The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
by Scot McKnight, 2008, Zondervan.
I like the Blue Parakeet and recommend it with one reservation (see below). I like this book because the metaphor is striking and memorable (I explain it below). I like this book because it reads with a kind of honesty I find refreshing instead of a book with the rarefied air of a seminary library. I like it because I value Scot McKnight’s contributions to theology and Christian practice.
the Blue Parakeet is about reading the Bible as a story. That may seem simple, but few people do it in practice. Instead, people tend to read the Bible according one of five unhelpful shortcuts, which McKnight explains in engaging terms:
1. “Morsels of Law,” which is the approach that sees the Bible as a collection of laws. These folks would assign the Bible in the public library under 320 (Political Science) or 340 (Law).
2. “Morsels of Blessings and Promises,” which is the approach that sees the Bible as a collection of inspirational thoughts. “No one,” says McKnight, “has yet composed a Wrath of God Calendar,” though many have produced calendars of “God’s Promises.” These folks would assign the Bible in the public library to 150 (Psychology) and 158 (Applied).
3. “Mirrors and Inkblots,” which refers to those who see themselves in the Bible and who view things rather like an inkblot: it means what it means to you. McKnight notes that some look at Jesus and see a Republican or a Democrat. These folks would assign the Bible to 158 (Applied Psychology) or 126 (Self).
4. “Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind,” is the style of Bible reading that seeks to put all the answers into one grand system (called Systematic Theology). The problem is this approach ignores “problem passages” and skips over the context of the story all too often to gain another piece of the jigsaw puzzle. These folks would assign the Bible to 110 (Metaphysics) or 120 (Epistemology).
5. “Maestros,” are those who read the Bible dedicated to the teachings of one or two great teachers. They ask, “What would Jesus do?” at every turn in reading the Bible. McKnight laments that in actuality evangelicals and many Protestants have actually passed over Maestro Jesus for Maestro Paul. Only one voice in the Bible really has any authority and other voices are muted. These folks would assign the Bible to the biography section, either 227.06 (Paul) or 232.092 (Jesus).
The Blue Parakeet Metaphor
The greatest puzzle to someone reading the Blue Parakeet is wondering what parakeets have to do with the Bible.
You have to wait until page 23 to find out (unless you are lucky enough to read my blog).
McKnight and his wife, Kris, are bird watchers. In 2007 he saw in his backyard a flash of avian blue and tried to get a closer look. It wasn’t a bluebird or a bluejay. Finally, he determined it was a blue parakeet, an escaped pet.
Fascinated, he watched as this once-domesticated bird mixed and mingled at the feeder with the wild birds. They were terrified of the parakeet.
In coming days, he saw the blue parakeet repeatedly. The sparrows and other birds gradually accepted him more and more. Eventually they ignored him and came to the feeder like usual.
That blue parakeet, McKnight tells us, is a metaphor for our own discovery of the scriptures. We’ve all read them . . . the verses that cause us to squirm. “Behold, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them,” says Isaiah 47:14, and we try not to think too literally of people burning alive. “Not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions,” says Jesus in Luke 14:33 and we immediately dismiss a literal interpretation.
At first, the blue parakeets disturb us. “Be perfect,” says Jesus (Matt. 5:20) and James extols “pure and undefiled religion,” (Jas. 1:27), and at first, we allow the discomfort to trouble us. We start out like the wild birds encountering the parakeet.
But in time we “cage and tame” the blue parakeets, says McKnight. We fail to allow them to challenge us. We adapt and adopt. We pick and choose. And we do a lot of picking and choosing.
The point is not that we should not pick and choose. We do have to do that. The point of McKnight’s book is to give some direction about how to pick and choose wisely. His answer is to pick and choose by reading the Bible as a story, as a wiki-story in fact.
McKnight’s Canonical Narrative (and my own)
A few years ago, I read R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology for an MJTI class. It was a life-altering book for me. Disjointed concerns in my mind (love for Israel and Judaism versus faith in Jesus) were brought a little closer together because Soulen gave me some tools for understanding.
The single-most helpful tool was the idea of Canonical Narrative, the idea of the meta-story behind the Bible, a story told not once, but over and over again in its pages.
Soulen lamented the weak Canonical Narrative of the historic church and called for a fuller reading of the Bible. The usual Canonical Narrative went something like this:
–Creation (Gen 1-2)
–Fall (Gen 3)
–Redemption (Matt – Rev 20)
–Consummation (Rev 21-22)
Notice anything missing? How about the middle 70% of the Bible!
