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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.”

Review of “TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age”

I once came close to actually meeting Andrew “Andy” Byers in the flesh during a presentation on John the Baptist in the Gospel of John. It was at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Baltimore. Before that, we had communicated over various forms of social media — blog, Facebook, Twitter, and email — about a variety of topics. We’ve even spoken via Skype. So, I guess that while I have never “met” Andy in any traditional sense, I have come to know him via online interactions, across the new media if you will, and maybe that is better. If in nothing else, better in the sense that it gives me a unique perspective on the subject matter presented in TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age.

Andy — er, Byers — writes not to simply add to the confusion about how to accept and use the so-called new media, but to give a voice of calm, blessed, assurance than the fear and trepidation caused by the onslaught of new media is likewise very similar to the earthquakes felt by our predecessors as they grappled with the new ways of communication. Further, we aren’t the only ones using media — God used and uses all sorts of media to communication himself. At once, this is an introduction to theological communication, a theology of communication, and a reimagining of sorts that pits God’s self-disclosure in either the verbal or written form against what we think is happening today. This is not simply a series of resurrected sermons or blog posts, but a well-thought out program aimed at getting the (afraid of the) modern (-era) reader to step back and redigest the narrative of Christian tradition via “media.”

The book is divided into five parts, with part 5 serving as the conclusion to the book. Part 1 sets the philosophical and theological tone of the book, allowing Byers to present new terms (theomedia, theomedium) to the reader. He also, importantly, highlights some of the current discussions around the new social media and how it is shaping our society. He tackles a variety of issues, such as communicable mediation, sex, book v. pixel, and the theology of media.

Part 2 presents the God of Scripture as one who communicates via media. This is an often repeated refrain in this book, but one necessary. If you speak to those who matured before social media, they may not get the value of Facebook and Twitter, especially Christianity communicate via such things — and yet, we find God finding images and other media to communicate to Israel. We find the authors of Scripture finding ways to communicate about God via media. And yes, he does include St. John of Damascus and his own unique defense of theomedia. (Well, I mean before we knew what theomedia was.)

The third part examines speech acts in the Old Testament as a form of media. Rather than images and other tropes as the sole avenue of God’s expression, there is likewise the verbal — written and oral. In this series of chapters, Byers argues for the elevation of the written over the, I’d call it, abstract media. For those anxious over such things, he even speaks to you (chapter 7).

In Part 4, Byers turns to the New Testament to speak of God’s greatest communication act — the Incarnation. He speaks of the canon, the Eucharist (glad to see this word embraced by other Protestants), and baptism — all symbols of God’s communication to us. He closes in Part 5 with an admonition to linger in the theomedia so that these new ways of communicating with the world can be effectively employed to speak well of God.

I can think of no better person to have written such book. Byers presents several stories — from his time as a youth pastor; his role as father, husband, and friend — that really give color and shape to his commentary. He shows a remarkable knowledge of ancient controversies as well as concerns from our own time. Finally, he speaks not as one who has mastered every aspect of the new media, but as one who stands in the Great Tradition of using that which God gives to speak more about God than previously allowed. Yes, there are those that will remain unconvinced by Byer’s grand view, but if you really take his words to heart, the new media, and the newer media from tomorrow, will not worry you, only give you pause long enough to decide how to best use it for the Church.

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first review for “Praying in God’s Theater”

For the most part, you can find other articles on this book here.

Praying in God's Theater
Praying in God’s Theater – Click to Order on Amazon

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford writes,

Joel Watts invites readers in to the world of Revelation in exciting, intriguing, and enlightening ways. Cutting the cord tying St. John’s vision both to history and “prophecy”, Watts reads Revelation with commentators crossing the vast spectrum of Christian history and confession, asking only that we indulge the possibility that there are layers upon layers of possibility within this much-contested text. Placing the text firmly within the liturgical and eucharistic practices of the early church, Watts makes each scene come alive as an opportunity to see what St. John saw – that our worship and song and praise, understood in the fullness of eschatological possibility, takes place both here and now and in the Heavenly Temple before the Throne of the Triune God. The prayers offered up draw on the full range of Biblical texts as Watts makes Heilsgeschichte come alive through the words of Scripture. This is more than an offering of a new way to read, and pray, the Scriptures, something for which I’ve long sought. This is a deeply spiritual, deeply faithful rendering of a text, letting the Spirit bring to life the dead words on the page in a new way.

