Tim and Jon discuss the three literary styles used in the Bible: narrative, poetry, and prose discourse.
In this episode, Tim introduces us to the three main times of literature styles found in the Bible: narrative, poetry, and prose discourse.
In the first half of the show (0-28:15), Tim introduces us to the three forms of literature in the Bible and how they are laid out using the analogy of a grocery store. The guys talk about the challenge of reading the Bible, wishing that they had un-automatic translation headphones.
In the second half of the show (28:15-40:00), the guys talk about some of the inner psychological stories we tell ourselves and how stories are a way to make sense of the world. Tim shares a quote from C.S. Lewis talking about the importance of reading expanding our worldview. Tim explains that many people expect the Bible to be a set of moral instructions, but actually the narrative structure of the Bible is much more open-ended.
In the last part of the show (48:00-End), the guys discuss how our brains are hardwired for narratives and how the stories of the Bible work in our brains. Jon muses about how all of life and the Bible can be distilled down to asking “What do I desire?” and Tim breaks down the structure of Psalm 19.
Next week the guys will dive into the Scriptures and talk about some examples of the different types of literary styles.
This show is designed to go with our new youtube video series, “How to Read the Bible” you can check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUXJ8Owes8E
"An Experiment in Criticism" by C.S. Lewis
"The Skeptical Believer" by Daniel Taylor
"Read The Bible For A Change" by Ray Lubeck
"The Secular Age" by Charles Taylor
Defender Instrumental by Rosasharn Music; Good Grief by Beautiful Eulogy; Respect, Power and Money by Eshon Burgundy
Podcast Date: June 19, 2017
Speakers in the audio file:
Jon: Hey everyone. Before we start this podcast episode, I wanted to give you an
announcement. The Bible Project made a beautiful coffee table book that's
filled with all of the diagrams from our read scripture series and the scripts to
those videos. It's bound together in hardback cloth. It's a big book. It's really
well designed. We're very proud of it.
Now here's what we did. We designed this book and then we went and had
about 10,000 of them. Not about. We had 10,000 of them printed, and we
have those 10,000 reserved for supporters of this project. If you're a
supporter, by now you've got an email about how to get one of those.
We are giving those to supporters at cost as a thank you, but now we want to
open it up to everyone else and to supporters who wanted more than one. So
we're going to do a second print run. We don't know how many to print in
the second run. Print runs are kind of expensive.
So we started a Kickstarter, and you can pre-order the coffee table book or
two on Kickstarter. These are going to be ready before Christmas, so yeah,
order two, give one as a present.
Check out the Kickstarter. It's at go.jointhebibleproject.com/readscripture or
you can just find that link in the show notes and it'll send you there to the
Kickstarter page. But again, it's go.jointhebibleproject.com/readscripture.
Check it out. And now on to the episode.
Hi, this is Jon. In this episode of The Bible Project podcast, I'm going to be
having a discussion with Tim about literary genres in the Bible. If you've been
paying attention to this project, you know we've been working through a
series on our YouTube channel called How to Read the Bible.
The first video in that series was what's in the Bible - What can you expect to
find when you open it. The second video was what's the story of the Bible,
this unified story that ties everything together?
In this third video and the conversation we're going to have now, we're going
to introduce the idea of the Bible using different literary styles to tell his
story, namely, narrative, poetry and, prose discourse.
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Tim: The big three main types of literature. All of those in the Bible have their own
ways of thinking and talking that you have to become accustomed to. Then
when you do, the goal is that living in these narratives that you begin to see
your life in terms of these narratives. And that when you pray, that this poetry
shapes how you talk to God and then hear from God. That's the goal is a
lifetime of immersion.
Jon: The Bible is God's words to us, but it's also the literary creation of our fellow
humans who are using language in specific ways to open our imagination
and teach us things about ourselves about God and about others. Thanks for
listening. Here we go.
We are preparing for video on the Bible as ancient literature.
Tim: Yes. Does that sound thrilling?
Jon: Actually, it does. And if it doesn't yet, it will, hopefully. The first video "what is
the Bible," what's in it...
Tim: Yeah, what is the Bible, how it come into existence in a nutshell.
Jon: Second video, what's the whole story of the Bible?
Tim: Kind of unifying the whole thing?
Jon: So the whole Bible in five minutes. This one now is taking a step back and
going, there's a bunch of different types of literature in the Bible. What does
that mean for there to be different types of literature and why should I care?
Tim: It's a unified storyline that unites a small library of books. Then each of those
books or even within each book, they're very different types of literature.
Each of those requires a different skill set, different set of expectations, a
different approach. Not to mention the fact that it's ancient.
Jon: Ancient types of literature.
Tim: Ancient types of literature. So there's adjusting my expectations from page to
page, depending on what I'm reading—
Literary Styles of the Bible E1 –
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Jon: So it's one unified story but it's composed of many different types of ancient
literature. So an analog to that would be like, my body has a bunch of
different types of cells but it makes one unified [inaudible 00:04:48]?
Tim: But that's just it. If that's the case, then what it means is becoming a more
wise, effective reader of the Scriptures, it means, first of all, learning to
appreciate literature and how different styles of literature work. Then second,
learning the literature of another culture from another time. That's—
Jon: It's the nature of reading your Bible.
