NOTE: I was watching Esther and the King while working on this.
Just a heads up in case Joan Collins in all her Holy Blue Eyeshadow wanders in once in a while to keep things interesting.
In case you missed the backstory of all this….
- Just Because You CAN….
- Fuck It. I’m Going Full Snark
- Side by Side: The Book of Esther and For Such a Time
- Deconstructing For Such a Time, Part 1: An Angry Book Nerd Manifesto
- Deconstructing For Such a Time, Part 2: Allegory, Schmallegory
When I first saw the brief review and subsequent discussion of For Such a Time on SBTB, my reaction, after throwing up in my mouth over the whole premise (more on that soon, stick around), was “nooooo.”
A Magic Bible.
Note to any and all inspie authors and publishers who have actually read this far or even skimmed or whatever:
THIS IS WHY PEOPLE MAKE FUN OF INSPIRATIONAL FICTION.
And I thought the one-off Magical Bible Verses were bad. I’ve ranted about those before. No, it has to be an actual Magic Bible that appears out of nowhere and follows the heroine around like a puppy with an invisibility cloak or something.
*sits on hands*
I found myself reflecting on why I specifically hate the “Magic Bible Verse” trope so much. That one is pretty easy: Because, seriously, whose Bible actually works like that? Mine doesn’t.
If God and the Bible worked like that WE WOULDN’T NEED INSPIRATIONAL FICTION.
See what I did there?
In my tiny little unworthy opinion, there is no better way to dangle the Bible in front of a doubter and then snatch it away again. It’s a “ha, ha, ha, this is why you can’t have nice things!” sneer to emphasize how much more the author knows and loves God because she knows exactly what God would say.
So. In my continuing quest to show off my smartypants and not (just) my rantypants, I’m going to keep with the “deconstruction” of For Such a Time by talking about the Fallacy of the Magic Bible, focusing on deus ex machina, conflation and proof-texting. We’ll cover the definitions first, and then we’ll look at a few (of the many, many) examples from the novel that abuse all three logical and literary no-nos.
Then we’ll talk about irony. Unintentional irony. The burning, itching kind of unintentional irony. A book-long tidal wave of unintentional irony that leaves sand in your underpants for days.
JOAN COLLINS BREAK:
Deus ex machina: That “don’t do it!” plot device we all learned about in high school
….a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or as a comedic device.1
Say it with me, kids: deus ex machina.
I love saying that out loud. Day-oos ecks mahk-ee-nah. In my head it’s always James Earl Jones saying it with thundering tympani and clashing cymbals in the background.
“God in the machine,” swooping in to rescue the stalled plot in the form of a Magic Bible. Yeah. I really don’t need to expound on that any further, do I?
Well, yes, I do. Because it happens more than once. It happens at least eleventy times. Yes, eleventy, because I’m too lazy to count them all.
The Magic Bible is sheer laziness on the part of a newbie author who doesn’t know how to build a plot and create tension, and inexcusable laziness on the part of editors who couldn’t be bothered to actually read what they were publishing. Bad writing is against my religion.2
Conflation: One of these things is not like the other
Conflation occurs when the identities of two or more individuals, concepts, or places, sharing some characteristics of one another, seem to be a single identity — the differences appear to become lost. In logic, it is the practice of treating two distinct concepts as if they were one, which produces errors or misunderstandings as a fusion of distinct subjects tends to obscure analysis of relationships which are emphasized by contrasts.3
If I had my rantypants on instead of my laundry-day raggy underwear, the subheading for this section would be “Stop adding crap that God never intended!” But that kind of exclamation requires an exclamation point (!) and extraneous exclamation points (!!!) in a manifesto are just kind of overkill, don’t you think???
“Adding crap God never intended” is a bold statement, I know, but I’m laying my one week of research on the line with this one. I’m not calling the Magic Bible Verses “crap.” They’re all beautiful verses and I’ve sung hymns about them all my life. I’m saying that the frequent and intentionally dramatic use of specific scriptures and themes from other books of the Bible conflates and even subverts the original message of the Book of Esther.
