The Blue Parakeet was one of those books that, as soon as I heard the title and what it was about it, I immediately wanted to read it. After all, what do blue parakeets have to do with reading the Bible? It piqued my curiosity.

Scot McKnight’s book does not disappointment, and will be a recommended resource, right alongside How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and Grasping God’s Word, every time I teach exegesis and hermeneutics. He has caused me to reconsider how I read the Bible, and how I should teach others to read it. I’ll comment on just two elements of the book, and leave the rest for you to discover on your own.

theblueparakeetOne of Dr. McKnight’s best insights is to see the whole Bible as a narrative—a Story. While I have believed this for a while myself, I don’t think I had connected the dots the same way that he had. I had always understood the Bible to be a collection of different genres of literature that, together, form the story of God’s process to redeem and restore creation. In the Blue Parakeet, Dr. McKnight shows that the Bible is, in fact, a single narrative (from a genre/literary type perspective) that contains other genres of literature as sub-genres. That is to say, the Bible is a story that uses poetry, proverbs, prophecies, laws, and apocalypses to move the plot forward. This is a subtle but important difference in the way we see the Bible as a unified whole.

The second comment I’d like to make is the way Dr. McKnight pulls back the curtain on the way that we (evangelicals or whomever) select which passages of Scripture to obey and those to which we say, “That was then, this is now.” He calls this process “discernment”. Though many of us claim to obey Scripture (or attempt to) fully, in reality we all make discernments about how and what to obey. After all, how many of us make certain to wear clothing woven of only one material?

His point is not to call us all disobedient idolaters, but rather to demonstrate that, intentionally or unintentionally, we all translate the Bible “in our day in our way.” We all say about something in the Bible, “that was then but this is now,” so let’s be honest about it and think more critically about how and with what we do this. It’s not a bad thing, he says, because even the characters of the Bible did this (e.g., Paul and Torah).

All in all, The Blue Parakeet was an eye-opening book on how we approach the Scriptures. I commend it to you as an excellent resource for anyone who wants to read the Bible better.

What’s so unique about the Bible? After all, there are plenty of other ancient texts that claim to describe the creation of the world, the role that humans play in it, and the nature of the gods. And we know, of course, that these writings are nothing more than myths. Isn’t the Bible just like these ancient myths—ahistorical religious fiction, albeit with a monotheistic rather than polytheistic bent? Just how similar or different is the Bible to its ancient counterparts? And, the question that really lies behind it all, can we trust that the Bible is telling us the truth about the world?

These are the questions that John Oswalt, research professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary, sets out to answer in his book, The Bible Among the Myths. More specifically, Oswalt is dealing only with the Old Testament and its counterparts from the ancient Near East, including Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite cultures. The book itself is divided into two parts: Part one, the more illuminating and thought-provoking half, is called “The Bible and Myth”, and part two is called “The Bible and History”.

Oswalt claims that there has been a shift in scholarly opinion from understanding the Bible historically, in contrast to the texts of Israel’s neighbors, to viewing it as myth, quite akin to those texts. This has happened, he says, because scholars have come to view the similarities between the Bible and, for example, the Enuma Elish as essential and the differences as accidental. (13) In other words, the Bible is best defined by the ways in which it is the same as other ancient texts, not by the ways in which it is different.

400000000000000184037_s4That, Oswalt argues, is ridiculous. While the Bible may be similar to other ancient texts in some ways (primarily in matters of convention, and mostly superficial), it presents a fundamentally new way of looking at the world, and therefore it cannot fit into the category of myth.

Myth, and particularly the myths of the ancient cultures surrounding Israel, is centrally characterized by Continuity. “Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts that all things are continuous with each other. Thus I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually. …This means that the divine is materially as well as spiritually identical with the psycho-socio-physical universe that we know.” (43) In the mythology that undergirds the religion (and therefore the entire life) of ancient cultures, there is no distinction between humanity, the natural world, and the divine realm. Nor is there a distinction between symbol and reality: “The symbol is the reality. …All things that exist are physically and spiritually part of one another.” (49)

The implications of this way of looking at the world are: 1) Reality only relates to the present; 2) Actualization of timeless reality; 3) Blurring of source and manifestation; 4) Importance of nature symbolism; 5) Significance of magic; 6) Obsession with fertility and potency; and 7) Denial of boundaries. (50-56) The most interesting way in which these implications manifest themselves (and what was likely the most tempting aspect of Canaanite religion to Israel) is in ritual prostitution. “Plant and animal life are the result of divine copulation, for all things in this world that we know have their origins in sexual behavior. Therefore, the thing to do [to make it rain] is to get the god [of heaven] and goddess [of earth] to have sexual relations. …How do we do that? …We do it for them through ritual enactment. As the worshiper and the priestess have sex together under the appropriate ritual circumstances, the god and goddess do so as well and the rhythms of nature are maintained.” (51) Because everything is continuous, the sexual act committed at the temple is the sexual act committed between the god of heaven and the goddess of the earth. Clearly, this is not the biblical worldview.

