Transgenre Theology

Genre is testimony to the fact that truth is a real thing, external to our minds, but our minds need multiple avenues to access it.

You may have misread the title of this post. Take a second look just to be sure.

I’m fascinated by and obsessed with genre, which is not necessarily the most flattering moniker in the literary world.

“Genre fiction” is dismissed as formulaic, literarily subpar, and morally questionable to boot. Passive tools of the powers-that-be drug themselves with one escapist fantasy after another, whether it’s romance, Western, or sci-fi—so the accusation goes.

Ursula K. LeGuin taught me to reverse my suspicion toward such suspicion of genre fiction, and enough disappointed dabblings in literary fiction have taught me that there’s more than one way to drug a populace. It’s the sniffy writers of beautiful sentences devoid of meaning or plot who are most likely to claim that their work can’t be classified; it’s beyond genre, so they say.

While I do like to read all kinds of things, I’m not especially devoted to any one genre. If it’s a good story, well told and well written, I’m game. The real reason I’ve become a genre devotee is because of the epistemology it unlocked for me.

The sheer fact of genre is testimony to the fact that truth is a real thing, external to our minds, but our minds need multiple avenues to access it. There isn’t just one way to know a true thing.

For example: botany can tell you amazing things about the mechanisms by which a rose grows, the chemical compounds in its scent, and how it’s phylogenetically related to raspberries. But botany can’t tell you what a rose is for or what it means or why it captivates the human imagination generation after generation, or at least not the way love poetry can. Both botany and love poetry communicate true things about roses, but not the same true things. You can’t reduce the one to the other.

My genre breakthrough came from the Bible (quelle surprise for a theologian). Even if you come of age in a church that reads a broad selection of Scripture, there’s an inescapable tendency to perceive it all as “holy writ” and, therefore, to be handled delicately and respectfully on the assumption that is mostly about how you should be better, like the heroes in the Bible.

I remember exactly when that particular hermeneutical avenue hit a dead-end for me. I had never read Joshua and Judges, so on a road trip with a friend we read them out loud to each other as we drove through the Great Plains. Joshua was bad enough, but by the end of Judges I sounded more and more pathetically unconvincing to myself, trying to make something inspirational of the grisly tale. Psalm 23 it ain’t. If Judges doesn’t teach you that the Scripture has more than one way of conveying truth, I don’t know what will.

But from there it was a fast shift to realizing that the kind of writing a book is, its structure and its intentions, are all as essential to grasping its truth as its individual sentences or isolated propositions lifted from its pages. There’s a reason Paul wrote an Epistle but Mark wrote a Gospel and John of Patmos wrote a Revelation. Confuse the intentions of one with another and you’ve got yet another faulty prediction of the end times on your hands.

Later I discovered the same range of genre in theology, though not because anyone pointed me in that direction. Academic study tends to tilt you toward one kind of genre to the detriment of all others—namely, the monograph. From the premodern age, it might be the treatise, possibly a biblical commentary. Less often, a sermon or a hymn. But even so, the tendency was to plunder all genres alike for what could be extracted of them, rarely if ever to attend to how the theologians presented their work as part and parcel of their message.

And even then, the selection process tilted toward the propositional. Theologians ransack and promote Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, but not Dante’s Divine Comedy. You can read the sermons of Pilgrim divines, but if you really want to understand that world, you should plunge into the best-loved work of English Evangelicalism, The Pilgrim’s Progress. A Syriac Orthodox priest once told me that their theological tradition was entirely encoded in poetry; look up Isaac of Nineveh or Jacob of Serug to see what he means.

Lutherans learn their theology from “A Mighty Fortress” long before the Catechism, and the Catechism long before, say, The Bondage of the Will. And with good reason! There’s a reason, too, so many people first come to theology because of C. S. Lewis. He was a scholar’s scholar of very refined literary skills and sensibilities. But he didn’t find it beneath his dignity to write children’s fantasy, adult sci-fi, or the poignantly beautiful retelling of a pagan myth in Till We Have Faces.

I’ve got nothing against a good monograph. Heck, I’ve been known to commit monograph myself. But academic monography represents only a tiny fraction of the whole Christian range. And let’s face it: the readership is tiny at best.

But if genre is an avenue to truth, then the monotone and monochrome monograph is leaving a tremendous amount off the map, unexplored and unknown. Who knows what genres are still waiting to be discovered by theologians? Who knows what truth we are failing to grasp because we have failed to travel those other genre roads?

If that alone doesn’t motivate you, consider this. As long as the best theologians won’t condescend to writing “genre theology”—which will probably be as sniffily dismissed as genre fiction—then others are going to fill in the gaps. And it won’t be pretty. It will be the Left Behind series and The Shack and a lot of really bad inspirational verse.

So this is my clarion call, my battle cry, and my gauntlet thrown down to theologians: expand your range. Develop new genres. Reinvest in abandoned genres. Tilt your hard-won wisdom toward the massive audience starving for it.

Filling that need is the starting point for everything we do here at Thornbush Press!

Transgenre theology from Thornbush Press: two memoirs of grace and parables from the final threshold.