Scripture as Literature
Growing up in church, one gets accustomed to a lot of acronyms. You also get used to a lot of 3 to 5 point sermons with words that all start with “p” or all end in “ation.” If you grew up in the youth group or “contemporary” church era you might be used to pastors with frosted tips, untucked button downs from Gap, or sermons that start with “my wife is super hot” during the marriage/purity sermons. Christian culture tends to be predictable. One of the acronyms I learned as a kid was for the word “Bible.” It went like this: “the Bible is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” You might have heard that one too. As a kid living in the Bible belt, this seemed like something all good Christians believed, but it created a bit of cognitive dissonance as I grew up.
See, that acronym is a way of thinking that equates the word of God with an instruction manual, or a science book. Based on how many high schoolers really read their text books, this might have something to do with why so many Christians struggle to spend time in the word… Anyway, we have a tendency to think of the Bible as clear cut, black and white, informational book that is meant to provide clear instructions and make 100% literal claims just like an 8th grade history book or the pamphlet that comes with the fridge. The problem with that thinking is that the Bible is simply not one of those things.
Many Christians have an underlying hermeneutical fear when we deal with the Bible. We know the Bible is inspired and inerrant. We then equate those ideas with being informational accounts like a text book. We know the Bible is true so we think it has to be true the way we assume it would be. If the way we assume it's meant to be read doesn't come out right we think the whole thing crumbles. Don't worry, it doesn't.
The Bible is absolutely the inspired and inerrant word of God written for his people throughout history. It contains God’s revelation of his character, his work in the world, the progressive relationship and understanding of him developing in his people, and - ultimately - himself in Christ. There’s a reason John 1 calls him the “word.” It's because he is God’s ultimate “word” to us. But because it doesn’t contain errors doesn’t mean there aren’t things we'll misunderstand. Here’s an example: If I tell you “that house is blue” but it’s actually pink then I made an error. If I say “hey, Johnny is just kinda blue, ya know?” Even if he's not a smurf I still didn’t make an error. And if someone came along in a thousand years and said “there must be a large community of Smurfs in Western North Carolina” because of that statement they would be the wrong one. Why? Because they didn’t understand authorial intent. I wasn’t making a claim about color, I was making a claim about mood. My statement was still true even if the hearer doesn’t understand the reference.
When we read scripture, we read literature of all sorts and authors with quite a variety of intents. The book of Job, often considered an enigma by readers, was wisdom literature set in a poetic form that is arranged a lot like a play (Harrison, 1962, p. 460). It actually takes a very similar form as other non-biblical works of its day like The Babylonian Theodicy (Malick). Books like Revelation or parts of Daniel are apocalyptic literature for which there is no good modern comparison. They’re pretty confusing because we don’t have a good frame of reference for what that genre actually means. But it is safe to say that the Left Behind series is probably not what they were getting at. Even the Gospels that are so central to Christian life have thematic elements that are almost entirely missed by the majority of modern readers because we tend to read them like textbooks.
To paraphrase NT Wright in his book How God Became King, any biography can tell selected portions of a story to frame the lead character within a certain context, establish them as part of a sweeping historical narrative, or bring out specific facets of their character to create a pointed picture of who they are - all while still being truthful. One could read of Abraham Lincoln the savior of the Union while another could read of him as the emancipator of the slaves. Both are true. Both points overlap. But that does not mean they are the same or told for the same purpose with the same themes. If this is the case we can expect the same from the four Gospels. Luke and Matthew tell the same basic story, but they convey the story to make a specific point about who Christ is. There is certainly much thematic overlap in their accounts, and there are also points framed differently to convey different ideas. The Bible is a compilation of a grand variety of authors and literature types. It's beautiful in its diversity.
In closing I will add this: I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit’s work through the Bible. If a Christian prayerfully and humbly goes to scripture the Spirit will use it to form your heart and mind. But the experience will be much richer if you embrace the literary nature of scripture. Here are a couple of ideas: when you read the Gospels ask yourself questions like
why would this story stand out to a Jewish audience? What happened earlier in the story that might add depth to what is said here? Does this story bring to mind any stories or themes from the Old Testament?
If you’re reading Paul’s letters ask yourself, what did Paul say before this verse or chapter that might add meaning to the statement? If you're confused on Romans 9, go back and start in chapter 1 to get the full sweep of what he’s saying. When you’re reading the Old Testament ask yourself what the genre seems like? Is it arranged like a poem (as in the Psalms or Genesis 1)? Poetry has a very different goal than history. Ask yourself what in this section might not make sense to you because your culture is so different than the original one. A study Bible or resources like bible.org, www.biblegateway.com, and blueletterbible.com can be really beneficial in helping to grasp the differences between our culture and theirs.
What have been some confusing passages for you? Have you ever felt tension between things you find in scripture and things in science or history? How have you dealt with the tension? Jump into the discussion below! I can’t wait to talk it over with you.
Harrison, E. F. (1962). The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (C. F. Pfeiffer, Ed.). Nashville, TN.: Southwestern Co
Malick, D. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Book of Job. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://bible.org/article/introduction-book-job
Wright, N. T. (2016). How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins.