Bad Shortcuts to Reading the Bible

Man, Scot McKnight really got me good.

I am still working my way through his book, The Blue Parakeet, and in chapter 3, he really lets me have it by demolishing my pet theories of studying the Bible. His book is about hermeneutics, which is really an unnecessarily ridiculous word that means the theory of interpretation. In this case, McKnight writes about how we interpret the Bible. He has his own ideas, of course, but before he gets to those, he spends some time discrediting some of our “shortcuts” to Bible reading. In chapter 3 of his book, he highlights five such shortcuts that he believes distorts the message of the Bible. The first shortcut is to read the Bible looking for “morsels of Law.” People who take this shortcut read the Bible as a rule book. The second shortcut is “morsels of blessings and promises.” People who read this way tend to turn the Bible into some kind of inspirational self-help book, a tome of positive thinking.

I really don’t see the Bible as either of those things, but that doesn’t mean I get off easily in this chapter. Whereas shortcuts 1 and 2 really don’t apply to me, shortcuts 3 and 4 hit home.

Shortcut 3 is called “Mirrors and Inkblots,” where the Bible becomes a type of Rorschach test that tells us about ourselves more than about God. McKnight definitely steps on my toes when he writes,

Some people read the Bible as if its passages were Rorschach inkblots. They see what is in their head. In more sophisticated language, the project onto the Bible what they want to see. If you show them enough passages and you get them to talk about the, you will hear what is important to them, whether it is in the Bible or not! They might see in the “Jesus inkblot” a Republican or a socialist, because they are Republicans or socialists. Or, they may see in the book of Revelation, a favorite of inkblot readers, a sketch of contemporary international strife. Or, they may have discovered in the inkblot called “Paul” a wonderful pattern for how to run a church, which just happens to be the pastor’s next big plan! You get the point–reading the Bible as an inkblot is projecting onto the Bible our ideas and our desires (48).

You’re killing me, McKnight! Honestly, I really do try not to project onto the Bible…but it just happens. For example, I really, really want Jesus to be a hippie who never says anything mean and always acts gently and lovingly…but he’s just not. And I really, really want God to be all peaceful and kind and for-heaven-sakes-stop-slaughtering-all-those-people-in-the-Old-Testament. Instead, in my Bible reading last week, God appointed Jehu king, and gave Mr. Seventy-Heads-in-a-Bucket the divine seal of approval! Argh. It truly does confound me sometimes that I can’t make the Bible my inkblot.

But that’s not even the worst of what McKnight points out. After all, I understand cognitively that the Bible is not an inkblot, as much as I apparently would love to remake God in my own image. When I got to the last shortcut, though, I was really thrown for a loop. I read it and honestly thought, “Wait…but isn’t that what hermeneutics is??” Here’s McKnight’s last bad shortcut: “Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind.” He says,

For some people the Bible is like a big puzzle. Once you’ve got the puzzle solved, you no longer have to work with the pieces. The shortcut is that once you’ve expended the energy to solve the puzzle, the job is done…These people know what the Bible says before they open it up because they’ve already puzzled it together (50).

And…this is me. I have referred to the Bible as a puzzle. I’ve referred to people as puzzles. In fact, I refer to most things as puzzles; I think in terms of puzzles. Puzzles are my favorite. I puzzle through everything, which means that I find various pieces of information spread out over the pages of the Bible, or the words and actions of my friends, or in a movie or a song or a genre, or in most anything that has information…and then I put them together to form some comprehensive line of thought. I’m a puzzler; it’s what I do. To drive the point home that this “shortcut” is aimed squarely at me, McKnight says, “Think about it this way: it is one thing to pull together the social thinking of Charles Dickens from his novels,” and then goes on to explain why that method is not applicable to Bible story (51). Friends, I kid you not, that was a paper I wrote in grad school: the social theory of Charles Dickens, based on his novels. It was one of my favorite papers, and I still think about it often whenever I contemplate social problems. The bottom line is, my puzzling is one of my favorite parts of my brain; I love its ability to take large, diverse chunks of information, distill them, and then systematize their underlying theories. This is exactly what I want to do with the Bible.

So far, I have been foiled. I have tried and tried to systematize the Bible into a comprehensive, coherent code of morality that takes into account every single book and story, but I just have not been able to yet. I was still holding out hope, when McKnight deflated the rest of that balloon. Here’s why he says the puzzle method doesn’t work.

1. It presumes to have “mapped the mind of God.” (Oh, the hubris!)

2. It “nearly always ignores the parts of the puzzle that don’t fit.” (You have to, or you’d go crazy. Trust me!)

3. It is impossible. (This is where he compares it to figuring out Dickens’ social theory and points out the diversity of viewpoints in the Bible.)

4. It “calls into question the Bible as we have it.”

That last reason is what really got me, and looking back, it is what inspired my post on cranky conservatism earlier this year. I had read this part of the book over Christmas break and then forgotten about it. Clearly though, the thoughts of the book were behind that post. What McKnight specifically says about reason number 4 is,

After all, had he wanted to, God could have revealed a systematic theology chapter by chapter. But God didn’t choose this way of revealing his truth. Maybe–this “maybe” is a little facetious–that way of telling the truth can’t tell it the way God wants his truth to told…

What is the problem here? In one word, mastery. Those who solve the puzzle think they’ve got the Bible mastered…God did not give the Bible so we could master him or it; God gave the Bible so we could live it, so we could be mastered by it” (52).


That man speaks the truth.

The last shortcut is called “Maestros,” and when we take this shortcut, we focus solely on our favorite voice, like Maestro Jesus or Maestro Paul, and ignore the others. That is tempting to me, as I love Maestro Jesus…but really, it’s the “puzzling” shortcut that got me.

Have you ever taken any of these shortcuts to the Bible? Which one(s) are your favorites?


Quotes taken from:

McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2008.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on July 4, 2012 at 11:38 am

    “unnecessarily ridiculous”

    Kim, that is one wonderful turn of phrase, and has so many applications to anything that complicates when it doesn’t need to. Thanks for that little gift.

    Re Blue Parakeet, I’ve read a bunch of reviews, articles and blog posts on it but this is the first one that has convinced me I should actually read McKnight’s book.

    What’s my shortcut? Actually, for the longest time now I’ve found that every time I think I get a handle on one part of the Bible I then read another part that either reinforces that understanding in a way I would never have dreamed of, or challenges it in surprisingly odd ways. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize over-arching themes in the Bible: God is sovereign throughout, for example. Yet I have come to realize that there is more in the Bible than I will ever be able to get a glimpse of, let alone master, in my lifetime.



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