Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sanctifying Grace: Form

This is the third post in a series about finding sanctifying grace in the Bible instead of using it for our own purposes.  Some of the content of these posts is from the International Bible Series based on a lesson I taught at our Annual Conference this year.
Literary form is important. For example, if I read to you the poem by Maya Angelo called “I know why the caged bird sings” then, knowing it is poem, and that a poem has meaning beyond the words themselves, you would know its not really about the bird – it’s about the truth that the poem tells us. Bible study is the same. Bible text come to us in a literary form. There are lots of forms – sermon, genealogy, proverb, allegory, prayer, song. Knowing the literary form, we know know more about what the author was telling us.

If you were in English class, and the teacher asked you to write a paper based on an assigned reading, wouldn't knowing the literary form be important to your examination of the assignment? Would you write the same paper on Angelo's poem if you thought it was a historical document? We need to give the Bible the same respect we would provide to an English assignment.

To dig that concept down deeper, I'm going to focus on the literary form known as a parable. Parable literally means to “throw beside” or “to compare.” Jesus wasn’t the only person in the bible who told parables. Think back to Nathan, the prophet, who went to David and told him the story of a lamb – favorite pet of a farmer. The lamb grew up with the family – it was like another family member. A rich man comes and seizes the precious lamb. David is outraged until Nathan explains that he (David) is that rich man in his dealing with Bathsheba and her husband. A parable – a story that in and of itself may be not true – but it leads to truth. There is truth in it, and that is what is important.

CH Dodd, a new testament scholar, said this about parables: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” I love that – “to tease our minds into active thought.”

William Barclay says that a parable begins with the everyday – with what people understand, and leads them to things they do not understand and to open their eyes to that which they did not see before.

Extrapolating from that example, we don't read a parable to learn what the farmer did. We read the parable to learn the message Jesus was telling those who were listening - the Truth. And then we ask God how that Truth can be applied in our own context and our own world.  

Now I'm going to walk on shakier ground, but if you've come this far, maybe you'll come a little farther with me. Think about the first chapters of Genesis. What is this literary form? Is it history? Or is it something else? If it is history, then the seven days are seven days, and there is no evolution, and the world is less that 5000 years old. But if these chapters are something other than history - perhaps origin stories - then what we can hear from them is that God was the God at the beginning, and that God created and loved all. We learn that we belong to God, and that we have been given dominion over the world, to care for it. The number of days isn't important. The Creator is. The Truth we read can be applied to the world we see around us, without us ignoring or rationalizing away the facts in front of us.

Literary form is important, and it can lead us to Truth.

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