I am, at the moment, preparing some sermons in the Gospel of Matthew. I’ll be honest, it is probably my least favourite of the four gospels. John and Luke are without doubt my favourites. But both were writing to non-Jewish audiences – so they are culturally easier to get behind – with Luke writing an historic account, which plays to my history-bent, and John is writing theologically and interacting with Greek philosophical culture, again both of which appeal to me. They are gospels I find much easier to get behind. Matthew is for Jews, all about the kingdom and deals with an awful lot of the disputes with the Pharisees as though they are culturally live discussions. The points he is making are just much more alien to me. I struggle with Matthew more than the others.
Of course, I am not suggesting we shouldn’t read it or preach it. I’m not saying Matthew is not a valuable book of the Bible. I am currently preparing a series for my church in it, so evidently I don’t think it is valueless and ought to be skipped. But it is evidently the case that different books of the Bible will speak to some people more than others. I’ve no doubt Matthew has his champions who may well get on much less well with John (or whoever).
I think this is true of wider genres too. I have never been wild about the Psalms, for example. I know there are people who absolutely love them, but I really struggle with them. I don’t like poetry that much at the best of times, so translated poetry is an even harder sell. I mean, it’s hard to get behind an acrostic that has been translated from another language so the very medium it is utilising doesn’t work anymore! It’s hard to get behind rhyme schemes and patterns that, because of translation, no longer rhyme or have the same syllable structure. For me, Psalms is just hard work that doesn’t appeal so much to me. David is either happy, sad or a bit depressed. I don’t get that excited by that. I don’t think it should be ignored or struck from our Bibles, and I know loads of people absolutely love them above and beyond other books of the Bible. I appreciate there is divinely inspired biblical truth that we ignore at our peril. But as a book, it just doesn’t appeal massively to me.
I like other of the wisdom books. I like Ecclesiastes particularly. I tend to get on quite well with the history books. I don’t find them such hard work and I can get behind the narratives. I think Judges is one of the most interesting books of the Old Testament. Other people don’t like these so much. They struggle to get into them and understand the context into which they were written. I fully understand that. Clearly we are wired differently.
But I think that is one of the most amazing things about the Bible. The range of genres, styles and approaches to presenting God’s truth is fantastic. The way different books will speak God’s truth more clearly and helpfully to different people, I think, is wonderful. It is something you simply don’t get with other religious texts. Read the Bhagavad Gita or the Qur’an and you pretty much get one style, from one person, written into a particular culture. But read the Bible and you get 40 or so different people, writing in different styles and genres across a 1500 year period writing into different cultures, contexts and places. It really is quite incredible.
And I think that is all part of God’s great wisdom. He knows full well different books will speak more helpfully to some than others. He knows different cultures and contexts will find different bits of the Bible more particular to them than others. He knows different personalities will get more out of one part than another. He doesn’t, of course, tell any one of us to ignore the bits that we don’t chime with so well. We are foolish if we do that. But he does, I think, recognise that four gospels, with their different angles on the same events, and different audiences in mind, might be better than one definitive gospel account. He recognises that poetry and proverbs will convey his wisdom to some more helpfully than history and philosophy, but that others will find the opposite. He wants us to engage with it all, but the range of genres speaks to everyone in some way. It is amazing to think of scripture this way.
I don’t think it is unspiritual to admit that I find certain bits less appealing than others. Of course I would find Matthew’s gospel less appealing than Luke’s. Luke was associated with Paul who was particularly concerned with writing to Gentiles from Gentile contexts. Of course that is easier for us. Matthew is most concerned at speaking to Hebraic Jews and pointing to the fulfilment of their scriptures. He handles cultural and legal disputes that just aren’t on the radar of the average pig-eating, pagan-culture Gentile (which is what most of us in the Western world are!) It’s not unreasonable for us to get behind the gospels that speak more directly to our particular culture and situation; that is what they were supposed to do!
But the same is true for the other genres. Paul’s letters are written to churches in particular cultural contexts. There is a reason why he goes on about the power of Christ to the Ephesians whose city was awash with pagan magic and rituals. There is a reason he bangs on about eating meat offered to idols and visiting prostitutes to the Corinthians whose culture would have encouraged both of these things. If the letters were written to particular cultural contexts, it is only natural we would chime with those that more closely resemble our own cultural context and the particular pressures and concerns of Christians seeking to live faithfully within it.
Nor is it wrong for people to be drawn to particular styles. Our background, training, education and a host of other things will play into what we tend towards. Is it any wonder that scientifically-minded people always want to spend ages in the cosmology of the early chapters of Genesis? Is it that surprising that philosophically-minded people love Ecclesiastes and are drawn to the writing of John? Is it very surprising that practically-minded people often get on well with James? These things aren’t givens of course. But they are common. And it all stands to reason. The things we studied and took on for work, often because we’re interested in them, unsurprisingly influence the kind of biblical genres we get on best with and find chime most clearly with us. The Lord no doubt knows this and, I suspect, gave us such a range for this very reason. Not that we should ignore the bits we don’t like, but so that the bits we really do land all the better.