What makes the Bible different from these myths? Oswalt claims that the Bible is consistently characterized by the following concepts: 1) Monotheism; 2) Iconoclasm; 3) First principle is Spirit; 4) Absence of conflict in the creation process; 5) A high view of humanity; 6) The reliability of God; 7) God is supra-sexual; 8) Sex is desacralized; 9) Prohibition of magic; 10) Ethical obedience as a religious response; and 11) The importance of human-historical activity. (64-80) Each of these is consistently prescribed in the Bible as the standard of Israelite experience, and each of them lie in stark contrast to the prescriptions of myth. In other words, the religion of the Bible could not be any more different from the religions of the myths.

The reason for this is that the Bible does not present a worldview of Continuity, but rather of Transcendence. “For the Bible, God is not the cosmos, and the cosmos is not God. God is radically other than his creation. This thought undergirds everything the Bible says about reality.” (81) God is not a part of creation, nor are there any other gods alongside him in some mythical pantheon. Therefore, he cannot be manipulated or coerced to act through any ritual practice, and specifically through ritual prostitution.

Continuity is the starting point of myth, but Transcendence is the foundation of Biblical thought. While the Bible may share some superficial similarities with the myths, it is distinctive in that it offers a completely new way of looking at the world and relating to its creator.

The Bible Among the Myths is an excellent resource for anyone interested in exploring ancient literature and how the Old Testament relates to the world in which it was written. Oswalt offers a clear, thoughtful picture of how the Bible is distinct from the myths of Israel’s neighbors. While this book is certainly useful for exegesis and biblical studies, I also think it has great value in the arena of apologetics because it shows how remarkable the Scriptures truly are.

Questions: How do you see the worldview of Continuity making a comeback today? Is there any way that the church has mixed Continuity into its teachings or practices? What are the implications of Transcendence, specifically in relation to the Incarnation?

N.T. Wright has written extensively about Jesus already, so why would he need another book? The truth is, Simply Jesus, is the summation of all that Wright has written about Jesus, from The New Testament & The People of God to Jesus and the Victory of God to The Challenge of Jesus, as well as the line of thought he began laying out with Simply ChristianSurprised by Hope, and After You Believe. All of that comes together in this eminently readable, concise tour de force called Simply Jesus.

If you’re familiar with N.T. Wright, there isn’t much that’s new in this book. It’s value, however, lies in that his whole career of thinking on Jesus comes together in this single volume. What is more, it is far more practical than much of his previous work, drawing especially on what he brilliantly laid out in After You Believe. If you’re not familiar with N.T. Wright and his work, this would be an excellent place to start.

136719461The foundation of Wright’s work is history, particularly the first-century history of Roman-occupied Israel. “We have to make a real effort to see things from a first-century Jewish point of view, if we are to understand what Jesus was all about.” (xii) To miss Jesus in his own context would be to miss him entirely. And so he works quickly through the historical material he painstakingly laid out in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. From this work he draws the metaphor of the perfect storm–of three storm fronts colliding at one point at the same time. The three storm fronts of Jesus’ day were the Roman Empire, the Jewish Hopes of Liberation, and the Work of God in the Person of Jesus. These three forces crashed into one another for the three years between the baptism of Jesus by John and his crucifixion by the Romans at the behest of the Jewish leaders.

These three years of Jesus’ ministry were, as Wright puts it often in this book, “what it looks like when Israel’s God becomes King on earth as he is in heaven.” The sick are healed. The blind are given sight. The lame walk. The dead are raised. The demon-possessed are set free. This is how the world works when it’s Creator God is King, and that’s exactly what was happening in and through Jesus.

The tyrant that Jesus came to overthrow was not Rome, as everyone in Israel had hoped and expected to one day happen. The tyrant was “the Satan”, the Accuser, and his weapons of sin and death.

Jesus came to believe that the only way one could defeat death itself, and thereby launch the new creation for which Israel and the world had longed, was to take on death itself, like David talking on Goliath in mortal combat, trusting that Israel’s God, the creator of life itself, would enable victory to be won. And, since dath was seen in the scriptures as the ultimate result of human rebellion against God and the failure to obey him, if death were to be defeated, then idolatry, rebellion, disobedience, and sin would be defeated along with it. Death, like a great ugly giant, would do its worst, and pour out its full weight upon him. And the creator God would overcome it, showing it up as a defeated enemy. (174)

Jesus is now King. And he is enacting his rule and reign through his body, his disciples, on earth as it is in heaven. Our task, then, is to go about proclaiming that he is King, and enacting his kingdom in the same way in which he went about inaugurating it–by laying down his life on the cross, displaying God’s agape love for the world.