Proof-texting: Bible Verse Bingo
During our Deep Discussion of the book, I tried to define why else the Magic Bible really frosted my cupcake. My “blargh” attempt sounded something like this:
This morning’s epiphany (and I can never type “epiphany” right on the first try): Instead of using her characters to support a Bible message (note: message singular, not plural!), Breslin is using whatever Bible verse she can find to support what her characters at doing at that exact point in the plot.
The smarter people in our group said, “Yeah, proof-texting. I hate that.”
I said “PROOF-TEXTING! I knew there was a name for it!”
I love learning new words.
Prooftexting (sometimes “proof-texting” or “proof texting”) is the practice of using isolated, out-of-context quotations from a document to establish a proposition. Such quotes may not accurately reflect the original intent of the author, and a document quoted in such a manner, when read as a whole, may not support the proposition for which it was cited.4
Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing.5
Proof-texting is an intentionally deceptive practice that offers out of context proof while ignoring the greater witness of scripture and any other evidence that might refute the desired (and predetermined) theological conclusion.6
…if we can cite a single verse from the Bible which supports the point that we are trying to make, then no “Bible believing” Christian can disagree with us, because the word of God is on our side. Did you catch the subtlety there? In proof-texting, we are using the Bible to support and promote our agenda, rather than proclaiming in a way than allows the word of God to speak to the people of God. 7
So to circle back up to that point I made way up there in the intro to this post, that one about the implied “nyah nyah nyah” sneering? This is what I meant:
Problem of arrogance: by throwing out a series of passages, especially if there is no explanation offered, can exude a confidence in one’s position that does not need explaining. It can communicate the idea that the proof-texter has it all figured out and the position that is being refuted would certainly not be made if the presenter really had an understanding of what the bible is saying regarding the topic. It can paint the proof-texter in light of having a superior knowledge of the topic.8
And it’s not just my sense of inferiority about forgetting more Bible verses than I ever learned. I am not saying that the author intended deceit in her use of plug-n-play scriptures. But I am saying that the reliance on exquisitely-timed pop-up quotes from a Magic Bible tells me that the author is more concerned with propping up her own beliefs with the same tried-and-true verses instead of asking hard questions about uncomfortable truths.
JOAN COLLINS BREAK:
Case study #1: “God wants us to kiss!
Back in her room, she saw the Bible had again materialized atop the nightstand. She sat on the edge of the bed and held the book in her lap, letting it fall open to a random page: Solomon’s Song of Songs. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine.”
Stella quickly closed the book and tucked it back inside the drawer. With a furtive movement, she pressed a finger to her lips and tried to imagine how his kiss might have felt, allowing herself a candid glimpse into her own traitorous feelings.
~ For Such a Time, page 104, Kindle location 1437 [emphasis mine]
As an inspie reader — that whole Default Reader Trust Mode thing — I expect certain things when I see a direct quote from scripture. I expect that scripture to show me how the character is struggling with her faith at that point in her human relationships. If the story is based on a specific Bible character, I expect that scripture to show me how the holy heroine is struggling in her relationship with God.
Instead, the heroine of For Such a Time gets a Direct Message from God at the exact same instant she’s angsting about her attraction to her captor.
And guess what? God is telling her exactly what she wants to hear! Because that’s exactly how the Bible works! Yay!
(hang on a sec, need to unclench things)
I’m not a theologian or anything, but…I’m pretty sure “Let me kiss him” is not a key message of the Book of Esther. I’m also 99.99% sure the Biblical Esther never gets any Direct Messages from God (more on this later), and if she did get one, it would be the opposite of what she wanted to hear. That’s explained fairly clearly in, you know, the Bible.
So how, exactly, according to the author and publisher, should readers be “inspired” in their relationship with God at this point in the story?
The main thing we need to be concerned about here is getting those Jew and Nazi lips locked. And the obvious way to do that is to shoehorn in a “holy nudge” from a Bible verse. And so, in the continued spirit of cherry-picking, the author chooses a bit of scripture from a different book of the Bible — one with a completely different context and tone than the Book of Esther.
