Stories themselves belong to an even larger genre, namely, literature as a whole. Literature en masse has defining traits that make it like a genre such as story or poem. The subject of literature is human experience, and we need to keep our grip on this foundational principle whenever we read a story. The subject of every story is human experience, and every story is an invitation to share an experience.
Secondly, works of literature are an art form in which the author’s skill in the craft of storytelling is designed to entertain us and give us pleasure. The stories of the Bible are skillfully told. Its authors were masters of plot construction and character portrayal. We should relish their stories as skillful performances.
Thirdly, literature imparts a view of life and a picture of how people should live. There is a discourse (“message”) level to the stories of the Bible. So we need to move beyond the portrayal of human experience and the skillful exploitation of the rules of storytelling and ascertain what truth and wisdom are embodied in a given story. As an aid to this, a simple rule of thumb is worth its weight in gold: every story in the Bible is an example story. Example stories, in turn, are of two types—positive example to imitate and negative examples to avoid.
A principle of all literature is that meaning is communicated through form. Without plot, setting, and character, the stories of the Bible would not even exist. That is why we first need to relive a story and then move from story to meaning or theme. Reliving the story—assimilating its narrative form in all its details—is not only a prerequisite to extracting ideas or themes. To relive the story is itself to absorb an important part of its meaning.
Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor made two very important statements in this regard. One is her statement that “the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (Mystery and Manners [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969], 73). O’Connor’s related comment is that storytellers speak “with character and action, not about character and action” (76). About what does a storyteller speak by means of plot and character? Life. A Bible story is a story before it is an idea.
In the same vein, an expert on the parables of Jesus claims that “a [story] is not a delivery system for an idea that can be discarded once the idea (the shell) is fired. Rather a [story] is a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence . . . and look out on the world from the point of view of the story” (The Cross and the Prodigal [IVP, 2005], 87). To take up residence in the metaphoric house of a story is what I earlier called reliving the story as fully as possible.