The Blue Parakeet

Scot McKnight’s forthcoming book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008) is spiritual dynamite. In the book, Scot treats the Bible with a combination of honesty and devotion that is remarkably powerful, and while some may find his approach troubling because it challenges their cherished assumptions, I anticipate and hope that many more will find his honesty refreshing. The justice he does to the Bible’s diversity and development makes his approach appealing to those for whom being “Biblical” is important to their faith.

Scot’s book is full of autobiographical details and anecdotes, beginning with the story of his coming to a personal faith. Soon after that, it seems, Scot saw more quickly than most of us that the claim being made by some Christians that they believe everything the Bible says and thus practice whatever the Bible says is (to use his term) “hogwash”.

When some encounter this discrepancy between what so-called “Bible-believing Christians” claim and the reality, they may have a crisis of faith. Scot, however, saw something else, something that eventually led to the writing of this powerful book. He saw in the discrepancy between some things that are in the Bible and what we believe and do today something appropriate, something that in fact emulated a Biblical model, although in many instances the underlying rationale was merely implicit and unarticulated.

This doesn’t mean that all discrepancies between what we find in the Bible and what we believe and do are good. But throughout the Bible we encounter dialogue and the practice of discernment, as one author, community or generation interacts with another, and does not always reach the same conclusion. This is appropriate, Scot argues, because God speaks to each generation in a unique way. To quote the book, “it is impossible to live a first-century life in a twenty-first century world.” And so the approach to the Bible that acknowledges that “that was then, this is now” is not merely a convenient cop-out but acknowledgement of a “bedrock reality.”

Making sense of the underlying rationale for how we discern what is of ongoing relevance in the Bible and what is not, and how this leads different Christians and communities to diverse conclusions and practices even as was the case and we see expressed in the Bible’s own diverse witness itself, became a lifelong quest for Scot. All readers of the book will be grateful for what Scot shares, as it is deeply personal, profoundly insightful, authentically Christian and ultimately Biblical.

It is another personal anecdote that explains the book’s title, the story of a blue parakeet, someone’s escaped pet, that came and made its home for a while in Scot’s yard. The initial reaction of other birds was fear, but then this newcomer was embraced in ways that changed the dynamics of “birddom” in his yard. The passages in the Bible that do not fit with our preconceived notions are like blue parakeets. If we do not ignore them, silence them or drive them away, they can change us in powerful and important ways.

Scot surveys a number of common “shortcuts” that people take with the Bible, which he considers inadequate. These include the approach that thinks we simply need to retrieve information from the Bible and bring it directly into our time as is; the approach that treats as most important the “puzzle”, the theological system, that one puts together using the pieces provided by or hidden in the Bible; the approach that treats the Bible as a Rohrshach inkblot; and a number of others. Emphasizing that we have not been given a theological system in the Bible but story, Scot goes on to consider the individual Biblical authors’ contributions as “wiki-stories” of the one underlying story. This meta-story which he discerns (perhaps in a way that not all would find persuasive) begins with creation and fall, the fragmentation of our original unity, and the move to restore the broken image of God.

Scot speaks in a way that addresses powerfully the failure of “Bible-believing Christians” to really come to grips with what is going on in the Bible, which often leads them to deny that they are “picking and choosing” because they are persuaded they should not do so. But Scot shows for instance how the early Church discerned that circumcision, which was an absolutely clear-cut commandment required not merely of biological descendants of Abraham but anyone incorporated into his family (Genesis 17:9-14), need not be imposed on Gentile Christians. The early Church, in other words, discerned that something in God’s Word ought to be set aside.

The latter part of Scot’s book if focused on using the issue of women in ministry as a concrete example of his approach, worked out in greater detail. After looking at WDWD (What Did Women Do?) in the Bible, and considering examples of women as leaders in ancient Israel, Scot acknowledges that one could easily argue “that was then, this is now”, a principle that potentially can cut both ways. And so attention is given to the trajectory of the underlying story he has discerned, which aims at restoring original unity. Also brought into the discussion is the way Paul treated matters of dress, gender roles, and the like in pragmatic terms, asking what the affect would be on the reputation of the church in the eyes of those outside. As a result, Scot argues that the blanket refusal by some churches and denominations to allow women to do things they at least sometimes did in Scripture damages the witness of Christians. At the same time, he acknowledges that there may be cultural contexts other than our own where a different process of discernment, different issues and a different practice would be appropriate.

The Blue Parakeet not only makes important points, but does so with impressive precision, insight and gentleness. It is hard to imagine how one could do a better job of mediating the depth and detail of knowledge Biblical scholarship has to offer to the Christians who claim to consider the Bible important, and yet often have only a superficial grasp of what the Bible is and what it contains. The Blue Parakeet articulates its message in a manner particularly accessible to those who consider themselves “Bible-believing Christians”. But even for readers outside that category, who may already be used to wrestling with difficult questions in relation to their faith and the Bible, the honesty and the seriousness with which Scot engages both the Bible and contemporary issues will make him a welcome participant in a broader dialogue. For such readers, there may be unanswered questions they would want to ask of Scot, but there will still be a great deal they can appreciate in what Scot does say.