Tim: It's the nature of reading your Bible. It's a cross-culture literary experience.
Jon: I have many times bemoan that fact.
Tim: This is another way of saying in a maybe too fancy way, just describing why
the Bible is challenging to read and why it poses so many difficulties for
Jon: Why didn't God just give us a matrix upload to the Bible instead of having to
learn ancient literature?
Tim: We've joked before. I'm looking at you in the recording room. You're wearing
these huge headphones. But I think we've talked before about those UN,
United Nation gatherings.
Jon: Gets translated into your language.
Tim: Yeah. Immediately whatever somebody is saying in French, it gets translated.
Jon: Yes, that's what we need.
Tim: That's what we think we would want.
Jon: What I would do is I would open the Bible and I put on the headphones, and
as I read it would translate into like modern English. God would be
Tim: Yeah, sure. That's what English readers have. I mean, we have modern
translations. But those translations are still filled with a lot of ancient
metaphors, weird phrases, figures of speech. This is what modern translations
Literary Styles of the Bible E1 –
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that also paraphrase into modern Western imagery do. Like the New Living
Translation, or Eugene Peterson, The Message.
That's a noble task. They're great translations to read for what they are
because they get you thinking in your own language and imagery.
Jon: Can I stop you?
Tim: Yeah, sure.
Jon: The translations, they'll help you translate from Hebrew or Greek to English
but they're not telling you, "Hey, this is the type of literature and why it's
important that you know what type of literature."
Tim: Yeah. You have to develop that skill set, whether you're reading I think in the
message or the modern literature. Or if you learn Hebrew and Greek, you still
have to learn how to adjust your expectations and what to look for in these
different types of literature.
Jon: I never learned that growing up in the church. We never talked about that.
Tim: We met in college where we were taking classes.
Jon: And that's the first time totally thinking through literary genre.
Tim: Yeah. It took to go to a college with a dedicated biblical literature department
program that we were first exposed to this. But it seems so common sense.
Jon: Right, sure.
Tim: This is my metaphor because I think it might help us organize the
conversation and we go on.
Tim: Think of what a large grocery store is in modern Western culture. You walk
into these huge places and there is a principle of organization.
Jon: Do you know why they put the milk in the back?
Literary Styles of the Bible E1 –
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Tim: They do it on purpose. All their fresh stuff, the milk, and the eggs, it's in the
back so you have to walk all the way through the store.
Tim: You have to make it past the Doritos.
Jon: You got to cut through an aisle or you got to go all the way around, and then
you're in the heart of the store.
Tim: Just to make you buy the ice cream to get to the eggs. I've never thought of
that. There you go. These large buildings full of so many individual different
items, but there's a clear logic to it and organization. I was just thinking more
broadly like they put dairy together and apparently at the back.
They group like with like kind of dairy: milk, yogurt, juice. Produce, fruits and
veggies, which they grow out of the ground or plants, but they're really
different kinds of plants. Meat, the meat counter. I remember, oh, I was
young and it struck me that the bread and the jelly and the peanut butter is
all in one aisle.
Tim: Then growing older, when I was a student studying overseas and so on, I
realized like, "Oh, that's a very American thing." Peanut butter, jelly,
Jon: You into grocery stores in other cultures and it's a wild experience.
Tim: Totally. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich isle is a very unique cultural
thing. That's one thing. Second of all, let's say you are going into a new one.
You usually go to whatever—
Jon: Fred Meyers.
Tim: Fred Meyers, which is north-west.
Jon: Which is really confusing. The one near me, they've got the organic section
where they've got everything and then got the normal—
Tim: Which is a little mini organized universe under itself - the organic section.
Jon: Then they have the rest of everything.
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Jon: Literally, there's like three places you could find eggs.
Tim: Or three places you could get yogurt.
Jon: Yeah. It's so confusing.
Tim: Oh, the Fred Meyers by me is like that. But all the same, I love my
neighborhood Fred Meyers.
Tim: They're all organized slightly differently. When you go into a new grocery
restore, what you're looking for, let's say you're looking for snacks to
whatever. You're having a movie night with friends, what you're looking for is
you're just scanning, going down looking down long ways if you can't see the
signs. But really what you are looking for is chips.
And the moment you see Doritos, all these other things light up in your
imagination of what's supposed to be in that aisle. So if the Doritos are there,
then that's where the salsa is going to be because that's where the tortilla
chips are going to be because that's where the seltzer water is going to be,
that's where the juice is going to be, that's where pop's going to be.
My point is just once you're familiar enough with how grocery stores works,
you just need to see one item and then it will trigger all your expectations of
what now to look for in that aisle. The question is, how did you learn all of
that? We certainly didn't learn it in school. There was no—
Jon: I am still learning that to date. I don't shop enough. I hate it, man. I get into a
store and I'm like, "Kimchi. Where's the kimchi? And then I'll spend a half
Tim: I totally understand. That's a good example of being in unfamiliar territory
and not knowing where to look for what or what to look for where. But to the
Jon: The person who goes grocery shopping every week.
Tim: Yes, totally. It takes—
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Jon: You just figure it out.
Tim: You just figure it out by actually being in the grocery store. You could think of
a million analogies but this is helpful one I think. This is exactly what it's like
to encounter the Bible. We're entering into another culture grocery store.