This is an outstanding book, and I highly recommend it to every believer, and to every nonbeliever who wants to know more about who Jesus was and is.

Dan Allender is one of my favorite writers and speakers. His talk at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit several years ago, The Intersection of Character and Leadership, was very formative for me. I also thought he sounded exactly like John Malkovich, which is cool. Soon after hearing his talk I picked up his classic book Bold Love, devouring it with sheer delight (and holy conviction).

Somehow his book Sabbath wound up on my bookshelf, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to read it until now. This is an excellent work, and in it Dr. Allender paints a compelling vision for the keeping the Sabbath not as a boring and burdensome day of religious practice and secular neglect, but as a day full of joy and goodness. It is a radically new (for me, at least) understanding of the Sabbath.

9780849901072The question at the top of the back cover stopped me in my tracks: “What would you do for twenty-four hours if the only criteria were to pursue your deepest joy?” I had never thought of the Sabbath that way, and the very act of asking the question filled me with great fear and delight. Really? Could I really do that on the Sabbath? I thought I was supposed to be bored and useless on the seventh day? Can it really be a day full of joy, delight, and *gasp* sensuality?

The dominant image in my mind of the Sabbath is of taking a nap on the couch—which sounds pretty nice, actually. But to have permission to take a walk in the woods, to pursue photography, eat a sumptuous meal, drink wine, smoke a fine cigar, listen to beautiful music, enjoy the wonderful company of friends, and to have sex intimate times with my wife? No, not the Sabbath. Your heart’s not supposed to come alive on the Sabbath. It’s a time of fasting from life and enjoyment, not finding the fullness of eternal life on one sacred day each week.

But, according to Allender at least, I’ve been wrong about the Sabbath all my life. Look at his three basic premises of the Sabbath, and see if they don’t undo your own understanding of the seventh day:

The Sabbath is not merely a good idea; it is one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus did not abrogate, cancel, or annul the idea of the Sabbath. In the Ten Commandments, the fourth (Sabbath) is the bridge that takes us from the first three, which focus on God, to the final five, which concentrate on our relationships with others.

The Sabbath is a day of delight for humankind, animals, and the earth; it is not merely a pious day and it is not fundamentally a break, a day off, or a twenty-four-hour vacation.

The Sabbath is a feast day that remembers our leisure in Eden and anticipates our play in the new heavens and earth with family, friends, and strangers for the sake of the glory of God.

I strongly encourage you to read this book and contemplate how you can obey the fourth commandment, and in that obedience may you find rest, joy, and great delight.

Eugene Peterson’s book Run with the Horses has been around for a long time, but I didn’t pick it up until I was so powerfully struck by Jeremiah 12:5, the verse from which the book’s title is derived. This has become a bit of a “life-verse” for me, one that has struck me time and again when faced with anger or despair.

If you have raced with men on foot
and they have worn you out,
how can you compete with horses?
If you stumble in safe country,
how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?

Run with the Horses is a pastoral commentary on the book of Jeremiah. It is not exhaustive, though it covers the most significant events of Jeremiah’s life and ministry. The book is subtitled “The Quest for Life at Its Best”, which is subversive because few of us would like at Jeremiah’s life with envy. He was a melancholy outcast who struggled mightily with the weight of his calling and the resistance with which it was met. He lived through the most trying period in his nation’s history, and ultimately died an ignoble death in a foreign land.

55208498Peterson opens with an exploration of chapter 12, where Jeremiah bitterly complains about the resistance his message has met and the unfairness of life in general. God’s response is what we find in verse 5: “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”

Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know, to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah? Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses? (21-22)

That is the question, as Peterson sees it, that God posed to Jeremiah. It is the same question he now poses to us. We can get worn out by this life, bitterly devolving into a grumbling mass; or we can step outside the rat race to where the thoroughbreds run and test our legs there. “Some people as they grow up become less. …Other people as they grow up become more. Life is not an inevitable decline into dullness; for some it is an ascent into excellence.” (25) Such was the path of Jeremiah.

Peterson sketches Jeremiah’s faithfulness to God through all the horrors of his life: mockery, rejection, famine, siege, desolation, and exile. Through it all he chose to run with the horses, to not be sidetracked by bitterness or disappointment. He was melancholy, but still he hoped in God.

This is an excellent book for everyone, but especially for those pursuing full-time vocational ministry. There is much to be learned from Jeremiah’s life and ministry, particularly for those of us who would dare to speak God’s message.

I’ll leave you with some of the most provocative words I’ve ever read: “It is easier to define oneself minimally (“a featherless biped”) and live securely within that definition than to be defined maximally (“little less than God”) and live adventurously in that reality.” (22)

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