Preaching NT Narrative (a French lesson)

I never studied French in school, but there is at least one word I know, “genre.” At its most basic level, the word genre refers to a “kind, type, style, form, or category.” For example, I am a fan of the literary-theatrical British series Poirot. The genre of these particular movies is largely considered mystery as opposed to western or science fiction. We make distinctions in genre far beyond the books we read and the movies we see. Restaurants, specialty boutiques, car dealerships, and newspapers all represent specific genres.

Usually, a newspaper contains information concerning world events, local calendar items, sports, obituaries, cartoons, and letters to the editor. Each of these items are considered to be types of genre, and each one has its own style, format, and structure. Obviously, the author of an obituary will not describe his subject like the author would the hero of a sports competition. Authors craft sentences with a particular goal in mind and with sensitivity to a particular audience. In order for readers to fully appreciate the nature of what they are reading, it is necessary for them to understand something of genre.

The Bible contains many different genres (e.g., poetry, history, lament, apocalyptic). Some scholars needlessly complicate genre analysis. They examine genre with little attention to the meaning of the text. A principle of genre analysis often overlooked is that genres do not explicitly identify their form but rather imply their form by the way they are structured. For example, if I see a man in a postal uniform at my mailbox with a large bag of letters over his shoulder, I can intuitively assume that he is not at my home to fix the plumbing. It is unnecessary for him to announce each time he delivers letters to our home that he is in fact a postal worker. In a similar way, when we say that the Bible contains genres, we are not quoting chapter and verse to defend the idea but rather making an observation about the form of literature the Bible contains.

Since the Bible does not always announce its various genres, it should not be surprising that Bible scholars have sharp disagreements when attempting to classify various passages as a particular genre.[1] I think Alter’s caution is helpful:

I am particularly suspicious of the value of elaborate taxonomies and skeptical as to whether our understanding of narrative is really advanced by the deployment of bristling neologisms like analepsis, intradiegetic, actantial. Occasionally, it has seemed necessary to use an established technical term in order to describe exactly a particular feature of style, syntax, or grammar, but I cling to the belief that it is possible to discuss complex literary matters in a language understandable to all educated people.[2]

By identifying principles of genre analysis, my desire is not to confuse the exegete but to assist him in a proper understanding of NT narrative. Genre can be defined as a kind of literary composition and narrative as a series of events communicated in a story. I am using the term NT Narrative to encompass the major style or form of the four Gospels and Acts. “By biblical ‘narrative’ we mean texts that recount events, whether real or imagined. According to this definition, narrative is the most common genre of material in the Bible.”[3] I realize there are possible subgenres and texts that may take on the character of more than one genre; however, our goal is to preach NT narrative more faithfully and not necessarily to categorize every pericope for scientific study.


[1] For example, scholars disagree about the genre of Matthew. Some have suggested that the canonical gospels are best qualified as “a subtype of Graeco-Roman biography.” See Dale C. Allison Jr., Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 142 n. 19. However, even Allison has fluctuated in his views concerning the genre of the gospels. “I once urged that Matthew is an omnibus of genres: apocalypse, community rule, catechism, cult aetiology, etc . . . I am no longer sure that this is the correct view,” 143. I believe the endless attempts to locate Matthew, for example, within the genre of Graeco-Roman biography is misguided since it largely overlooks the explicit Jewish nature of Matthew’s gospel. R. T. France agrees that, “It is of course true that the gospels were not written in a primarily Graeco-Roman context, and Talbert’s concentration on Graeco-Roman rather than Jewish literature means that his work can be seen only as an exercise in comparison across cultural frontiers,” in Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 125.

[2] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), x. Fisher emphasizes a similar point noting, “The most important fact about genre is that genres are generalizations. As such they are both true and false. They are not natural objects like animals, vegetables, or minerals. They are made by humans out of the mind’s penchant for observing similarities and differences in things, to provide order to understanding” in Walter R. Fisher, “Genre: Concepts and Applications in Rhetorical Criticism,” Western Journal of Speech Communication 44 (1980): 290. Also Ryken, “Such a myth of complexity, however is to be rejected. The literature of the Bible is subtle and artistically crafted but essentially simple. . . . Talking about the Bible’s literature does not require intricate tools and theories. It does, however require literary tools” (Leland Ryken, “And it Came to Pass: The Bible as God’s Storybook,” BSac 147, No. 586 [April-June 1990]: 137).

[3] Daniel I. Block, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story: Preaching the Message of Old Testament Narrative,” 409. Also Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “I Will Remember the Deeds of the Lord: The Meaning of Narrative,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, eds. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 69.

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One response to this post.

  1. Good start.

    I hate the ‘one size fits all’ approach to preaching. You know ‘3 Points and a Poem’ or the ‘Alliteration Madness’ or preaching as if you are just ‘reading a commentary’. (I am in no way indicating that I have arrived in preaching, as a matter of fact, it is my poor preaching that has caused me to think more deeply on this topic)

    Narrative is beautiful in and of itself and our job is to point out its beauty and not strain meaning out of ever little fact along the way. I am preaching John 6:1-13 this weekend (The Feeding of the 5,000) and have been impacted by one thought as I read through this chapter ‘God provides’. That is the background that I am going to keep coming back to as I preach through this whole chapter.

    Anyway, I am with you on this one. I do agree that genre does effect how we read the text so why shouldn’t it affect how we preach it?

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