Jon: Whoa, which is crazy.
Tim: It is so overwhelming.
Jon: I remember going to like an Asian grocery store, it's just—
Tim: When I lived in Jerusalem—
Jon: You're like, "What is this?
Tim: Yeah, going into grocery stores. And it depends. Are you going into Arab
Palestinian grocery store or are you going into an Israeli grocery store? It
depends because modern Israel's a mishmash of people from all kinds. So is
it more like a Russian Israeli or is it the Spanish, Mediterranean? All these
You go to any city in the US and have a very cross-cultural experience by
going to another grocery store.
Jon: Even within different cities.
Tim: Reading the Bible it's like that - I'm convinced of it. So that grocery store has
a very intentionally thought out internal organization. When you are in the
Mediterranean, whatever, Israeli or the Greek grocery store and you're
beginning of an isle and you see tahini, it should trigger all kinds of other
things related. "Oh, this is where I'm going to find the pickles, this is where
I'm going to find whatever."
Reading the Bible is the same exact way. When I start reading the book of
Jeremiah, and the opening scene is kind of narrative and it's kind of poetry,
but it's of a prophet being called, and the Prophet starts objecting, like, "Oh,
I'm too young. I'm not a very good speaker," then it's like seeing the tahini
and you go, "Oh, I know what I'm reading. I'm reading a prophetic call story."
And all these other similar types of literature in the Hebrew Bible start
Literary Styles of the Bible E1 –
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Jon: And now you are looking for things.
Tim: Now you're remembering, "Yeah, this is Exodus 3 and 4, the burning bush
story. Oh, yeah, this is exactly what happened to Gideon when the angel
appeared to him. So it's learning.
When I opened up psalm and the psalm begins, O Lord, hear my cry. Don't
be far from me. I'm sinking in the pit," and you're going, "Yep, Psalm 3, Psalm
7, Psalm 13."
Jon: You saw the phrase "hear my cry" and that's like seeing Doritos in the aisle,
and you are like, "I'm in that aisle."
Tim: Yeah. The biblical authors had their disposal of a wide variety of different
types of literature, different food items, different literary items on the shelf
and they're all connected.
Jon: Literary techniques.
Tim: Literary techniques. Really learning to read the Bible is learning to become
familiar with this grocery store and how to find things. And then what
expectations. The moment that I see the Doritos or that I see the organic
eggs versus the normal eggs, all of a sudden I have like a drop-down menu in
my head of like, "Okay, look for this, look for this, remember last time you
were here, so look here. Let's compare." That's it.
It's becoming acculturated to a different environment that has a very well
thought out system of communicating to you. But you just have to spend
time in it.
Jon: Then I guess that would mean if it ever is breaking the rules intentionally, that
becomes a massive...You're in the snack aisle and there's this little freezer of
frozen food and you're like, "That never happens. What's that freezer doing
Tim: Yeah, that's right. Totally. Great example. I was just reading the Book of Ruth
this week. Man, everything in the Book of Ruth is keyed into the narratives of
the matriarchs in the Book of Genesis. It's all so closely connected.
It's these birth narratives, this type of narrative in the Old Testament where
the family line is in danger. How's it going to get built up? Usually, in Genesis,
it's through women of less upstanding character, or who were deceitful and
scheming. And through their deceitful and scheming—
Jon: Like Rahab? Oh, she's not a schemer.
Tim: Like Rachel and Leah, they are these Aramean women who get brought in or
Tamar who's a prostitute. Rebecca was also Aramean. She's actually pretty
bad. Then Ruth is this non-Israelite Moabite woman but messianic line of
When you're reading Ruth, and you start reading, and you read about two
Israelite sons who died, you start thinking of, "Oh, wait, I remember Genesis
38. Those two Israelite sons, they died too, and then the family line was put in
Anyway, all that to say it's like the Hebrew Bible grocery store. Everything's
there and it's all connected and there's a real brilliant internal logic to it all.
But it's learning—
Jon: To use an example that's even closer to the Bible is just movies. The movie
Tim: Oh, yes, yes. Perfect.
Jon: Because it's like a rule if there's a gun in scene one, someone's going to shoot
it in scene three. That's just kind of a rule. And why is that a rule? No one
actually wrote some movie rule. It's just something that happens over and
over and over.
If you're really good at watching movies, you understand movies, you see a
gun and scene one and then you know something's going to happen in
scene three. And if it doesn't, then you're like, "Whoa."
Tim: Dude, I just had this experience on a plane. I had been reading and then I
looked up and it was on a Delta flight. They have the screens, you know. And
you know, how when you become aware that somebody a couple of screens
seats down is watching a movie?
Jon: Yeah, you kind of watch over their shoulder a little bit.
Tim: And then you kind of watch it because you're like, "I want to read, but it's
hard not to watch." Anyway. So he's well into this movie. It was some kind of
science fiction. I actually still don't know what it was.
Jon: Because you can't hear it.
