Last month I did a series of posts on religion and science; the theme for November is interpreting the scriptures. (Since November basically ends when Thanksgiving hits, I’m borrowing a week from October.) First up: a few thoughts on Steven McKenzie’s book How to Read the Bible: History, Literature, and Prophecy — Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference, and What it Means for Faith Today (OUP, 2005).
McKenzie stresses genre, specifically the idea that modern readers often force biblical writings into modern categories and thereby misconstrue what the writer of the book was trying to say. He starts off the book talking about the book of Jonah: “The story is full of humor, exaggeration, irony, and ridicule. These features indicate that the book was never intended to be read as history but was written as a kind of satire. No wonder it has been misunderstood!” Is the book satire or history? That’s the genre question, one we can ask about every biblical book or writing.
The author frames every chapter around a misconception that prevents a reader from really understanding what is being read. Regarding what we call the historical books of the Old Testament, the misconception is: Biblical historians relate what happened in the past. His summary after offering details and examples: “This does not mean that the Bible never describes what actually took place in the past, but that was not the main objective of the ancient Israelite history writers.”
I’m sure the real fireworks for an LDS audience would come from the misconception that McKenzie tries to correct in the chapter on prophecy and the prophetic books: Biblical prophets foretell the future. He holds that the prophetic genre in the Bible is more about “address[ing] specific social, political, and religious circumstances in ancient Israel and Judah.” I suspect that most Mormons (and any CES instructor that wants to keep their job) would object and claim that biblical prophets were certainly in the business of telling the future and did see our day.
What is interesting from an LDS perspective is that we don’t expect our modern prophets to tell the future for us. Their official titles as prophets, seers, and revelators even emphasizes their claim to exercise such a gift, yet their many pronouncements sound much more like the description given by McKenzie of what prophets of an earlier day (properly understood) were doing, giving counsel about the “specific social, political, and religious circumstances” of our own day. I certainly don’t object to this approach — I think we benefit more from forthright counsel about how we should be living in the face of today’s many problems and challenges than about what might come to pass in the year 2112 or 2525. If we are to understand ancient prophets by what modern prophets do, McKenzie is on to something.
So I guess the question is: Does this view of what prophets do and what prophets wrote about in the Bible help us avoid misunderstanding the prophetic books in the Bible?