Genre matters: The Bible and the Dewey Decimal system

The Bible is a book.

It’s a bunch of books, actually, a bunch of different books written at different times by different people for different purposes. A bunch of different books in different genres.

The Dewey Decimal system acknowledges this, offering a classification for the Bible as a whole (220) and for a (somewhat inadequate) series of sub-categories, numbered 221-229.

But if you didn’t know that the books of the Bible were the books of the Bible, the Dewey Decimal system would have you running all over the library trying to figure out how to classify this odd pile of texts. Some of them, I suppose, should get shelved at 892 (“Afro-Asiatic literatures: Semitic”) while others should find a home in section 933 (“History of ancient world: Palestine”) but in several cases you’d be hard pressed to figure out which was which.

Quite a few of these smaller volumes could be shelved as 886 (“Classical Greek letters”). But then a handful should probably just be shelved as 880 (“Hellenic literatures; Classical Greek”) since they contain such a mix of elements that you could make a case for classifying them as 883, 885, 887 or 933. And if we don’t count the very special place the Dewey Decimal system provides for John’s Apocalypse (228), then it would be hard to know what to do with such a book, since apocalypses — a genre unto itself — don’t really have a home in Dewey’s system.

The good news is that this is only a hypothetical exercise and you won’t ever really have to go off into the stacks with a cart of 66 books, some of which defy easy classification.

The bad news is that if you want to read those 66 books, then you’ll still need to figure all that out. You need to figure out what kind of books these are because unless you know what kind of book you’re reading, you won’t know how to read it.

Generally, this is something we do almost unconsciously. We understand that there are different genres and different kinds of texts, and we’re usually pretty good at allowing the kind of text to provide the context for what we’re reading.

Thus if you were waiting in line at the store and you saw a headline reporting that “Obama Meets With Space Aliens,” you would react differently if that headline were in the Weekly World News than you would if it were in The New York Times. You realize, I hope, that the Times makes factual claims that it attempts to support and to confirm through investigation, while the Weekly World News makes the most outrageous claims it can dream up in the hopes of getting you to buy a copy on your way out of the store. If the latter reported on space aliens at the White House, you would ignore it. If the former reported the same thing, you would be excited because something important has just happened (either space aliens have landed, or the Times has lost its collective mind — either one would be Big News).

Sadly, not everyone is able to make the distinction between the contrasting genres of supermarket tabloids and actual newspapers, nor does everyone understand that these different sorts of texts need to be read differently.

Bookstores and libraries help us by separating texts by genre — fiction over there, history over there, biography there, and so on. But an experienced reader won’t need to rely on such assistance to figure out what sort of book they are reading. Quite often you can figure it out from the very first lines. “Once upon a time,” you read, and you can guess this is a fairy tale or a children’s story. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo,” you read, and you may still be guessing it’s a children’s story, even though the title made it sound like it would be a biography. (In the case of that particular book, that guess would be wrong, but you’d probably figure that out before the end of the first chapter.)

But here is one of my great frustrations: many readers, just like the Dewey Decimal system, treat the Bible as a special case unto itself. They treat the Bible as its very own genre, disregarding all the indicators its many books themselves provide about what kinds of texts they actually are. Or they treat the Bible as though it somehow is a text that has no genre.

And when you read without regard for genre then you’re bound to misread whatever it is you’re reading.

This is a problem for some individual readers of the Bible, but the larger problem is that some of the loudest and most visible self-proclaimed “experts” on the Bible are themselves misreading it, and misrepresenting it, and thereby causing others to misread it as well, and to reject it on the basis of that misreading.

My complaint here is not that these latter readers don’t value the Bible the way that I do, but that they have been convinced — misled — to dismiss it for reasons that have more to do with the misreadings of those purported “experts” than with the actual book itself.