A cardinal rule of Bible interpretation is to always consider context. How specifically? First, we need to find the context within the sentence. Next, we need to find the next greater context—like a paragraph or the complete thought of that portion of Scripture. Then we go back even further considering the entire book, the section of the Bible, the author, and the audience. No Scripture is free from the bounds of its targeted culture, nor of the time of its writing, nor of the idiomatic constraints of the original language, nor of its order in the progressiveness of revelation. Only after we consider this full range of contexts, can we understand our Scripture passage, and only then are citations meaningful.9
Solomon’s Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon or Song of Songs), as you might have guessed from the excerpt above, is about married sexual love. Yes, there is an entire book of the Bible about passion and ecstasy and smooching. But, hey — guess what? It’s also an allegory! In the Jewish tradition, it’s seen an allegory of — wait for it — God’s love for Israel. You know, Israel as in the Jews. The “your love” bit is referring to God.
Using a verse from Song of Solomon — a book dedicated to the glorification of God’s love — to shove down our throats the idea that God wants a Jewish heroine to give in to her Nazi captor is…just…wrong. And not the “if that’s wrong I don’t wanna be right” kind of wrong.
But wait – there’s more!
…“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine.” Well, okay, that’s the beginning of the Song of Songs (1:2). However, it’s not from the King James Version of the Christian Bible and while I don’t know all of them, I’ve never seen a Hebrew transliteration use the word “delightful” either.
This suggests it’s from one of those alphabet soups (NIV, RSV, NKJB, etc.) the Christians are using these days to sect themselves up. Which means it’s not just a Magic Bible: it’s a time-traveling Magic Bible!
Yep. Correct. Breslin’s main character is using an NIV Bible in 1944 Nazi Czechoslovakia. The NIV (New International Version) translation of the Holy Bible was first published in 1978.
ANYWAY. We have to keep the “enemies-to-lovers” romance and the eventual bad-guy redemption thing going, because that’s what’s really important, right?
And at least it was a verse from the Old Testament, aka the Hebrew Bible, right?
Oh, wait. NEVER MIND.
JOAN COLLINS BREAK:
Case study #2: “God wants me to fall in love with him!”
“Speak to me,” she breathed . . . and froze when the open page revealed a passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
The New Testament? These pages were unchartered waters for Stella; her only prior experience with the Christian section of the Bible had been explained through Marta.
Stella shifted uncomfortably. Her uncle would likely disown her if he saw her now.
“Love your enemies,” the words of Jesus jumped out at her, “and pray for those who persecute you . . .”
…But her anger died abruptly, seized by a hailstorm of emotions she wasn’t ready to face. He was unlike anyone she’d every know; his warm sense of humor, the way he smiled at her. His kiss….
~ For Such a Time, pages 155-156, Kindle location 2131 [emphasis mine]
No. NO NO NO NO NO. OH HELL NO.
I’m not a theologian, but…I’m pretty sure the Book of Esther is not about “loving your enemies.” Or even “praying for those who persecute you.” It’s a nice thought, but…no.
If we really want to get, you know, Biblical about the whole thing, the Book of Esther has a pretty badass secondary theme of justice. And vengeance.
Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits stands by Haman’s house. He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.” The king said, “Impale him on it!” So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided. – Esther 7:9-10
The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. – Esther 8:11
Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful. The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. – Esther 9:4-5
But wait — there’s more!
As one member of our discussion group pointed out, the use of this verse from Gospel of Matthew is even more inappropriate because Jesus would be exhorting the main character of Stella to love and pray for Hermann/Haman. And all the Nazis. Not just one Nazi who wants to pollinate her lady garden.
JOAN COLLINS BREAK:
Case study #3: The ultimate irony
Tell me, Lord. I promise to listen. Hadassah cast a desperate glance at the Bible on the table beside her. The book had fallen open to a page, marked by the photograph of Aric.
… “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son . . .”
Her gaze drifted down to a passage in John’s Gospel, of the New Testament. Hadassah shot a covert look toward her uncle before returning to the words. Why did they seem so familiar? Was it because of Marta?
No. It was Abraham’s story, she realized. God had spared his son, Isaac, yet according to the Christians, He later sacrificed His own Son for the love of His people.