Tim: I can't hear it and I'm dropping into the middle of story. I've no concept of
what's going on. But it's two really brilliant, shining alien characters. I thought
that they were having this close really meaningful conversation - they were
animated - I didn't think they were angry with each other, but they were
Then all of a sudden, it did this cut to a sword lying on the floor at some
distance in between them. Then I was like, "Oh, this is the struggle for the
weapon story. This is the scene where it's the two finally facing off and there's
only one weapon. Who's going to get it?
Of course, immediately, that's what happened next. It was they were trying to
get it and then wrestling, struggling to get to the sword. Then one got the
sword and cut the other in half. But it was so funny. Without knowing the
scene at first, I thought it was too friendly aliens having a conversation with
Jon: But as soon as they showed the cutaway of the sword, you're like, "I know
what aisle I'm in."
Tim: It was half a second, this cutaway to the sword, and I was like, "I know
everything that's about to happen." And that's exactly what happened. It's
that. You see the gun and you know. You see the sword that they're going to
struggle, and then, you know.
Who taught me that? However, many movies I've seen where that exact same
technique was used. You've seen the gun in scenes one and three of the
movie. You're trained. You become a trained—
Jon: Darren, one of our animators, he's really good at that. He understands movies
really well. It actually bumps him out when he's watching a movie and they
play their cards too fast and loose and go like, "Okay, I know what's going to
It's like you have to get more subtle in order to get the real movie buff to
appreciate what you're doing. You have to get more and more subtle. But
you don't abandon the rules, you just get more subtle.
Tim: Yeah, you get more subtle. Then as a reader or a viewer—
Jon: That gets back to the literary genius thing is when you are better and better
at the tools at your disposal, you become more subtle, which makes it even
harder to appreciate on first glance. Is that true for the Bible, do you think?
Tim: Say that again.
Jon: If you are a really good director, you know movies really well, and you're
using all the tropes and all the techniques, but because you're such a genius,
you're doing in a way that's more subtle and sophisticated.
Tim: Oh, I see. I see.
Jon: So that means that at a casual viewing you might miss so much of what's
happening. But then the deeper you go in, you see more and more and more.
That's the genius.
Tim: Of biblical literature or just genius of good art - good literary art.
Jon: The same thing could be said for the literary genius of the Bible I'm
Tim: Yes, yes, like to the nth degree. That's exactly right. That's a bottomless pit.
Jon: These guys knew what they were doing?
Tim: In the best sense possible.
Jon: That's a metaphor there.
Tim: Now to the point where it's like, "I'm 20 years in." I just realized this
September 2017 will mark 20 years since I took my first Hebrew class...
Jon: I like to say decades when I tell people how long you've been in school.
Tim: ...and I still feel like I'm scratching the surface of a deep—
Jon: That's disappointing. You must feel like you're beyond the surface at some
Tim: Well, here's the thing. I was talking with a friend and read this recently—
Jon: You've taken core samples of the depths of the—
Tim: The Dead Sea Scrolls. So here's a community of many of whom were
disenfranchised priests from Jerusalem. They thought Jerusalem was going to
hell in a handbasket so they parachute out and they start this community of
prayer and scripture study out in the wilderness. The entry requirement is 10
years of reading and meditation what they called the scroll of meditation.
Jon: To be in this community?
Tim: Yeah, 10 years.
Jon: This sounds like a Buddhist kind of thing. It's like you have to stand at the
Tim: Then once you're shown proficiency, you enter into the life of this
community, which is rigorous, rigorous. It functions a lot like ancient
monastery where, you know, you wash dishes, you keep the aqueduct going,
that kind of thing. But the main thing is your whole life cycle's around these
sessions of prayer and scripture study for another two decades.
Tim: And this is all in your own language. So this is the kind of culture—
Jon: Oh, you don't have to learn another language?
Tim: Yeah. It's all in Hebrew and Aramaic. You already know these languages. But
you're spending a decade meditating on—
Jon: One scroll?
Tim: Well, it's a shorthand for Psalm 1, the Torah of Yahweh of the God of Israel.
The scriptures. It's their shorthand for the scriptures in their Bible.
Jon: So you spent a decade with the Torah?
Tim: Yeah, and you already know Hebrew. And that's the entry requirement to the
rest of your life intense study and meditation on the scriptures. This is
meditation literature. It's bottomless. Anyway, don't get me going. But the
point is, is that there is a whole—
Jon: They appreciated how sophisticated it was.
Tim: Yeah. It's extremely sophisticated. The goal is that you don't understand on
your first read through completely. You will never understand and make all
the connections. But the purpose is that it's for meditation - a lifetime's worth
As you do so, these texts start to mess with you and shape you in really deep
and profound ways so that their way of organizing the world starts to
become...I think going into this Mediterranean grocery store, the goal is that
you start to organize your kitchen like that. So then you organize your tahini
and your pickle thing.
Jon: You're organizing the way you view the world through these.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. There are all kinds of little sub-points of literature, like
prophetic literature, or parables or, but this video, I just want it to be about
the big three main types of literature.
Jon: The big three aisles?
Tim: The big three sections of the grocery store. So it's like produce,
nonperishable goods, and then meat and dairy or something. I don't know.
It's not going to be a precise analogy.
