Encounter a timeless story of evil, awakened faith, and hope for good in a world where God seems absent.
Can Christianity survive a secular age? Can Christians live without compromise in an increasingly hostile society? And what if they’ve already given in to that society’s vision and values?
In this revelatory and provocative new book, Mike Cosper answers these questions by pointing out the parallels between our world and the story of Esther. A tale of sex, ego, and revenge, the book of Esther reveals a world where God seems absent from everyday life—a world not unlike our own. Far from the gentle cartoon we often hear in Sunday school, the story of Esther is a brutal saga of people assimilated into a pluralistic, pagan society, embracing its standards. Yet when threatened with annihilation, they find the courage to turn to God in humility.
A call to spiritual awakening and to faith in an age of malaise and apathy, Faith Among the Faithless is an invitation to remember the faithfulness of God, knowing that in dark times—as in the days of Esther or our own—God may be hidden, but he is never absent.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Mike Cosper is the executive director of Harbor Media, a non-profit media company serving Christians in a post-Christian world. He served for sixteen years as a pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and is the author of Recapturing the Wonder, The Stories We Tell, and Rhythms of Grace. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky.
Read an Excerpt
EMPIRE OF IDOLS
ACT ONE: ESTHER 1
King Xerxes was drunk. I mean, really drunk. The kind of drunk that makes everyone else at the party uncomfortable. He reeled and shouted and swung heavy arms over a crowd of onlookers and flunkies, sloshing wine and shouting about the glories of Persia.
This is where our story begins.
Some have called this drunken king "King of Kings" because his empire spread from modern-day Ethiopia to modern-day Pakistan. In the book of Esther, he's called Ahasuerus (pronounced "Ahashwerosh"). Kings often had multiple names, which might account for why the Hebrew Bible uses this name; "Ahashwerosh" is a pun that would be heard by Hebrew speakers as "King Headache." Whether the headache is from the hangover he'd have after this opening scene or from the one he'd soon cause the Jews, your guess is as good as mine.
Rule under the Persians wasn't so bad. Unlike the Assyrians, if the Persians conquered your land, they were pretty reasonable. They were deal makers; they'd leave standing kings and governors in power as long as they were willing to swear loyalty to the Persian throne, pay their share of taxes, and from time to time, pay tribute to the Persian king. It was a protection racket: you send gold, jewels, slaves, and soldiers, and you enjoyed the knowledge that if someone else came knocking at your gates, the full fury of the Persian army would defend you.
It was the third year of his reign, and Xerxes was wrap- ping up a six-month-long party. He'd summoned rulers, governors, and military officials from across the empire to Susa, the wintertime capital of Persia. Aside from the lavish display of his wealth, the party was a war council, drumming up support for an upcoming campaign against the Greeks.
And so the tribute rolled in, cart after cart of livestock, wealth, oils and spices, silks and leather and gold and jewels and slaves and concubines. The whole city rumbled with footsteps and hooves, and with the wooden drone of rolling carts.
The palace at Susa was a stunning display. The hall where the festival took place had thirty-six columns that stood seventy feet tall, each with a carving of twin bulls at the top, supporting a ceiling built with massive wooden timbers. Everything had a sculpture, an engraving, a gold embellishment, a covering of silk.
Here's how rich Xerxes was: a few years later, when the Greek war ended in failure for Persia, the Persians retreated, and the Greeks overtook their encampment, Herodotus wrote that the Greeks found gold and silver couches left behind. Not coins. Not statues. Couches.
It's this kind of Kanye-worthy excess that Xerxes put on display for the governors. It was a display of his own wealth, and a kind of promise. A vision of their own lives, should they support their king on his next military expedition. We'll ransack Athens, and we'll take all their stuff. The guests drank and they feasted and they fawned over Xerxes, who got as drunk on their praise as he did on his wine.
The city itself accommodated these guests with charm, and the parties poured out into the streets as the governors, revelers, and suppliers poured in.
When the last delegation had gone home, Xerxes made a final gesture of generosity, this time to the people of Susa. Every citizen was welcomed to the palace and treated with the same dignity and hospitality as the aristocrats who had come before them. Tanners and blacksmiths and livestock traders sat in royal halls, heard the court musicians, ate the food that turned on spits, drank the wine that was served in goblets of gold and silver. On the walls were carvings of Xerxes as a lion, eating an antelope; carvings of his father, Darius, telling the stories of war and victory, painted in bright colors and brought alive by shifting firelight. The commoners bathed in the godlike glory of empire.
When the feast was announced to the city, the king decreed, "There is no compulsion," a necessary relief for the partiers. Normal custom would have required that any- thing served by the king to his guests must be consumed, regardless of the will of the guest, the fullness of the belly, or the level of sobriety. Instead, the king made room for people to come and go, to drink and eat as they wished, to enjoy his table without the burdens of decorum.
