Tuesday, 1 March 2016

A review of McKnight's 'The Blue Parakeet'

The concept of a Berean Baptist is more about promoting an attitude towards scripture than it is a specific movement or doctrine. And this attitude is pretty much summed up by 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (emphasis added). It means that the blank page between the Old and New Testament in your bible belongs in the bin, because ALL scripture is useful. This definitely has implications on how we read the Bible, often referred to as ‘hermeneutics’, which would then have implications on what one believes and practices, and why. So I thought that I should take some time to read about hermeneutics. On the recommendation of a review by The Gospel Coalition, I recently read The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. And its premise and concept is quite unique and thoughtful.

Defining the Blue Bird
Scot was inspired to develop the metaphor of the Blue Parakeet by an incident in his backyard. One morning, an escaped blue parakeet had noisily come in and disrupted his predictable viewing of sparrows peacefully feeding. In this experience, he recognised that this is some people’s experience when they read the Bible. According to McKnight, the Blue Parakeets are those difficult verses in scripture that challenge our theology, but we’d rather keep caged up and controlled instead of letting them fly free and speak for themselves. These are the inconvenient verses ‘we would like to shoo away’ (25) And so the aim of McKnight’s book is to answer the question: what do we do with the Blue Parakeets? And what he proposes is a way to read the Bible ‘that does not treat difficult verses like unwelcome pests’ (Tallon).

The existence and handling of Blue Parakeets is a reality I engage with on my blog, as I seek to highlight and explain the ‘blue parakeets’ many have regarding their theology of Torah etc… And it wasn’t until I had someone point them out to me, that I discovered there were a number of passages that I had often overlooked or ignored. Initially I had attempted to ignore them. But like trying to block out a squawking parakeet (not the best analogy for the Word of God, but you get the idea), it proved fruitless. I then attempted to tame them and conform them to what I thought they should mean. But in the end, I had to submit to what they were saying. And this is what McKnight says in his book: “God did not give the Bible so we could master him or it; God gave the Bible so we could live it, so we could be mastered by it. The moment we think we’ve mastered it, we have failed to be readers of the Bible" (52).

Understanding the Blue Bird
So, excited by the premise of the introduction and keen to become a better handler of those Blue Parakeets, I read on. And what it came down to was that we as readers need to exercise discernment of those difficult passages with the hermeneutic of the Bible as a developing story as God interacted with humanity. Thus, when it comes to applying and living out Scripture we need to conclude either, ‘that was then, but this is now’, or ‘that was then, and also now.’ I found myself somewhat frustrated as McKnight never really explained
how we discern that. For example, he writes “Yes, I think the first Jewish Christians probably kept kosher. That’s not for today” (28). But he never really explains why. Now of course his book isn’t on the place of food laws for today, but McKnight could have at least explained how he came to that conclusion. But, I suppose that the reason he never really explained that is because of his hermeneutic. For him, if we read the Bible as a rule book then we’ve missed the point. Rather, our primary hermeneutic should be to read the bible as a story in which different people speak God’s story in their way for their day (64). And I agree with Scot here. This is a principle that is good and helpful because not all of scripture is prescriptive, and not all scripture applies equally to all. There are instructions in Leviticus that apply to only the Aaronic priesthood, so of course they’re not for us. There are instructions for sin offerings in Leviticus. Since Jesus is our final sacrifice for the atonement of sin, those aren't for us either. But this hermeneutic has a somewhat arbitrary nature to it. McKnight explains that discernment, and his book, “is about the grey and fuzzy areas” and not the clear teachings “with which most Christians agree” like murder and pre-marital sex (131). But what is grey is defined by ones hermeneutic. For those Scot defines as literalists, nothing in the bible is grey. Also, is majority agreement the best measure of black and white? Maybe we should ask Martin Luther.

In reading, I found that McKnight’s hermeneutic lacks clear definition of boundaries. He explains that “Any idea of imposing a foreign culture, age, or language on another… quenches the dynamic power of the gospel and the Bible” (28). And this is true, we need to distinguish between culture/tradition and Truth. But because of his hermeneutic, McKnight interprets most ‘expressions of the gospel’ in the bible as cultural. To use a couple of examples from above, because Scot considers eating kosher and keeping Sabbath are ‘Jewish’, they therefore don’t apply to us. But to categorise parts of the Old Testament Law, the divinely articulated manifestation of the righteousness of God and the values of the Kingdom as ‘culturally Jewish’, is flawed. Why is the Sabbath (part of the ten commandments) Jewish, but not murder? Perhaps it’s because they’re the main group who keep it. Is it Jewish because it was given to Israelites? So was the sermon on the mount, and the great commission. Had he read the bible wider, he would see the Blue Parakeets to his theology that prescribe the Law for both the native born and the stranger. Whether kosher and Sabbath are actually for today is a different conversation, but to write them off as merely cultural only ignores more Blue Parakeets than it tries to acknowledge.

The book finishes with a case study of the issue of women in ministry. To actually see him work through a Blue Parakeet issue was helpful. Firstly, he took the ‘silent women’ passages from Paul and considered them in their historical context. Then he looked at other biblical examples in both the New and Old Testament of women in ministry to conclude that God does in fact use women for ministry. But, this is where Scot becomes a bit inconsistent again. Why is he using examples from then, to make a case for doing something now? How do we know that women in ministry isn’t “from a bygone era… and a bygone form of expression… [with] precious little [significance] for most of us today” (28)? Now don’t get me wrong, I'm not saying it is. I'm not disagreeing with his conclusions; I’m questioning the inconsistency of his approach. Yes, his examples do challenge the banning women from ministry, but he does so using a method he criticised and doesn't develop well.

In the end, because his process was not explained very well, and was at times inconsistent, I found myself disappointed that the exciting promises McKnight made in his introductions to help us make sense of difficult passages fell short. But that’s not to say I got nothing from the book. He made many points and raised many good questions that challenged me and helped me to refine my own hermeneutic.
I think if I were to take anything from reading McKnight’s book, it is the way it teaches us and encourages us to be willing to challenge traditional interpretations of scripture. When building our theology, we need to considering the wider context of the Bible and we should be willing to allow the ‘Blue Bird’ passages to sing and reshape our theology. Not that we reject ‘traditional’ interpretations outright – that would be chronologically arrogant. Men and women who are smarter and wiser than us have gone before us – but we should be willing to reject those interpretations which are based more on the prejudices, opinions, agendas, and traditions of men rather than the Word of God.


McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2008.

Tallon, Philip. “The Blue Parakeet Faces Inconvenient Verses”, christianitytoday.com. 27 Feb 2009.