The pun-meister Bill Maher says some amazing things. “The Bible was not meant to be history; it was not meant to be literal,” he opines. “They were parables; people read it back then and read into it something that was not literal; we’re the dummies who read it literally.” Well, is he right? Is the Bible merely parabolic? Is it true that the Bible was not meant as history?
Interestingly enough, the answer is found in the word genre. Grasping genre or form is crucial in understanding what a text means by what the text says. In other words, to interpret the Bible as literature, it is always crucial to consider the kind of literature that you are interpreting. Where visionary imagery is the governing genre, it’s foolhardy to interpret it literally. On the other hand, where historical narrative is preeminent, it is imperative not to over-spiritualize. Bill Maher is right to associate parables with the Bible, but to do so exclusively is absurd.
No one, of course, applied the power of parable with greater effect than Jesus. Luke 16 chronicles the parable of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who was covered in sores and longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. In time both died. Their roles immediately reversed. The beggar found himself comforted in Abraham’s bosom. The rich man experienced the foretaste of eternal torment…
Too late…he paid attention to the beggar lying by his gate
Too late…he postponed repentance
Too late…he heeded the testimony of the Law and the Prophets
Too late…too late…too late…
Like a heat-seeking missile, the parable of Jesus Christ always hits its mark. Hopefully the heart of a pun-meister will be next.
The point here is to acknowledge that the Bible is replete with parables, but that is hardly the extent of the matter. Scripture is a treasure chest that abounds in literary genres, ranging from poetry to psalms to historical narratives, didactic epistles, and apocalyptic revelations. We must see the Bible once again as a treasure chest.
Tragically, our postmodern culture does not appreciate literature the way our ancestors did. We do science well, but we don’t do literature well. We know how to read Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, but seem ill-equipped to read William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri.
One must remember that the language of Scripture is a heavenly condescension so that we might apprehend both the nature and purposes of an infinite God. Failure to consider genre leads to a host of unintended consequences. This is particularly so when it comes to apocalyptic portions of the Bible. When Jesus says that the stars are going to fall from the sky, He hardly intends to be taken literally. A single star, of course, would obliterate the earth, let alone a hundred billion stars. Instead, the Heir to the linguistic riches of the Old Testament prophets and a Greater Prophet than them all used the symbolism of stars to pronounce judgment within His own generation. Failure to consider genre might lead to laughs in a comedy routine, but from an eternal perspective the effect is not nearly as funny. We have to look at life, of course, with eternity in mind. If we do, the consequences are life with a Savior. If we don’t, the consequences are condemnation, as the rich man found out. There are only two kinds of people in the world, those who follow Christ and those who deny Christ— those who are Christians and those who are anti-Christians. Which one are you? If you are a Christian, are you committed to making your life count for time and eternity?