Xerxes presided over the whole thing, at times seated on a throne above the crowd, at times mixing in with the dazzled commoners. He drank it in with the same desperation he drank in the fawning of the royal officials. It wasn't enough for this king to be feared; he wanted to be loved. And the royal treasury bought innumerable casks of wine, bushels of grain, bleating heads of sheep and goat, all to pour out on the city like flowers from lover to beloved. Entertainers danced and sang and told bawdy jokes day and night. Slaves and prostitutes were put to work. To call it "excessive" is to put it mildly. One note in the Talmud, one of the principle texts of rabbinic Judaism, says that Satan himself danced among them.
No matter how you frame it, the party itself was a terrifying place. The king wielded near-absolute power in his kingdom. He gave life and took it. He conscripted Susa's sons into his army and its daughters into his harem. Criminals and offenders of the crown were regularly impaled on stakes and hoisted high in the air, their twisted bodies a warning to any who thought to violate the law or fall into disfavor. His name was revered, his decrees terrified.
The citadel loomed over the city. Its gates were called the Gate to the World, because what issued from the pal- ace shaped the world. A god lived there, and he sat on a high throne surrounded by slaves and servants and a thousand works of art that celebrated him and his divinity. And improbably, he invited them into his palace and threw them a feast.
On the seventh day of the feast, things got weird.
The king was "merry with wine" (1:10), which is a polite way to say he got drunk and stupid. The citizens of Susa were stunned by the spectacle of the "King of Kings" — glassy-eyed and tongue-tied, staggering through a crowd of peasants.
Xerxes began shouting for the queen. He rounded up his advisors and sent them to bring her before the raging crowd.
Opinions vary on exactly what was happening at this point in the story. In some commentaries, Vashti gets painted as the villain: a stubborn wife who was too concerned with her own business to respectfully submit to her husband's request. Somewhere, there's a Sunday school teacher with polished shoes and a nice blue dress saying to a roomful of wide-eyed kids, "The nerve of that woman! Disobeying her husband?" (To be fair, this is precisely the conclusion Xerxes' council of flunkies arrived at as well.)
I have my doubts about this interpretation. After all, this was ancient Persia, meaning Vashti's summons likely would lead to some form of sexual humiliation or violence. Persia, generally speaking, was not a fun place to be a woman. Women, including the queen, were property. Vashti was wealthy and pampered, but she lived a cloistered life, surrounded by female attendants and eunuchs, subject to whatever treatment suited Xerxes at any particular moment. She likely wasn't a friend and companion. She was certainly not a ruler or dignitary, as we might imagine a queen to be.
It was never safe to be a woman in Persia, and on a night when the king and his attendants were drunk with wine and the promise of war, it was the least safe of all.
Even the queen and her attendants might not be spared from public humiliation. At a minimum, Xerxes' request would have required some kind of display. He might have wanted Vashti to emerge in the hall wearing only a crown, or perhaps a crown and an open robe, her beauty silencing the bands, filling the drunken mass with lust. It might have been far worse.
But not tonight. She heard the throb of the music, the roar of the mob. And tonight, Vashti would say no. For her dignity. For the dignity of her handmaidens. For the women of Persia, Vashti would say no. And no one said no to the king when the king was "God."
And yet, in the presence of the ordinary people of Susa, when the king, plastered and shameless, shouted for the queen, she did say no. The king was humiliated — and shellacked.
When the hangovers were cured and the halls were quiet again, a long counsel was taken with the king and his advisors. Queen Vashi had set a dangerous precedent.
"What if women begin refusing their husbands' demands?"
"They might begin thinking and acting for themselves!"
"Even our own wives might be emboldened against us!"
"Something must be done!"
One of the advisors proposed a solution: Banish Vashti. Make an example of her. Show the women of Persia that there were consequences for disrespecting their husbands. This would settle a thousand domestic disputes and keep women from getting any high-minded ideas about what they could learn from Vashti.
Hidden in this suggestion was another thought: the men of Persia will love you for this.
And so it was done. Letters went out to all of the empire, warning the women of Persia, announcing that for her insolence, Vashti was no longer queen and was ban- ished forever. It was the first step in a story that would pitch the empire into turmoil and would push the Jews living in Persia right up to the edge of genocide.
A WORLD MUCH LIKE OUR OWN
At first glance, it's tempting to look at ancient Persia as a world so unlike our own as to be incomprehensible. Primitive people. Primitive society. Primitive technology and religion and ideas about humanity, nothing at all like us. To think this is understandable. But doing so is a huge mistake.
Generally speaking, the human heart hasn't changed much in the last few thousand years. People are people, each one subject to passions, fears, and insecurities. The interior life of an ancient Persian dictator or an Assyrian goat herder was not terribly unlike your own.
In his documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog explores ancient cave drawings that were discovered in France. The drawings are elegant, depicting animals in motion along the cave wall. Water runs through the caves too, and Herzog shows how light from fire and torches reflects off the moving water and onto the walls, shimmering through the drawings and animating them. Watching the light move along the images, you realize that humanity at its most primitive had imaginations, like you and I, possessed a love for beauty, and — in all likelihood — shared a propensity to gaze at images and tell stories. They had charcoal sketches of deer and bulls. We have Netflix. But the life of the mind is no different.
