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Christ, His Accusers, and Genre

Matthew 21:23-27: Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?"  Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, `From heaven,' he will ask, `Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, `From men'--we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." Then he said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Matthew 22: 41-46: While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" "The son of David," they replied. He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him `Lord'? For he says, "`The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet."'If then David calls him `Lord,' how can he be his son?" No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Westerns. Soap Operas. Sitcoms. Detective Fiction. Romance Novels.   Each of these is a genre, a standard form of television or fiction.  Most of us know that in a western the cowboy hero is going to have to fight the bad guys, in sitcoms wisecracking kids will make jokes at the expense of their parents, and that in romance novels the lusty, yet demur, heroine will hold on 'till her man changes his ways and finds true love.  Of course, over time creative individuals may find a way to put a new spin on these time-tested patterns, but in general genres are rather stable forms of storytelling.

Genres are not just in fiction.  The business letter, the political acceptance speech, the aftergame sports interview, the lovelorn column, and the personals ad all observe the same kinds of stable expectations of behavior.  Humans need this kind of structure in order to communicate.  In a sense, genres not only impart to us norms of behaviors, they also provide maps for our communication.  The expected patterns help us see how to address an issue.  Thus, the standard acceptance speech reminds the writer that the candidate must thank all the campaign supporters for their hard work and loyalty.

Jesus was not being evasive with his opponents when in the midst of the debate he asked questions they could not answer.  Instead, he was abiding by the rabbinic genre of the counter-question.  The debater answers a question with another question, or the debater asks a question that cannot be easily answered.  Jesus used this method not to avoid truth but to reveal it.  In each case, Jesus cut to the heart of the Pharisees' political and ideological motives.  He forced them to see that they were more about protecting their own status than about discovering and obeying God.  His questions left them with options they were too wiley to voice, or it cut to the heart of their pride in being masters of interpretation.  By doing this, Jesus' questions offered answers.  We, too, should examine our motives for using a genre -- for example, an argumentative essay.  Are we adopting its methods, following its map, in order to reveal truth?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding