The Road Between: Genre
“How to say best what’s to be said?” C.S. Lewis explained the genesis of the Narnia Chronicles in his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.” The stories began, he insisted, not with a plan to disguise Christian doctrine in children’s allegories, but with images: a faun with an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a lion. Then, living with the images, he saw an opportunity to recast biblical truth in an unexpected form, which could slip past the “watchful dragons” of pious sentiment, enabling readers to experience gospel truth afresh. He chose the fairy story genre in light of his readers’ religious background and the goal he wanted them to reach.
Our all-wise God, who always knows how to say best what’s to be said, has spoken to His people in different genres, varying His approach according to their background and circumstances and according to His purpose for each text in their lives. The Spirit leads human authors to select, from the treasury of forms familiar to the audience, the right tool for each task. Since different genres use language in different ways, they lead us to expect different “ways” of meaning, requiring different interpretive strategies. Among the genres of biblical literature are historical narrative, parable, proverb, psalm, law, prophetic oracle, apocalyptic vision, sermon, and epistle. To paraphrase Lewis: “Sometimes parables may say best what’s to be said . . . and sometimes psalms do, and sometimes history, and sometimes visions.”
Some of Scripture’s Genres
Historical narratives and parables are both stories. Stories grab our attention because they involve people in action, moving through complications of a problem to a climax, then resolution. Through historical narratives (Genesis, Samuel, the Gospels, Acts), God declares His acts in real history to set people free from sin’s slavery and death, to bring them into His covenant, and to judge His enemies. Biblical history focuses our hopes finally on the redemption Jesus achieved “when the fullness of the time had come” (Gal. 4:4). Biblical history is not just a record of dry facts, but a recital of events that call us to trust and obey the God who saves in time and space.
Parables are God’s “end runs” around our defenses, camouflaging His demand in fictional form in order to ambush us from behind (see 2 Sam. 12:1–10). The key to the parable is the unexpected element that shows us to be guiltier than we had guessed and grace to be greater than we had dreamed it could be.
Proverbs, like parables, are provocative, pushing us to ponder what’s behind surface experience and to penetrate life’s puzzles. Their very brevity teases our brains and provokes us to admit that “common sense” often isn’t—common, that is.
Psalms are songs of the heart and mind in all circumstances, from the highs to the lows, and for all purposes: to raise lament in trouble, thanksgiving in rescue, praise in worship, training in wisdom, and more. As poetry, they are marked by compact, intense expression and vivid symbolism. The Psalter moves from sorrow and suffering to joy and praise, providing a window on the experience of Christ for us and His Spirit’s transforming grace in us.
Law reminds us that our God is the King, who rescues His people from slavery to other masters in order to bring us under His authority and protection. “Be holy, for I am holy,” says the Lord in the wide range of His commands. His commands expose our guilt, making us flee to Jesus the curse-bearer. His promises turn our trust to Jesus the law-keeper, who gives us His perfect record by grace alone, through faith alone. Viewed through the lens of Jesus’ redeeming work, the law unveils the Spirit’s design for renewing us into God’s image.