Someone asked me this question recently: “Do authors (of classic literature, broadly, and the Bible, specifically) have an agenda/thesis/big idea/etc. in mind before/when they write? Or do they start writing and let an agenda emerge?”
And I said I think it depends on the genre.
If someone picked up a modern hymn book and tried to find a thesis, they’d be hard pressed to do so. Yet they would find a certain organization. I think the same is true with the Psalms. The psalms are a collection. Same with Proverbs. People look for outlines and central ideas on those books and…nada. That may even be the case with Song of Songs. For sure I think those who see a beginning-middle-end structure to Song of Solomon are pressing a later Greek storytelling structure on a 10th-century-BC book that was more likely chiastic if there is actually even a story to it.
I think the apostle Paul did have an organization in mind with the Book of Ephesians. In that book we see such a clear difference between the first half and the second. There’s almost no application in the beginning; but it flips and then there’s almost no theory at the end. Rather, application (second half) seems to flow from theory (first half).
The Book of Job seems to answer whether there is a clear cause/effect relationship between sin and suffering. (Often not.) But the work addresses a whole lot of other stuff too. Who knows how mountain goats calve? Who names the stars? Who keeps the ocean within its border? Whether the author set out to demonstrate that God is beyond us or whether he wanted to demonstrate how stupid our arguments can be when we accuse the suffering, there does seem to be an argument going, but not a sole argument.
Luke seems really into the insider/outsider emphasis, preparing his readers starting with Gentile women in Jesus’s genealogy to accept that the Gentiles are “in.” Then he tells us about Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. And the Roman centurion. He emphasizes believing Gentiles in a way we don’t see in other Gospel writers. But I’m not sure that means he set out only to do that when he puts together his history for Theophilus.
I think in Genesis, we’ve missed the boat by going with an “Abraham – Isaac – Jacob – Joseph” outline. If we replaced Joseph with Judah, we’d see that the author following the Messianic line from Genesis 3, and we’d no longer view Tamar’s story as a weird interruption to the Joseph narrative. Instead, that story serves as a pivot point between Judah selling a brother and Judah offering his life for a brother. Wow. Something has changed! This Gentile woman (“outsider”) who was not supposed to give a rip about the Messianic line apparently values it more than he (“insider”) does. He is ready to do an honor killing when she is actually the righteous one and he is the one deserving death. And in a O’Connor-misfit-like moment, Judah sees himself. Joseph’s story then fits how God is preserving that Messianic line, but the focus is on the line. So yeah, I think Moses was going somewhere and not just telling a general history of humanity and then switching to follow Jacob’s family. From the beginning he seems to be tracing God’s hand as he keeps his promise to save humanity through the seed of the woman.
Some classic texts have a concept. Tale of Two Cities…tells the story of a substitutionary death for love. But that does not mean every chapter has that idea.
Even J. K. Rowling said early on that she was a member of the Church of Scotland, and that if people knew that about her, they might figure out where her series was “going.” But not every chapter has a central idea/thesis.
Many writers also sit down with some characters in mind, and they don’t know where the story will take them. I didn’t write my novels with a central idea in mind. I wanted to “explore” some “themes.” Most stories are wrecked with too much of a didactic thrust.
I do think we do something bad to great texts when we dissect them to find only the ONE thing. When we re-read the Bible in different seasons, different truths jump out. Okay, I do think it’s doing violence to the text to make the stones in the Goliath story = faith, hope, and love or something that has nothing to do with the actual story. Or to make the story of Lydia only a treatise on women in the business world—which is not how her story functions at all in the Book of Acts. But still, I might identify with the Prodigal’s older brother in one season and with the father in another. And with the prodigal himself in yet another. Jesus told that story to tell listeners something about God and grace, but he also did it in the presence of Pharisees. So the point of view we bring to a story might give us a different take-away from what someone else takes, or even what we ourselves take away in a different season. That is part of the beauty of story.
The beauty of a “Who is my neighbor, Good Samaritan” narrative is that it does way more than provide a dictionary definition of “neighbor.” If Jesus was so set on the one thing, a Webster’s definition would have done a better job of closing the gap of potential for “missing IT.”
What do you think? How would you have answered?