Among the constant conversation partners most present is St. John of the Cross, whose vision of the “Dark Night Of The Soul” brings out the ways Revelation can guide the weary pilgrim through the hazards of a deepening faith to the table that is set before us and for us. In this way Watts also sheds light on that misunderstood word, “mysticism”. Nothing airy or dreamy here, playing the words of Scripture off the words of the beloved Spanish poet, Watts shows that the mystics presented the full struggle for salvation and perfection of all creation in the drama of their own lives. The proper resting place, both in Scripture, and through Scripture for the great teachers of the church, for that struggle is worship, specifically the Eucharist, at which and through which the drama of salvation is not only reenacted but offered to all, both here and above. Reading and praying Revelation in this way offers readers the possibility of seeing their lives as an important part of the whole story of Redemption. This drama – personal, communal, cosmological – is united in and through the body and blood of the crucified and risen Son of God.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is more than an excellent study of Revelation. The prayers, especially the responsive ones, would fit in any long liturgical study of Revelation, or equally well in small group settings. This is a book not so much to be read as to be thankful for; someone has made the vision of St. John come alive in ways that leave behind both the popular silliness too long associated with the book as well as reducing the text to its final, victorious vision.

This review is greatly appreciated. Geoffrey has updated this view on his blog.

Endorsements for “Praying in God’s Theater” (@wipfandstock)

Praying in God's Theater
Praying in God’s Theater – Click to Order on Amazon

“Revelation is, at its heart, about mysteries. Such things are best approached in prayer, in an attitude of worship, and in conversation with wiser souls. Joel L. Watts’s approach does exactly that, weaving a mix of liturgical prayer and scholarly reflections together with insights from commentators both ancient and modern.”
—Gary Neal Hansen, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, IA

“Watts has written a beautiful, creative, and informative book on John’s Apocalypse. Watts’ attention to the full landscape of the book of Revelation, coupled with his attention to multiple interpretive traditions, is commendable. This book will serve faith communities and university students alike. It deserves careful attention.”
—John Oliff, Department of Christian Studies, Eastern University, St. Davids, PA

Joel Watts’ Praying in God’s Theatre brings a brilliant and fresh view- point to the Book of Revelation. For those of you laymen or women, like myself, who have struggled with the meaning and nature of Revelation, no matter how many bible studies, Praying in God’s Theatre brings a spirited context to the Bible’s most controversial and enigmatic book.

A few years ago I filmed a documentary on contemplative prayer, Be Still, with Beth Moore, Mac Lucado, Peter Kreeft, Dallas Willard, and Robert Foster; but that documentary pales in compari- son with the soulful observation that Mr. Watts is able to imbue in this remarkable literary and academic work regarding the contem- plation of Revelation.

Mr. Watts returns to the grand tradition of “Lectio Divina” in which scripture and reader become one. What did the Yale Humanities Professor, Harold Bloom say? “You don’t read Shakespeare, Shakespeare reads you.” What Mr. Watts is suggesting in his smart but easy-to-read book is that a prayerful spirited heart is truly neces- sary so that Revelation can, in a way, read you. In so doing, this process brings new levels of vision in one’s own faith journey through the Holy Spirit.

In his remarkable book, Mr. Watts creates a practical pathway with a collection of wonderful prayers that will help the reader gain further insight into the mystic realms of the Revelation text. For so long, Fundamentalists have kidnapped the era in which we live. They have roped it around the end-of-days gloom seemingly inherent in Revelation. That interpretation only drives away the possibility of a truly meaningful life through Christ. Mr. Watts takes us to another place. “This is not just a chapter (Revelation) about endings, it is about new beginnings,” he writes. In his thoughtful and powerful way, he allows us to unlock “the most important message” of the “Fifth Gospel.”

What I admire about Watt’s writing is that it is inclusive. It brings “the body of Christ” together. His intelligent and compas- sionate analysis hopefully strikes up a new kind of revival in which all brothers and sisters in Christ can partake. As a body, we have become so closed to discourse especially in the realms of science. Mr. Watts’ view point on scripture, opens us up, frees us, allows us to engage with others in, healthy, life-affirming ways.

