Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
June 12th, 2014 by Joel Watts

Review of “Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture”

How do you bring to bear a cross-disciplinary approach to a generally discarded book of Scripture, suddenly transforming it from a canonical oddity to a pearl? You do it the way John Anthony Dunne has — with careful attention to detail, a wonderful writing style, and an innovative, but sacred, way of looking for the story beneath the headlines. Rarely have I read a more enjoyable and engaging book dismantling previous notions while asserting new ones — with arrogance and any slight against previous notions. Dunne does not get bogged down in a superficial need for footnotes, but simply lays out his argument in an narrow, but supported, manner.

How do we properly treat the book of Esther? As Dunne shows, Christians have treated it in a variety of manners, but always between the two poles of outright ignoring it or twisting it that it doesn’t even look like the story. He also shows just how little difference there is in what modern exegetes do and what the deuterocanonical additions did. They work at adding God into the story.

Esther and her Elusive God is divided between two parts — with the first part having three of the five chapters, an appendix, a bibliography, and indices of sources used along with a subject index. In the first part, Dunne examines the (lack of) evidence for Esther as a sectarian document, concluding that it is a rather secular story. If you are a critical reader, you will not be surprised at the accounts of how Esther pleased her king and thus earned her crown, or the suggestion of how Esther and Mordecai came to be named. In three chapters, Dunne dismantles the usual patina around the story — that of a faithful and docile Jewish girl from the country, a story of love-at-first sight, and of a caretaking God — to bring forth a tell the story of an exiled and accommodating people whose good fortune is based solely on luck.

Not only does Dunne present critical scholarship around the book, but he likewise presents modern (Christian) accounts of the snipe hunt theologians and others go on to find a Christian theme in the book. Quoting from a variety of sources, he is able to deconstruct the usual sentiments around the book to show that what is thought to be exegesis is more often than not an attempt by the reader to force upon the book their own need. Simply, no matter what you do with this story it is not a wonderful book about a faithful God preserving a faithful people. His conclusions are meritorious. They are valid. More than anything, they are interesting and truthful to the text.

Nederlands: Jan Lievens, Feest van Esther, 162...

Nederlands: Jan Lievens, Feest van Esther, 1625, North Carolina Museum of Art, oil on canvas, 134.6 x 165.1 cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am unsure if I can say enough about Dunne’s work. My largest complaint in working in Christian education at the Church level is the continued need to gloss over tough passages, and books, in Scripture. Esther gets such a treatment. We ignore the sexual congress it took to win the crown, the injustice to the previous queen, and the absent God. None of that needs critical scholarship to pinpoint. In ignoring this, we force upon the story our canonical perspectives of having to have God in every story of the bible. This had to some rather silly interpretations along the way — including novels and movies, something Dunne uses constantly as reference points. However, if we listen close enough to the story, via Dunne’s aid, we will see something much more breathtaking in Esther. The story revealed is one, even with all of the adult behavior enshrined therein, that we must tell ourselves and our children.

After all, as Wesley said, “There are no coincidences.”

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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