“Reading with Tradition”
A Review of
The Blue Parakeet:
Rethinking How You Read the Bible.
by Scot McKnight.
By Chris Smith.
The Blue Parakeet is the second book by Scot McKnight that we have reviewed here in the Englewood Review in the last year (The first book was A Community Called Atonement – hereafter ACCA – reviewed in issue #2). McKnight, a professor of religious studies at North Park University, has authored numerous books and also is the author of the popular blog JesusCreed.org. Like ACCA, The Blue Parakeet, dares to challenge prevailing theological ideas and practices in today’s churches. In ACCA, McKnight addressed our understanding of atonement and how that is fleshed out in our churches. In The Blue Parakeet, he turns to questions of what Scripture is and how we read it. The book’s creative title comes from a story that McKnight, a birdwatcher, tells about seeing such a bird in his backyard. As it turns out, this particular bird had apparently escaped from its cage and its owner’s house. McKnight is struck by his own response to seeing this bird. The trajectory of his responses goes from not realizing what it was to wishing the parakeet would go away, to trying to catch it and re-cage it, to finally being content to observe it and seeing how it behaves. After some reflection, McKnight realizes that the blue parakeet serves as a wonderful metaphor for our experience of parts of scripture that do not fit with our present understanding of Scripture and the way in which our reading is embodied in the practice of our church community. Such “blue parakeet” experiences might include the more obscure commandments of the Israelite law, the practice of footwashing or the Sabbath or passages on the ministry of women in the church.
McKnight introduces three primary ways in which we have read and continue to read the Bible. First, he identifies the “read and retrieve” method, through which we seek to import all biblical practices to the present (as at least as many as can be “salvaged”). The crucial problem with this method is that it ignores the context in which the practices took shape. For instance, if we retrieve the Pauline practice of having women be silent in church, we miss the context of Paul’s church audiences in which most women had not had very many educational opportunities. The second way of reading scripture that McKnight introduces is “reading through tradition” – i.e., “fossilizing” certain decisions of earlier generations of the Church and then rigidly adhering to the practices of this tradition. Again there are some significant problems with this approach, and the primary one is the similar to that of the “read and retrieve” method, it forsakes the context of the present in favor of the context of some earlier era. The final approach that McKnight identifies and the one for which he advocates over the remainder of the book is “reading with tradition.” This approach uses tradition as a guide by which to read the scriptures in the context of the present. Unlike the “reading through tradition” approach, this practice allows for (respectful) disagreements with the traditional readings.
McKnight spends most of the book exploring three facets of the “reading with tradition” approach to the Bible: story, listening and discerning. Story is McKnight’s answer to the question of biblical ontology (i.e., “What is the Bible?”). He begins this section by naming shortcuts that we often take in reading the Bible: e.g., reading scripture as a collection of laws or a collection of blessings, or as a narcissistic reflection of who I am, etc. McKnight does a superb job of mapping out the high level course of the biblical story – from creation to the final consummation of God’s reconciled creation. Reflecting his work in ACCA, he rightly emphasizes that the community of God’s people (not just individuals) plays an important role in the biblical story.
Listening is the second facet of reading the Bible that he explores. Here he reminds us that listening is rooted in a love for the speaker. In this section, McKnight paints the imagery of our relationship to the Bible as one of conversation. This conversation is between us and the text, but also – as the “reading with tradition” approach implies – with tradition and most importantly with God. Thus, the end of scripture is not knowledge of the text itself, but rather knowledge of and a love for the Author. McKnight’s chapter on missional listening (the “why” of reading scripture) – which in his wife’s estimation was the book’s “boring” chapter – is excellent. We listen to God in the scriptures, according to McKnight, in order to be transformed into the image of Christ and swept up into the biblical story.
The final facet of the “reading with tradition” approach that McKnight explores is discernment. If, as McKnight has established in his sections on story and listening, the end of scripture is knowing and loving God and being transformed into Christ’s image, then discernment, the applying of scripture to decisions about the shape of how we will live our lives is essential. McKnight’s emphasis here on the local church is well-stated, as the local church is the basic environment in which our faith is embodied. My primary disappointment with this book, and it was a small one and one similar to what I expressed about ACCA, is that it does not go far enough in its depiction of discernment. The types of discernments that McKnight posits as examples are primarily of a doctrinal or religious nature (divorce/re-marriage, circumcision, tongues, etc.) Such decisions are important in the life of the church, but focusing on them exclusively can obscure the importance of the biblical discernment of questions that pertain to life throughout the week and not just on Sundays (how we will earn livings, where we will live, what we will eat, how we will engage our neighbors, etc.) I suspect that McKnight would agree that these discernments are important to determining the shape of our shared life together in the local church community, but it would have been beneficial to see a little more exploration of this area.
The book’s final section is a careful application of McKnight’s method to the question of women in ministry. This example does a good job, not only of illustrating the “reading with tradition” approach, but also at illuminating pitfalls that lurk along the way.
The Blue Parakeet is one of the best books that I have encountered on how the Bible should be read. McKnight is dead-on in the method he prescribes and in the dangers he exposes in other methods and in the shortcuts that we are wont to take. He is an excellent writer, who humorously and engagingly addresses this challenging topic in language that will be accessible to most readers. There were a few points where I cringed at the individualism in the titles used for chapters and sections (especially “How do I benefit from the Bible?”) but these may have originated with McKnight’s editors. This is an excellent book that should be read and considered in our churches and I pray that we will take its message to heart!