Praying in God’s Theatre is for anyone who has struggled with Revelation. It opens your eyes and heart and mind to a fresh start. It may indeed alter your worldview in a way that will be surprising, loving, and Christ-like.
—David Paul Kirkpatrick Author, and former President of Paramount Pictures, and Walt Disney Pictures

I found this book to be a very spiritually Christian book. The hand
of God can be seen throughout the prayers
—Doug Iverson Baptist, Ripon, Wisconsin

Joel L. Watts has incorporated a great blend of the teachings and liturgy from the Old Testament, its Psalms and ancient churches of the New Testament. His inclusion of the early church fathers, church councils and some of the greatest theologians throughout history Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant bridges it all together. This book is a great tool for understanding prayers, the liturgy, and the union of the Sacraments with Christ. It provides an in-depth perspective into Revelation and the Liturgy
—Most Reverend Kevin B. Twohig East Coast Diocese of the Advent Independent Catholic Church

Joel L. Watts’ innovative reading of the Book of Revelation continues his tradition of opening Scripture from a new and fresh perspective and offering readers a unique take on texts. Praying Scripture—even if that Scripture is the Apocalypse—is a spiritual exercise many of the Ancients endorsed. Joel’s attempt to revive the practice is commendable.
—Jim West Professor of Biblical Studies, Quartz Hill School of Theology

In this work on the book of Revelation, Joel L. Watts has did an excellent job of utilizing the best of contemporary exegesis as well as the words of the Church Mothers and Fathers. This will not doubt be an important resource for worship settings as local churches continue to embody the traditions of the early Church passed down to us.
—Rod Thomas, ThM (Master of Theology), and Baptist writer and political commentator at PoliticalJesus.com

With the entirety of the Christian tradition acting as his palate, Watts opens up one of the Bible’s most mystifying and polarizing books. Rather than let John’s Apocalypse sit in stasis, Watts uses the disci- pline of prayer to open it to those all over the Christian spectrum. This book is proof that—liberal or conservative—Revelation doesn’t have to scare us.

—Rev. Chris Tiedeman United Methodist Church (Indiana)

In this engaging and practical approach to the book of Revelation, Watts provides us with a wealth of information, sources, traditions, and even theologies that it is difficult to imagine how he was able to interweave them so seamlessly. In fact, for those that are interested in ecumenism, religious synthesis and even in syncretism, I cannot recommend this book enough as an example of how different Christian traditions can be joined together successfully for means of Christian devotion.

Personally, for a person that was brought up in a theology simi- lar to the author’s, this volume is such a breath of fresh air, and, accessible scholarship, that I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it has been to understand and enjoy the book of Revelation anew.

In a very fortuitous way, I was recently asked to write a course on the book of Revelation for a local parish church. You can be assured that this book will be in my required reading list.

—Daniel E. Ortiz MA MTh BTh Ordained Pastor in the UCE (Bolivian Congregationalist Church) Denomination. (Presently an Anglican communicant and, soon to be, Doctoral candidate in Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies in The University of Birmingham, U.K.)

I once stood in the cave on the Island of Patmos where the ancient traditions of the church believed that the Apostle John received a revelation from God concerning the final triumph of the “Lamb that was slain.” Centuries of scholarship have revised our understanding of the origins of the Book of Revelation, but its promises and images continue to fascinate the contemporary disciples of Jesus.

In this fascinating book, Joel Watts has transformed those promises and images into prayers, and has shifted the focus of our fascination with this book from our theology to our spirituality. As I moved through the pages of this book, I found nourishment for my spiritual life as I prayed the ancient vision of the triumphant and reigning Christ and I trust that it will be the same for each reader. This book is creative, profound, and spiritually provocative.
—William Boyd Grove Bishop, Retired, United Methodist Church

It’s finally ready to order: “Praying in God’s Theater, Meditations Upon the Book of Revelation” @wipfandstock

Praying in God's Theater
Praying in God’s Theater – Click to Order on Amazon

Much like the book of Revelation, Joel L. Watts’ Praying in God’s Theater aims to pull readers into a deeper spirituality to confront the daily struggles of Christian life. Drawing from the rich well of Christian mystics and theologians from across the ecumenical experience, Watts uses the Apocalypse to build a series of prayers and devotions aimed at increasing what he identifies as the contemplative unity and the certain unity between the individual and Christ. He urges a radical vision of the prayer and the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Each chapter of Revelation is considered, explored, and finally used as a basis to draft prayers. Added to this is an application commentary that explores ancient liturgical practices similar to the scenes in Revelation while looking at Revelation in a mystical manner. Watts offers Revelation as an early liturgy, using this proposition as a catalyst for building prayers and a vision of life based on the Eucharist as the emblem of how we are to approach God. What emerges is a profound view on how we envision Scripture, prayer, and the book of Revelation.