I would argue that I sure have been guilty of this.
Let me make my case here. Please read closely. I think that identifying the correct genre within the various books of the Bible is absolutely critical to understanding what the author tried to convey. Some may not be familiar with the word ‘genre’, for which I supply what dictionary.com has to offer:
-of or pertaining to a distinctive literary type.
The Bible has an abundance of different genres. Here are a few off the top of my head: prophetic, narrative, wisdom, parable, apocalyptic, poetry, covenants, etc. Each of these pieces of literature has certain restrictions and, more importantly, have certain expectations for readers. It would be wrong for me to read a poetry passage the same way I would read a narrative section of Scripture. One of the main problems raised by believers in my circles is that most of the Christian world fails to see that John 1:1-18 is precisely poetry, and thereby misses out on a dynamic which the author is trying to extend to readers. Another example of confusion common to Bible readers is a reading a Genesis chs. 1-2 as science instead of theological cosmology. More could be said on these two examples, but I’ll press on for the time being.
Readers of a newspaper have different sets of expectations when reading the front cover than when they get to the comics. Even today’s movies are organized by comedy, drama, action, thriller, documentary, etc. To confuse an action movie, such as the film The Da Vinci Code, with a documentary, would lead to many thinking that all the details of the movie are truly factual.
Back to the Bible. I assume that most of my readers thus far would agree that the Bible has different genres. The problem is, most Christians don’t read the Bible as if it has more than one to distinguish. Rather, we tell ourselves that the Bible only has one single genre; a prophetic genre. We think that the Bible must, by necessity, have something in nearly every single passage that speaks to us as individuals directly in the year 2010. We call this by many names, such as personal application, or life meanings, or whatever. When we choose to ignore the distinctive features of genre found in the Bible, the text gets reduced to merely “What is it telling me today?”
One of my biggest pet peeves is people using Jeremiah 29:11 as a verse which God has for them as an individual. Most of you know it, or perhaps have heard it before, “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” The problem is, this was written to the historical Jeremiah, not to me, or you, or your best friend. Some may feel threatened by my assumption, but if you don’t believe me, read the context. The previous two verses should be enough to show that this cannot refer to anyone in 2010, or 1999, or 300 C.E.
Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that God does not have a plan for you, or that you cannot use this verse for moral comfort. What I am saying is that this verse was written in a context, and that was to the prophet Jeremiah, not to me. It has a specific meaning for him and that should be given top priority.
Another example is the parable found at the beginning of Luke 16:1f, sometimes labeled the ‘Unrighteous Steward.’ I challenge anyone to try and read this with a 2010 application; I don’t think it can be done. It makes the best sense in the contexts of Jesus’ ministry as being told to his opponents. Again, the tendency to read it as prophetic for the year 2010 seems to miss the point.
Where am I going with this? My point is that if we simplify the Bible too far, we lose significant information and are in danger of accidently distorting what the original authors intended for their readers to hear and understand. Yes, the Bible has clear and specific points of application for all readers, such as the call to repentance and belief in the gospel. Yet the Bible also has context specific instructions, like the command to the Corinthians to greet one another with a holy kiss (does anyone still do this today?)
Scholars who are trained to recognize genre have a lot of help the church in this area. I recently have asked myself, “What is a Gospel?” I always assumed that they are histories, similar to what I read in US History in High School. Many scholars today have pinned the ancient Gospels found in the New Testament as Greco-Roman biographies, of which we have many others which survived from the same time period (over ten others). It seems that they are ancient biographies of Jesus shaped by resurrection faith and distinctives of the various four authors. I could say more on this, but I’d rather open things up for comments. Here are my questions to those who are still reading:
-Do you only read the Bible as if it had a personal meaning for you in every passage?
-Does recognizing genre and taking the various forms of it found within the pages of Scripture diminish the Bible in any way or does it enhance it? Why?