Tag Archives: genre

Practical suggestions for reading the Bible [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 5]

9 Mar

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Did you know that a billionaire guy in England has built an amazing state of the art chocolate factory?  His chocolate is known for its astoundingly creamy taste, and he attributes this to his unique manufacturing process.  No other chocolate factory has anything like it.  It is a chocolate river that ends up in a waterfall, so I guess you would call it a chocolate fall.  The churning of the chocolate as it crashes to the bottom of the chocolate fall creates its unparalleled creamy taste.  As you can imagine his process is top-secret, and no one is allowed in there so they don’t steal his method.  But in a genius marketing move, he decided to send out a handful of golden tickets hidden in random chocolate bars, distributed around the world.  The people who discovered the golden tickets were going to be treated to a special all-access behind the scenes tour of the chocolate factory. 

Let me pause the story right there and ask: Am I telling truth? 

Nope.  Not one bit of it.  It is a completely false story.  And yet, my guess is that a whole bunch of you know exactly what I’m talking about.  What story is this?

Did you guess Charlie and Chocolate Factory, which features the factory owner, Willy Wonka?  It was first a book, and more recently has been turned into movies.  Here’s the thing.  While that story is based in reality, we all know it is fiction.  Yet none of us is concerned about that.  We’re used to that.  In fact, we know that Roald Dahl, who is the author of that story, had a reason, or an intent, trying to communicate something to us.  He was using literature to teach a lesson. 

If you have read the book or seen the movie, what would you say is the lesson?  “Don’t be selfish,” maybe? 

What this reminds us of is that we need to understand genre!  We need to see that even fiction literature can be used to teach a lesson. Jesus did this in his parables.  He created stories about realistic things, but to teach a lesson.

In other words, we do not need to read the Bible with hyper-literalistic precision in order to keep the Bible pure, and to keep our faith in God.  Instead, ask: “What was the author’s intent?  What can I learn about God’s heart from this?  What should I do with that information in my life now?” 

I believe that the Bible is truth.  We can read the Bible and learn what God and the human author were trying to teach us. It is one very important way God lovingly communicates to us about the way of his Kingdom.

Therefore, I conclude this series with some other important points to keep in mind.

First, every time you are about to study Scripture, whether publicly or in private, remember what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2, that we have the promise of the Spirit’s guidance.  Pray for God’s Spirit to help you understand what you are reading.

Next, before you seek to apply Scripture to your own life, try to understand how the original audience would have understood it.  This is what we saw many times in the Deuteronomy study.  That means identifying the genre you are reading. It will also mean having an awareness of the historical and cultural situation of the original audience.

Learning genre and what a passage meant to the original audience might require you to get help.  There are plentiful resources you could turn to, but one that I have found very accessible and helpful is The Bible Project. They have created artistically gorgeous and biblically rich videos that will help you learn genre and historical context of each book of the Bible. 

Next, seek the principle in the passage that could relate to all time periods and cultures. Then with that principle in hand, test the principle by asking “does this fit with the teaching of the many books of the Bible?” 

For example, if you are reading Psalm 1, you could conclude that the principle is “don’t make friends with sinners.”  But when you cross-check that with the rest of the Bible, you realize that Jesus made friends with sinners, so maybe there is another way to look at Psalm 1. 

Once you have the principle in hand, then you can apply it to your life. As James says, “do not just be hearers of the Word, do what it says.” Back to Psalm 1, we could amend the principle to “be on guard against falling into temptation by regularly immersing yourself in the teaching of God’s word.” We can then apply that to our lives by creating a plan for consistent study of the Bible, and even doing so with others to add encouragement and accountability, working together to understand and apply God’s Kingdom ways to our lives.

Examining the literal approach to reading the Bible [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 4]

7 Mar

Did you ever hear the phrase that we need to read the Bible literally? In part 3 of this series we saw that a literal reading of some parts of the Bible leads to very bizarre results. Maybe the concept of reading the Bible literally should mean something else?

Take Jesus.  Jesus was a master of creating stories to teach principles.  We call them parables.  Some literalists will say that Jesus was telling true stories.  But that viewpoint is absolutely unnecessary, and in some cases odd, when you look at the details of the stories Jesus told.  Some of the details are purposefully exaggerated or fictional or even impossible.

For example, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and how the rich man went to hell and Lazarus when to heaven with Abraham, and get this, they could see each other.  Can you see from heaven into hell?  The literalists say, “Yes, because that is the precise detail that Jesus mentioned.”  But nowhere else in biblical descriptions of heaven and hell is there anything like this.  So it is much more likely that Jesus was teaching an important principle through a story.