The three big ones are in the Old and New Testaments is narrative, which is
43% of the Bible. It's the vast majority of these narratives. Poetry, just 33% of
the Bible. That's over three-quarters of the Bible right there is narrative and
poetry. Then prose discourse which accounts for about one-quarter of the
All of those in the Bible have their own ways of thinking and talking that you
have to become accustomed to. Then when you do, the goal is that living in
these narratives, that you begin to see your life in terms of these narratives.
And that when you pray that this poetry shapes how you talk to God and
then hear from God. And that this pros discourse, the way that you think and
reason through decisions and problems and opportunities that it's shaped by
biblical discourse. That's the goal is a lifetime of the immersion in biblical
narratives, poetry, and discourse.
Then within each of those three are little sub things that we'll explore in
Tim: Here's another way to think about it. Maybe think about it in terms of
relationships. I've long quote from CS Lewis here. Think about relationships.
The most formative relationships in our lives are people in our lives who are
like us. We actually like to accumulate people in our lives who are like us
because it's less risky, and their shared interest and so on. But formative
relationships tend to be people who, even though they are similar, there's
something about them that's really different and it enriches our lives, because
of that difference.
This was a point that CS Lewis made about reading literature decades ago. In
1961, he wrote a book called "Experiment in Criticism" - Literary criticism. It's
Cambridge University, 1961, but I think he wrote it much earlier than that.
His point here is that reading good literature, biblical literature, or in this
case, he's not talking about the Bible, what it does, is it's like bringing new
and very different people into your life and learning about the story of their
experience so that you begin to see life in a richer way through their
experience. Just like going to the grocery store of another—
Jon: It's why people travel as well.
Tim: Yeah, this is why people traveled. Exactly.
Jon: Or it should be. Maybe you just travel and then go to some Americanized
Tim: Cross-cultural travel is a horizon-broadening enriching experience. In
miniature, that's what forming new relationships with other people is like. It's
another culture of that human life and experience.
This is how CS Lewis puts it and why learning how to read new and different
kinds of literature is actually a really important way of expanding our
humanity. And I've slightly adapted the quote here. I mean, he wrote half a
century ago in British idioms.
Jon: You've translated it?
Tim: I have slightly translated to make the English a little more understandable.
"People who have been readers all their lives, seldom fully realized the
enormous extension of their being, which they owe these authors. We realize
it best when we talk with children who haven't lived along or read widely.
They're full of goodness, but they inhabit a tiny world.
How sad is the adult who is content to remain in that world? That is the tiny
world of their childhood. It's virtually a prison. My own eyes are not enough
for me; I must see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the
eyes of many is not enough. I must see what others have invented as well."
In other words, he's saying, "I just don't want to hear the historical experience
through the literature of other people." He wants fiction and science fiction.
He wants to see alternate realities that are invented.
Then he says this. "I regret that animals cannot write books. Very gladly I
would learn what face things present to a mouse."
Jon: What face things present?
Tim: See, I told you, British idioms. "Very gladly would I learned what face things
present to a mouse or to a bee."
Jon: What face?
Tim: Face meaning things present themselves to a mouse or to a bee, what face?
What do they see?
Jon: What's their worldview?
Tim: Yeah, what's their view of things. "More gladly still, would I perceive the world
of smells that is charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a
Jon: Totally. Someone just told me how a good way to think about how a dog
smells is the way that we perceive colors visually and we can easily distinguish
between colors and the nuanced colors, that's how a dog smells. They smell
Tim: Can you imagine?
Jon: That'd be really great. I guess some winemakers probably would do that too.
Tim: Lewis regrets that dogs cannot write books about what their experience is.
Jon: That would help you understand that more.
Tim: Yeah. This is great. This is a concluding line. He says, "In reading great
literature, I become 1,000 humans yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a
Greek poem, I see with a myriad eye, but it is still I who see. Here as in
worship and love and moral action, and knowing, I transcend myself and am
never more myself then when I do. So good.
Jon: Lewis is a good writer.
Tim: His point is that literature is actually the easiest way to expand our humanity
because you are opening yourself to new and different ways of experiencing
the world. It's an argument for reading just literature. Of which biblical
literature it's one of the most significant shaping collections of literature in
Jon: I see. So you're saying as a human being, I should already be intensely
interested in literature to be transcendent human being, to be someone who
is not locked in a small prison by myself?
Tim: Correct, that's right. Overcoming the cultural gaps and hurdles and reading
biblical literature is a very important discipline. It's the same as the discipline
of just engaging in healthy relationships with people who are different than
me. It's the same exact type of habit.
To me, that's such a different way. Well, it's a liberating, inspiring way to think
about overcoming the hurdle of reading the Bible.
Jon: It's interesting that in a more modern, industrialized society, the classes and
skills that are prioritized are math and science and that kind of stuff. Pretty
much more practical. And English class it's kind of like, you know. It's
important, but if you go and get an English major, it's like, "Well, good luck
Tim: "Good luck to find a job with that."
Jon: Which is true.
Tim: Yeah, it is true.
Jon: But as far as shaping you as a human, what it seems like Lewis is saying is, is
the most important discipline that you can have. Next to relationships with
other people and other things, we already know is important to our
Tim: I totally agree. I mean, I was in school for far too long. Where I got my Ph.D.,
University of Wisconsin, the fate of the humanities, basically, their budget is -
as a state school - constantly, constantly shrinking. Personally, I think that's a
very dangerous place for our culture to find itself.
