Thursday, September 20, 2012

Some possible lessons about Driscoll on Esther and bloggers on Driscoll

Anyone remember the Liberty University kerfuffle?  I would assume so.  Anyone remember the pre-emptive strike on Justin Brierley and the subsequent finessing Driscoll did at the start of this year?  Probably.

Well, folks, I'm going to throw an idea out for consideration, those of you who have taken up blogging about Driscoll's earlier post about Esther as sexually immoral were played for suckers.  Driscoll's post on 9/13/2012 at Pastor Mark TV "could" be interpreted as a tell.  Why?  Well ...

Since the Scriptures simply do not give anything more than the facts of what happened, absolute certainty as to any view is impossible if we are using just the Scriptures as our guide. This may explain why for the first seven centuries of the church zero commentaries were written on the book, John Calvin apparently never preached or wrote on it, and Martin Luther rejected its place in the canon of Scripture. Last week, I preached the first sermon in the 11-week series, and it will be online by Monday, so I’m just getting started.

Or early Christians may have not seen the use of a ton of preaching on a book whose obvious literary purpose was promoting the observance of a Jewish festival when a certain apostle Paul wrote epistles saying that fixating on observance of Jewish feast days and dietary laws was hampering the Gospel of Jesus.  Driscoll can keep asserting that early Christians just didn't get around to commenting on Esther because, well they just weren't sure what to make of it.  That might be partly true but don't be too quick to take Driscoll's approach seriously if even he grants that there's no clear consensus.  Then again, Driscoll's objectives may or may not depend on whether or not he takes earlier Christian interpretations seriously.

It's been noted that it is characteristic of Esther to conceal knowledge throughout the story.  Esther can be seen as almost a secondary character to Mordecai and as some have noted the differences between the Masoretic and Septuagint (i.e. Hebrew and Greek) forms of the canonical book could keep you busy for a while.  Driscoll's too Protestant to necessarily concede there's anything to be preached from the Greek version of Esther, perhaps.

Now Driscoll mentions there are three options for how to interpret the book.

1. Esther was godly from beginning to end
2. Esther was an innocent victim of sexual assault
3. Esther started as a less-than-godly woman but had a conversion of sorts and became godly by the end of the story.

Driscoll notes that the evidence for the second view is scant to non-existence.  Vashti refused the king's demand (though let's face it what the king demanded of Vashti and Esther respectively are not exactly comparable if we think about them for even a few seconds).  Driscoll points out that the text doesn't say Esther didn't want to go.  He also claims that when women are sexually assaulted the Scriptures say so clearly such as with Dinah and that Esther as a book doesn't tell us this so it's not a given that Esther was an innocent victim of sexual assault. The most Driscoll can manage to pull off amounts to saying that arguments from silence can't be used to assume view 2.

But the very definition of view 2 could be considered a straw man regarding this woman.  Modify "assault" so that it reads as "exploitation" and view 2 is a very easily defended position.  Narrative literature doesn't have to spell everything out and often narrative literature leans on some ambiguities and ambivalence for a reader to consider.  For instance, whose wisdom was Solomon leaning on during much of his reign, his own or wisdom he received from the Lord?  The text does not spell that out in any obvious way but Solomon's decline into idolatry and apostasy tells us that even asking for wisdom from Yahweh is no safeguard against a heart that strays from the Lord.

Let's remember that Driscoll said during 2008's Peasant Princess series that if he were going to be your mortgage (not his) he'd speculate that the young woman in Song of Songs is Abishag.  But for Esther he doesn't want to speculate that a young Jewish woman in an exilic context would have likely been the victim of sexual exploitation but a pagan king?  Does anyone want to go back and review Andrew's discipline contract that made the news earlier in 2012?  That was over consensual sexual activity between a guy and the daughter/stepdaughter of a Mars Hill pastor (or former pastor since it's not a certainty that pastor is still employed by Mars Hill).  The year that Mars Hill advocates have claimed Andrew was a predator may not be the ideal year in which Driscoll even suggests that view 2 is not really sustainable from the textual evidence, not after he's speculated that Solomon's first love was Abishag despite an absence of any real evidence.

