The most powerful thing in the world is a good story. They are addictive, transformative, intoxicating. I’ve known this my entire life. I’ve been a story addict from day one. I had to be bribed away from books to spend time with friends during childhood, and I couldn’t imagine majoring in anything but literature in college. I love everything from my friends’ anecdotes to advice columns, and I’m obsessed with a truly humiliating number of television shows. These stories are one of the only things that every society through time and culture and continent has had in common, and many of the ones we tell today have endured for several thousand years. Nothing holds sway over humankind in quite the way that stories do.
In The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight offers a light-hearted and exuberant way to read the Bible as literature, as Story. Addressing the conflicts that so often come from reading the Bible as an inerrant, authoritative document requiring submission and obedience, McKnight makes the game-changing point that the same Spirit that inspired the writers of our Biblical texts is alive in us as we read their words.
Rather than elevating scripture or tradition as the be-all, end-all of our faith, he suggests another way: that we go back to start with the Bible and pass through church tradition, gathering wisdom from each source, in order to use this information to speak to what is important in our day and age. The act of reading and engaging with both the Bible and with those who have gone before us in the faith is done with the understanding that the same Spirit is alive within us, and we have the humble task of using these sources to inform our conversation today. We cannot simply do what has been done before, and we cannot blindly apply the Bible according to a literalist hermeneutic. Instead, we apply both sources in a way that is refreshing, salt and light, innovative and flexible. Indeed, this is how the Biblical authors used the scriptures they had available to them at the time—they steeped in them and used their wisdom to write texts that then became scriptures themselves.
So how do we read the Bible in a way that allows us to learn all of its wisdom without seeing it as a dry rulebook? By reading it as a Story. The Story of the Bible is similar to the outline many of us learned in Sunday School: We used to be one with God; we were separated from God; Jesus restored us to unity; and one day Heaven and earth will be united. McKnight outlines the Story similarly to this, but indicates that we have left out several key parts along the way. Yes, we were created in perfect oneness with God, and yes, we fell into Otherness from God—but also from one another:
“You will observe the story of God’s people in the realities of otherness with others and oneness with others. He cares deeply about this—for pages, for centuries. Creation, fall, redemption—yes. But, and here’s what so many miss, the way God works redemption in this world is through his covenanted community—first Israel, then the church” (74).
What we’ve left out of the story is the middle section. We do it imperfectly, and after the people of God fail over and over, Jesus is our perfect fulfillment of this oneness—but until then, the story is about God teaching us about oneness, and our attempts to put it into practice with those like us and those not like us. This same pattern is mirrored in what we leave out of the story of Jesus: we get right the parts about his incarnation, death, and resurrection—but McKnight emphasizes that the fourth part of this is Pentecost itself, when the Holy Spirit descended on God’s new covenant community: “And now the only need left is the power to create oneness, which is precisely what Pentecost is all about. God sends the promised Spirit of the new covenant so that the covenant community can be …. People who are restored to oneness with God, self, others, and the world” (77). You’ll recall that the story in the Bible goes straight from this to the famous description in Acts 2 of these people gathering together and sharing everything they had, ensuring none went without. Restoring unity to one another and to the world around us is the work we are to be about.
Much of how we work out the details of this is dependent on how we read the Bible, which McKnight addresses by dividing our work into listening (which we do by steeping ourselves deeply in scripture) and discerning (which we do by acknowledging that nobody takes the Bible “literally”—and instead by paying attention to the hermeneutic we apply and why we apply it). Most centrally, McKnight talks about not caging the blue parakeets in scripture. In his story, the sparrows that frequent his home were initially terrified by the escaped pet, a blue parakeet that began hanging out in the area one day. McKnight watched the sparrows grow accustomed to, and make room for, this parakeet’s strange sounds and habits. They did not succeed in taming the parakeet, but they learned to love it for what it was. He likens the strange, difficult passages in the Bible—the ones we don’t have good answers for, the ones we struggle to decide whether to follow today—to blue parakeets, and suggests we interact with them as the sparrows did. We don’t tame them. We don’t change them. We don’t ignore them. We engage them on their own terms. We may arrive at different conclusions about them, but we need not fear them.
If we are able to understand the Bible’s Story, we have an easier time interacting with these blue parakeets. The church typically does not struggle with whether to mix fibers in garments because we understand the purpose that detail has in the Story of God. We certainly struggle more with trickier issues because it isn’t always clear which part of God’s narrative the parakeets fit into. But reading the Bible as Story gives us some room to work through these parts with wisdom and grace in ways that are new and relevant for the time we live in today.
Like what you see here? Join us on Sunday mornings at 10:30 at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington for the conversation and our Q&A.