Jon: It's interesting. Man, if you go back and you read all of the early presidential
speeches - and I haven't read all of them, but I was forced to read some of
them along the way - I remember my mind being blown at how
Jon: How well-read they were.
Tim: I'm just thinking of Lincoln - reading some of Lincoln's speeches. First of all,
they're just really logically complex. And they were speeches. Not books,
speeches. Then second, how often someone like Lincoln was alluding to
literature using phrases drawn from whatever.
It's like what Lewis says here, "how I think about transcendence, how I think
about love, relationships, how I think about moral action, what's the right
thing to do, how I think about how I know anything." These are all shaped for
us by literature, especially by narrative. There's no coincidence that nearly half
of the Bible has just straight up narratives.
Jon: Because that's what narrative does too is it shapes those categories.
Tim: Yeah, totally. Let's just dive into each of the three of these. I have some
quotes and interesting things about biblical narratives, biblical poetry, and
Jon: Let's dive into all three. I just want to try to verbalize something. I'm trying to
connect them. So literature is important but then the next step is to say,
"Well, if the Bible is God's Word to us, then is really important literature so it
should be at the top of the pile for us, even though it's a different language.
Tim: Meditation literature.
Jon: It should shape us more than any other literature if you follow Jesus.
Tim: And it has shaped our culture's literature more than any other literature.
Jon: Even if you don't follow Jesus, just to understand Western culture. But the
other thought was, I was bemoaning the fact that it's so much work and then
wish we had these UN headphones.
But seems like you take this quote from Lewis and you think about how
literature shapes you as you interact with it. And that's a very active
participatory process. But if you were just a passive listener through UN
headphones, it wouldn't be working on you in the same way that the actual
exploration...I think you use the phrase "it does stuff to you." "It works on
you." Maybe that's the value of it being hard work.
Tim: Yes, that's right. Literature, in general, is usually not easy to read - good
literature. It's participatory. It's a great way of putting it. Biblical narrative and
poetry, which is over three-quarters of the Bible, it's participatory. The
narratives are not...their meaning is not self-evident. You know what I mean?
Page one raises a million questions. Page two, Garden of Eden. Page three, a
talking snake. So we get frustrated because we think a good narrative ought
to just get to the point. And we're short-circuiting the very heartbeat of other
things, which is to draw you in to an experience and actually it's teaching you
how to read and how to think, and how to ask questions. Doing so, you are
developing the skills of doing that with your own life.
So you run into a snake on a hike or whatever, you have a random thing
happen in your day that weirds you out as much as reading about a talking
snake. But you...
Jon: You make the connection?
Tim: ...you began to learn how to ask questions of your own life as you're asking
questions of these texts. They're training us as being humans. That's what
literature does, and that's what biblical literature does as with ninja type skills.
Jon: We're going to do the big three.
Tim: Yeah, big three: narrative, poetry, and prose discourse.
Jon: And the narrative is 43% of the Bible.
Tim: Like 43% of the Bible. It's enormous.
Jon: Nearly half. And by narrative, you mean story?
Tim: By narrative, I mean people - more than one person - in a place or multiple
Jon: It can't be one person?
Tim: No, no. If it's one person...I'm sorry. Let's start very basic. A person in a place
doing something that generates conflict that escalates and that must be
resolved. Usually, conflict requires another person so that the conflict is
between two people.
Jon: There's the story of the guy has just chopped off his arm or his leg because
he gets stuck in the wilderness.
Tim: Oh, yeah, totally. Hundred and something hours. I was thinking of "Cast
Away." There, the two characters are Tom Hanks and the island. The island is
the other character. presenting all the obstacles. The setting, the place is a
character in that story, which is often the case in the biblical narrative too.
So you have character, setting, and a plot. Character is a person or two
people in a place or places.
Jon: The reason why you say characters is because anytime something brings
enough conflict for you, no matter what it is, even if it's an inanimate object,
it becomes a character at that point?
Tim: Yeah, that's right. What makes stories interesting is watching somebody who
we identify with facing a challenge in a setting that they then have to
overcome or find resolution to. There you go.
So why is it that very basic structure of communication - first of all, is nearly
half of the Bible - but why is it that it's actually the most universal form of
Jon: Because it's how we experience the world?
Tim: That's exactly right. I've a great quote from a former teacher both of us, Ray
Lubeck, from his excellent introduction to reading biblical literature called
"Read the Bible for a Change." There's another great book on biblical just
called "Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth."
Ray Lubeck, "Read the Bible for a Change." "Recent research suggests that
our brains are actually hardwired for narratives. Neurobiologist, Mark Turner
argues that 'story is the basic principle of how the human mind works. Most
of our experience, most of our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as a
set of stories.'"
Lubeck goes on. "Narrative structure is essential, not only for effective
communication but for thinking itself. When children asked to hear a story it's
not simply a biological craving for amusement, or demand for attention."
Which it might also be, but it's not simply that is his point."
He goes on. "It arises out of a genuine human need to make sense of the
disparate experiences of our lives. And that need is addressed and
storytelling. Through stories, we learn how to see patterns, we learn about
cause and effect, we learn how to discover the consequences of our choices,
our sense of right and wrong and of what is most important or least valuable
in life. All of these are shaped for us by the stories we hear, and then live."
