The Blue Parakeet

Blue ParakeetThe book, The Blue Parakeet by Scott McKnight has provided grounding to the many fluttering ideas and conclusions in my mind on this topic. A thoroughly enjoyable, readable, and thought-provoking book on the topic of how to read and apply the Bible (hermeneutics).

My personal take away:
• Read the Bible as a story to connect with God and transform your life.
• Bible reading is primarily about developing a relationship with God.
• Bible reading and its application is messy, creative work, not cut and dry.
• The Holy Spirit is at work to help communities of faith apply the gospel to their context.
• We should apply the gospel in culturally appropriate ways, not in the ways of the past.
• We should be ok with different communities of faith applying the Bible differently, as long as it is fits the story of Scripture.

Here is a more detailed review:
The basic premise that stayed with me was the idea that the Bible is to be read primarily as story. It contains other genres, of course, but the narrative nature of the Scriptures should inform how it is primarily approached. He makes the point that we all pick and choose when we read the Bible based on our underlying hermeneutical assumptions (method of interpretation).

Three popular ways people read the Bible according to McKnight:
1. Read to Retrieve – The plug in and play approach to Bible reading. “It says it so I obey it.” He says, “We aren’t called to live first century lives in the 21st century, but 21st century lives as we walk in the light of the revelation God gave us in the first century.”
2. Reading Through Tradition – Believing certain doctrines/practices through the tradition that a denomination has handed down.
3. Reading With Tradition – This is the way that McKnight promotes. Reading the Bible while not letting tradition to determine your reading but dialoguing with it. Reading the Bible today should be to move forward to live the Bible in our ways.

Instead of reading the Bible as story some take shortcuts:
1. Morsels of Law – viewing the Bible as a new law to obey. Just do it. He believes that Christians guilty of this shortcut tend to add other extra-Biblical Pharisee-like laws such as: “Thou shalt not dance” … “drink”… “play cards…” etc.
2. Morsels of Blessings and Promises – a very optimistic approach to Scripture where one dwells on the feel good parts.
3. Mirrors and Inkblots – Christians who make the Bible say what is in their head. They reflect their own ideologies on the Bible as opposed to vice versa.
4. Puzzle pieces – this is systematic theology or organizing the Bible according to some thought system. You can easily ignore what doesn’t “fit.” What doesn’t “fit” is called the “Blue Parakeet passages.”
5. Maestros – Emphasizing one author or part of Scripture over another (Paul, Jesus). He calls them “one chapter Christians.” He says, “No single story, not even the Jesus story, can tell the whole story. We need them all.”

McKnight thinks that in the Bible we have “Wiki-stories” (which he got from Wikipedia) where different authors from different times are telling their version of the “Story.” They are retelling the “Story” for their time in their ways.

He believes that these “Wiki-stories” are held together by the “Story” which includes:
• Creating Eikons (Gen 1-2)
• Cracked Eikons (Gen 3-11)
• Covenant Community (Gen 12- Malachi)
• Christ, the perfect Eikon, redeems (Matthew- Revelation 20)
• Consummation (Rev 21-22)

He believes that all of the parts of the Bible are to agree with this plot line. Each “Wiki-story” is a variation on the story but conforms to the plot. The unity of the Bible is found in this 5 part Story.

I would ask though, “Where is the church?” I would add the church as the new covenant community, or body of Christ to this list between Christ and the Consummation.

I like the relational emphasis he puts on Bible reading. Reading the Bible should be about seeking a relationship with the God of the Bible, not the Bible itself. The goal is to love God not his words. We love his words only in that it reveals to us the God we are to love most of all. I really like this, especially coming from an academic.

Within this discussion he says something that made me think of the Churches of Christ. “Some think we can leap frog church history back to the Bible alone. This ignores the conversation God has directed throughout the history of the church.” The Church of Christ aversion to seeing itself as a part of church history has cut off any dialogue with past theologians. This is a weakness of ours, but I think it is rapidly changing.