As to other cases of rape in the Bible, we could discuss the Levite's concubine but let's skip to Amnon and Tamar. Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and while we are not explicitly told that David's failure to punish his son for an incestuous act of rape that Absalom's insurrection is eventually fomented by exploiting David's broader failure to see to it that a judicial system was in place can be shown to be the fulfillment of the prophetic judgment David was told about through the prophet Nathan.  Judgment for what?  For taking Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Driscoll might want to bear in mind that we're not told whether Bathsheba really wanted to have sex with the king either and Nathan's rebuke seems to have no interest at all in condemning her as an adulterous.  Was she going to refuse the king of Israel, God's annointed leader of Israel? How would things have gone for her and any of her children she may have had if she tried to blow the whistle on David's taking another man's wife?

Now it's true Esther leaves us an Esther who is a cipher.  It's not a huge leap to propose that her being a beautiful cipher was part of how she stayed alive.  If we are honest we should be aware that claiming that the book of Esther doesn't tell us how Esther felt about what was done to her is simply not an argument against the view that Esther was subjected to sexual exploitation by a pagan ruler.

There's not a lot by way of evidence for Driscoll's view #3.  There's no indication of a conversion experience for Esther anywhere in the text.  Esther called for a fast but this may not be indicative of a conversion experience.  We don't know whether or not Esther had fasted before.  The case for a conversion experience seems even more speculative than the more reasonable surmise that Esther was conscripted into the king's queen auditions.  But even if Esther HAD a conversion experience of some kind that would not have changed her position.  If we're going to jigsaw puzzle the Bible Paul would later write that you should stay in whatever state you were in when you were called. Mordecai told Esther that perhaps she had been raised up to her place so that she could plead for her people.  Because the narrative literature often does not spell things out I suppose we could try to say that Mordecai was selfishly misreading providence but if he were why did anyone bother writing the book?  There are certain things you can infer from the mere existence of the text, one of them was that Mordecai made some wise decisions at an appropriate time in advising Esther so as to preclude a genocide.

It's useful that Driscoll pointed out that David authorized a political assasination from his deathbed.  As some OT scholars have pointed out David had a way of "interpreting" some of his promises so that his heir could kill potential threats to a unified kingdom.  It might have been useful of Driscoll to mention this detail in this case because when the unity of a kingdom for a king trying to build a legacy for himself is a big enough deal to have a couple of guys put through a woodchipper it's of note that the Bible does not present this sort of act as the kind that would be worthy of a professing believer in the one true God.  Since Driscoll brought it up ... it's an interesting aside regarding view 1. Driscoll wants to point out that there's a pious bias in which we imagine that saints of old were better than they are.  Well, yeah, there's that but if we're going to go there that has implications now for the saints of today, doesn't it?

You see the thing about view 1 is that it is easy to claim that this view "can" be erroneous by deciding to read a character's actions in the most positive light.  Driscoll decided to ignore the various views that Ruth, a Moabite woman who would not have been trained in the godliness of the Israelites during her time over in her homeland, seduced Boaz.  Driscoll skipped over that by saying that Ruth didn't cross the line but danced on it vigorously.  Says Driscoll, who has managed to see all kinds of innuendo in Song of Songs but seems a bit selective in what innuendo he sees in other biblical texts. For that matter Driscoll said Boaz was fantastic without addressing the question of whether or not Boaz violated the prohibition against Moabites ever entering the assembly of God's people.  Driscoll has trafficked in enough straw men that we can point out that there has to be some textual basis for suggesting view 1 doesn't or shouldn't apply.  Even Driscoll can grant that there's not a ton of evidence to say that Esther was actually all that bad.

