Sunday, October 21, 2012

Esther as godless woman then Christ type: Mark Driscoll's interpretive mojo part 1

About a month ago Driscoll preached "Jesus is a better savior" as part of his Esther series.  He reintroduced a few figures from the narrative and finally got to introducing Esther.  In doing so he simply expanded upon but recycled his earlier blog post in which he proposed that there were three options for views of Esther that he considered possible and just one that he considered probable.  The first was that Esther was a godly woman; the second was that she was an innocent victim of sexual assault; and the third that she was an initially not-very godly woman who became godly by the end of the narrative. 

As has been blogged earlier at Wenatchee The Hatchet the first and second views, as Driscoll presents them, are straw men. Driscoll's previous thanking of critics for bringing to light things for his consideration sure comes across as a publicity stunt.  After all, for all the gratitude Driscoll seemed to have toward critics he’s as fixated on his claim that Esther started off kind of godless and became godly later on.  What is worth noting, at some length, is that how Driscoll arrives at and justifies his conclusion is (still) not adequately explained from the biblical text. 

More startling than this failure on Driscoll’s part to provide a compelling defense of his view are the set of arguments he uses to dismiss the views that Esther was, in fact, a godly woman, and that she was probably in some way sexually exploited.  Each dismissal Driscoll brings to bear for Option 1 and Option 2 is founded upon a respective straw man and reduction ad absurdum while Driscoll’s own view is founded on what appears to be nothing more than an anecdotal fallacy.

Still more startling are the implications of Driscoll’s arguments regarding views of Esther in the context of Driscoll’s own public preaching over the last sixteen years. But in order to establish even the possibility of discussing that we must turn to the three Options.  Again, Option #1 is that Esther was a godly woman and Mordecai feared the Lord.  Option #2 is that Esther was the innocent victim of sexual assault and Option #3 is that Esther began rather godless but ended up godly. We’ll consider these options and how Driscoll presents them.

OPTION #1: Esther was a godly woman, but if she was the book is worthless?

Driscoll defines Option #1 as Mordecai was a good guy and Esther was a good girl and God favored them against the bad guys.  Driscoll declares that if this is what the book is about it is worthless.  Notice what Driscoll's attitude here is, that if a book of the Bible means something he doesn't think it should mean he considers it "worthless".  Now to be sure his Option #1 is a straw man from start to finish but would he say Esther, as a book, is "worthless" if Option #1 indicated that Mordecai and Esther, though imperfect, were nonetheless God-fearing and godly people?  If Old Testament scholars could establish a plausible basis for some form of Option #1 would Mark Driscoll still consider the book of Esther worthless?

Driscoll’s dismissal of what he calls Option #1 is a dismissal of a view that is already a straw man.  Driscoll has mentioned we should not read Esther from a "religious" perspective that proposes Mordecai and Esther were white hats set against the black hats of Haman or Xerxes.  Driscoll presents the following idea as a defense of what he calls the third perspective which sheds light on a possible argument against the idea that Esther was always godly in some sense in the narrative:

... It is my opinion that the third perspective is probable, and that is that Esther is not a static or flat character who’s consistent through the whole book. You’ll meet them. Haman is a consistent, flat character, because he never repents. He’s just evil. Xerxes is a flat, static character. He never changes because he never repents.

Many of us clearly read the same book of Esther and came to the conclusion that her character looks remarkably consistent from the start to finish of the book. Religiously motivated repentance is not the basis of a person being a consistent, flat character in a biblical text.  King Saul doesn't repent and he's one of the most dynamic characters in the books of Samuel. 

Driscoll seems to be incapable of grasping that a character in a narrative can be complex without being dynamic and that a two-dimensional character is still capable of being dynamic. It depends on what the narrative is doing.  Mr. Bingley, for instance, is essentially a flat character but he certainly changes in as much as he marries Jane.  Mr. Collins gets married, too, but he also remains a flat character.  Driscoll’s mere insistence withstanding, none of the characters in Esther are necessarily three-dimensional simply because they change nor dynamic.  In fact change itself is what makes Xerxes a two-dimensional character because he's so fickle and egotistical.  He’s a punch line in the narrative, an egotistical drunkard who is steadily issuing irreversible commands that he forgets he’s made and failing to remember to thank people who have saved his life.