His focus on the word “conversation” is a little unclear to me. How do we hear God within a conversation between Christians through history? I think we would agree that not every conversation in church history has been directed by God, so how do we decide what to listen to? I agree with listening to the historical conversation in church history, but I am unclear about how we recognize it as being something that God has “directed.” Maybe I just got hung up on his wording here.

McKnight believes that if we frame the Bible in terms of authority over love we make a grave mistake. He says that it took him 30 years to figure out that a correct relationship with the Bible does not involve its authority or submission, rather it is about the love for God. One that has a good relationships with the Bible is one that obeys the God he hears through it. We are to listen to God so that we can love him and others more deeply.

McKnight believes that good listeners show it on three levels:
• Attention- (Head)- Hear what God is saying
• Absorption- (Heart)- Let it enter our inner being
• Action- (Hands)- Respond in action to what God has said

Bible reading then, is more than gathering information but formation of the heart. He believes that God’s goal for us in Bible reading is transformation of our lives to conform to the “Story” we discover therein. He uses 2 Tim 3:17 as his text to make this very point. Scripture for Paul was used “so that” the Christian may be equipped for good works. He says that any interpretation that does not lead to good works “aborts what the Bible was intended to produce.” Strong words but he believes strong in what he said. He continues, “If you are doing good works you are reading the Bible aright.”

I found his reflection on the role of the Spirit as one reads the Bible today noteworthy. “The Spirit who guided the author through a history and a community to the moment when he put quill to papyrus is the same Spirit at work when you and I sit down to read our Bible. What gives us the power for the outcomes is the Spirit.” I agree wholeheartedly that the Spirit moves and guides today as we read the Bible. But he avoids dealing with whether or not the Bible was put together by the Spirit in a special way or if we can write similarly “inspired” documents as Scripture today. Would he say that we can write our own “wiki-stories” today as long as it conforms to the “Story” he identified above?

Part 3 of the book has to do with how we apply the Bible. What is our criteria for picking and choosing? He uses the Leviticus 19 exercise as an example of showing how times have change and that we do indeed pick and choose when it comes to reading the Bible.

The section about premarital sex is interesting. He says that the “New Testament doesn’t say a thing about this.” He says that the O.T. teaches that sexual intercourse is essentially equal to one being married. How do we deal with sexual ethics today in a world, like in America, where sex and marriage do not go together and that one does not get married until late in life, usually passed one’s sexual peak (at least for men)? Are we satisfied to say, “Just don’t do it,” to a 26 year old single man? Very thought provoking but I’m not sure what he wants us to do with this? Surely he would not teach that premarital sex is just fine in God’s sight for all young-adult unmarrieds, would he? He raises questions but gives no answers here.

He uses A.J. Jacobs book as an example of how it is absurd to believe that we just read the Bible and do it. No one does that. A perfect example is that Jesus gives us the exact words to pray in the Lord’s prayer but we Protestants don’t do that. In fact, we rarely, if ever, use the words of the Lord’s Prayer in prayer. What does that say about how we read the Bible? Is it just a general principal? How do we make that decision? Early Christians didn’t think it was a suggested example of how we could pray if we want to. They quoted it every time they prayed as an assembly until the Reformation.

Scott McKnight believes it is important to be aware and to pursue a pattern of discernment. When we read the Bible in its historical context and listen to God through his ancient words “we discern—through God’s Spirit and in the context of our community of faith—a pattern of how to live in our world.” He makes it clear that discernment is messy and its outcomes will vary from congregation to congregation just as their context varies.