So thank you, Scot, for writing this book. I hope that as a result many will stop ignoring or running from “blue parakeets” and discover the transformative power that can be unleashed simply by acknowledging their existence and listening to what they have to say.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    I have rejected Scripture as my basis for faith. This book is a justification for Scripture but does not enlighten anyone really. It is a means to justify the Church’s existence, but does not address the questions of history or the questions of the real world today. Politics, and other disciplines are the ones that address the real world today, not the paradigm of early Christian faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Wouldn’t creating a “meta-story” be the same thing as what some Bible-Believing-Christians ™ do. That is, they pick the parts that they think are essential and ignore the rest. Kinda like Ehrman’s “writing out own, new gospel” when we harmonize the Synoptics.It also seems to me that Paul jumped through hoops like a circus dog to justify the elimination of circumcision. That particular act of “discernment” was quite difficult and rocky.

  • Anonymous

    I think angie is right. Once you understand there is nothing scared about the collection of books that forms the Bible, why should be give it any more credibility than any other written words? That’s not to say the Bible shouldn’t be read or studied. But to use it as a basis in a belief in God and all that entails — knowing that it is nothing more than the works of ancient people trying to understand their world — just seems ludicrous.Yes, some of us who learn too much about the Bible lose our faith, or at least certainty, but that is logical and appropriate. I don’t understand how people can say, “the stories aren’t true and there is no overarching theme, but gosh, that just proves that God was trying to reach us in a subtle way as opposed to fundamentalist way.” Sorry, that makes less logical sense than fundamentalism.

  • Anonymous

    I think angie is right. Once you understand there is nothing scared about the collection of books that forms the Bible, why should be give it any more credibility than any other written words? That’s not to say the Bible shouldn’t be read or studied. But to use it as a basis in a belief in God and all that entails — knowing that it is nothing more than the works of ancient people trying to understand their world — just seems ludicrous.Yes, some of us who learn too much about the Bible lose our faith, or at least certainty, but that is logical and appropriate. I don’t understand how people can say, “the stories aren’t true and there is no overarching theme, but gosh, that just proves that God was trying to reach us in a subtle way as opposed to fundamentalist way.” Sorry, that makes less logical sense than fundamentalism.

  • Anonymous

    sorry for the double post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07725829998119648772 Matt Kelley

    I was extremely disappointed with McKnight’s last book, A Community Called Atonement, because he ultimately retreated from his argument for a plurality of atonement theories in our theological discourse. I’ve pre-ordered this book and am looking forward to reading it, but I’m anxious to see if McKnight sticks with his argument or ultimately retreats into the understandings of his Calvinist roots.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Matt, there are a great many places where Scot speaks like (or as) a conservative Christian among conservative Christians, and so I’m sure there will be much that you might find, if not disappointing, at least unsatisfying. But since he doesn’t focus on atonement or any other such issue per se, with the sole exception of the specific example of women in ministry, you may find less to disagree with. Scott, I had the same question about whether identifying an underlying “story” is any better than, or fundamentally different from, creating a theological system. It is a good point!In spite of all of this, I think that Scot’s approach may be helpful in getting a far greater number of those who consider themselves “Bible-believing Christians” thinking about whether that moniker accurately describes their viewpoint or accurately pinpoints the difference between them and others. And so whatever weak points one might identify, I still hope this book may have a powerful impact among those for whom it is primarily written and among whom it is desperately needed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12464859313317428105 Scot McKnight

    Matt:”ultimately retreats into the understandings of his Calvinist roots”.Where in the world did you get that? My Calvinist roots?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01588539631307626802 Beyond Words

    I appreciate the work and craftsmanship you put into this review. As an avid reader of both Jesus Creed and Exploring Our Matrix, I sense from your superlatives how accessible The Blue Parakeet is, as well as its importance for keeping open the conversation about approaching Scripture.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I’ll be honest (I decided against including this in the review proper), there were times in the first couple of chapters when I had this sinking feeling, “Oh no, Scot has written that book that I wanted to write, and has done a better job of it than I would have”! Ultimately, I still think there is a book that I can write that will be different from his, but I’m not sure that it will reach the audience that Scot hopes to reach with his book, or will do so as effectively. We’ll see! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06039130895443623988 Karen

    This book sounds intriguing. I used to have parakeets when I was little girl. Anyhow, I look forward to checking his book out.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13036816926421936940 Edward T. Babinski

    Blue Parakeet? Cute title. Too cute. Of course now we have to add Scot's personal anecdotes to the anecdotes, legends, and parables in the Bible, which already have interpreters and interpretations that disagree with one another. The big question is, how seriously does anyone need to take "the Bible" these days, i.e., compared with a host of modern knowledge and questions that have been raised since the Bible was written?The N.T. is now older than the O.T. was when the N.T. was first written. And still no further "holy books" from God. Why not? Or conversely, if theologians employed the same ingenuity when it came to interpreting ancient Babylonian and Hittite writings about gods, might they not also be able to write a book about how "inspired" those writings were, though they exhibited differences of opinion and questionable stories and histories.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Don Cupitt suggested that the New Testament be viewed by Christians as in essence 'our Old Testament' – a text that has stood the test of time and cannot simply be ignored, but neither can it be treated as "God's final word."In particular outside of Protestantism, the corpus of sacred writings of Christians has indeed continued to grow in the post-NT period, with authoritative creeds and pronouncements being accreted. Some Christians don't accept the authority of the creeds, while others view them and the New Testament on an equal footing – whether equally inspired and authoritative or equally human constructs it is appropriate to challenge and rethink.