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Recognizing Literary Genre – I

I’m keeping things short today as I’m facing another deadline tomorrow night when some research materials have to be returned, and I need to have all my notes extracted and filed. Nonetheless, I did feel the urge to post a couple of things.

I’m promoting this comment from Peter Kirk because he makes a couple of good points. Some people never get down to the comments.

Of course starting a story “Once upon a time” is enough to identify it as not intended to be historical, with no need to mention a wicked witch. And most languages have similar pointers to fairy tale or equivalent genres – which are sometimes also in the verb tenses used. It is important for Bible translators to be aware of these pointers, because if they are not, translations of historical books of the Bible may end up being misunderstood as fairy tales. By contrast, the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew is sometimes understood as a strong indication that what follows is intended to be a factual narrative about real people. This kind of study is known as discourse analysis.

Peter is quite correct that the “once upon a time” indication is enough to identify such a story as one that is not intended to be historical. Many of us would clue in first on the wicked with, however, as it’s simply an easier clue. Such recognition becomes subconscious. We simply respond according to the genre because we have had practice.

Relatively few of us learn discourse analysis. For example, I went through my BA and MA in Biblical Languages without any training in that area at all. It was only when I became much more interested in Bible translation that I started to pay more attention to it and to read some about it. Amongst students that I teach, which means largely lay people without a formal education in Biblical studies, the only people I have encountered who have an acquaintance with it were one graduate student/teaching assistant in English literature and one philosophy instructor.

That is unfortunate, because we have many of the same people saying with confidence that Genesis 1, for example, sounds like history. On what basis do they say that? Well, generally they have the feeling that the “right” thing for it to sound like is something factual, because facts are more important than feelings any day. Other varieties of literature, in their view, don’t convey enough facts. I have often heard people in these settings judge works of fiction based solely on how much information one can learn from them. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia suffer, or are weighed solely on allegorical value (a questionable approach in Tolkien’s case at least).

A good starting point in recognizing literary genre is to put aside prejudices about what literature ought to accomplish. Literature does so much more than convey facts. It can also convey facts in many different ways. I wonder how many of you who have preached or taught have gone back later to find out what people remember. I have done so. I preached a sermon in which I set up a skit. A friend of mine in the audience was primed to angrily interrupt me in the middle of a sermon, and then we followed by ad libbing and argument. A couple of weeks later I asked a few people what we had talked about. The only thing that anybody remembered was the interruption and the skit, but they also remembered the point of the skit.

I use this approach in my study guide on Revelation. I ask members of the class to mention types of literature that they read and what they expect to get out of them. Once they’ve looked at how their lives actually interact with literature (and we usually extend it to other media as well), they begin to relax. Then we can ask what type of literature the book of Revelation is.

Which leads to another point. Information may be packaged and organized differently in different types of literature. Just because Genesis 1 is not narrative history, doesn’t mean it contains no information. Peter mentioned the way in which Matthew starts, and one might also look at the way Luke and Acts begin. In both cases there is an indication that they are trying to present factual information. I think those who try to claim that the gospels are not intended to present historical information do a disservice. The gospel writers were not writing as historians, but they were convinced that they were writing something that contained historical information, that is events that actually took place. Now we can look at what was important to them–chronology not as much as the spiritual meaning–and that will help us get the right information.

One last note. Genre doesn’t necessarily tell us how accurate a work is. We may determine that something is intended to portray history in some way, and yet also determine that the author was hopelessly careless or intentionally inaccurate. Josephus was intending to portray history, or at least he writes as though he was, yet his work is more a personal apologetic, and one can question many of his portrayals.

To be continued . . .

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