To say Xerxes doesn't repent because he doesn't change would be framing the narrative in religious terms but Driscoll has said we should not read Esther in a "religious" way where Esther is concerned.  All this really means is that Driscoll wants our indulgence to speak of what he considers the moral failings of the protagonists while still insisting that we view the antagonists as bad.  

Driscoll continues:

Those who repent are no longer static, they’re dynamic. They don’t stay the same, they change. We call it progressive sanctification. It means that when you meet the God of the Bible, you change, and the longer you’re walking with him, the more you change. And she worships Jesus. Let’s just be clear on that. She’s waiting for the coming of a promised Savior. So are we. She got a little bored waiting for him. So do we.

Driscoll simply has to assert that Esther is waiting for Jesus.  It is Esther who ends up being the appointed savior in this story and Driscoll seems to realize this element of the narrative is too obvious to avoid for long.  Nevertheless, it's anachronistic to say Esther worships Jesus in a narrative in which we're being set up for why Jews observe Purim.  If Driscoll wants to argue that we shouldn't read Esther as a good girl vs. a bad guy narrative because that would make the book "worthless" then why would Driscoll read Jesus into Esther's motives? Isn't this is just another "religious" way of reading Esther and Driscoll said we shouldn't do that.  Driscoll simply asserts that Esther worships Jesus preaching from a book whose literary point is explaining the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim.  Driscoll just asserts this and, apparently, he gets to. 

The trouble with Driscoll’s statement that those who repent are no longer static is Xerxes.  In the narrative it is the fickle, feckless nature of Xerxes that remains steady.  He’s drinking much of the time, egotistically looking back on his own exploits and having minions humor him.  In contrast to the laws of Moses that were given without any reference to a king and were above the king, Xerxes represents the arbitrary and mercurial king as incomprehensible, autocratic fiat. As religious/political polemics go Xerxes may have been venerated as a god but he was a god who was constantly changing his mind and was swayed by minions.

Now, of course there’s still another problem with Driscoll’s claim that those who repent are not static but dynamic.  Jesus must be the most static and least dynamic character in the Gospels and in the Bible.  After all, Jesus has nothing to repent of.  If repenting of sin is what makes for a dynamic rather than static character then Jesus is the least dynamic person in the Bible. Driscoll seems neither to grasp basic elements of story-telling nor basic implications in the set of arguments he arranges for his unique views on Esther. If it’s all about Jesus then Mark Driscoll has trotted out arguments that make Jesus seem static and two-dimensional.

On the other hand, while Driscoll claims he doesn’t want to read too much into things he comes up with this about Hadassah having the name Esther.

So she had a dual identity, kind of in the world, kind of in God’s kingdom; kind of sinning, kind of obeying; kind of spiritual, kind of not spiritual. She’s conflicted. She’s got a dual identity. The Bible would say, in the New Testament, she’s worldly. ...  

She's conflicted?  About what?  Hadn't Driscoll said that initially Esther does whatever men in her life tell her to do?  Wasn't that earlier a basis from which Driscoll said Esther sinfully did whatever the men in her life told her to do? What has she ever displayed any conflict about in the first few chapters of Esther? 

Let’s remember Driscoll has said the authors of the New Testament don’t mention or quote from Esther.  This means that Driscoll cannot, in fact, say “The Bible would say, in the New Testament, she’s worldly.” That’s just Driscoll’s imagination.  If the best Driscoll can muster to say Esther had dual identities is to mention one person having multiple names what about the apostle Peter?  Did Peter have a triple identity because he was sometimes known as Simon, sometimes as Peter, and sometimes as Cephas? There's no indication that Daniel and his friends had dual identities because they had more than one name.  Pagans giving Jews non-Jewish names has happened for centuries.  Go look up the history of Franz Kafka’s family background.

As if that weren’t trouble enough with Driscoll’s dual-identity claim, consider the king of Persia in the book of Esther. Driscoll has mentioned the two names of the pagan king but has just said Xerxes is a static character.  There’s nothing split about Xerxes.  When Driscoll claims he doesn’t want to read too much into things it’s obviously far too late to take him seriously even on the terms of his own stated principles and claims. 

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