Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, (Zondervan, 2008). [This review is of the Advance Reader Copy. All page numbers refer to that edition]. (Out of Ur review 1, and 2)
There are several reviews out there, most of them favorable, thanks to Zondervan’s marketing genius (congratulations to all you “advance” readers). A few surveys that seem thorough would be curtiswlindsey.wordpress.com pt.1, pt.2, wdavidphillips.com, icrucified.com, and a lengthy review and critique at qbsblog.wordpress.com.
I am equally thankful and pleased with The Blue Parakeet, but also disappointed and confused with McKnight’s work.
OVERALL, AS MANY HAVE SAID, THIS IS AN IMPORTANT BOOK. McKnight boldly purports that we all “pick and choose” (11) which Bible passages or teachings are important and valid for today. No one really “does everything the Bible says,” (12) and we all “adopt…and (at the same time) adapt the Bible to our culture.” (13) And if we’re really honest, “Christians read the Bible differently…and no one group [seems] to get it right.” (18) Thank you for your brute honesty, a value for life and hermeneutics that few realize. That’s why the three areas of “story,” “listening,” and “discerning” (37) are so critical for our approach to this fantastic book we call “the Bible.” Those who take McKnight seriously, and are willing to wrestle with these realities will be moved towards, what I would suggest, a more authentic and honest approach to the Scriptures. Rethinking our hermeneutics through the lens of subjectivity is a discipline all people of faith ought to seriously think through, and I commend McKnight for being someone who runs in conservative circles (from what I can discern), and yet is willing to write with a higher level of objective scrutiny.
I WAS DISAPPOINTED, HOWEVER, AT THE WHOLE. While I agree, generally with much of his approach, the actual compilation of this book, and much of the reasoning in it seemed disconnected with the very thesis itself. There were times when an argument would utilize the criteria of “picking and choosing,” rather than the criteria of the beautiful “story/narrative” value he was attempting to convince the reader of. At times, the reasoning is circular, the explanations are oversimplified, and the conclusions are, in short, (and I mean this non-pejoratively), a bit too “Christian.” If we are going to read with tradition, as he suggests, how could we dismiss reading Genesis through the eyes of Jewish and Hebraic traditions? (e.g., “The Fall,” as known in Christian circles is not seen in that way by Jewish theologians. Neither is Jesus’ Jewish/Hebraic background utilized in illuminating the Gospel passages mentioned in the book.) Lastly, some of his statements and logic seem anachronistic, and his use (and lack thereof) of the Greek and Hebrew seem a bit scattered and inconsistent, and for no apparent reason.
MCKNIGHT MISSES BIG ON BIG THEMES. There are three major themes that he mentions as values, but only cursorily. Admitting my bias, I felt that they should have been leveraged more broadly and intentionally, for they seem to fit right in to what McKnight is arguing for. First, what I call “theistic intent.” It wasn’t until page 166 where McKnight even mentions “God’s original intention,” a major metanarrative theme that helps to inform what kind of story the Bible is. Though he spends quite a bit of time in Genesis, he doesn’t even mention it (though I do agree with him on the “oneness” theme). Second, and this is even more baffling for me, really in only two places (p.56 and p.198) does context get mentioned, “My friend was right. Context is everything. Knowing context permits deeper and wiser discernment.” (198) Though this may be “Hermeneutics 101,” it would seem appropriate to massively expound upon this theme as well, for story, listening, and discernment are all expressions of what “context” is suppose to mean when it comes to interpretation. I was disappointed that these two major pieces of the Hermeneutical puzzle were not more central to the book. Third, and perhaps most important, McKnight misses the opportunity to define and defend “gospel” as a key element of this story, and a critical hermeneutical lens through which we read the Bible.
Now, I recognize that I cannot critique McKnight on everything that he didn’t say in the book. That’s just complaining. I mention these above, because, one, he mentions them in his book as pieces, and I simply suggest that they are more central to the thesis than the allotted real estate that was given to them communicates. And two, because I believe, as I read the book, this is what The Blue Parakeet was all about, that is “rethinking how you read the Bible.”
MY LAST OBSERVATION IS THAT IT SEEMS THAT THE TITLE AND GENERAL THESIS OF THE BOOK WORK AGAINST EACH OTHER. That is to say that the “blue parakeets,” which are those passages which are disturbing, really ought not exist in the first place (in the way that McKnight suggests) if you really view the Bible, first in its entirety (another theme that seems to be missing), and in the fullness of its Story, listening and discerning carefully to all that is encompassed in tradition, history, context, and intent. Now, I do appreciate the approach that McKnight uses to point out to more conservative Biblical readers that there is a problem with how we pick and choose our passages. For that, the “blue parakeet” illustration works well. But it just seems that if what McKnight is really saying is really how we ought to read the Bible, then blue parakeets don’t really stand out that much. Rather, they are simply a small part of a larger avian flock.
MORE POINT BY POINT
We need to have profound respect for our past without giving it the final authority. I believe the final decision should always rest with the Scripture. (35) The Bible is what the bible is, and I believe it. ‘Let the Bible be the Bible’ is my motto, because teaching the Bible has taught me that the Bible will do its own work if we get out of the way and let it. (36)
These quotes are an example of the circular reasoning that I am uncomfortable with. While I appreciate his sentiment, from a critical standpoint, this is nonsensical. There is, (as he even argues) a relationship between us, the interpreters, and the text (and even the God of the text). “Getting out of the way” is not just a poor approach, it’s impossible. The whole point of hermeneutics is that we are in the way, and we must be discerning as to how much we are morphing ancient texts and teachings into modern contexts and situations.
