How can Christianity survive in a secular world? How can Christians live without compromise in an increasingly hostile society? And what if Christians have already been shaped by their surrounding culture in harmful, soul-destroying ways? What are the parallels between the modern world and the biblical story of Esther?
Bible Gateway interviewed Mike Cosper (@MikeCosper) about his book, Faith Among the Faithless: Learning from Esther How to Live in a World Gone Mad (Thomas Nelson, 2018).
Why do you say you’re not sure Daniel is the best reference point for most of us? And why do you suggest Esther as an alternative?
Mike Cosper: Daniel is a difficult example to follow because he had certain advantages that many of us don’t. Specifically, Daniel had the privilege of growing up in an environment that was shaped around Jewish religious experience. He was immersed in the rhythms of worship and celebration that marked the Jewish calendar. He was taught to eat certain ways and embrace certain practices that helped to define his Jewish identity.
Many Christians don’t have those privileges. Either they didn’t grow up in Christian homes, or in some cases, they grew up in Christian environments that lacked the formative power of much of the Christian tradition. So instead, their lives and their feel for the world were primarily shaped by secular sources: entertainment, social media, politics, and secular education.
That’s what makes Esther such a compelling hero for our times. She grew up in exile, was given a Persian name (Esther is likely a derivative of the name of the near-eastern goddess Ishtar), and passed for Persian; no one knows she’s Jewish until she announces it. Her life, up until a moment of crisis and awakening, is primarily shaped by non-Jewish culture.
Briefly describe the story of Esther.
Mike Cosper: Esther was a Jewish exile living in Persia. When we meet her, she’s fully assimilated into Persian culture. No one knows that she or her cousin Mordecai are Jewish.
Through a series of unlikely events, Esther is named the Queen of Persia. Shortly afterward, the king appoints a new vizier, Haman, who is a kind of stand-in for the idol of power and unchecked evil. Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, and in retribution, Haman convinces the king to pronounce a death sentence on all the Jews in Persia.
It is up to Esther, then, to risk her life and reveal her Jewish identity to the king, pleading on behalf of God’s people. This proves a critical turning point in Esther’s life, and because of her actions, Haman’s evil is exposed and God’s people are saved. This results in a renewal and revival of Jewish identity in the diaspora, commemorated to this day in the celebration of a festival called Purim.
How important (unusual) is it that God’s name doesn’t appear in the book of Esther?
Mike Cosper: It’s actually a brilliant literary device. It allows the reader to share some of the experience of Esther and Mordecai by immersing them in a world where God seems superfluous at best and absent at worst. And yet, by the end of the book, it’s evident that God has been present the whole time, moving hearts, shaping events, and protecting his people.
How does the theme of hiddenness shape the book of Esther and how does that relate to modern readers?
Mike Cosper: There are layers of hiddenness in Esther. Esther’s identity as a Jew is hidden, as is Mordecai’s. Haman’s motivations are hidden too, as he tries to manipulate the king for petty, selfish reasons. God himself is hidden.
In a way, this makes the book apocalyptic, in the sense that what’s hidden is revealed. By the end of the book, all of this hiddenness gets revealed: Esther’s identity, Haman’s motives, and God’s providence are all evident by the book’s end.
I think for modern readers, this is profoundly encouraging. It can seem like we live in a godless world, and it can seem as though he’s forgotten us, forgotten his people, and abandoned us, our churches, and our culture to demise. And yet, Esther’s story invites us to have faith that God is still present and somehow, in spite of appearances, at work in our lives.
How was the ancient culture Esther found herself in similar to our modern culture?
Mike Cosper: Persia was an empire bent on expansion. It stretched across the middle east and had aspirations for conquering the whole world. Part of their strategy for assimilation was built into their religion. It was polytheistic and pluralistic, meaning that it allowed for many gods to become part of the official accepted religion of the empire. So if you were conquered by the Persians, your gods became part of their pantheon of gods. The only thing that wasn’t allowed was to make exclusive claims about your religion, and this was what made things difficult for the Jews. If you claimed that you were worshiping the one true God, it disrupted the harmony of the empire, that welcomed all kinds of gods as a way to keep the peace.
Today, things are much the same. Religion is in some ways as common as ever, and there are a variety of common cultural practices (diets, exercise schemes, meditation, yoga, and a host of self-help guru’s teachings) that are secularized religious practices, promising “the good life” if you follow them. The only thing that’s treated with hostility in this environment is a claim of exclusivity. So when Christians (or for that matter, orthodox Jews or Muslims) claim to be worshipping the one true God, it upsets the comfortable, politically correct status quo. For this reason, Christians who hold to the exclusivity of Jesus as Lord face an increasing amount of opposition in the world around them.
What are lessons to be learned from Mordecai?
Mike Cosper: In Jeremiah 29, the prophet tells the exiles to work for the good of the city where God has sent them. In some ways, I think Mordecai’s role in the story of Esther is in line with this call—though not from the beginning.
When we first meet him, he’s assimilated. He’s a mover and shaker in the palace politics. It’s only when Haman—this iconic figure of power and evil—is given absolute authority that Mordecai reveals that he’s a Jew. I think one reason to do this, along with the core religious identity reasons, is because he knows that this evil isn’t good for the city. It’s not good for a culture to embrace any kind of idol, and the idol of power is sure to lead to corruption, murder, and all kinds of disorder. This is certainly true for Haman.
What are a few of the lessons for today you identify from the book of Esther?
Mike Cosper: First, I think Esther’s and Mordecai’s stories serve as a kind of invitation for Christians who might feel like they’ve strayed too far from God, or whose lives lack a firm foundation in the faith. God used them in powerful ways.
Second, I think Esther’s self-sacrifice is a shadow of Jesus’ own sacrifice. She foreshadows what Paul describes in Philippians 2:1-11, where we see that Jesus did not cling to his power, but laid down his life on behalf of others. That sacrifice led to his glorification, just as Esther’s sacrifice is the reason we remember her to this day. As the Puritans might have put it, “The way down is the way up.” Embracing humility and vulnerability are necessary if we want to be part of God’s redemptive work in the world.
Third, I think there are important insights to take from the inauguration of Purim. There are moments in our lives that need to be memorialized, and there’s something important about embracing and practicing traditions. This points me to the value of the church calendar and the liturgy. We need anchoring practices that connect us to God’s story, and we need them all the more as the world changes and our faith is challenged.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Mike Cosper: Romans 8:1 — “There is therefore now no condemnation.” I believe this verse saved my life a few years ago, and I need it every single day.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Mike Cosper: Not to pander to the interviewer here, but I’m so thankful for Bible Gateway. It’s been an incredible resource for my own Bible study and writing. It’s always open in my browser when I’m writing books or sermons. I’m also amazed at the breadth of resources available through the site. It’s such a gift to the church to have access to the many translations, devotions, and scholarship available on the site.
Faith Among the Faithless is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.