I recently started working on the outline for a series of lectures or classes I’d like to offer next year in my church, covering the content of the Bible over thirteen weeks. My main approach will be to go over the overarching narrative, starting with Creation and the Fall, the Patriarchal period, and so on until the time of Jesus and the years following. I think this sort of thing is needed—we assume people know their biblical history (No! That was exilic, not intertestamental!), but experience tells me we might be a little undereducated in that area. Yet this sort of knowledge is fundamental to the most basic attempts at hermeneutics.
I also want to look at how the Bible was written and transmitted to us. And finally, I want to ask the important questions: ‘So what?’ and ‘What’s this got to do with me?’
This last part was always going to be the hardest. There are many parts of the Bible I want folk to take seriously—for example, the Sermon on the Mount. On the other hand, I’m not so concerned if people pass over the purity codes in Leviticus, nor can I blame them if they skip over any of the geneaologies. To put it very crudely, how do I teach people which bits they have to listen to and which bits they can ignore?
There’s an old proverb that says, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ Right in the middle of my thinking about this issue I received my review copy of Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet. This was fantastic timing, as the book sets out to answer exactly this question:
Throughout [the process] of conversion and reading the Bible, I made discoveries that created a question that disturbed me and still does.
. . .
The discoveries and disturbances converged onto one big question:
How, then, are we to live out the Bible today?
McKnight argues that nobody practices everything the Bible instructs. We all pick and choose, even if we claim that we don’t.
He begins to answer his question with a parable. He tells the story of how a blue parakeet somehow found its way into his garden one day. The other birds (mainly sparrows) didn’t seem to be very impressed with the stranger—in fact, they were initially scared of it. After some time, however, they grew accustomed to the new arrival, accepting it into the garden as one of their own. It still wasn’t a sparrow though: it was still a parakeet. The sparrows had learnt to live with something different.
McKnight suggests that we frequently encounter blue parakeets. Sometimes they are people who think or act differently to the way we expect. Other times, and this is more to the point of the book, they will be passages of the Bible that might not be what we expect to find there. McKnight outlines three common ways we deal with the biblical text and tradition in our reading (if you want to know what they are, you’ll have to read the book!).
After this introduction, the book is divided into four parts. The first asks, ‘What is the Bible?’ It also spends a lot of time asking what it is not, describing a few errors people often make when they come to it. In short: there are no shortcuts. If you think you’ve figured it out, you’re just not trying hard enough! The Bible isn’t a book to be mastered.
The key to understanding the Bible is realising that the Bible tells the story of what God is doing—and still does. God has always spoken to people in the way that is most relevant to them. That is still the case, and we need to ask how God speaks to us today.
The rest of this part of the book outlines this story and where we fit into it. Whilst this is little more than summary, it is a fantastic overview of the theme of the Bible, beginning at creation and finishing with the final consummation of history.
Part two of the book deals with the question, ‘What is my relationship to the Bible?’ This section is a little less engaging than the rest of the book—in fact, one of the chapters is entitled ‘The Boring Chapter’ which is what the author’s wife called it after she read it. To be fair, it’s not that bad. It does, however, set up Part three, which deals a lot more with the mechanics of applying the teaching of the Bible.
McKnight has already made the point that Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they will pay attention to. Here, he examines a few examples of the way we do this in practice. He looks at the ways we follow the Bible, then in another chapter discusses some of the reasons we have for not following the apparent teaching of the scripture.
The final chapters of the book are something of an extended example of his approach to the Bible: he deals with the biblical teaching on the place of women in the Church. He looks for ‘blue parakeets’ in the text: examples that might not fit with the traditional view that women should not have any teaching role in the church. Then he looks at the New Testament passages that appear to teach this view and asks: how do we pick and choose between them? The answer is to ask how these verses all fit into the overarching narrative of the Bible.
His conclusion? Again, you’ll have to buy the book to find out! As a member of a denomination that has always encouraged women in ministry, though, I was glad to see such a well written defence of the right of women to be used wherever God has called them.
Overall, I found this book to be well written, easy to read, and a welcome addition to my bookshelf. I did find the book disjointed in parts, as if McKnight had condensed two or three ideas for books into one—I occasionally found myself wondering if some of the material (whilst very good) was quite relevant to the topic at hand. For example, the material on the place of women in the church seemed out of place, somehow shoe-horned into a book on another topic. Still, it worked.
This book will work well in the course I am devising. It offers a robust approach to interpreting the Bible that takes into account the nature of the Bible, the humans that read it and the God that caused it to be written. I would recommend it to anyone who has read the Bible and asked ‘What has this got to do with me?’
The Blue Parakeet is available at Amazon.