“You can’t read a romance novel the same way you read a telephone book.”
This statement was one of the most liberating theological statements I had ever heard in my life. Having been raised in the conservative Baptist circle, I had been taught that the Bible was one genre—a genre of which it was the sole example. It was the Bible, a holy book written “by” God, a text completely removed from all other earthly writings. And while this statement, as a theological mantra, is not entirely untrue—for the Bible is truly more authoritative and more inspired than any other writing from history—when put into practical application through study, this approach actually restricts the power of the Bible instead of liberating it.
By putting the Bible in a genre of its own, my early teachers subtly but systematically discouraged me from not only comparing the Bible to other works of literature—as though pointing out the novel-like plot structure of Joseph’s story in Genesis is devaluing its greatness—but also from studying the Bible like other works of literature. All the other scholarly tools we had at our disposal for dissecting heathen works—context, grammar, history, investigating the life of the author and his other works—were considered too profane for applying to the work of God. It was as though taking the Bible for anything but face value was perceived as an affront to God’s sovereignty and ability to communicate. But by considering the Bible too holy to touch, it condemned the mighty Scriptures to live as “refrigerator magnet theology”—because the superficial surface meaning of a passage was all we were allowed to interpret.
Realizing that this Greek way of thinking could not be more backwards has transformed the Bible from a static book into a multilayered rose with buried treasures to discover. As soon as I realized that it was not dishonoring to God to bring my understanding and appreciation of literature into my Bible studies, I discovered that the Bible was made to be dissected, and began to wonder if my appreciation for fiction was perhaps not so profane as I had once been taught. Perhaps there is more to the art of good fiction writing than just creating “wholesome entertainment,” and more of God’s character is reflected through good art than some would like to admit.
But this whole discussion of genres brought another quandary to my mind. If we recognize that the Bible contains different genres, each of which should be approached differently, might we also assume that God is still talking to us in different “genres”? If God spoke through history in different ways to different people at different times, when why must we assume that He will always approach us in the same way? Is perhaps some of our difficulty with hearing God’s voice and perceiving His will attributed to the fact that we are “hearing” Him in only one genre? Are we interpreting a loving sonnet as prophecy? Are we treating an instructional admonition like apocalyptic literature? If God spoke to Israel and the prophets with both wisdom and poetry, warning and love, should we not assume that God still wants to woo His bride just as much as He wants to shepherd His sheep?
Perhaps, if we can let the Bible speak for itself, we should start letting God speak for Himself, too.