And that is okay.  We tell stories like this all time.  Fairy tales and fables.  No one believes Star Wars is real, but that doesn’t matter.  Even though every Star Wars film begins with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” those movies are not about real historical events. What’s more, the author doesn’t want us to believe it is real.  Instead, the author creates a fictional story through which we can still learn about good and evil.  This happens frequently in literature and film, and we have no problem with that.

The Bible, too, has many such fictional stories. 

“But, Joel,” you might say, “that is a slippery slope. What about the story of creation in Genesis 1-3, or the stories of Job and Jonah.  Are you saying these parables?  Don’t they have to be history?”  Some say that unless we believe in the historical viability of every single story in the Bible, then we are going down a slippery slope that will lead to throwing the whole Bible in the trash.  That’s why some people feel way more comfortable saying that it is best to just read the whole Bible literally.  It can be hard work doing the research and investigation to determine if a particular part of the Bible is fiction or non-fiction.  I submit to you, however, that doing the work is worth it.  Not just a little bit worth it either. It is preeminently important because if God, inspiring human authors, meant for a particular part or book of Scripture to be fiction, then we should want to know that.  We do not need to be afraid of that.

Take Jonah.  I know that in our church there are actually disagreements about the genre of Jonah.  Some think Jonah is history.  Some think it is parable.  There is good biblical evidence for each. 

Here’s what I tell people in the end:  This is not a question of God’s power.   Can God make a big fish swallow a guy, keep that guy alive for 3 days inside the fish, and then spit him out?  If we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then we have to believe in the power of God to do everything described in Jonah.  No question there.  God could easily have done it.

But did God do it?  This gets to the question of whether the story of Jonah is history or parable? While there is evidence for both sides of the argument, we have to admit that we may never definitely know.

Either way, parable or history, we can still learn the same things about God and his heart!  That takes us back to the question:  What is the author trying to say?  What does God want us to know through the story of Jonah? God can communicate what he wants using either fiction or non-fiction. So let us do the work of looking at the evidence, weighing the options, but ultimately seeking for God’s heart in the process. That is an important method for reading the Bible. Next in part 5 of this series, we’ll look at more important methods for reading the Bible.

How genre is vital to the Bible [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 3]

6 Mar

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.

5 important steps to help you read the Bible

12 Jun

Image result for how to read the bible

When you pick up a Bible, you’re not reading a book.  You’re holding in your hand a library of books.  66 books! (Well, 66 writing as a Protestant.  Other Christian traditions include additional books in the Bible.) 66 books, written by about 35-40 different authors, writing over a period of about 1500 years, inspired by God to tell one story.  It is an astounding book.  But for many it is also an intimidating book.

If you feel at all hesitant about reading the Bible, please know you’re not alone.  Many people think just like you do.  If we’re honest, we respond to our unpleasant feelings about the Bible by ignoring it.  Please hear me out when I say that if you have not read a Bible in years, I’d like to share five keys that can help make the Bible accessible to you.

As I said, the word “book” is actually not a very good description for the Bible itself because it is a library.  The word “book” is also not a good description for many of the 66 books of the Bible.  For example, I recently preached through 1st Timothy.  Was that a book?  No, it is a letter.  Obviously, letters are different from books in many ways.

We call this distinction “genre”.  What does the word “genre” mean?  “Genre” has French origins, stemming from the word “gender”.  That should help us understand what it means.  Gender is a type of person, either male or female.  Genre means “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content[1]”.  That is the first important step when reading the Bible:

Answer the question, “What genre is this?”

There are many genres of literature in the Bible.

The Bible includes Non-fiction and Fiction.  Real-life stories and ones that are made up.

You might think “Wait a minute, Joel, the Bible is true, it is non-fiction.  How can you say it includes fiction? Are you saying some of the Bible is false?”  Nope, I’m not.  What I am saying is that the Bible includes works of fiction.  Take, for example, Jesus’ parables.  Was he telling true stories, like news reports?  Maybe some were based on real-world stories, but generally Jesus created the stories to teach a main idea.  The parables are generally fiction.  Now to be precise, they are works of fiction within a non-fiction account of Jesus’ life.

There are many fiction and non-fiction genres of literature in the Bible.  In the Bible you’ll find History, Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Letters, Prophecy, Lists, Laws and more.  There are also some very unique biblical genres.  Take the four Gospels, for example, which are quite unique in the ancient world.  They are biographies, four accounts of the life of Jesus.  But they are biographies with a theological purpose. Each of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are endeavoring to tell the story of Jesus’ life, but they have purposes for telling that story.

I say all this about genres for a reason.  To try to explain that reason, I first want to talk about two specific genres of literature.

