Some Remarks on Genre and Scripture

Here’s a little secret: if you want to come across as informed and sophisticated in a distinguished setting, a sure-fire way to achieve this is by talking about the notion of genre. If you can convey the idea that genre is about conforming to certain categorical expectations, and illustrate it convincingly with some examples – preferably from high-brow forms of art and literature – then you’re almost certainly onto a winner.

The genre we attribute to a text or any piece of art is significant. It determines the way in which we perceive and judge such works. We do not analyse a football matchday programme in the same way that we analyse a poet laureate’s latest collection. Knowing that we are going to a stand-up comedy show, we do not put on the same critical lens that we would if we were going to a performance of King Lear at the National Theatre. Genre is an important notion because it preconditions how we approach something. Even if we are unaware of what sort of object or performance we are viewing, by drawing parallels and comparisons with other things we have seen, via some cerebral flow-chart, we soon categorise the object or performance in terms of genre.

An absolute genre, however, is elusive. We might be able to enumerate some requirements to which we might expect a piece of art or writing to conform. For example, were we to make a transcript of a groom’s dinner speech at a wedding, we would expect expressions of thanks to both sets of families and all involved in the wedding to feature; and (hopefully) some loving words about his new wife. But the opportunities beyond this are countless. How much or little space is given to more humorous material? This clearly depends on the individuals involved and the circumstances of the wedding, and each wedding is unique in the same way that any decent work of art or writing is unique.

Genre, then, is a very helpful notion in locating an art form within a particular sphere; but it is also somewhat simplistic – it is unreasonable to expect a given piece of work to adhere to a set of requirements, and in any case, such a set of requirements is easily expandable or collapsible.

I find the question of genre in Scripture and trying to impose genres onto books of the Old and New Testament to be a fascinating area. The Bible is such a dramatically diverse collection of writings that it is well described as a library in and of itself. Unfortunately, the Bible is no longer given the attention it formerly had in mainstream education, so society is becoming biblically illiterate. While this can be positive in that people come to the Bible with less knowledge and more to discover, it can lead to people dismissing it even more out of hand. I maintain that many people who dismiss the Christian faith have never seriously considered the Bible in all its diversity, as testified by the plethora of genres it contains.

Trying to make a list of the traditional genre divisions within the Bible is a formative exercise. We are confronted with difficulty even in the first book, Genesis. Meaning “origin” it contains such a range of material from creation accounts to the history of the patriarchs (notably Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph), it defies categorisation. Admittedly, the first five books of the Bible constitute the Pentateuch, so would most likely go down as legal writings in line with the Torah, which remains integral to Judaism, but there is more than law in the first five books. After this, it does get a bit easier with more historical narrative books of the Bible (Joshua, Judges, 1+2 Samuel…) but when we reach the so-called wisdom literature, there is again such a diversity of material, from laments through to love writings, that generic divisions are difficult. The 150 psalms ably exemplify this: containing songs of praise, royal songs, as well as songs of lament. Much of the rest of the Old Testament can be labelled as prophetic writings but even within that, there is diversity, for instance the highly apocalyptic second half of Daniel, chapters 7-12. Moving into the New Testament, while the first four books might all be termed gospels, they are fundamentally different conceptions; each has a distinct flavour. We then have an account of the growth and movement of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles, which is hard to categorise. While much of the rest of the New Testament is made up of letters from early figures in Christianity to various communities of believers, no one letter is the same. There are vastly different motivations for writing in each case. I have recently been writing on Paul’s letter to the Romans and some of the most interesting reading I did was in trying to establish an overall genre for the letter; unsurprisingly, there is no scholarly consensus. Oh, and the final book of the Bible, Revelation (or the Apocalypse of John) again probably merits its own category of apocalyptic.

This quick survey shows that the Bible is filled with many different genres. Moreover, an awareness of the options on the table concerning the genre of a part of the Bible is fundamental to a good understanding the text: what sophisticated people often refer to as exegesis. But it is also important for believers to move beyond analysis of the Bible to trying to interpret it and faithfully apply it to their own lives. This takes us beyond traditional literary genres, but here I would like to suggest that the Bible has two connected elements running through it that could be described as overarching quasi-genres: a spiritual element and a didactic element.

Firstly, a spiritual element. Christian believers recognise that the Bible is spiritual and so, overall, the genre of the Bible could be classified as spiritual. Although it was written nearly 2000 years ago, many believe that it can still speak to us today. The New Testament book of Hebrews offers two helpful angles on this. It begins by saying: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2, NRSV). This acknowledges the multitude of ways in which God can speak – through sacred, written texts of various genres; but also through events and significant people, none more significant than the Son, Jesus Christ. A little further on, the writer repeatedly quotes a small section of the Old Testament, Psalm 95:7: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8, 3:15, 4:7). This shows that there has always been an expectation with Scripture that God speaks into the circumstances of today and that followers should expect to listen and to have their hearts impacted. The first time the writer introduces this Scripture he prefaces it by saying: “as the Holy Spirit says”. Scripture is always connected with the Spirit, and therefore, seeing the whole of Scripture as conforming to a quasi-genre of spiritual is not too great a leap to make.

Secondly, and connectedly, Scripture has a didactic element. Christian believers recognise that the Bible teaches things. In the Gospel of John, Jesus explicitly states that this is one of the functions of the Spirit (or paraclete): “The advocate (paraclete) will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). A few weeks back, I had a very stimulating discussion with a friend about how Scripture – particularly the New Testament – was different from other classical texts of the time. We reached the conclusion that Scripture has a strong didactic aspect at its core. Some classical literature was certainly didactic. The Roman poet Ovid, for example, through his Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), tried to teach young men and women the way of love. I do not think, however, that such texts purported to be as seriously authoritative as Scripture. Although some teaching, especially in the New Testament letters, would have been more fully understood by its initial recipients than we understand it today; practically all the principles, if not the precise precepts, were intended to teach and inform future generations of believers. When writing to the believers in Corinth, Paul talks about Israel’s past in the time of Moses. Some of Paul’s exegesis is not that easy to follow here, but his reason for referring to the past is for didactic purposes: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). The believers in Corinth were to learn from others’ past mistakes and believers today can continue to learn from this inspired writing.

Perhaps the most famous passage of Scripture concerning its didactic element is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching [Greek: didaskalian], for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (NRSV). The expression “inspired by God” [Greek: theopneustos] also reminds us of the connected spiritual aspect for it could also be translated: “God-breathed”, or even “God-Spirited”.

While there are many literary genres discernible in Scripture in both the Old and the New Testament, and appreciating them can add to our understanding of the Bible, Scripture has such strong spiritual and didactic elements that we could describe them as overarching quasi-genres for Scripture collectively.

So: kudos to you if you manage to slip in any informative remarks about genre at a gathering anytime soon. Even greater kudos to you if you manage to talk about Scripture and the possible literary genres it contains – or maybe even, with an eye to its whole, its spiritual and didactic elements. If Scripture had to be boiled down to two genres, I might tentatively suggest spiritual and didactic.

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