Discernment is not the making of rules or laws to be used for all time. Christian discernment is a judgment call based on the story of Scripture and the reader’s context as they read it in community. McKnight uses the issues of divorce and remarriage, circumcision, style of clothing, scientific discoveries, the death penalty, and tongues in displaying different discernments in different contexts. Is it possible that two different conclusions on each of these issues is good discernment? He would say yes. We can easily imagine that the process of discernment involving any of these issues is complicated and messy and cannot be answered with a simple “thus says the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is a very important text for McKnight. This is the passage where Paul says that he becomes all things to all men to promote the gospel message. Paul was a chameleon that changed colors but kept the same body. He changed with culture and times but kept the same gospel. That is our challenge today. McKnight argues that we should read the Bible and apply it today the way the Bible writers themselves read it and applied it. The letters of the New Testament are a great example of Christian discernment that is to be imitated today. The contextual conclusions and decisions are not necessarily to be imitated but their pattern of discernment should most definitely be imitated. He concludes part 3 by saying that he believes that reading the Bible with tradition helps each generation go back to the Bible for itself and unleashing the gospel for its day in its way.

McKnight then goes on in the final part of the book to display his discernment on the issue related to women in ministry and leadership as a case study.

He begins this part by giving a personal apology of sorts for his early narrow mindedness on this view. He regrets having been silent on this issue for so long. He recognized in his life the giftedness of many women that have not practiced their gifts due to the patriarchal view that he was a part of early on.

He speaks of women in the O.T., such as Miriam, Deborah, Huldah; and N.T. women, such as Mary (mother of Jesus), Junia, Priscilla, and Phoebe. He displays their leadership roles as judge, prophets, teachers, evangelists, apostle, and deacon. He then asks if women today are allowed to fill such leadership capacities within our churches. If no, then why not?

McKnight is ashamed that many use the curse on women in Genesis 3 as a prescription of the way thing should be as opposed to a curse that we should work to eliminate.

Decisions of women’s role in church usually comes down to two passages in the letters written by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. But McKnight also emphasizes the importance of the passage in Acts 2 where Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, quotes from Joel 2. In that passage it talks about that with the coming of God’s Spirit, men and women will prophesy. The coming of God’s spirit will usher in an age for an increase in women’s roles not a decrease, says McKnight.

Significant to McKnight’s interpretation of 1Cor 14 is that he believes that a special kind of silencing is going on. In particular, the asking of questions. McKnight relies on Craig Keener for his interpretation. Paul believes that the women are not as educated as the men on theological topics so he charges them to learn before speaking. He believes that their questioning must have been a challenge to their faith in their gatherings. McKnight also mentions later that he believes that this passage could well have been added later because of its placement at 2 different places in the different manuscripts.

As far as 1Tim 2:9-15 is concerned, McKnight sees a charge against the “new Roman woman” philosophy of the day that was infiltrating the church. This is the first time I have heard of this 1st century “new Roman woman” movement and to me it does have great significance in interpreting these texts if it existed as he says it did. Basically the “new Roman women” movement was a sexual revolution that promoted immodesty, sexual promiscuity, the idea that men were inferior to women, the idea that women were created first, and a negative view toward marriage and childrearing. He thinks this is the background to the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 2 and 5. McKnight believes that the passages on silence are directed at a group of women in the church that have been influenced by the “new Roman women” ideology. He believes that Paul is not concerned with silence forever but only until they learn better.

McKnight points out that this interpretation actually agrees with the rest of the story of Bible which teaches that women have always been gifted to speak for God. Paul in these passage is not prohibiting the speaking of the women in all churches for all time, for that would contradict other things he says, but silencing particular women in Corinth and Ephesus that needed to learn more before they were able to edify the body.

In conclusion, McKnight ends by reminding and encouraging us to engage in “culturally shaped readings” of the Bible. He believes this is exactly what the New Testament writers did. He ends reflecting on a conversation he had with F.F. Bruce years ago when he told him that “Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into Torah.” Great quote! One that I find to be very true, even though Paul was not fortunate enough to have a grave.

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6 thoughts on “The Blue Parakeet

  1. Given your time within various cultures, do you have a few examples where cultural setting allowed for different conclusions within your ministry? That is: something that would make no sense in AL, perhaps even labeled as taboo or sin, was acceptable in South America?
    How do you think McKnight’s appeal to discernment and understanding and love brushes up against the pattern theology that’s dominated our branch of the Restoration Movement?