I’m kind of psyched for Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit later this year. My wife won’t be going with me to see it because she’s doesn’t much care for the fantasy genre. She doesn’t enjoy movies with hobbits and elves in them. Fair enough — she recognizes the genre and she doesn’t like it.

But if, instead, she said, “I don’t want to see some documentary about hobbits and elves because there’s no such thing as hobbits and elves,” then I think we would need to have a further conversation. That conversation would not be an attempt to get her to love Tolkien’s stories and Jackson’s movies as much as I do, but it would have to address the distinction between a documentary and an epic fantasy set in Middle Earth.

(I want to tie in a few more points here, but that will have to wait for a Part 2 to this post. I promise it will be as wordy and dull as this first part was.)

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  •  Is there a book where all of this is collected, something like a Silmarillion of the Bible? I quite enjoyed the Gospel of Thomas, which was downright Buddhist in places.

  • LouisDoench

     I haven’t read Mistborn yet, but I LOVED “The Way of Kings”.

  • LouisDoench

     Gorilla’s especially are very gentle critters. Chimps otoh can be real fuckers. Guess which one we’re more closely related to.

  • AnonymousSam

    I whole-heartedly recommend it. The Way of Kings is Sanderson’s biggest and most complex book, but I think his other writings had deeper character development and more interesting world building. Then again, I’ve yet to read anything from Sanderson that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy – Elantris, Warbreaker, Way of Kings and all four Mistborn books.

    Also, if you haven’t read it, Warbreaker is available via his website totally free. It’s a full length book, quite good as well.

  • LouisDoench

    Absolutely not. I loved the Silmarillion.  In many ways its much better than the LOTR because it is written in a more mythic voice, whereas the trilogy often falls short due to Tolkiens inexperience with more traditional narrative voice.

  • Joseph White

    You are bringing the Dewey Decimal Classification into your Bible discussion without any understanding of how these numbers are constructed.  I am a library cataloger and I work with the Dewey Decimal Classification constantly. First of all the 200’s in Dewey cover the topic of Religion.  That is EXACTLY where the Bible should go.  Now you would be correct to note that the 200’s in the Dewey Decimal Classification are too heavily weighted towards Christianity.  It would make more sense if the 220’s covered all written works of Religion rather than just the Bible. When Melvil Dewey created the Dewey Decimal Classification back in 1876 the Bible was the main Religious text in the United States. The Dewey System was created so that books could be located on book shelves.  In spite of Dewey’s deficencies – your suggestion that the Bible be scattered all about the Dewey Decimal Classification would only create chaos on library shelves and make it harder for library users to find the books they are searching for.  Your discussion may make for interesting theology but it makes for really bad librarianship!

    Joseph White
    Managing Librarian for Technical Services
    Ector County Library
    Odessa, Texas

  • Loquat

    Dude, did you know someone in Japan made a video game based on some of that apocrypha? It’s called El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, and you play Enoch as he returns to Earth to deal with the fallen Watchers. It is the most amazing acid trip of a game I’ve ever seen.


    Also, am I the only Tolkien fan ever to have actually *liked* the Silmarillion?

    I love it.

  • swbarnes2

    Honestly? You don’t have to. What matters more is what you take home from reading it.

    I want to “take home” accurate beliefs that I previously didn’t hold.  The last thing I want to do is just reinforce the false things I already believe, no matter how happy those false things make me.  Is this really that alien a thought process?

    If God really kills the son of the prisoner and the slave girl, I want to know that.  Don’t you?  So how do I read the text correctly to determine if that’s true?

    Progressive Christianity points at 1 John 4:7-21 and says “This is the point. This is the bottom line. Let other people try and decide whether the sister-wive narratives and the flood were real or fiction, this part is real to me.

