Thursday, April 07, 2011

Review: The Blue Parakeet

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
by Scot McKnight
(Zondervan, 2008)

Publisher's synopsis:
The Blue Parakeet is author Scot McKnight’s deeply reasoned, compelling statement of how to read the Bible in a new evangelical generation. In reexamining the Bible, McKnight provides an exciting “Third Way” that appeals to the millions in today’s church who long to be authentic Christians, but don’t consider themselves theologically conservative or liberal.

Available in hardcover, softcover, and ebook formats.

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I'll admit, I'm hesitant to include the publisher's synopsis (above) in my review. It seems to confine the book's appeal to a group of Christians that finds itself caught between two extremes.

I'm no expert on book promotion, but I think this book would appeal to any person who wants to understand the Bible better. Is that you? Awesome. Read this book.

Having dispensed with the disclaimer portion of our program, on with the review...


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Chance encounters sometimes lead us deeper into thought.... When we encounter 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 or not? Sometimes we hope the blue parakeets will go away.... Or perhaps we shoo them away. Or perhaps we try to catch them and return them to their cage.... When chance encounters with blue parakeet passages in the Bible happen to come our way, we are given the opportunity to observe and learn. In such cases, we really do open ourselves to the thrill of learning how to read the Bible. But... we have to get over our fears and learn to adjust to the squawks of the Bible's blue parakeets. We dare not tame them.
— Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, p. 24-25

Anyone who has read the Bible is aware of passages that are difficult to understand, passages that are difficult to put into practice, passages that can raise issues when one group declares a passage to be culturally limited and another insists it is not.

For those who wish to understand the Bible and apply its truths to everyday life, these difficult passages must be dealt with. But how?

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Purpose:

Scot McKnight likens difficult-to-understand biblical passages to blue parakeets in a suburban backyard — they stand out and demand attention. His thesis is this: we may think we obey scripture, but everyone picks and chooses. As shocking as that might sound, McKnight provides several examples (Sabbath, tithing, foot washing, charismatic gifts, various contentious issues) to make his point.

For example, on the biblical idea of surrendering possessions, McKnight writes:

There is nothing clearer than this statement by Jesus about possessions: "In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have [possessions] cannot be my disciples" (Luke 14:33). Two chapters earlier Jesus said, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor" (12:33). If there is anything that is straightforward, those two verses are. I knew enough about church history to know that St. Francis did exactly what Jesus ordered, or at least he got very close. I also knew that we weren't following Jesus' words at all. In fact, I knew that most Christians were not living below their means and were in fact living well beyond their means.*

The most common explanations I heard were either "but that was then" or "there were special expectations for Jesus' personal disciples." Others suggested that what we could take away from these statements by Jesus was that we should "cut back" on our spending so we can be more generous. However we read them, these are statements made by Jesus, seemingly without condition; we weren't doing them as Jesus said; and they evidently belonged to a different era and a different culture (this principle kept coming up). How did we decide such things? How do we know what to do and what not to do?
— Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, p. 16-17
*I assume McKnight is referring to the Christians he knows; to say "most Christians live beyond their means" ignores vast numbers of believers in developing countries.

McKnight's observations led him to one big question: "How, then, are we to live out the Bible today?" After observing that chance encounters with people who think and believe differently can force us to reconsider our conclusions, driving us back to the Bible (and to our knees to ask for wisdom to know how to live it out), he offers The Blue Parakeet as one such thought-provoking encounter.

Structure:

McKnight divides The Blue Parakeet into four major sections, preceded by two short introductory chapters and followed by an application chapter.

To set things up, McKnight looks at some methods people may use to read the Bible: reading to retrieve, in which all of scripture (or as much as possible) is directly applied to contemporary life; and reading through tradition, in which scripture is read through the teachings of tradition. He points out the problems with both, and proposes a third way: reading with tradition. This approach gives the Bible primacy while respecting the contributions of church history.

In the first section, Story: What Is the Bible?, McKnight looks at how we read the Bible. After he lists some of the interpretive shortcuts we tend to take (such as viewing the Bible as a collection of laws, or as a puzzle we can piece together once), he discusses the importance of reading the Bible as a whole story, and reading it with its context in view.

McKnight outlines the Bible's overarching story in terms of five progressive themes: Oneness, Otherness, Otherness expands, One in Christ, and Perfectly One. (Those familiar with Reformed thinking will see similarities to the Creation / Fall / Redemption / Restoration scheme.)

The second section, Listening: What Do I Do with the Bible? explores how we relate to scripture, and how we relate to God:
I bring it all together into one central focus now: A relational approach believes our relationship to the Bible is transformed into a relationship with the God who speaks to us in and through the Bible.... If we distinguish God from the Bible, then we also learn that in listening to God's words in the Bible we are in search of more than a relationship with paper with words, namely, a relationship with the person who speaks on paper. Our relationship to the Bible is actually a relationship with the God of the Bible. We want to emphasize that we don't ask what the Bible says, we ask what God says to us in that Bible. The difference is a difference between paper and person.
— Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, p. 90-91
In the third section, Discerning: How Do I Benefit from the Bible?, McKnight looks at various issues to allow readers to see how we apply the Bible's teaching in our lives today, and to help us discover a "pattern of discernment":
[A]s we read the Bible and locate each item in its place in the Story, as we listen to God speak to us in our world through God's ancient Word, we discern — through God's Spirit and in the context of our community of faith — a pattern of how to live in our world. The church of every age is summoned by God to the Bible to listen so we can discern a pattern for living the gospel that is appropriate for our age. Discernment is part of the process we are called to live.
— Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, p. 129
The fourth section, Women in Church Ministries Today, serves as a test case for McKnight's interpretive propositions in the first three sections.

He doesn't seek to explore and unpack every verse related to the issue, acknowledging the many volumes, on both sides of the debate, which are devoted to arguing it. Instead, he allows the issue to challenge the reader: pointing out some of the history and tradition that may be influencing our view, he asks us to "put tradition in its (biblical) place" (p. 162).

Critique:

McKnight's style in this book is conversational and engaging. I might even say he writes like a blogger, peppering his paragraphs with personal stories and illustrations. Though occasionally the illustrations are a distraction, his overall style makes the book accessible.

Because the book encourages the quest for understanding how to read and apply the Bible, McKnight uses his own journey to tell the story, and allows his upbringing in a fundamental/evangelical Christian family and church to provide the backdrop.

Though McKnight's background is far different from my own, his descriptions helped me enter into his Bible camp/Sunday school/flannel graph experience. For me, reading his account was a little like reading a travelogue of a country I'd only seen pictures of, but no doubt those with a background similar to McKnight's will appreciate his story even more.

Regardless of your background, if you'd like to understand the Bible better, read The Blue Parakeet. Maybe you'll find you've got some blue parakeets of your own caged up and silenced somewhere. Maybe you'll decide to let them out of their cages.

As Scot McKnight would say, "let the blue parakeets sing!"

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