The first genre I encountered a few weeks ago when my son graduated from high school.  We showed up at the venue, and as we entered the room, ushers handed out commencement programs the school created for the event.  That commencement program is a work of literature, and as such, it is a particular genre of literature.  The program starts with an order of events for the evening, and then it includes lists.  Lists of award winners, lists of graduates and so on. When I read the commencement program, I expect that it will tell me lots of true information about the graduation ceremony and the participants.

On the other hand, the second genre is a book of poetry by GK Chesterton, a wonderful English Christian thinker, author and poet from the 20th century.  I have this book on my shelf at home, and it is called Poems For All Purposes.  As the title suggests, it includes a variety of Chesterton’s poetry.  When I read poetry, I have to use certain principles to understand it, right?  In poetry I know that there is likely going to be a lot of figurative language for example.  The poet might talk about a stone, but mean something very different.  Often poetry is mysterious and hard to understand.  We learn that about poetry when we study it in school.

So what would happen if I took the principles of reading and understand poetry and applied them to the commencement program?  I could try to find symbolism or metaphor in the names of the students and the awards.  I could try to count how many more boys or girls there are and discern a secret message about masculinity or feminism.  But that would be an improper way to read the commencement program!  It’s just a list.

Likewise it would be improper for us to read the Bible like we read, say, a novel by John Grisham.  The Bible is different from a novel.

So when we read the Bible, it will be very helpful to remember Genre.  If you are reading the book of Joshua, which is primarily a historical book, you will have a different approach than if you are reading the book of Proverbs, which is primarily a bunch one-liner wise sayings.

Once you have an idea of what genre you are reading, it is time to move to the next key.

Answer the question, “What was the cultural situation that led to this work of literature?”

Because the original situation of a particular portion of the Bible is so far removed from us, we should do a little bit of work to find out what was going on in that culture.

Think about it this way.  When you read The Lord of the Rings, you are familiar with the name J.R.R. Tolkien.  He is the author.  He is British.  He lived through the two World Wars.  He was a soldier in WW1, and when you consider the impact the World Wars had on Britain, that tells you something.  The Hobbit was published on the eve of WW2, as Hitler was rising to power, and The Lord of the Rings series came out in decade after the War.  Do you think knowing Tolkien’s cultural situation might help understand The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books?  It absolutely will help.

The same thing goes with the Bible.  When we start to read a book of the Bible like Jeremiah, we should consider it important to answer a few basic questions.  Who wrote this?  When did they write it?  Why did they write?  Was there something going on in their lives or in the world that motivated them to write?  Who were they writing to?

Before we ever read one word of a passage of Scripture, we should take a few moments to answer these questions.  But where do we find these answers?   Not all Bibles include that information.  And that is why I am so thankful for Study Bibles.

I want to recommend two Study Bibles to you.  The NIV Study Bible or The Life Application Study BibleThe NIV Study Bible is a tad more scholarly, while the Life Application does what its title suggests, it helps you focus on applying the Bible to your life.  Both are excellent.

This Bible I hold every Sunday is a NIV Study Bible.  I’ve had it for nearly 25 years, and I love it.  In the palm of my hand I have not only the text of the Bible, but also loads of helpful resources.  Before the text of each book of the Bible, there is an introduction that seeks to answer the questions I just mentioned.  Who? What? Where?  When?  Why?  For every single book of the Bible.  Sometimes, for the shorter books, the introduction is about as long as the book itself!

The next major feature of a study Bible is the notes.  Many of the verses have explanatory comments helping you understand the text of the Bible.

Also, study Bibles have cross-references.  Not Jesus’ cross.  But references to other parts of the Bible that might relate to the one you are reading.  That is very helpful for study.  If one biblical author says something similar, you have a cross-reference telling you where to go in the Bible to find that similarity.  And when you read that other verse, it can help you have a more full understanding of the original passage you started reading.  This can be especially helpful for learning how New Testament passages are based on Old Testament passages.

Most study Bibles have additional resources like maps and concordances.  Have you ever been in that situation where you are trying to remember a verse or concept from the Bible, but you are not sure of the specific verse number?  Your concordance can help you. You think to yourself that the verse had, for example, the word “milk” in it, but you have no idea what verse that is.  You open up your concordance, scroll down to the word “milk”, and you find that “milk” is listed numerous times in the Bible.  You look them up until you find the right one.  Most study bibles only have partial concordances because an exhaustive concordance is massive.  An exhaustive concordance lists every single time every word in the Bible is used.

All of these resources are found in a good study Bible.  Each book has an intro, there are study notes, cross-references, maps, and a concordance.   Some will have other features too.  But those resources will help you study this ancient book.

