Oct 21, 2008

Review of Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet

Thanks to Zondervan and Robin Geelhoed for providing the advanced reader copy from which the following review is based.

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). 240 pp., $18.99 hardcover.

The author is Karl A. Olsson professor of religious studies at North Park College, Chicago, Illinois. He is well-known New Testament scholar and author of commentaries on Galatians and 1 Peter and numerous other books.

The Blue Parakeet is a readable challenge to the way many Christians are reading the Bible today. Blue parakeets are a metaphor for passages or concepts in the Bible which do not conform to one’s theological, cultural, or traditional presuppositions. McKnight addresses these blue parakeets in four movements: (1) Story: What is the Bible? (2) Listening: What do I do with the Bible? (3) Discerning: How do I benefit from the Bible? (4) Women in church ministries today.

On the positive side McKnight is to be commended for challenging Christians to take their Bible reading and application seriously. His writing is conversational in tone and generally irenic in spirit (although he takes periodic shots, e.g., p. 176). Some will also appreciate his culturally relevant metaphors (“wiki,” “WDWD” a take-off of WWJD], etc.). The author’s pastoral spirit and transparency is also refreshing.

Having said this, this book was a bit frustrating to read. McKnight’s assertions are rarely validated and sometimes remained unexplained. While some of this may be attributed to the popular nature of the book– it is obviously not intended to be a scholarly treatise, one would still expect some level of validation. Unfortunately, he appears to devote more space to personal anecdotes than clarification and argumentation. For example, McKnight writes, “God was on the move God is on the move; and God will always be on the move” (p. 33). Perhaps his assertion is true, but what does it mean for God to “move”? This sounds a bit like Process Theology. Further, how does McKnight’s God of movement relate to a closed Canon? Another example can be seen in McKnight’s assertion that the central theme of the Scriptures is oneness (pp. 66–79). Again this might be possible, but there is insufficient evidence to support his point and the point is crucial to his argument that the Bible is story. The problem is the identification of a meta-theme for Scripture is more challenging than the reader might be led to believe. The challenging nature of identifying the meta-theme is evidenced by the lack of scholarly consensus regarding the “centers” of either Testament, much less both Testaments together, which a quick perusal of the numerous published Old and New Testament theologies and their proposed “centers” will reveal.

Perhaps the lack of careful validation is most evident in the final section concerning women in ministry where one assumes that the author is putting into practice the methodology that he is suggesting we follow. Three examples will have to suffice here. First, McKnight attempts to argue for the egalitarian view concerning women in ministry by asking What Did Women Do (WDWD). He seems to think that if he can show that women performed some leadership or ministerial functions in the Bible then they should be able to do any leadership or ministerial function in the church today. This argument is not only a non sequitur, but it is also faulty on several counts. It fails to recognize the important distinction in Scripture’s narratives between what is descriptive (what happened) and what is prescriptive or normative (what should happen). If the narratives involving women are descriptive then they surely cannot be used to overturn the prescriptions in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11and 14. If one concludes that all the narratives involving women in Scripture were prescriptive then one has to explain the absence of women as high priests, kings (unless you want to throw in Athaliah!), and the omission of women from the Twelve. Using McKnight’s argument, could not one conclude that the predominant picture of male leadership in Scripture is equally prescriptive? Another problem with author’s WDWD is how he handles some of the evidence. McKnight’s appeal to Deborah is a case in point. It is generally acknowledged by scholars that the period of the Judges was a time of spiritual regression in which everyone did what was right in their own eyes. If this is the case, then should we not read all the judges, including Deborah, from this perspective? Would the original readers of Judges have said, “Wow, Deborah is a great example of egalitarianism!” Or might the original readers have concluded that the period of the Judges was a period of social and religious upheaval in which the men failed to lead as they should have? I suggest that the latter is much more likely given the nature of the period and even Deborah’s own statement in Judges 4:9. Therefore, if Deborah is a blue parakeet in Judges, it is simply because the men were head-buried ostriches during a time of moral, political, and spiritual decay.

A second example of faulty argumentation is McKnight’s all or nothing approach. He argues that “If a woman is given the freedom to explain the gospel and persuade others to respond to the gospel, and if the message of evangelism shapes how a person will eventually live as a Christian, consistency would demand that we either bar women from evangelism or permit to teach and preach as well” (p. 154). By this logic, the Old Testament Law would be inconsistent, because it required that all the priests be of the tribe of Levi and the high priest had to be of the family of Aaron. Did this mean that consistency would demand that all the men who were not in the tribe of Levi were not to participate in religious rituals since they could not be priests? It is worth noting that even men were not given full equality in the Old Testament. A similar point can be made in the New Testament. Applying McKnight’s “either/or” proposal would demand that men who do not meet the standard of eldership (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) be either included in the eldership regardless of their lack of qualifications, or be completely exempt from spiritual consecration or duty. At one point, McKnight notes that many of his friends gravitate to the problem texts (1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2) as the starting point of the discussion. He notes that this is “like asking about marriage in the Bible and gravitating toward the divorce texts” (p. 163). Consequently he begins his discussion with what women have done in Scripture. Fair enough, but perhaps McKnight needs to take one further step backwards. Namely, begin by looking at the texts that limited the role of men such as noted above. Positions of formal spiritual leadership in Scripture have, more often than not, been exclusive rather than inclusive.

A third example of the weaknesses of McKnight’s application of his methodology as it relates to the role of women is his discussion of Mary (pp. 176–79). His assertions are speculative and his conclusions are dubious. How one gets from Mary to egalitarianism escapes me. This statement is not meant to diminish Mary’s role or importance in the Jesus story. One can affirm Mary as Theotokos. But isn’t the fact that Mary is a woman more predicated on the idea that Messiah was to be fully human and thus birthed by a woman rather than some kind of affirmation regarding egalitarianism? If God wanted to show Mary as a paradigmatic picture of egalitarianism in the New Testament then it seems that He has chosen to do so rather obscurely. Mary’s role in the early church receives scant attention in Acts or the Epistles. Furthermore, one also needs to determine whether the narratives which mention Mary were written to be prescriptive or descriptive.

In conclusion, McKnight’s call to take another look at Scripture is worth heeding. But there are some clear problems with his methodology especially regarding his test case of women in ministry. In following McKnight’s example, we may find that some blue parakeets may turn out to be red herrings! Nonetheless, one might be thankful that The Blue Parakeet will elicit further discussion about Scripture.

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