…reading every passage in the Bible in light of the story draws us into the story. (42)
Even more importantly, we need to observe what versification did to how we read the Bible. Dividing the Bible up into verses turns the Bible into morsels and leads us to read the Bible as a collection of divine morsels, sanctified morsels of truth. (46) Those who read the Bible as story refuse to cut up the Bible into morsels of blessings and promises because they know the Story. (47)
Beautiful. The problem is that throughout the rest of the book, McKnight actually references and utilizes the versification as part of his arguments, setting up essential straw men to be taken down. I found this difficult to read, as it seemed dishonest with this wonderful statement above [e.g. when McKnight suggest that the Bible teaches a “flat earth” (138)]. Again, this just felt disconnected. Why not show how ignoring versification can highlight the beautiful nature of the Bible, rather than continually pandering to its existence?
God did not give the Bible so we could master him or it; God gave the Bible so we could live it, so we could be mastered by it. The moment we think we’ve mastered it, we have failed to be readers of the Bible. (52)
Very nice. I do like the “authority” bent he has in the book. It helps us be humble so that we ourselves are “exegeted” by the text.
It was Chapter 5 that I had difficulty with his use of the Greek and Hebrew, interchangeably. And if we’re honest with the Story, though communality was and is recognized by Jewish scholars, it is perhaps dishonest to say that the Bible was communicating Trinitarian teachings, as McKnight suggests. That’s where “Christian” interpretation ought to be set aside so that the “Bible can be the Bible.”
On page 75, McKnight jumps from Genesis to Galatians in one simple paragraph, a connection that is most certainly there, but challenging to say confidently that “the Bible then aims at Galatians 3:28.” (75)
The Perfect Eikon’s work, however, is a two-stage work, not unlike the blind man who first saw what he thought were trees and then, once Jesus applied a second dressing of Deep Magic, could see fully. (78)
This is again an invocation of versification and a lack of contextualization that seems disconnected with the driving theme of the book. First, I’m not sure how McKnight invokes “Deep Magic” into the story (where is that?) Second, it is important to understand the context of the Gospel passage (Mark 8) for if you read the question the disciples ask him right before this miracle, one gets the sense that there is a very pointed illustration Jesus is making to His disciples. Why is this example not used to substantiate the “Story” that McKnight is writing about?
Chapter 6’s discussion on a relationship with God, and using Psalm 119 as evidence is perhaps splitting hairs a bit. Psalm 119, as even McKnight knows, is all about the written Scriptures, so much so that each verse begins with the consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Though it is true that the Psalmist is about relating to God, it is through the Scriptures, which is more the point of the Psalm. If we are going to read the Bible, to listen and discern it, must we not also take into consideration what is actually going on in the text, rather than proof-texting a passage like this to make a point that is a bit over-contrasted?
Small quip. I feel that McKnight misses the “obedience” definition of the word שמע (shema), which means “hear,” or “listen,” (98-99).
The problem with Chapter 8 is that it presupposes a Missional perspective to reading a text. But where do we get that Missional perspective? From reading the text! So again, while I actually agree with his assessment, this is an exercise in circular reasoning that is, in my opinion, unsustainable when it comes to writing about hermeneutics. Now, while it is also impossible to do the exegetical work in this short work (cf. The Mission of God by Chris Wright), could there not have been a simplified approach to this subject without compromising critical integrity?
Perhaps your response to these claims is the same that asked of A.J. Jacobs: ‘Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn’t that destroy its credibility? Doesn’t that knock the legs out from under it? Why should we put stock in any of the Bible.?’ (123)
This is one of my favorite parts of the book, (and I’ve yet to read Jacob’s book, though his interviews on NPR were excellent). For a response to the questions above, I refer you to Huston Smith’s The Soul of Christianity. Quickly, I’ll just suggest that the Bible’s ability to be flexible and malleable is actually part of its brilliance. That God recognizes that times, cultures, peoples are different, and that authentic and absolute values can shift and adapt is testimony to God’s wisdom in the diverse world in which we live, and an exhortation of us to apply the same kind of wisdom as we encounter the world in all its various nuances. This is actually what helps give the Bible “authority.” (If anyone would like to comment on this idea, please.)
I won’t cover all of the pieces of the “women in ministry” chapters here (part 4). I’ll simply say that the work that McKnight does is important, but again uses various types of criteria for drawing his conclusions, and leans lightly on the major theses of his book, mainly the Story. He also mentions a primary progenitor of blue parakeet crises that he doesn’t mention by point; that is, our personal experience greatly influences our readings and our approaches. This has all sorts of implications, and pushes McKnight’s arguments to a whole new level. Perhaps for a different book, and a different time.
POSSIBLE PROBLEMS AND CONCLUSIONS FROM THE WORK
If we really read the Bible as Story, and “none of the wiki-stories is final; none of them is comprehensive; none of them is absolute; none of them is exhaustive…” (65), then we must admit that the writers of the New Testament were “adding” to the existing canon. Does this open up the possibility of additional texts that may one day be added because of their use among contemporary churches? What conclusions does McKnight have about canonization, the process, and the deciding factors around the New Testament texts?
LET ME END ON A GOOD NOTE
While I’ve been critical of McKnight’s book, let me say I do believe that it is an important work, and I’m thankful for his contribution. Redemptively (cf. William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals) those who take this seriously will move a step (further away) from blind suppositions that keep us from honest inquiry and authentic interpretations. And any work that helps us see the Bible more on its own terms is a book that I would recommend.
Thank you Scot, for your contribution to the discussion. And though I have many contentions, this is not at the exclusion of great respect for your work and your life, and the value of all of that to the Kingdom of God.