Driscoll’s Problem with Esther

There are some things for which I am habitually late. Birthday cards and/or presents are for whatever reason a huge obstacle for me to purchase and deliver on time. If your birthday is in October, plan on receiving something from me around January, give or take a month or two. Even if I have purchased your card and it has been collecting dust on my desk since August, it will be late. (Judy, if you are reading this, I haven’t purchased your card yet so it probably will be March at the earliest before you see something in the mail).

I’m tardy with my technological gadgets, too. Even though my husband designs smart phones, I do not have one and wouldn’t know how to download an app if I did. I’m not necessarily a Luddite, I just don’t get around to figuring out what all the buzz is about until the fad has nearly fizzled. It was only a few weeks ago when I conquered both ebay and an e-reader when I purchased my slightly-used Kindle touch on the ebay market. And, after waiting a full three weeks for the library copy of Wild by Cheryl Strayed to be checked-in, I’ve only got 6% left to read of my first ever e-book.

So, since I’m so monumentally tardy on some things, perhaps this is my difficulty with Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill in Seattle, Washington. You know, maybe one day I’ll wake up and like so many throughout the Northwest, I’ll think: this guy is really something. Or, maybe not.

According to his website, he recently has been preaching on the book of Esther, one of the two books named after a woman, he is careful to mention in his promo I suppose to suggest to his audience he is edgy or something. Driscoll gives five reasons Esther is an especially difficult book to preach on as a lead-in for what surely is a fascinating study, if not of Esther, then of Driscoll.
Here they are:

1. “Esther is a stunning story.”

Call me ignorant but I think having a stunning story is a pretty good place to begin most anything including a sermon. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon for a joint worship service of Polytechnic United Methodist Church and Texas Wesleyan University. I started my sermon with what I would call a stunning story set in the Columbia Gorge and it made a memorable impression. The president of the university approached me after church that day to ask if my story really happened and if there were any details I had omitted. My stunning story functioned as an effective hook. I don’t know why Driscoll would want anything else for preaching fodder.

2. “Esther is painfully normal.”

I’m not sure why Driscoll would draw this conclusion about Esther. Oh sure, he wants to paint Esther as a sinful woman, making bad decisions because of the sin that plagues her by virtue of her connection to Eve, the worst sinner ever.

But such characterization of Esther completely misses well most everything about the entire narrative. Most importantly, Esther is not in what we could call a “normal” situation today, situated as she was as property of men: first her uncle and then the king. To suggest Esther had choices in the same way people of modern America have choices is to avoid taking the biblical context seriously.

3. “Esther has been widely avoided.”

Driscoll notes how several people throughout Christian history have found Esther a difficult book to navigate and this much is true. I suppose part of this wariness stems from Esther’s challenge to the status quo: to seeing only one possibility, to limiting our perspective, to reading with a conclusion in mind only to feel frustrated when our a priori positions are flimsily supported at best.

On the other hand, when the book of Esther is allowed to stand on its own, to work its mystery with our assumptions, there emerges not only two radically different approaches to power in the contrasting figures of Vashti and Esther, but also useful insight about an absent deity.

To preach on something that has been avoided has vast possibility, or, I suppose challenge if saying nothing new is all one has to say.

4. “Esther has been grossly misinterpreted.”

Again Driscoll is right. But, the person who has misinterpreted the book is Driscoll even though in his mind it is the feminists who have gotten it wrong. Here’s what he says:

“Feminists have tried to cast Esther’s life as a tragic tale of male domination and female liberation. Many evangelicals have ignored her sexual sin and godless behavior to make her into a Daniel-like figure, which is inaccurate. Some have even tried to tie her story in with modern-day, sex-slave trafficking as she was brought before the powerful king as part of his harem.”

While there is much Driscoll gets wrong here, the most problematic is his complete disregard for understanding history. To assume Esther has a choice in her situation is to read contemporary American society back into another time and another place. Moreover, there is no judgment in the text for Esther’s action. To the contrary, she is presented as the initiator of life-saving action.

By bashing Esther the way Driscoll does conveys much more about Driscoll and his misogyny than it says about Esther.

5. “Esther is a godless book.”

Here Driscoll is alluding to the fact that the book of Esther fails to mention God. And, again, he is partly right because God is not necessarily mentioned. From this assumption, though, Driscoll goes on to suggest God’s providence was at work creating miracle behind the scenes.

Dismissing the courage and initiative of Esther, Driscoll has succeeded in changing her from the hero she clearly is in the narrative to the sinful woman who served merely as a puppet through which God could orchestrate some master design.

Another approach, one Driscoll avoids, is to take Esther seriously and to explore the depths of wonder presented to us as readers. Here a woman with limited power finds a way to convince the king of her perspective. More broadly, the work of God was accomplished through the flesh and blood of a woman, a narrative that is more than easy to preach. It is a necessity to preach.

And, therein lies Driscoll’s real preaching dilemma: how to mask sexism as something divinely inspired.