So yes, there's no coincidence that both smaller stories all unified together
into a mega-story is the Bible's basic way of communicating. From the first
page to the last page, literally, it's "in the beginning" to "forever and ever."
Then within that mega story that unifies itself around Jesus is hundreds and
hundreds and hundreds of little mini-plots and stories.
Jon: Through stories, we learn how to see patterns, cause and effect,
consequences of our choices. I've thought of it as a type of virtual reality that
you get to experience. Then Daniel Taylor, that book - what's that book?
Tim: "The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist" by Daniel Taylor.
Jon: There's a bunch of little essays. In one of them, he makes the observation that
the reason that we love story so much is that we actually crave something
more than story. We're craving something deeper that story is actually kind of
scratching that itch. There's a deeper itch.
He calls that itch, basically, explain to me what's going on? why I'm here?
what this is all about. It's the why. If you really step back and think about it,
we're on a planet floating through the universe. We're in a space rock.
Tim: We're in space rock floating around a hot ball of gas connected to a whole
network of other hot balls of gas that are themselves floating around, "What
is happening here?
Jon: What am I doing here and why do I have these thoughts that I have and
these emotions that I get? Why does that irritate me, and that excites me?
What is this urge? What is all this?"
Tim: "How do I organize all of this to make sense? How do I make sense?"
Jon: And that's the itch that story scratches.
Tim: Yes. Man, we're just referencing books. This is in the notes here. After the
quote from Ray Lubeck, a really helpful informative book for me in college
that Ray Lubeck introduced me to was about worldview formation - how we
learn how to make sense.
It's kind of philosophy of Christian worldview but really, it's stepping back
and looking at all the religious or non-religious cultures of our world, and
saying that if every coherent claim about life having meaning or purpose,
whether it's religious or nonreligious, is grounded in some fundamental
narrative about the world. A way of telling the story of the people on the
space rock to give it meaning. And they organize it in terms of questions.
So where are we? What is real in the world? Where do we find ourselves?
That's setting. Who are we? What is the nature and purpose of human
beings? Characters. What's wrong? Like, what is wrong with the world? If we
think there's something wrong, what is that's wrong and how do we account
for that? That's plot conflict.
What's the solution? Is there any hope that things could change or be better?
That's the resolution of the plot? Then there's what time is it? Where in that
story am I located? Where in the story of plot conflict to resolution, at what
point am I at in that story? That's the narrative time or the plot time.
So character Plot Setting, and then conflict resolution, whether it's
Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, atheism, agnosticism, they all
have to provide these basic coordinates to provide an account for the world.
You can't live as a human being without having one of these. You might not
explicitly live by one of these stories, but you are implicitly unconsciously
living by some story that's been provided for you or that you've chosen
Jon: Also, I've been told or have read, I don't know, that we're able to live with
conflicting stories. So within yourself, you can have two different types of
narratives that are actually in conflict, but you're able to keep moving
forward. You feel the tension, but it's not a deal breaker for you. And if
someone pointed out you, you'd be like, "Oh, yeah, that doesn't add up."
Tim: I think that's exactly where many religious people in modern West find
Jon: Oh, the cross stream?
Tim: The cross-pressured. Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher really
important book called "The Secular Age," he talks about the situation of, of
Western culture is of cross-pressured where even religious people have to
choose to believe. For many, or most people—
Jon: Which wasn't always the case.
Tim: Wasn't always the case. 500 years ago, the default category was believing in
God and supernatural.
Jon: You didn't have an alternative story.
Tim: And it was compelling. It was actually seemed irrational and ridiculous not to
believe in God and so on. Now, his point is that the secular age, the rise of
modern secular age is not that you have lots of people who now don't
believe all that. It's not about belief versus disbelief.
His point is that it's an age where everyone is uncertain about what is
ultimately true. So even if you do believe, you're aware that there are other
rival worldviews, at least even if you don't believe them, you know that
they're coherent, and you know that rational, reasonable thinking people
hold those views.
Jon: And even inside yourself. That's why Daniel Tylor calls it "his inner atheists."
Tim: Even though he's a Christian, he has an inner atheist. That's exactly it. To
bring us back to narratives, yeah, I think in the modern West, religious people
find themselves with rival narratives.
Jon: And we're balancing and we're trying to figure out how they work together.
Tim: Which is why you could argue there's never a more important time to
develop the habit of immersing ourselves in the biblical narrative. Well, just to
say, if I'm going to believe in the story of Jesus, I'm going to have to actively,
consciously cultivate that belief. It's not going to feel like a default for me.
Jon: Because the default stories are going to be a different story.
Tim: That's right.
Jon: The modern secular or whatever it is, capitalistic or consumeristic—
Tim: In America, it's totally bound up with capitalism and former democracy.
Jon: It's totally depend on where you are.
Tim: The point is we have many voices claiming and exerting pressure on us.
Jon: It's a unique time in history where you have to choose "which story am I
going to lean into the most?" And you can't just pretend that these other
stories aren't pressuring you, you're being cross-pressured.
Tim: Totally, yeah. We will live out a story. And the question is—
Jon: Do you think everyone experiences that?
Tim: No, no. I don't think everyone experiences that on a conscious level.
