Here’s a youtube conversation with Pastor Steve Nation in Australia about the making of the book. Click to listen or view.
The first step of interpretation should be determination of genre. At least, that’s what I teach my students. Many just dive into familiar verses and passages and begin interpreting. I think that’s a huge mistake.
In our church Sunday Schools, many have taught along the line of genres in terms of “authors.” For example, some would call certain sections of the Bible “prophetic literature.” In some cases, some would look at how a book is used in church services. For example, some would call the Gospel books “gospels” and so on. This taxonomy dates all the way back to old Judeo-Christian traditions.
The problem with author-based genre categorization is that we aren’t describing what the authors have written but who the author is or how the literature is used later. None of it is descriptive of the form of the biblical text itself. I suggest that there should be a different way of categorization: literary categorization.
I think it is probably equally valid to describe biblical literature in terms of form because sometimes we can’t tell who the author is due to the many layers of editing (e.g. OT) or because the later usage in church is not always the true indicator of the original setting of the authorship. I suggest that we describe the genre based on form: poetry, letters, discourse, etc. By examining the form, we can often read closely the message within the text. Add that to the historical background of authorship (or editing), then we would probably come up with quite an accurate picture of the biblical message.
What is the reward for interpreting texts based on genre? Although many in basic hermeneutics want to have a singular method (e.g. word studies, passage division, historical background etc.) to interpret all texts. All texts are not created equal. For narrative, we have to be quite sensitive to the plot, location, occasion, characterization, and prioritization of characters. If we just interpret such texts by merely diagraming them into syntactical units and turn them into propositional main clauses, we may not have a satisfactory answer. The same goes for letters. In reading letters, it is important to diagram the units of thoughts and then look at the whole book context before putting the historical context back into interpretation. These are just examples of differences in methods. Many students ask me what the best commentaries for this and that biblical book are. I prefer to answer them by pointing them to method books. Such books give us the skills to fish for ourselves.
For those of us who were raised in Sunday School, the Bible comes easy, maybe too easy. We know all the sixty-six books of the Bible. We can also brag that we know the twelve tribes of Israel and that out of the Joseph tribe, two different tribes split to form one tribe (that would be Ephraim and Manasseh). Recently, the popular Rachel Held Evans has been making waves about all the problems the Bible actually creates. Her writings, brilliant as they are, have caused quite a lot of evangelicals to be up in arms.
The fact is, the problems she raises have always been within the text. Our faith has the tendency to neutralize any difficulty. Partly, we like to read the Bible as one flat book written by God. Partly, we don’t even bother to read it carefully. Mostly, we do not understand that the Bible is not here to solve our problems. Instead, it is a collection of classical sacred writings of different genres. I suggest that we’re not factually illiterate (though some of us are). I suggest that we’re interpretively deficient. This deficiency impacts our faith practices and the interpretation of our culture.
This blog will start a series to discuss what some of the passages in the Bible actually mean and what the implications are. It is not meant to affirm what we believe to be true, not always anyway. Rather, it is written so that we can engage in meaningful discussions of what it actually all meant. Hopefully, pew sitters will find the help they need for their own Bible reading, Bible study leaders will find the information to help their group to think deeply and preachers will find creative and accurate sermon ideas. Stay tuned …