A review of The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight (Zondervan, 2008):
This book has proven somewhat difficult to review for the simple reason that I know (in the web 2.0 sense) the author. Scot McKnight blogs at JesusCreed – one of the few blogs I read pretty much every day.
Given past interactions with Scot, I expected to have some issues with what he’s written here, but I never expected to react as I have.
Where’s the Rest of the Book?
Using a blue parakeet as a metaphor for those scriptures that don’t conform to our preconceived notions, McKnight challenges us to read the Bible in new ways. He says most modern Christians recognize the need to determine what part of the biblical text is actually meant to apply today, but they either do it with no real system to guide them and so produce excessive innovation (“reading to retrieve”) or with an excessive commitment to tradition and so are unable to recognize weaknesses in their theology (“reading through tradition”).
The Blue Parakeet calls us to approach the Bible using a hybrid method of reading the Bible with tradition – willing to innovate but interacting with our forefathers so as not to deviate from their wisdom unnecessarily (Chapter 2).
McKnight then asserts that the proper way to read the Bible is as a story, and I started wondering when he was going to defend this position.
Next the book lays out some bad ways to approach the Bible – as a rulebook, as a collection of promises, as an inkblot (i.e., so that it reflects the reader rather than the author), treating one author as the key to all the others, or as a puzzle to be solved – once solved, it serves as the key to interpreting all Bible passages (Ch 3).
It is without any apparent sense of irony that McKnight then tells us that the way to read the Bible is as a story – a particular story. He doesn’t cotton to the old version of the story as “creation, fall, and redemption;” he sees the story as “creating Eikons” (his shorthand for “person created in the image of God”), “cracked Eikons” (i.e., the fall), “covenant community,” “Christ, the Perfect Eikon, redeems,” and “consummation.” He offers themes for these plot points: “oneness, otherness, otherness expands, one in Christ, and perfectly one.” (Postmoderns love “community” and the word “other.”)
The book then asserts that every part of the Bible is a “wiki-story” (mini-story that retells at least some of the elements) of that overarching story. The only way to make sense of “Blue Parakeets,” we’re told, is by viewing them in the context of this Story (Ch 4-5).
By this point in the book I’ve realized that Scot’s not planning on defending any of these statements. He makes assertions, and he expects you to just believe him. He mentions other authors who say we should read the Bible as story, but he doesn’t even punt to them for the proof – he just mentions that they teach this too. Ditto on the makeup of the story. He says his plot is the “only plot the church has ever had” (p 68 in advance reader edition), and he mentions Irenaeus, but he doesn’t defend his interpretation of the plot, and my (admittedly quick) scan of Proof of the Apostolic Teaching didn’t come up with the plot Scot uses.
At this point I’m a bit grumpy with Scot McKnight. I felt like the most important part of the book was missing. You can’t just make undefended assertions when you’re asking people to embrace a completely different way of doing something. Why should I believe the Bible is a collection of mini-stories of an overarching story? Why should I believe his plot is the correct one? How exactly is Philippians or 1 Peter a “wiki-story” of this plot? These are question this book should have answered if it wanted to be taken seriously.
Please note that I’m not disagreeing with the method taught in this book. I do, in fact, think there’s an overarching narrative in the scriptures and that it’s important to keep it in view while studying them. My problem is not what he teaches; I’m saying he needs to defend this method so that readers can judge whether or not it’s a valid way to approach the scriptures.
Pot Meet Kettle
So my first problem with this book was the pattern of assertions where arguments were warranted. My second problem was that McKnight was apparently unaware that he was creating a system for approaching the Bible very much like one he’d already attacked.
The book tells us that the Bible is one Story from beginning to end that holds the key to understanding the smaller parts. We’re told, “Once you get the hang of reading the Bible this way, you can then map the story of each author of the Bible” (p68).
Does this not sound like the “puzzle” method of approaching the Bible? It appears to me that we’re taking the pieces and assembling them into something of our own devising and using that as a key for unlocking the scriptures.
McKnight tells us, “puzzling together the pieces we find in the Bible into a system is impossible" (p51), but he’s done just that.
The errors of the puzzle method, McKnight says, are it “presumes that we know what God was doing behind the Bible before the Bible was written” (p50) and “this approach nearly always ignores the parts of the puzzle that don’t fit” (p51). Both of these statements can be applied to his method.
The Balance of the Book
After laying out the “Story” by which we must learn to read the Bible, McKnight moves on to the manner in which we should read the Bible in Part 2. Again, the argumentation is a bit light, but he makes otherwise good (and less controversial) points.
He tells us to view the Bible as communication from and a means to relationship with God. Further, if we do not read to listen to, absorb, and do what God tells us in the scriptures we’ve wasted our time. Finally, he reminds us that tradition and the Spirit should guide implementing what we read.
In Part 3 he discusses the implementation in more detail. We all know we don’t do everything the Bible says; we all have some kind of system for determining what we think should be applied today. “As we read the Bible and locate each item in its place in the Story, as we listen to God speak to us in our world through God’s ancient Word, we discern – through God’s Spirit and in the context of our community of faith – a pattern of how to live in our world” (p 129, emphases in original).
Unfortunately that is where his discussion of “patterns of discernment” stops. It’s a very subjective approach. Postmoderns will no doubt say it’s very modern of me to think we need some objective procedures, but we’ve seen just how far following the “Spirit” (who so frequently sounds just like me) and our “community of faith” (be they Mormons, liberation theologians, or oneness Pentecostals) can take us off the reservation all too often.
McKnight then demonstrates his method by addressing the question of women in church leadership in Part 4. Here the weaknesses of his book truly shine forth. We get one part appeal to the “Story” – which he appears to have pulled out of thin air – one part argument from oft-ignored biblical passages and new archeological finds, and one part appeal to popular sentiment. His case is not convincing mostly because of his repeated appeal to his undefended “Story.” (BTW, I oscillate between complementarian and egalitarian.)
I spent a lot of time being angry with Scot McKnight* mostly because this book could have been so much more. I wish he had fleshed out his “Story” and “discernment” sections and then turned the section on women in ministry into a separate book. Instead he tried to do too much and achieved little.
As it stands, I cannot recommend the book. If you really want to know what McKnight says here, the unnumbered last chapter called “Now What?” contains a succinct summary of his method. Normally such chapters are good reviews but dispense with the author’s argument; since this book contains no argument, you lose nothing by reading only that chapter.
Avoid This Book
* Is this the danger of reviewing books from people you know? My feelings were rather like a teacher disappointed in a student I was sure could do better. Go figure.