View 3 is one for which Driscoll says nobody is shown praying or reading scripture or worshipping God and this means we can't be sure anyone is living in God's will.  Well if that interpretive approach applies for Esther as a narrative why would it apply? Just because nobody is shown praying or doing pious stuff?  What about view 1 and the proposal that people read piety into things where it isn't?  If the argument from silence is used to make a case that maybe Esther had a conversion experience why does that apply?  See, the name of God and famous events in Israelite history are pretty absent from Song of Songs and Driscoll didn't see any need to point out that maybe these two lovebirds were kinda not entirely in the will of God.  Obviously a poem is not really aiming to do that when the anatomical plaudits are given. We would not expect Song of Songs to have endless asides thanking God for the gift of sex and how sex (only in marriage) is a wonderful way of reflecting the hierarchical submissive relationship within the Trinity for all the obvious reasons.

Now if we were to lean heavily on what Esther didn't do we'd have to assume more about the context that is ostensibly provided by other biblical narratives that are simply not relevant.  For instance, if Esther was merely a nominal Jew she wouldn't have known about the example of Joseph, would she?  If we take Driscoll's advocacy of view 3 that Esther was not that godly and later had a conversion experience then pointing out that she didn't do this or that like other saints of old did is simply irrelevant.  The trouble, further, is that even if she never had a conversion experience and was a godly woman from the start she's not in a position to negotiate or change her status.

Saying that Vashti refused misses that what was asked of Vashti was a public demonstration of her body and not being the consort of the king.  To suggest that Esther could have refused advances as Joseph did is to forget a number of things.  Even in the pre-exilic context there were laws dealing with selling daughters into slavery.  It was not a given that even in an Israelite setting Hadassah would have had much input on whether she was traded to this or that person.  There is, of course, no real evidence Mordecai would have sold her but given that the king was a man who could be persuaded to blithely sign off on a genocide of a whole race in which a single member of that race was perceived as disrespecting an important royal functionary had Esther refused this was the kind of exilic setting in which all the Jews in the region might have been massacred, for all we do or don't know, had Esther refused and word gotten around that she was Jewish.  In absence of some fuller background as to why Mordecai urged Esther to conceal her Jewish identity we can make a semi-educated guess that Mordecai had good reasons.  After all, this is Jewish literature we're discussing.

Driscoll notes that a commentator rightly observed that the only criteria the king had would be the queen would be beautiful and have sexual prowess.  Driscoll says so but this is not a given that a commentator is right just because Driscoll says so.  As to sexual prowess, well, did not Driscoll once say that sex is like any team sport and that one only becomes better at it with practice?  The king could advise the queen on what would most please him and barring that the eunuchs in charge of the harem would be able to advise the young queen, and in fact we are told clearly that Esther sought the advice of the eunuchs and went with whatever they advised regarding how best to make a favorable impression with the king.  Another problem with claiming that demonstrable sexual prowess was important is that for a prospective new queen the matter of heirs was important.  Why would a king want to bring in a sexually proficient queen who may have already become pregnant with some other man's child?  Thus virgins.  Now some think Mordecai and Esther were secretly married but I'm not going to bother getting into all of that. The point here is that given the goal of the king was a queen who would properly submit and be a better example to all the wives in the kingdom the last thing that would have aided this campaign would be if the newly appointed queen were already "sexually proficient" enough to impress the king.  Now maybe experts in ancient near eastern societies could explain how this proficiency could have been established but this whole line of explanation opens up more questions than it can manage to answer now that Driscoll has brought it up.

But I'm going to suggest in the spirit of playful sarcasm that all of this would still be to miss something more rudimentary about Driscoll blogging about Esther.  There are two comments from Driscoll that are relevant.

Depending upon what assumptions you bring to the story, you can be persuaded in any one of the three directions. 

