Just before Christmas I received a copy of Scot McKnight’s latest offering, intriguingly titled, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. I would tell you why it has such a strange title, but that would steal some of Scot’s thunder. It would also take longer to explain than I’d want to do here. What’s more, while Scot may have drawn on this reoccurring metaphor for his title, it wasn’t for me the most important aspect of what he had to say. Indeed, if I was being totally honest, I would probably say that it didn’t work for me – but that’s a personal thing, not a criticism of Scot’s book. After all, I didn’t get on with the literary vehicle Brian McLaren employed for his New Kind of Christian trilogy, and yet it remains for me one of the most important Christian books of recent years, and one I’ve recommended more times than I can recall. And that is going to be true of the Blue Parakeet. Indeed, I had to get my copy back from a friend so I could write this review.
My post-grad studies were about aspects of biblical interpretation – hermeneutics – those factors that impinge and shape our reading and understanding of Scripture and so allow us, as Scot puts it, not to simply ‘apply’ the biblical narrative, but to live it out, to let it become part of who we are, part of our story – to transform us as human beings.
Now, I am 100% convinced that the vast majority of Christians could do with a better understanding of biblical interpretation. It’s not good enough to claim you have a high view of Scripture, or that you believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God if you’ve never really thought about what you mean by such things, or even know how the Bible came about historically.
Let me share a story. I can’t recall where I got it from, but it illustrates an important point.
There was once a professor of biblical interpretation giving a lecture to a class of first year theology students on the complexities of hermeneutics. Though he knew his material well, he couldn’t help but be distracted by mumblings and the occasional giggles coming from the back of the room. Having ignored the two culprits for the majority of the lecture, the exasperated professor finally halted in mid-sentence and demanded an explanation as to why these two students felt they could ignore all he was saying and instead conduct their own private conversation. “Well,” said one of the young men with all the cockiness of a first year theological student, “I just think all this talk about hermeneutics seems a little unnecessary. After all, I’ve been reading my Bible for years without any of this academic nonsense. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I understand most of it perfectly well. So this lecture feels like a complete waste of time to me.”
The student is right: in many ways reading the Bible is a nothing more than me, reading God’s Word with God’s help. And we trust that God in his faithfulness will bring us to some understanding through this simple act of reading.
But here’s what the student denies: What sounds simple is full of the most complex hermeneutical issues. The very issues the professor is trying to get him to see. Questions such as:
What cultural, personal and theological baggage does the student bring with him when he reads?
How will that impact, shape, or distort his reading and understanding?
What is he reading at any given moment? God’s actual words? Human words inspired by God? History, fiction, poetry, an ancient song of worship?
What role does the Holy Spirit play in bringing about understanding?
Now I’m a realist. I don’t expect most Christians to wrestle with the pedantic arguments of foundationalism, redaction and form criticism, reader-response theory, or authorial intent, nor to have read Thiselton, Goldingay, Osbourne, Vanhoozer and the like. But I do think that individuals and a community, which orientate themselves around a book, should take the questions of interpretation more seriously.
That’s why Scot has done what so needed doing, he has written a book on understanding the Bible that avoids the jargon, and the pedantic details of some of the more rarefied hermeneutical issues and instead produced something that is readable, understandable and most importantly of all, one which is practical for all of us who call ourselves Christian.
Though there is far more to it than this, what Scot has done is to unlock and release key issues of interpretation by making the foundational observation that the Bible works on a narrative framework – i.e. it’s a story. It isn’t isolated verses, or even a collection of insights that need turning into a systematic theology. That’s not to say that every genre in the Bible is one of story, but that as a whole, the Bible has an overarching plot, there are characters (some more developed than others) whose story is being told by many authors. This leads Scot to a contemporary metaphor that I did find usable and inspired – the Bible is like a series of ‘wikis’. Not that anyone can add anything they like to it. Rather, this is more a contemporary take on the Jewish idea of midrash. To quote Scot himself, the Bible is a Wiki-Story in the sense that it is, ‘the ongoing reworking of the biblical Story by new authors so they can speak the old story in new ways for their day (p.64).
Scot goes on to unpack these wikis before entering the second half of the book where he asks that vital hermeneutical question – ‘So what?’ – encouraging his readers to build a relational approach which ‘distinguishes God from the Bible’ because, ‘God existed before the Bible existed; God exists independently of the Bible now. God is a person; the Bible is paper. God gave us this papered Bible to lead us to love his person. But the paper and the person are not the same.’
Scot encourages us to read, listen and discern, for such things not only keep the Bible alive and vital, they also keep our relationship with God active and allow it to flourish.
Finally, Scot really turns the key of the question ‘so what?’ by discussing the issue of women in ministry.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a live issue for many who would read Scot’s book. I myself don’t care about the gender of those who teach me. But that’s not the point. If you pass over these latter chapters you miss the whole purpose of the book. This is the living out of the story; the taking seriously the belief in a personal God who speaks to us through a book – and the fundamental question of how God does this. This is not about a dry academic debate to be had in seminary, or about an archaic ecclesiological preference. This is about real people, real lives, and a real God. This is the personal reality of biblical interpretation. This issue may not affect you personally, but what about the issue of wealth and possessions; social justice, climate change, homosexuality, genetic engineering, euthanasia, abortion, war, business ethics, divorce and remarriage, etc, etc, etc. How are you deciding what stance to take such things? How do you know what Jesus would do? How are you reading the Bible and is your method helpful or even advisable?
Scot McKnight hasn’t provided a book that would claim to be the be all and end all of biblical interpretation. But what he has done is write a personal, insightful, accessible useable framework for understanding how to read the Bible. You may never read Thiselton, Goldingay, Osbourne or Vanhoozer, but at least do yourself a favour – read McKnight.