Friday, April 24, 2009

The Blue Parakeet -- Review


THE BLUE PARAKEET: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, Co., 2008. 236 pp.

What are the blue parakeets that seem to always complicate our reading of the Bible? As you ponder that question, it may help to explain that Scot McKnight uses this metaphor to describe those passages of scripture and concepts that stick out and create awkward moments for people of faith. This is a book about biblical interpretation, written by a biblical scholar for a lay audience. Indeed, for what appears to be a relatively conservative evangelical audience.

The central question that McKnight lays out has to do with the way in which we pick and choose texts to embrace and use. At the root of the question is the methodology by which Christians discern not only the meaning of a text, but its modern application.

“When we encounter the blue parakeets in the Bible or in the questions of others, whether we think of something as simple as the Sabbath or foot washing or as complex and emotional as women in church ministries or homosexuality, we have to stop and think. Is this passage for today?” (p. 25).


Although many people say that they take the Bible literally and at face value, an honest reader must admit that we all pick and choose the texts we will affirm and make use of. So, how do we make this choice?

Although he admits that there are more than three approaches to the text, he highlights three, two of which he finds problematic. The first “methodology” is “reading to retrieve.” That is, we read the text in order to retrieve appropriate beliefs and practices for today. The question is, how much can be salvaged and brought forward? Some say all, but some are unsure (pp. 25-26). A second way, which also is problematic, is “reading through tradition,” by which he means, we let tradition (historic use and interpretation determine contemporary meaning and use). The problem inherent in this approach concerns which tradition to embrace. There is also the danger of a fossilized faith – traditionalism.

“Traditionalism is the inflexible, don’t-ask-questions, do-it-the-way-it-has-always-been-done approach to Bible reading. . . . Those who read the Bible through tradition always see the traditional way of reading the Bible. This approach is nearly incapable of renewal and adaptation” (pp. 31-32).


There is one other approach, one that while having its own issues, appears to be the most useful. McKnight calls this “reading with Tradition.” That is, tradition is a partner on the journey of faith. It offers guidance and advice, but it doesn’t predetermine interpretation. Thus, it is more forward looking than the other two.

McKnight is an evangelical. You can see it in the way he lays out his arguments. He assumes Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. He doesn’t even acknowledge that there is a major debate on this or that scholarly opinion is running in a very different direction. But, he’s also concerned about the shortcuts that evangelicals tend to take, short cuts that run contrary to the nature of Scripture. Here he has in mind the proof-texting methodologies, the ones that treat the text as merely propositions to be organized or “morsels of Law,” which must be unhesitantly obeyed, or a puzzle to be solved. In contrast to this very narrow perspective that takes many forms, McKnight opines that Scripture is a story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a plot and characters. There is really one story, God’s relationship with his creation, and the biblical authors, rework that story so that it might speak anew to a new situation. Indeed, the New Testament is simply a midrash, a “wiki-story” based upon the original Old Testament story.

The plot of the story moves from oneness to otherness, to an expansion of otherness, and a return to oneness – in Christ. To understand the meaning of the text, any text, we must read it not only in its immediate context, but its overall biblical context. As we read a text in this “context,” that is, a Christian context, we must discern what was then and what is now.

In seeking to discern how we should read, apply, and live out this story, McKnight suggests we abandon an “authority” approach, one that in an almost legalistic manner demands our submission, and engage a relational approach. In this approach the reader distinguishes between the Bible and God.

“God existed before the Bible existed; God exists independently of the Bible now. God is a person; the Bible is paper. God gave us this papered Bible to lead us to live his person. But the person and the paper are not the same” (p. 87).
Scripture is a means, bu which God speaks, and as we read we listen for God’s voice, but we must always remember the difference between text and person. We encounter God, as we participate in an inter-biblical conversation, as we listen to the biblical characters dialogue with God and with each other. By participating in this conversation we experience relationship with God, a relationship that ultimately requires that we not only hear, but act. That is, if we are in relationship with the God we encounter in the biblical story, then we must put what we learn into practice.

In a chapter he titles “The Boring Chapter,” McKnight explores “missional listening.” It really isn’t boring, and it is an important one, for it reminds us that if we are to study the Bible then it should lead to transformation. Picking up on the oft quoted text from the Pastorals (1 Timothy 3:16-17), the passage that speaks of the inspiration of scripture, he highlights the words “SO THAT.” He writes: “Everything leads to verse 17, where we come face-to-face with a big fat “so that.” Educators know that teaching begins at the end, with outcomes, with the “so thats” of education” (p. 106). Thus, it’s not only knowledge of Scripture that’s important, we must also know how to practice what we believe. As to what that intended mission entails: it is two things – love of God and love of neighbor, what the author calls the “Jesus Creed.” We express these two elements of the biblical story through good works.

Getting to this place, exploring this relationship, requires discernment. If we think that we can simply follow everything the Bible says – as A.J. Jacobs tried to do for one year – we end up in trouble. A text like Leviticus 19 speaks of any number of things, we would find rather odd – like not cutting our hair or beards in particular ways or refraining from planting two kinds of seed in a field. We could dispense with that chapter as simply relating to then, and not know, but right in the middle of the passage is Leviticus 19:18, which tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So, why is it that sometimes, even the most biblically committed person chooses not to follow a given text? The answer is that we have developed certain patterns of discernment. We’ve decided on methods of application, ones that seem to fit the modern context. Of course, as the author reminds us, “discernment can be messy” (p. 130). Whether the issue is divorce, circumcision, or women’s clothing styles, we make decisions that are both contextual and cultural. Like Paul, we discern what is appropriate to the task of bringing people into faith in Christ. Paul’s own adaptability – all things to all people – is key. Thus, “discernment, I am arguing, is how we have always read the Bible; in fact, it is how the biblical authors themselves read the Bible they had!” (p. 144).