    • Good to hear from you Jimmy. Yeah, I definitely relate to Paul being a chameleon because I feel I have been one throughout my life growing up in Brazil, then PA, then AR, TN, then back over international waters to Bolivia then back to AL, TX, and now KY. I have seen the necessity of being a chameleon (adapting) in life and faith but the area of my life that has experienced the least amount of bend when crossing cultures is my ministry. In ministry, I found some of the same forms and actions that worked in the 19th and 20th century America extrapolated to another culture. In my opinion, that doesn’t always work very well.

      I think many of us in the RM now are growing in our understanding of “culturally shaped readings.” In many ways, I think our movement began by doing good “culturally shaped readings” for its time but then some fossilized it instead of adapting when it needed too. That is our challenge today I think. McKnight’s call to shape the gospel in our time in our ways is a good call but an incredibly difficult one to apply. I am encouraged by the many in the RM, that are recognizing the cultural adaptation that needs to happen to communicate effectively.

  2. I experienced it a little in my time in Italy, but it always threw me off how affectionate the men were with one another. Hugs and kisses on the cheek were commonplace, and I was always quick to give the “Minnesota handshake.” Had I brought that PDA back home I would’ve been — (I don’t know what would’ve happened, but I don’t think it would have been good.) But I read Scripture and see 5 times there is a call to greet one another with a holy kiss, and I see by expressing oneself vulnerable physically, it provides a greater environment to express vulnerability relationally and spiritually. But back home any kind of PDA like that was viewed as sexually, muddying the waters and missing the point. Given all the different contexts you’ve found yourself in, I bet you have lots of stories like that you could share.
    Concerning CoC’s struggle with discernment, I agree a fossilization took place (1860’s-1950’s) where proper pattern and method was emphasized over personal pattern and method. “The way we do things” quickly turned into “the way things must be done.” When that fossilization takes root, good luck getting people to discern for themselves. They will often just allow the pattern to play itself out.
    I thought McKnight’s book was a good one -the best chapter being the discernment one. But I wish he didn’t fly through his case study so quickly. I know for some tribes that is a non-issue, but for our movement that has/is been a divisive issue and calls for great love and humility on all sides. He makes some large statements rather quickly and they were difficult to digest. (Not saying I disagree with him, and certainly not saying he should unpack all his thoughts -he is a scholar and I know he could -but maybe a few more pages to help clear the air)

    • Jimmy, good thoughts! I’m glad we never shared a holy kiss. I am thankful for your discernment there. 🙂 McKnight has another short book on women in ministry called “Junia is not alone.” Maybe fills in the holes in that book. I haven’t read it yet.

  3. Interesting. Honestly, conversations like this make me uncomfortable, but not for the reasons you might think. I agree with the concept of culturally shaped reading and the folly of fossilization (sorry, I couldn’t resist). I’m encouraged by the re-visiting of some practices in the brotherhood, and I’m stretched by the questions from our multi-labeled young adults. However (you had to know that was coming), a growing division I see in the church today is similar to one we see in education research–practitioners vs scholars. Well-intentioned people on either side sometimes feel that they are quietly but desperately feuding over the turf of authenticity. One group sees the other as patronizing and know-it-all, and the other sees the one as stuck in the 50s and legalistic: neither perception is accurate, and both are polarizing and fraught with distrust. Heaven help the poor folks who have a foot in both camps, because they can’t please anybody! That’s kind of where I find myself these days, and they call it “cognitive dissonance” for an uncomfortably good reason. Scholarship with humility is a gift with which many of the RM movers and shakers are blessed, and good things are happening in the church because of their contributions. I just want us to be disciples of Jesus, without somehow feeding an us/them, of Paul/of Apollos righteous division that no one intends.

    • Thanks for your reply Jennifer. There is definitely a divide between practitioners like me and scholars within the church and universities, but I think that will change and it is already beginning to change, I think. Paul was a practitioner/theologian dependent on his context. He made “culturally shaped readings” and we should work in our context to do the same. These kinds of readings cannot be forced by anyone in the church but need to come about in loving collaboration in prayer, study, faith, humility, discipleship, commitment and cooperation.

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