The Bible is an ancient book, and God speaks through it “in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1). As a result, it’s not always easy to determine genre…A good study bible or special introduction or commentary can go a long way to helping you bridge the gap, but the best way forward is to immerse yourself in the “many times and many ways” that God has spoken to us.
In the previous two posts of this series argued that one of the reasons we have trouble understanding the Bible is because we do not read it in the ordinary way that books are to be read.1 We assume that because the Bible is the Word of God (which it most definitely is), and because it is therefore inspired and inerrant, that it must consequently “break the rules” of ordinary human communication. I argued, by contrast, that the miracle of the Bible is that it speaks to us about extra-ordinary things (and with extra-ordinary accuracy) in a nevertheless ordinary way. We concluded, then, that one should read any biblical book, be it a letter or a narrative or a history or a compendium of wisdom or a doctrinal treatise, in the same way that you would read any other book of that type. Read any biblical discourse as if it were a particularly exemplary instance of other similar kinds of discourse, even though the ultimate author of this discourse is the One True God.
Which brings us to the present topic, because obviously the next question that arises is “what kind of discourse am I actually reading?” Let’s say you’re reading the “epistle” to the Hebrews and, following the advice above, you want to read it in the ordinary way similar discourses are read. Well, what is an epistle and how are epistles normally read? Do epistles have the same function 2000 years ago that they do today? And is Hebrews even an epistle?2 The answers to those kinds of questions are very important to our present thesis; one can’t read Hebrews (or any other book) in an “ordinary” way if one doesn’t really know the kind of thing that Hebrews is.
Which is why we have to talk about genre.
What is Genre?
What is genre? How might we define the term? One linguist describes it as “discourse type.”3 That is to say, genre is a description of the kind of “communicative event” that we are currently trying to interpret. Let’s say someone is speaking to you. What are they trying to tell you? Are they telling you a story? Are they giving you instructions? Are they asking you to do something? Maybe they are stating an opinion. Perhaps they are relating something that happened to them today so that you might offer them sympathy or council. Each of these represents a different type of discourse and determining the type of discourse that your currently hearing will, in turn, determine how you interpret it and react to it.
Scientists do the same with animals. Both cats and dogs have four legs—in that respect they are similar—but they differ in so far as dogs are awesome and cats are not, and that dissimilarity means they are classified differently. Similarity and dissimilarity is the key to identifying “type,” and genre is “discourse type.” Genre is classification; you are looking at a discourse and describing how it is similar to some discourses and dissimilar to others.
You have likely heard it said that interpretation requires context. Genre is “literary context.” Genre defines how a certain literary event fits within culturally adjacent literary events. To ask about a work’s “genre” is to ask “how is this work similar to other works, and how does that allow me to better interpret what it is trying to accomplish?” Furthermore, determining discourse type, or literary context, is key to interpreting what you are reading. Imagine you get it wrong. Imagine, for example, that you confuse fiction with non-fiction, or satire with genuine news, or the political stump speech with actual policy, or South Park with a child’s cartoon show. You’re likely in for some interpretive troubles. If you want to interpret any of these things correctly, you need to know how the genre works.
How Do I Determine Genre?
If all this sounds a bit too theoretical, here’s the good news: for the most part you identify the genre of a book intuitively and without issue. Most of us can’t help but be immersed in our surrounding culture, and as such we are constantly exposed to diverse types of “literary events,” each of which represent a different subset of literary genres. We thus learn about genre the same way we learn our native language: through constant exposure in natural settings. That’s why you don’t need to be told about the “rules” operative in fiction, or newspaper articles, or the op-ed, or sci-fi, or the latest rom-com.