    So you just don’t care whether or not God is the kind of person who will commit genocide?  It just doesn’t matter to you whether or not the Fall was an actual thing that happened and really doomed your soul?  Because a whole lot of Christins think those things really do matter.   I think a whole lot of people think it matters whether God vengefully killed a whole lot of innocent men women and children.  But you really don’t have a stance on that?  You really don’t know or care if the God you worship did that or not? 
    If another Christian tells me that the “bottom line” of Christianity is that Jesus died to redeem my eternal soul, and that I need to believe in him to have eternal life, she’s simply wrong?    How am I supposed to determine that, besides your say-so?

    If 1 John 4 is real, why isn’t Exodus 12:29?  How am I supposed to know to read the one as accurate, and the other as not?  And no, don’t tell me to believe whichever one I want to believe, or whichever one I already believe.  I don’t want to do that.  I want to believe what’s true, even if I don’t like it.  And if you are going to tell me that the plagues and talking snakes obviously didn’t happen, then how do you conclude that a guy born of a virgin who turned water into wine, walked on water, died and came back to life did happen? 

  • AnonymousSam

    The fact that there are multiple interpretations of the Bible (and thus the nature of the Christian God) is a part of why I’m not a Christian myself — but if I were one, I would be a Progressive Christian willing to accept the stories and the uglier parts of the Bible as the limited imagination and more savage of mankind while embracing the messages of love, duty and obligation to one’s fellows.

    The nice thing about Progressive Christianity is that if this still doesn’t float your boat, they don’t ask you to swim home.


    I want to “take home” accurate beliefs that I previously didn’t hold.  [..]  Is this
    really that alien a thought process?

    Applied to literature? Yeah, kinda.
    But, hey, if that’s what floats your boat, that’s cool with me.

    Anyway, my own answers to some of your questions: no, God didn’t really kill the son of the prisoner and the slave girl. Nor did God rescue them. God didn’t have an opinion about them at all. Define “the Fall”. Yes, if someone tells you you need to believe in Jesus to have eternal life, she’s simply wrong. I have no idea how you’re supposed to determine that, if your experience of the world has not already equipped you to do so. God is not the kind of person who will commit genocide, nor the kind of person who will not commit genocide. God isn’t a person at all.

    If that’s the level at which you want to engage with the text, OK… I hope those answers were satisfying.

    If 1 John 4 is real, why isn’t Exodus 12:29?  How am I supposed to know to read the one as accurate, and the other as not?

    At the level you’re engaging with the text, it’s much simpler than that: neither one is real, and the way you know that is the lack of corroborating evidence.

  • The_L1985

     I think Fred is trying to make the point that the Bible is a collection of different genres of book, not at all like a modern novel or documentary or science textbook, where every chapter is the same genre.

    I’m pretty sure we’re not getting rid of the Dewey or the LoC classifications of books in actual libraries any time soon–thank goodness! :)

  •  Truefax: I could not remember the name of that show from like 1989 until 2006 when I just lucked into it being referenced in among a list of made-for-PBS shows I was reading for something else.

  • MikeJ

     Multiple interpretation are why you’re not? What drove me away was being told there was only one way to look at it.  That’s very rarely true about anything. 

    I might have remained a Christian had I grown up in a tradition that acknowledged that while they believed their interpretation was correct other people weren’t evil or stupid just because they held conflicting views.

  • AnonymousSam

    Both, actually. The two reasons together form a paradox. Despite 2
    Peter 20-21’s insistence to the contrary, there are clearly many ways to interpret scripture. Heck, there are many ways to interpret 2
    Peter 20-21
    . With there being so very very many different variations of Christianity, obviously someone’s quibbling with how straightforward scripture is!

    I was driven away from the faith by ordeal. By the time I became receptive enough to consider it again, I had learned too much for any one man-made religion to encompass, so I made my own and I find it makes me quite content.

  • MikeJ

    Fred omits a point in the post.  He refers to the 66 books that make up the bible.   Catholics have 73.  Eastern orthodox have, err, 78 is it? Syrian orthodox and Ethiopian both have include/exclude different books. 