So in September of 2007, on this blog, I suggested a reformed Canonical Narrative:
–Creation (Gen 1-2)
–Fall (Gen 3)
–Covenants (Gen 4 – 2 Chron in the Jewish order or Gen 4 – Mal 4 in the Christian order)
–Redemption (Matt – Rev 20)
–Consummation (Rev 21-22)
Scot McKnight tells us in the Blue Parakeet that we must read the Bible as a story, a story told over and over again. It is a wiki-story. If you know what wikis are on the internet (wikipedia.com is the most famous), you know that a wiki is updated and renewable by later commentators so it is always updated. The Bible’s canonical narrative has had many wiki editors from Moses to Isaiah to Zechariah to Matthew to Paul to John.
On page 73, McKnight says something that sounds an awful lot like my thoughts from September 2007 in reaction to Soulen’s book:
Let’s remind ourselves of how many of us read the Bible: our plot is creation, fall, and redemption. So, now that we’ve got the fall, let’s get to redemption. I like this, but there’s something missing. (Like 1033 pages!) It is right to se the plot move from creation to fall to redemption, but how God chooses to redeem I a giant (three hundred pound!) blue parakeet in the Bible for many readers. The story of the Bible is creation, fall, and then covenant community–page after page of community–as the context in which our wonderful redemption takes place.
Professor McKnight does read my blog :-) But perhaps this was simply a case of similar minds thinking about a similar problem and coming to similar conclusions.
In the Blue Parakeet, McKnight gives many illustrations of the difference it makes to read the Bible as an unfolding story. The way we pick and choose has to do with which part of the story we fit into. And that leads to my one reservation about the book, which I think in one instance the good professor could have been a little more nuanced about his audience and helping them see where they fall into the story.
I am, of course, sensitive to Jewish issues and how the Bible should be read from a Jewish point of view. McKnight discusses at one point the validity of reading the Bible through specific eyes (women’s readings and African readings are the examples he uses). How much more reading the Bible, a Jewish book, through Jewish eyes, right?
I believe McKnight would agree. But in one instance, I feel he failed to nuance an important example in his book, an example that is actually quite central to Biblical interpretation. It is in discussing circumcision that I think the Blue Parakeet misses a step.
The discussion begins on page 134 and it starts well. McKnight is going over the issue that came before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, “Do we circumcise these Gentiles who are joining a Jewish movement for Messiah?” They decided not to based on their understanding of Torah, God’s recent word on the matter, and the Spirit-led wisdom of James. And McKnight carefully and correctly words the interpretation on page 134:
The early Christians discerned that circumcision, the (don’t forget this) ageless command to Abraham, was not necessary for Gentile converts.
Brilliant. I wish he would have kept that distinction up in the pages that follow. Acts 15 was about the relation of Torah to Gentiles, not Jews.
But then McKnight says that Paul, following the Jerusalem Council, took the decision further and innovated in three steps:
1. McKnight says Paul ruled that circumcision doesn’t really matter (Gal. 5:6).
2. Paul ruled that the only real circumcision is heart circumcision (Rom. 2:28-29).
3. Paul said that Christian baptism replaces circumcision (Col. 2:11-12).
On a literal reading, it seems McKnight is correct. But if the Blue Parakeet has taught us anything it is to beware of literal readings that fail to take into account their place in the story.
Paul’s words in Galatians, Romans, and Colossians have a place in the story which I believe McKnight has failed to consider. These letters fit into the Gentile mission of the early church. Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles. His record of Torah faithfulness in Acts should not be nullified by his freedom-from-Torah comments to Gentiles.
Paul’s words in Galatians, Romans, and Colossians are words to Gentiles made to feel inferior by those who would insist they must adopt a Jewish life. And Paul builds a delightful rhetoric to build up these Gentiles which might better be interpreted this way:
1. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior about circumcision, because even in our own Jewish understanding we do not believe that circumcision makes one superior (Gal. 5:6).
2. Don’t be disenfranchised by those who would forcibly convert you, for our own Torah prioritizes heart circumcision over that of the flesh (Rom. 2:28-29, see Deut. 10:16).
3. Don’t imagine that you are lacking the approval of God because you have not been through ritual circumcision, since we know that God’s approval is shown to you through ritual baptism (Col. 2:11-12).
I am grateful to Scot McKnight for all of his work deepening Christianity with Biblical thinking. Messianic Jewish Musings readers should be aware of some remarkable common ground between Messianic Judaism and the thinking of Scot McKnight. He has Christians all over the world saying the Shema twice a day! (Check out his book The Jesus Creed on amazon).
the Blue Parakeet is, in spite of my one reservation, the book I would choose to use to help a thoughtful person learn how to read the Bible with better understanding. As far as I am concerned, the good professor has laid down in words the most readable and accurate summary of hermeneutics I have yet to read.