Driscoll has butchered OT literature whenever he's preached from it in the last six or so years.  Ruth was a how-to-marry manual.  Nehemiah was a typology in which Driscoll was Nehemiah.  Song of Songs was a topical preaching series masquerading as an expository series.  As marriage advice it may have had some useful information but as a discussion of the actual text of Song of Songs it was a wreck.  Proverbs was a bit more of the same in which a few pet topics were drudged out. Ecclesiastes was built on the unsustainable assumption that Solomon was writing his way through to repentance even though this is not indicated anywhere in the actual canonical texts that deal with the final years of Solomon's reign, nor do we have a case in which even the internal evidence of Ecclesiastes itself suggests that identifying its author as Solomon is ultimately very sustainable.

But let's consider the selection of texts.  Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Esther.  Maybe there's something shrewd to these sorts of selections.  These are OT books about which scholars have puzzled and disagreed.  The fact that Driscoll has no demonstrable competence in exegeting OT overall probably won't come up within his church.  He can't have been the first pastor to shill a bunch of pep talks tangentially derived from Nehemiah into a campaign to promote a church re-org project.  It's not like there have never been pastors who have used OT narrative literature as a way to stump for building campaigns.  With a book like Ruth Mark Driscoll could lean on the reality that there's still scholarly debate about authorship, dating, and other details to the point where he practically has a blank check to basically say whatever he wants.  Don't believe me?  Well, consider this quote.

Since the Scriptures simply do not give anything more than the facts of what happened, absolute certainty as to any view is impossible if we are using just the Scriptures as our guide.

Like I said, a blank check. Sure, he's going to consult commentaries by the bundle but he's going to say that if we "just" go by the biblical text of Esther it's impossible to have any certainty as to any view.  Of course it's convenient to say that at the start of what may be yet another controversial dance Driscoll takes his church through with an Old Testament book.

And who in the laity will be educated enough in biblical literature to second-guess him in his church?
 Probably not many and those who do may just keep quiet.  Now critics have been vocal from the outside and have brought up different views, views that Driscoll has rolled out.  This is where I'm going to restate my proposal that Driscoll has quite possibly played you for suckers.

When I started the study of Esther and launched the brief blog post to get the buzz going, I leaned toward view #3 but now I’m reconsidering that and reevaluating some research

Linger a bit on the "to get the buzz going" part.  It's not like Driscoll hadn't been researching a variety of views about how to interpret Esther already.  My blogging friend Wendy at Practical Theology for Women was noting problems in certain interpretations of Esther and Vashti as submissive wives and it wasn't a huge leap of association to note that Mark and Grace Driscoll's book Real Marriage came out around that time..

I propose that Driscoll has a history of researching into topics, knowing there are a variety of views and then just preaching or publicly discussing an issue as though just the version of textual interpretation he's promoting at the time is the one way to go.  He dismissed Genesis 6 interpretations of angelic/human hybrids as the "seed of Chucky" interpretation even though that interpretation was, by Augustine's account, all but universally accepted in the apostolic period.  Even though that interpretation is the basis for the apocryphal books of Enoch and that the books of Enoch are quoted in the epistle of Jude.  Even though the epistle of Jude's appropriation of Enoch involves a contrasting parallelism that makes more sense then saying "strange flesh" must have meant "homosexuality" which is as same flesh as possible.  Never mind that stuff, a "seed of Chucky" joke and no one is invited to dig through the texts further to see that that interpretation was really widespread and considered a legitimate option.

But in the wake of a public reaction to some incendiary proposals this month Driscoll finds it convenient to mention that there are a range of views.  Sure, why not, because now would be a good time to mention a lack of scholarly consensus as the blank check for whatever he comes up with over the next few months.  His lack of competent exegesis of OT literature is not going to be an obstacle to his fanbase taking him completely seriously as a "Bible teacher" even if his degree in exegetical theology has not as yet been shown to have done him much good on OT literature.  Maybe he'll get better?  I'm not holding my breath.

