The book in question is by Scot McKnight, who is a professor, student of the Bible, commentator (on many things), public speaker, writer, avid coffee drinker, a prolific blogger, and a family man. The book, as should be apparent from the nice little picture, is entitled, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.
In some ways, from what I’ve gathered thus far from my reading, this book is a book on hermeneutics (i.e., the study of interpretation). However, it is unlike most hermeneutical texts available, which tend to be quite dull simply because of the technicalities and are geared toward a particular audience. Where McKnight’s book differs is not only in its liveliness but also in its approach.
McKnight addresses the discipline of hermeneutics at a more fundamental level by dealing with the basic (and sometimes overlooked) questions of: “what are we doing?” and “why are we doing it this way?” Most hermeneutical texts assume the answer to the first question, and most will slide right past the second; but McKnight (rightly) points out that both have to be understood before any adequate interpretation can happen. (After all, part of the interpretation process is making available for a modern audience what was a near priceless gem for an ancient audience). More importantly, McKnight’s audience is much more practical–he is addressing anyone and everyone whose life has been shaped by the Bible and who continue to seek to live by it.
What I hope to do in this series of posts is review the larger “Parts” of the book (and there are four) in order to understand not only the contents of each part (which varies) but also how the parts fit together as a whole. This first review-post will look at the two introductory chapters that precede the first Part of McKnight’s new book. These two chapters are the broad-brush strokes of what McKnight is doing.
*NOTE: the page numbers used in this posting reflect the sequence I have in my “advanced reader copy”; the actual page numbers might be different in the final, printed edition of the book*
CHAPTER 1: While McKnight’s conversion story is quite different than some, the commonality between his story and those of others needs to be noted: when God is allowed to change a person, in many ways, the effects of that change are beyond comprehension. Yet, and this is another commonality, there is sometimes the nagging question of: what hasn’t changed, and why? The answer, for McKnight, is that some things have not changed partly because of the assumptions with which people read the Bible and partly because the Bible is perceived to be a book that is to be obeyed and not necessarily lived. But even the obedience side of things is not fully and faithfully practiced by those who claim to have their lives governed by the Bible.
McKnight addresses all of these problems simultaneously with the overarching problem of people “picking and choosing” which bits of the Bible are read and/or followed (see, 13-17). Sabbath-keeping, tithing, foot washing, charismatic gifts, giving up one’s stuff, and what he calls “contentious issues” (17) prove to be examples of things that are inconsistently lived out by those claiming faithful obedience to the Word. The underlying issue with these examples is the modern tendency to say, “That was then; things are different now, so we have to interpret them differently”. However, McKnight is not comfortable with this response for the simple fact that no (consistent) explanation is given for how and why these things have to be interpreted differently (see, 18-21). This lack of consistency seems to be the reason for why varying interpretations on individual texts are given by so many different people; and it is the problem that McKnight wants to confront (and hopefully solve).
CHAPTER 2: McKnight begins the second chapter with a seemingly tangental story about a blue parakeet in his back yard, which initially disrupted the status-quo maintained by the other birds in the same yard. This apparent tangent becomes foundational to McKnight’s purposes when he describes what took place after the other birds got over the initial shock of the newly arrived blue addition. The story serves as a reminder (or, a heads-up) for what happens when we–as readers, students, and followers of the Bible–are caught off guard by something that seems to alter our world. For McKnight, such experiences are not to be avoided, let alone explained away with combative arguments (see, 24-25). However, there are (at least) three ways in which most people have responded to such experiences, and these responses affect how the Bible is read and understood. McKnight gives a good summary to each of these three ways:
1) Reading to Retrieve: this is the idea of returning to the time and culture in which the biblical ideas were expressed and bringing them forward into the present so that consistency is maintained (see, 25-27). This winds up being based on a rather literalist reading of the text, which, in some cases, can create serious problems. McKnight is also reluctant to accept the practice of returning to the time of the Bible and only bringing forward what is culturally relevant for the modern world (see, 27). The problem here is that an ever-changing culture determines what is good and useful. The key for McKnight is that students and followers of the Bible need to listen to and be guided by God’s Spirit so as to be relevant to a modern world (see 27-29).
2) Reading through Tradition: this is the idea of safeguarding oneself from individualistic readings (and interpretations) of the Bible that are later claimed to be just as valid as someone else’s individualistic reading–even when the conflict (see, 29-33). For McKnight, we as students and followers of the Bible need to acknowledge not only the indebtedness we have to the great minds of the past but also the reality that these minds never intended the Bible to be read in isolation. It was generally the case that these isolation readings wound up creating variant and even heretical ideas. However, McKnight rightly notes that there is a delicate balance between respecting tradition and revering it (see, 31-32). The six-step progression that comes with overly revering tradition is definitely worthy keeping in mind (see, 32).
3) Reading with Tradition: this is the idea that neither God nor his truth are static. In this regard, McKnight has a great comment with noting:
“Anyone who stops and wants to turn a particular moment into a monument, as the disciples did when Jesus was transfigured before them, will soon be wondering where God has gone” (33)
The notion of reading with tradition is the answer to how students and follower of the Bible are able to listen to and be guided by God’s Spirit so that they become relevant to a modern world. This notion of reading with tradition is also the way in which the balance between respecting and revering tradition is maintained (see, 34-35). By maintaining this balance, the truth of God can be transmitted (effectively) to any and every culture in ways that radically (re)shape cultural identity.