerks” then we would disagree with that, because it is not consistent with the teaching in the Bible. In other words, we believe the Bible is a foundation for truth.
But where this statement gets messy and needs to be fact-checked is when people don’t pay attention to genre. Let’s look at a very specific example from the Bible to show you what I mean. Take a look at this picture.
How do you feel about this picture? That the person is attractive? Beautiful? Or that it is really weird?
What you are looking at is a literal artistic rendering of the woman described in the Bible in the book called the Song of Solomon. This is what you get if the writer is describing this woman literally. Her neck is a tower. Her hair is a flock of goats. Her temples are slices of pomegranate.
Literalists will say that all Scripture needs to be read on that kind of level. “Literal,” to them, means that these poets in the Song of Solomon are describing each other exactly as they saw it, with precision, almost scientific precision.
Did the author of Song of Solomon know an actual person like this? A freaks of nature? Or should a literal reading the Bible mean something else? Check back in to part 4, as we’ll tackle that question.