“That whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
… The room had gone deathly quiet, yet Hadassah heard a Whisper…
~ For Such a Time, page 310, Kindle location 4196 [emphasis mine]
Oh, the irony. And not the intentional irony of John 3:16. A big load of unintentional irony of the burning, itching, sand-in-your-underpants variety.
Are you ready for this?
This biblical narrative tells today’s Christians about God without actually mentioning him.10
An outstanding feature of this book – one that has given rise to considerable discussion – is the complete absence of any explicit reference to God, worship, prayer or sacrifice. 11
The word king is found over one hundred times in the book of Esther, and the name of the king nearly thirty times; but God’s glorious name is not mentioned once. This much is true: Though God is not named in this book, He is present and active. He was not hiding; He was only hidden. 12
Esther faced peril at every turn…. Yet through it all, an unseen hand was guiding her life. 13
The book of Esther is a significant episode in biblical history. It shows us… that even when he has not made his name obvious in our story, we can still see him with the eyes of faith if we’ll read between the lines. 13
The sovereignty of God who is unnamed and behind the scenes but nonetheless faithful to his promises to his people. In reading Esther and in our daily lives, we have to decide if God is behind the scenes or not. It isn’t spelled out for us, either in the book or in our normal routines. 13
The message comes through clearly: God’s methods may vary, but his purposes do not. His workings may be obscured to skeptics by the disguise of coincidence, but the people of God recognize his sovereign hand in the ebb and flow of history. His name is not mentioned, but his influence is unmistakable. 14
The second unique aspect of the Hebrew Book of Esther is the absence of any overt religious element…the presence of God is conspicuously absent.15
…There are no directives from the Lord, no examination of Biblical principles or unveiling of new ones, no vision of the future; rather we have a story that captivates us and holds our attention.16
Emphasis mine. Again. This requires a lot of emphasis.
A quick word count in For Such a Time shows the word “God” used 131 times. The word “Bible” appears 55 times. In a retelling of a book of the Bible in which God is never mentioned.
The Book of Esther is about God working behind the scenes. Breslin’s Magic Bible completely subverts this all-important message. “We don’t need trust! We don’t need faith! God will smack us upside the head with a Bible verse at exactly the right time to tell us exactly what to do!”
The Biblical Esther doesn’t have a Magic Torah telling her what to do. The Biblical Esther struggles to find the courage to make the right choices despite the dangers and despite the odds. The Biblical Esther learns to trust that our unseen God will provide what we need when we need it.
You know, trust. That concept that atheists can’t deal with. As in…17
In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. ~ Psalm 22:4
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. ~ Psalm 56:3
In God, whose word I praise— in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? ~ Psalm 56:4
Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. ~ Psalm 62:8
Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands. ~ Psalm 119:66
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. ~ Proverbs 3:5-6
Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe. ~ Proverbs 29:25
I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob. I will put my trust in him. ~ Isaiah 8:17
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. ~ Isaiah 26:3
Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God. ~ Isaiah 50:10
And from the New Testament, in case God’s words to the Jews aren’t enough for you:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. ~ Hebrews 11:1-2
My theory: If you have to wait for a Magic Bible Verse to do what’s right, you’re not doing it right. If you’re constantly asking for Direct Messages from God, you’re not relying on faith.
My conclusion: The Magic Bible is not just ridiculous and embarrassing and offensive. The Magic Bible is not Biblical.
ONE LAST JOAN COLLINS BREAK:
2 Since I’m verging on author-bashing throughout this post, I’m going to use the generic “the author” and refrain from naming. I’m not attacking the author as a person. I’m analyzing her words on the page to show how the book fails its intended audience and its sub-genre of religious fiction.
10 Esther by Karen H. Jobes, Zondervan, 2011
12 Be Committed (Ruth & Esther): Doing God’s Will Whatever the Cost by Warren W. Wiersbe, David C. Cook, 2010
13 A Walk Thru the Book of Esther: Courage in the Face of Crisis, Bethany House, 2010
17 Did you notice that a lot of these verses were from the Book of Psalms? And if you’ve read the book, did you notice that the author didn’t choose any of these verses? Instead, the author deliberately chose Psalm 22:1 — Jesus’s words from the cross. Proof-texting, people. Proof-texting.