    That’s without even getting into the gnostic gospels and various letters and histories that were floating around.

    Of course the Jewish bible is the root of the Christian bible, but beyond the first five books many things get divided up differently. 

    If we were discussing other books besides the bible, you’d have to decide if both Tolkien and Frank Herbert belonged in your collection with Marvin Minsky and Jane Austen.

  • Evan Hunt

     apocalypses — a genre unto itself — don’t really have a home in Dewey’s system

    Really?  Huh. I wonder what the heck system Giles was using when he ran the Sunnydale High library…

  • Mau de Katt

     I actually enjoyed The Silmarillion.  But then, I enjoyed reading Bullfinch’s Mythology, as well; Silmarillion reads like an anthology of mythology, which is pretty much what it is.  I liked reading the whole world-building (literarilly literally, lol) of Middle Earth and the background to the story of The One Ring, etc.   There are many many parallels within the stories between plot points and characters of the various Middle Earth “Ages” and their wars, and I enjoyed all the depth that gave to the main stories.

    But then, I was such a huge Tolkien geek that reading the whole LoTR etc. books was almost a religious ritual for me, one I performed once or twice a year.  I’d start with The Silmarillion, go to The Hobbit, and finish with the LotR Trilogy.  And the whole time I’d be referring back and forth between all the maps in the books as well as the two different Middle Earth concordances I owned; each concordance had material the other one didn’t, or expanded upon different things.  (Back in the 80’s, it was a Really Big Deal that I’d found even one Middle Earth concordance, never mind two.  Tolkien was very much a niche interest back then.)

    Seriously, if I’d put the amount of work and effort into my classwork as I did into reading those dang books, I’d’ve graduated magna cum laude, lol.

  • Ok, well, this is the most sensible of all your arguments on this issue today. Or yesterday. Or whatever. 


    An atheist doesn’t believe in the bible. We can only use it as a weapon in the way it is handed to us. Ken Ham uses the bible literally; it’s how he believes in it. Therefore, we use the bible back at him literally. 

    You are moderate, and argue that the bible needs to be taken as it was written, and understood given the different genres of the different books. Fine. I can’t argue with that. However, you have to understand that Ken Ham is louder than you are. When we argue the literal semantics of the bible with him, it isn’t to educate Ken Ham. It’s to educate the people watching. The great unwashed so to speak. The people who vaguely agree they are Christians. The people who post junk on facebook without thinking it through. And the bible study groups and pastors who are leading them. 

    The louder the Ray Comforts and Ken Hams of the world get, the more the average person assimilates that message. Hopefully by pointing out the absurdity of the YEC position by turning his weapons back on himself, we can get some of these people to start THINKING about what they believe, rather than just going along with whoever’s loudest. Hopefully that’s when they find people like you, or friendly atheists, or anybody who isn’t a crazy control freak trying to shoehorn everybody else into their own belief system. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    And while I disagree with none of that, Fred’s problem is people assuming that because he’s Christian he takes the Bible literally, and treating him accordingly, and other people assuming that because he doesn’t take the Bible literally he isn’t a Christian at all, and treating him accordingly.

  • How is that different from every single post at this blog? Fred says these people aren’t Christians because they aren’t loving an those people aren’t because they seem to be lying. (not in so many words, necessarily, but the implication is still there) 

    Catholics say that protestants aren’t christian. Protestants say that Mormons aren’t Christian. My friend says that these people or those people aren’t Christian because they believe or don’t believe or do or don’t do or say or don’t say. It seems Christianity is only whatever the person who you happen to be talking to right now says that it is. Therefore, as an Atheist, i see that all these different people are self-identifying as Christians. And if I observe that a greater percentage of those people believe in x, than I must conclude that x must be a characteristic of Christians. Now, I don’t necessarily care what people believe, and I don’t personally want to run around on the internet accusing people of lying when they say they are a Christian. But I can see why another atheist might want to call people out on that. Especially given that a vast majority in north america identify themselves as Christian and are the ones making policy for everybody else. 