Scot McKnight has been a vocal proponent of women’s rights in church and society. Being that he’s firmly committed to following biblical text, including those that appear anti-women, he chooses to use this issue as a test case. He notes the debates within the evangelical community, debates that run from hard line patriarchalism to mutuality. While the former seeks to bring the past into the present – completely – the mutualists seek to discern patterns that give guidance and freedom. With this in mind he compares the texts that ask “What Did Women Do?” (WDWD) with those texts that women should be silent or submissive. He shares his own journey, one that is punctuated by encounters with truly gifted women whose gifts and calling were often neglected or suppressed. In seeking a way of discernment, he asks us what we make of texts that speak of women such as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah, women of strength, courage, and leadership callings. And in the New Testament, what do we make of Phoebe, Priscilla, and Mary? A clue to finding the answer to this question may be found in the Creation story, which he suggests (rightly so, in my opinion) that in the beginning humanity existed in mutuality – male and female as created by God. That relationship got distorted by the Fall, a distortion caused by two parties seeking to dominate the other. Redemption, he suggests, which comes in and through Christ, restores that original mutuality. Texts like 2 Corinthians 5:17, which speak of a new creation, and Galatians 3:28, which speak of oneness in Christ, offer a new vista for human relationships. Thus, the Fall is descriptive, not prescriptive. If this is true, then the “silence” passages (1 Corinthians 14:35, for instance), should be interpreted in the light of these other passages. In doing so, we might keep from silencing the “blue parakeets” in our midst.

McKnight is inviting conservative evangelicals, who take Scripture seriously, to listen for the blue parakeets that require of us a new perspective on the biblical text and its application in the modern context. These blue parakeets remind us that the text before us is culturally shaped, and if we neglect these warnings we will misread and misapply the text that calls into relationship with God.

As one who spent much time in conservative evangelical contexts, I appreciate this venture. I too struggled with how to apply the text, especially to passages relating to women. Perhaps I was more fortunate have attended Fuller Seminary rather than Trinity Evangelical, for Fuller, while evangelical has long embraced the call of women to ministry. In my opinion, there can be little arguing textually against women in ministry – there’s just too many blue parakeets calling out to argue otherwise (I realize that many are not listening, however). That being said, there are other, thornier issues yet to be decided. One that McKnight raises but doesn’t explore in any depth is homosexuality. My question is: Are there blue parakeets singing out in this context? Is there a “that was then, and this is now” element to this discussion? Scot doesn’t offer an answer. I know from other writings, especially his blog, that he remains on the conservative side of the question, but at least he understands that it’s a question that needs to be addressed.

As one who doesn’t embrace inerrancy, and who s willing to attribute more to culture than the author is, I realize that this book isn’t directed at me. But, I appreciate the effort, and pray that others will, like him, leave behind the “authority model,” and embrace a relational one. While realizing that this book might not have left of center Christians as its audience, even those not addressed by the book’s author, may find something important to wrestle with in this book. If we say, with Marcus Borg, that we take the Bible seriously, even if we don’t always take it literally, if we don’t wrestle with the text as it stands, are we really taking it seriously? We too must ask the question – how do we decide which texts to pick and choose, adopt and adapt? For liberals are just as apt to pick and choose as any conservative, and the reverse is, of course also true! I think we can all benefit from reading with the traditions, and with the Spirit, not only the Scriptures, but this book. For our reading of Scripture surely should be transformative, and that may require that we listen for the blue parakeets in our midst.



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I find it compelling to hear the thought process of the conservative side as they question some of the government’s recently vented actions and attempt to apply scripture- and very well! I'm sure they feel the same as I and others my age get older and more conservative in veiw, after review.

Questions. Bible answers to...
Should God have the prerogative to change his mind (a rhetorical question of course?)? Can you petition the Lord with prayer?

I'm reading around 1 Timothy 3:16-17and found this, and other gems.

Seem out of date? Good News!
I think you can follow this advice and still party. Just, as long as you're loving God at the same time.

David Mc

2 Timothy 3

1But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

John said...

Lot to comment on in this post.

I take Scripture seriously, and that means I can't take it literally - to do so is to hide behind the words and avoid the heat of God's Shekinah. We are being addressed; it is not enough to worship the words, we are called to hear and respond. We are called into a process of engagement which doesn't end with: "I hear and I obey', but with "Lord, because your thoughts are not my thoughts, help me to understand!'

It is indeed a relationship, not with th words so much as with the God who is source of the words.

I also think that if the words grab your attention, negatively or positively, then you are supposed to pay them heed, especially when you find yourself in denial or opposition.

If the words call for the silence of women and you know that the will of God is otherwise, then pay attention! Simply ignoring the apparently anachronistic text is not a response.


And then when we learn of prophetesses and deaconess and women apostles, we learn that in other contexts, in other communities women are called by God to speak. Anything else is unacceptable.

Perhaps the answer is that in some context women should not speak - female leadership, like eating food sacrificed to non-existent gods, may cause some to stumble in their faith. Perhaps honoring the frailties of those who stumble is acceptable to God. Rather than forcing them to share your theological understandings across the board, God is calling us to accept each person where we find them, physically, socially and theologically The critical relationship is not between them and us, but between them and God.

Not "then and now," but "then and then" and "now and now" - people and communities of worshipers continue to be diverse, with diverse social and religious backgrounds and predispositions.

God doesn't require uniformity, and neither can we. What God calls s to is a greater vision, and a more encompassing love.

John