October 23, 2008
Review: The Blue Parakeet, Part 1
Scot McKnight rethinks how we read the Bible
While the majority of academics won't - or can't - write for a popular audience, Scot McKnight is willing and able. And in The Blue Parakeet (Zondervan, 2008), he opens the complex issue of biblical interpretation to the uninitiated with a great deal of grace.
Because the issue is complex, I'm going to tackle this review in two parts. In this one, I'll just describe the book. Next time I'll identify what I consider its key strengths and weaknesses.
I'll let the author tell you how the blue parakeet became his metaphor for exegesis. For now, suffice it to say that the bird represents biblical passages (and even personal experiences) that "make us think all over again about how we are reading the Bible." For example, evangelicals tend to be fairly lax about resting on the Sabbath (whether we observe the right day is another question). Yet right in the Decalogue God says, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." Our task as Bible readers is to decide whether this is a valid command for today or a context-specific regulation that we can more or less ignore. How you answer that question says a lot about your understanding of biblical interpretation.
And that appears to be the primary objective of McKnight's book: to help the reader recognize that all of us pick and choose which of the Bible's commands apply to us and which ones do not. In other words, the book is not a how-to manual for exegesis. Instead, it offers insights into three foundational principles of biblical interpretation.
In the first section, McKnight identifies five approaches or shortcuts that cause Christians to misread the Bible. (Skye described these ably in his post on McKnight from Catalyst) McKnight's solution is reading the Bible as story. By this he means that the Bible as a whole, from Genesis to Revelation, tells a single story. Each of the 66 books in the middle serves as a wiki-story - an individual, unique retelling of this main story. Reading the Bible this way reminds us that God's revelation is dynamic; he spoke "in Moses' day in Moses' way," and "in Jesus' day in Jesus' way," and "in Paul's day in Paul's way." This is a key principle for McKnight, because it helps us understand why some commands apply for all time and others don't (this becomes clearer in the example below).
In his second section, McKnight explores what it means to "listen" to the Bible. He begins by making the excellent point that Christians must have a relationship with the person of God, not with the Bible itself:
Missing the difference between God and the Bible is a bit like the person who reads Jonah and spends hours and hours figuring out if a human can live inside a whale - and what kind of whale it was - but never encounters God. The book is about Jonah's God, not Jonah's whale.
Because the ultimate goal of reading the Bible is to know God, we need to know how to listen to the Bible correctly. So, McKnight explains what the Bible means when it commands us to listen to God's words. The short and long of it is this: the goal of listening is right living. Our behavior is evidence of our methodology. Or as the author says it, "If you are doing good works, you are reading the Bible aright. If you are not doing good works, you are not reading the Bible aright"
In the third section, on "Discerning", McKnight argues that the key phrase for biblical interpretation is "that was then and this is now." Here, again, application is the main goal; the discernment process is when we decide how (or if) a passage of Scripture can be put into practice in the present. There's biblical precedent for this. Regarding circumcision, for example, Paul himself discerned that the commandment was a case of God's speaking "in Moses' day in Moses' way." That was then. But in "Paul's day," physical circumcision was unnecessary. The "this is now" application is spiritual, not physical - it is the Christian's heart that should be circumcised.
He continues by addressing several biblical issues about which discernment is necessary and describes some principles Christians use to determine how to apply the passages that deal with them.
Part 4 is the longest (double the length of the next longest section), and is a case study of discerning the Bible's teaching on "Women in Church Ministries Today." This section uses the principles from the other sections - story, listening, and discerning - and introduces a few tools that go unmentioned for the rest of the book, things like original-language research and extra-biblical resources that help construct historical context.
So you don't lose too much sleep from the excitement of waiting for the full review later this week, let me say this much: The Blue Parakeet is a great introduction to the challenges and pitfalls of Bible interpretation. It raises some difficult and necessary questions, but it leaves a few hard questions unanswered. But more on that in part 2.