  • PJ Evans

     Well, I think the apocryphal books don’t really come into this post because they’re not accepted by every church.

  • EllieMurasaki

    My understanding is that Fred is not saying that (for example) Paul Ryan is not a Christian. Rather, Fred is saying that Ryan is not a very good follower of Christ, as proven by how Christ said to give one’s possessions to the poor and Ryan is doing the exact opposite. Anyway, none of what you said is relevant to my point, which remains ‘there are two groups of people who both think Fred is part of the other group and who refuse to believe that he’s part of a third group, and who treat him like he’s part of the second group though he’s made plain that it insults him to do so’.

  • In my experience, saying one is a “follower of Christ”  is just a way of saying one is a Christian while distancing onself from “those other” Christians.  So I fail to see the difference between saying “those other guys” are “Bad Christians” or saying  they are “Bad followers of Christ”

    I tend to agree with the statement that one can’t lump all Christians together. I’m not arguing that we should. I’m just trying to explain why someone might. 

    A great many atheists disagree on whether or not moderate Christians should be lumped together with more extreme Christians. The argument from one side says that any believer in Christianity is lending credibility to the more extreme ones. In addition, a moderate believer may be more easily swayed. On the other hand, many people have more of a live-and-let-live attitude and they say we must really focus on the truly dangerous fundamentalists of any religion.I also would like to point out that he posted about a guy lighting cheerios on fire recently, and he pointed out that the first thought was that the guy was a Christian. The same issues are at play when it comes to bible literalism as with any other Christian stereotypes. People see YEC types such as Ken Ham cherrypicking the bible, and then see moderates picking and choosing as well.  It’s hard to get past seeing people using it to justify their own internal morality, whether that morality agrees with mine or not. 

    With that being said, I have a great deal of respect for Fred, and I rarely disagree with him. However, in this case I feel I can shed a little bit of light on where these opinions may be coming from. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t know where you’re getting this ‘a moderate believer may be more easily swayed’ thing. ‘Moderate’ in this context refers exclusively, in my experience, to political views, from which strength of faith is completely independent. And we all know perfectly well where the opinions Fred is complaining about come from, that’s not the problem, the problem is he’s getting shit on from two directions when he deserves it from neither.

  • A moderate believer may or may not be swayed in any direction by any argument. However, a moderate believer has shown in the past to at least be willing to listen to a differing point of view on various subjects, and can thus at least be relied on to hear the atheist out. Thus, a moderate believer may be swayed. A fundamentalist probably won’t. 

    And nobody deserves to be shit on for their beliefs from any direction, unless said beliefs are harmful to others. But Fred has written acres pointing out the inconsistencies in others beliefs. Maybe what seems as an attack is simply a perceived inconsistency in Fred’s beliefs. (note that I am NOT saying they are accurate or well-thought attacks, merely perceived inconsistencies)
    The best response to an attack, IMHO, is not to attack back, but to gain a better understanding of where the other person is coming from and try to reach out to that part of them. So therefore, a little understanding never hurt anybody.  Especially since anybody coming at Fred with either of those arguments is quite possibly coming from a position of ignorance. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    You do know how many atheists are former fundamentalist Christians, don’t you?

  • I don’t know. I’m Canadian. Most of the atheists I know were just not brought up religious and defaulted to atheism. Including myself. The few strongly religious people I know are highly judgmental and would not be likely to do anything other than get angry. I have had much more satisfying discussions with less fundamental Christians. (Not that I’ve converted any, but I feel as if the possibility is there)

    Anyways, I’m not talking about statistics. I’m talking about perception. I perceive that a moderate Christian may be convinced. Another atheist perceives that a moderate Christian is supporting a fundamentalist by default. A fundamentalist perceives that a moderate is hell bound. I’m just pointing out perceptions here.