But if people forgot about what he said about the issue underlying a lot of issues in 2011 being whether gender is a social construct or divinely designed, congratulations, you got played again if you took the bait.  Driscoll's managed to go most of 2012 without many people asking questions about the number of ex-pastors who have dropped out of MH in the last 12 months.  James Noriega, to go by a couple of comments on the internet, got fired (and while people can say it's on the internet and you can't trust everything on the internet the same can be said about Driscoll's scholarship).  Driscoll can say that Esther is nuclear radiation and that pastors won't touch the book for whatever reason.

Nuclear radiation for Mark Driscoll appears to be less books of the Bible about which he admits he hasn't figured things out than a website, particularly Joyful Exiles, or discussing Scott Thomas in any fashion, let alone the role Scott Thomas played in the 2007 firings.  The eligibility of Tim Beltz to be an executive elder when he was ordained in October 2007 is not likely to get a lot of public discussion but it would sure appear from the by-laws in place at the time that Beltz simply wasn't yet qualified to be an executive elder when he popped up as one in late 2007.  No questions about any possible connection between Tim Beltz as Chief Operation Officer at CRISTA Ministries and Mars Hill getting Schirmer Auditorium rent free for a few years seem to be on any one else's mind.  No discussion about how many executive elders were in place when the bid on Tabella was made or if written notice was given 30 days before the decision seems likely to happen, yet these are the more significant questions than what Driscoll might opt to say this week about Esther.

Unfortunately bloggers find it easier to blog about Driscoll on Esther. It's easier to react to Driscoll's public moves than to look through the stuff he won't comment on.  I don't think bloggers have grasped that the stuff Driscoll bothers to talk about is stuff he considers safe. Liberty University and the book of Esther are safe.  If you look at the things he's never uttered a word about and that his PR team has done gymnastics to separate him from those, I suggest, are the things that are more important.

I'm going to propose that if Driscoll actually publicly addresses a topic at Pastor Mark TV it's probably not actually all that important.  If he avoids mentioning something that's worth discussing.  For instance, when the invitation for churches to ask if they could join Mars Hill came up Driscoll mentioned successful church mergers in the past.  Well Mars Hill West Seattle was Doxa, a church plant that happened to be sitting on real estate Driscoll had wanted for Mars Hill for ten years.  Mars Hill Albuquerque also started out as an Acts 29 church plant.  The take-away Driscoll might have wanted you to take from those case studies would be "Church mergers with Mars Hill have really worked out."  The take-away for someone who spent about a decade inside a Mars Hill or Acts 29 context might be different, it might be that if you're an Acts 29 pastor sitting on a church and real estate that the executive leadership at Mars Hill really, really wants (maybe even wanted for up to ten years) then you'll be getting a proposal in which you hand over your church to Mars Hill and the congregation just gets to be on mission or you need a whole new core.  If you're a pastor at some other non-Acts 29 church it's not as certain that things will go that swiftly or that once you've handed that real estate to Driscoll you or yours will keep your jobs.  Whether or not any pastors and churches took up the invitation from April 2012 to ask if they could join Mars Hill is at this point an essentially hypothetical discussion.

So am I discouraging blogging responses to Driscoll's handling of Esther?  Why, no! Far from it.  But bloggers need to realize there's much more to a religious institution and brand as big as Mars Hill then its most attention-getting and possibly attention-craving star. Any discussion that furthers an actual discussion of the biblical literature is still great.  Just try to make it more about the biblical text and less about Driscoll.  What I am suggesting, as well, is that the way the blogosphere has continually reacted to Driscoll this year makes it seem as though they're reacting in the sorts of ways that Driscoll can play like a cheap fiddle.


Rebecca Kvenvolden said...

astute observations- as always. Nonetheless, its hard NOT to get all up in arms about the madness of Driscoll's interpretation of Esther. I won't even start on the soapbox, but its "yet another" abomination coming from Driscoll. HOW exactly does he still have his job?!

Juniper said...

Thanks WTH for your observations. On point as usual. I don't know how you separate the story of Esther from Purim. In honor of that, everyone should get drunk and tell MD he's getting old.