In our day and age, all of these resources are available free online.  You can pay for Bible study programs that have astounding capabilities, or you can use free online services, which are amazing in their own right.  I recommend Bible Gateway or Blue Letter Bible. Frankly, there are plenty of times that it is much faster for me to do a search in Google than it is to flip through a concordance.  Google is a powerful Bible study tool too!

But for those of you not interested in computer tools, I urge you to purchase a Study Bible and practice using it.

So I have surveyed two key tools that are important for reading the Bible.  Learn the Genre and seek Introductory answers.  Before you even start reading do that.  You might think “Really, I have to do all that?  My life is too busy.  If I have to do that, I don’t think I’ll be reading the Bible.  And why can’t I just pick it up and start reading?”

First of all, with a Study Bible you will get through those introductory questions very rapidly.  It is all laid out for you.  Second, I urge you to consider reading through whole books of the Bible.   I often use this method in my preaching.  Don’t just pick a random verse here and there.  Go to the Gospel of Mark, for example, and slowly read through the whole thing, maybe a chapter per day.  But first, answer the introductory questions.  That way you aren’t doing introductory work every day on a new book of the Bible.  You do it once for Mark, and then, depending on how fast you read, you might not need to do the introductory material again for a few weeks because you are reading through Mark that whole time.

At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of you are thinking: “Joel, this still sounds like a lot of work.  Can’t I just pick up a Bible and read it, and expect to hear from God?”

Yes and no.

Hearing from God when we read the Bible is what I want to look at next.  I believe there is a vital attitude that we need to have when we read the Bible if we want to hear God speak through it.

Bring an attitude of humility to your reading and study of the Bible.

Humility says “Lord, teach me from your word.  Even though I may have read this passage 100 times, teach me.  Even though I may have Psalm 23 memorized, teach me when I read it again.”  Come to the reading of Scripture with a teachable, humble heart.  A humble heart will learn from God, and a humble heart says “I don’t have this Scripture all figured out.”  We should not come to Scripture arrogantly thinking that our reading, our interpretation is the only right one.

And that leads us to the necessity of prayer when you read Scripture.

In 1 Cor 2:12 we read that Spirit helps us understand the things that God has given us. There is no doubt that some parts of the Bible can be hard to understand.  We should not assume that we can just read them and understand them and easily apply them to our lives.  Instead we need to pray that the Spirit will help us understand them properly.

Every time we read and study Scripture, whether in private, at church, in small group, we should have a humble teachable attitude that asks the Spirit to help us understand.

Read with a mind to discover the author’s intent

And that brings us to a key issue in reading Scripture: Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response.  If you’re not familiar with those terms, let me illustrate.

Do we want a lawyer to read our last will and testament and interpret it however they want?  Imagine your will says the estate is going to be divided 10% to the church and the rest equally distributed to the children.  But the lawyer says “I interpret that to mean ‘give the money to whomever they cared about the most.’  And they clearly cared about me the most, so I will just take it all.”  How do you think that would go over?

That lawyer is using reader response theory to interpret the will.  Reader response theory says that the reader provides the meaning of the text.

When it comes to a last will and testament, we don’t do that.  We believe the author of the last will and testament had a will, which is why it is called a will.  They had a desire to use their estate in a certain way.  So when we read a last will and testament, we should strive to find out what their desire is. We cannot give it whatever meaning we want.  The same goes for the Bible.  We believe God was communicating his will to us.  That’s why we pray for the Spirit to help us understand it.  And that is why we use these tools and methods I’ve been talking about today.

We should avoid reading a passage of Scripture and saying, “Well, this is what the Scripture means to me.” Instead we should be asking, “What did God mean this Scripture to say?”  And then we strive hard to determine what God intended.  In addition to humility, then, we ask God’s Spirit to help us understand his Word.

Read the Bible personally and together in a community

Furthermore, reading and understanding Scripture should not simply be a solo effort.  Before the printing press it was exceedingly rare that someone would have their own copy of Scripture.  So people would have to come together in groups to hear it and discuss it.

Nowadays we have such easy access to the Bible.  Not just paper copies, but also on our phones and computers and via audio versions.  Because of this easy personal access, and because of our culture that prizes individualism, we can get the idea that reading and understanding the Bible should primarily be a personal thing.  No doubt it is healthy and important to read and study the Bible on our own.  But we should also see our interaction with God’s Word in community.

And by “community” I mean the church family, which could be your small group, your class, etc.  If you are thinking that God is speaking to you in his word, take what God is saying to the community and discuss it.  You might have it wrong and need to have your interpretation corrected.  Or you might have it right, and your word from God might impact others.

These five steps have helped me greatly in accessing and learning from what is often a very difficult book.  The Bible.  Are there any of these steps that you need to add to your life?