Jon: Does it become an existential angst for everyone?
Tim: But not everybody's temperament is...
Jon: I think it becomes a temperament thing sometimes.
Tim: Yeah, totally. But everybody on a practical level is making choices based on a
value system. And those values are shaped by a sense of who am I, where am
I, what's the problem, and what's the solution to those problems?
Jon: There's a way I like to think of these. It's a little bit different. I'm curious what
your thoughts are. Where are we: setting. That's the same. Who are we, you
have it done here, what is the nature of the purpose of being humans? I'm
wondering if you could just boil it all down to desire.
Who am I? Why do I want this and also want this? It's just every day I wake up
with certain desires, the ebb and flow. That seems to be kind of if you boil
down to myself in a way. And then, what's wrong? When my desire
encounters resistance, that's conflict. Almost any conflicts you could boil
down to desire encountering resistance.
Tim: Here's what's so fascinating. In terms of ancient literature - there's lots of
ancient literature from the time of the Bible that's even way older than the
Bible - nothing like the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible has come out of the
Their story about ancient Gilgamesh. Epic. It's a whole story about a guy
wanting to live forever to overcome his mortality. Well, there are ancient
stories of the Egyptians about the afterlife, the Book of Dead and these kinds
of things. But the size and complexity and sophistication of a huge thing like
the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, it's totally unparalleled in terms of
emerging out of the ancient world.
The whole story begins with a conflict for human desire and then our human
desire to know and to have power.
Jon: Which is two basic desires to know and have power.
Tim: To know and to be able to influence and have power over others and over...
Jon: There are a very strong power desires that we deal with. Then there are others. To
be known is a desire.
Tim: To me it's just fascinating that the story is set it's not about the afterlife.
That's the Egyptian focus. It's not about overcoming death as such. It's about
a desire to know and then a desire to have power over my environment.
Jon: It's very basic desire.
Tim: Every worldview on offer today has to has some version of telling that story.
Jon: What do you do with that desire and what do you do when that desire
Jon: That phrase "what happens when desire encounters with resistance" to me is
story. It's character. Then the resistance is the conflict. Then the what
happens, that's the resolution or the narrative itself.
Tim: There you go. These are all big, high-level reflections, but it's very intentional
that the majority of the Bible is this kind of narrative. We mistake the Bible for
moral instruction literature - fancy word is didactic.
I think you can see now why that is such a—
Jon: About 80% of preaching is taking that and then breaking it down into three
points so that you can remember them.
Tim: Yeah, totally. We domesticate and diminish biblical literature when we...I
mean, most of these stories are full of people you never want to be like.
Jon: And might not even want to run into on the street.
Tim: Or they are full people who are just a mixed bag just like me. So there's a
realism there. Now, it does instruct. That's what the word "Torah" means:
instruction or teaching. It does instruct you but on a way deeper level.
Jon: The way that stories are instructed.
Tim: The way that stories shape you, so that they're formative stories.
Jon: I've tried to explain this concept before of the knife versus the sun. I feel like
didactic literature is like a knife. It's decisive, it cuts through, it can segment
Tim: "Jimmy stole cookies; he got grounded." And you walk away from that story
going, "Oh, I shouldn't steal cookies."
Jon: Or just a list of like, "Here are the things you can't do. Don't steal the cookies.
Always wash your hands after you pee." That's very clear quick. Like a knife
cutting through, very quick. But the way that you form a star is a slow burning
that has to take a lot of time and a lot of friction and a lot of tension and
At the end of the day, what's more powerful? A sun or sharp knife. Well, the
sun's just going to just work just over that knife, but it takes time and tension
and pressure. And that's to me kind of the difference between story and law.
Tim: That's good. You just in a way, summarized Psalm 19. "Opens up the heavens
declare God's glory. God's importance substance. Then the whole thing is
about the sun. God in the heavens, God pitch a tent for the sun like a
champion running its course, rising from one end. It covers all of creation.
Nothing escapes its heat.
Then the second half of the poem is about the Torah. The instruction of God,
it's perfect. It illumines the simple.
Jon: So thinking of it like the sun.
Tim: Yeah, it's comparing the way the sun is in the world with what Hebrew Bible
is. It illuminates. They give joy...In Hebrew....You have to go through it. Our
English translations sometimes don't make fully clear the almost all the verbs
in Psalm 19 talking about the scriptures have something to do with light or
heat as metaphors. So to illuminate, to give joy, means to give lightness to.
They illuminate the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, which means bright. So
it's like the sun.
Jon: The sun. The Torah is like the sun.
Tim: Anyway, what's what came to me. It's totally cool. Biblical narrative it's
unbelievable, and it makes sense why there's so much of it in the Bible.
Jon: Thanks for listening to The Bible Project podcast. We're going to continue
this series and discuss in detail the three different types of literary styles, the
big buckets, narrative, poetry, and discord, and how the Bible uses each of
those as tools to tell one unified story that leads to Jesus.
We have a video coming out soon that will explain all this quickly and
visually. It's going to be really great. Thanks to all of you who listen to this
podcast and thank you to those of you who support this project. We are
thrilled to be working on it and we couldn't do it without you. You can learn
more about our project at thebibleproject.com. Thanks for being a part of this