The same thing goes for Persian relief carvings, statuary, architecture, and mythology. Their culture reflects the hungers of the human heart, much as our own does.
When we look at Persia through that lens, we see much that's familiar. We see Xerxes' architectural achievements and military power — his sprawling palaces that reflected his sprawling empire. The display was both political and personal. A hunger for love and fear that centers not only in a longing for loyalty to the empire, but to the king himself. Xerxes was mortal. He had a soul, like you and I, and in our fallen world, our hearts are always desperate to make sense of who we are, to discover whether or not we matter. We all build empires in hopes of inspiring love, loyalty, and admiration. Some just have the ability to do it on a grander scale than others.
So Xerxes paraded before the world all of those things that — for all of human history — have held out the promise of happiness. Money. Power. Sex. His table, his treasury, and his harem were overflowing, and he wanted the world to see it and stand in awe. The feast was also part of Persia's program for assimilation.
Empires existed because one ruler was able, through political and military means, to assimilate many kingdoms and peoples under one banner. For peace to exist in the empire, you didn't just need strength; you needed a certain kind of love and loyalty. If you were Xerxes, you'd want to find ways to get people who might otherwise prefer self-government to think, It sure is great to be a Persian. Showering rulers and governors with overabun- dance at a feast goes a long way toward that goal.
Another way you do this — which will become important soon — is by assimilating their religions. Like the Babylonians before them, the Persians embraced a certain pragmatism when it came to religion. In many ancient empires, the conquering culture would demand a religious overhaul of the conquered, exchanging their sun god for the empire's lizard god or whatever. The Persians and the Babylonians did things a little differently. You were welcome to keep your sun god or your lizard god, so long as you saw that god as part of the broader pantheon of gods of that empire. This worked well, with a few exceptions (the Jews being one of them).
And here, too, our world and Esther's world overlap. The truly dangerous idea in Persia and Babylon (and the only real heresy) was to believe that your religion was the one true religion. It disturbed the tidy order of things. It made for religious dissidents, and it caused friction amid polite pluralism. In our world, the same is true, although for different reasons. Where their world was overtly pagan, ours wears a mask of secularism.
THE PROBLEM WITH PLURALISM
Religion as a rigid worldview and lifestyle-shaping force has been largely denigrated into a series of entrees from a restaurant menu. Two hundred years ago, if you were born Catholic or Hindu or Muslim, it was almost impossible to convert to another religion without causing serious social upheaval. It happened, but it wasn't normal. Now, in the Western world, people can generally believe whatever they want, or they can believe in nothing, and it's all acceptable.
The one thing that isn't quite acceptable is holding to some kind of exclusive belief. Christians, Jews, and Muslims who believe their religion is right to the exclusion of others are facing increasing cultural pressure and hostility.
But religion hasn't disappeared entirely. People spend thousands of dollars on transcendental meditation retreats, and that practice (as well as mindfulness meditation) has advocates in academia and the business world. And while they'd never identify themselves as religions, there are movements and elements in our secular culture that are religious, like it or not. These movements and their adherents promise hidden knowledge, happiness, or moral virtue: vegans, home birthers, anti-vaxxers, homeopathic medicine, or any one of a dozen food orthodoxies. I mention them not to condemn them, but to highlight the passion that each can inspire. Similarly, there's an almost religious fanaticism that hooks people on activities such as CrossFit, SoulCycle, or yoga. We're creatures looking for meaning and purpose, and these pursuits can quickly become pseudo-religions that offer some sense of meaning or a hint of longed-for transcendence.
There are streams of religion that survive in this world, but they only thrive if they're treated with the same casual air as, say, SoulCycle and yoga. They're fine, so long as you don't take them too seriously. They shouldn't be the North Star around which you (much less "we") should organize our lives. Instead, religions and various forms of spirituality are treated like items on a buffet, to be taken or left however your appetites dictate.
Trouble only brews if you dare suggest that someone else's practice isn't as good as yours. Doing so disrupts the happy, pluralistic world, and it sets one citizen against the others.
Mostly, these disruptions happen on Facebook. And when things blow up there, it's generally harmless. Say a few parents start duking it out over vaccines or milk with hormones in it: Those battles usually end with someone saying, "Look, everyone needs to do what's right for their family," a platitude that sends everyone back into their collective corners. And even when that doesn't work, the worst thing that happens is someone unfriends somebody, and relative peace ensues again.
That's why these religions tend to thrive: They're mostly harmless. Their goals are narcissistic, me-centered. They don't make demands on society, on neighbors, or even on families. In this, they're like temples to the sun god or the lizard god. Let the people offer up blood sacrifices or sexual sacrifices or whatever it is they do, as long as they're not intent on destroying one another and — here's the real kicker — so long as they acknowledge that Xerxes or Caesar or Nebuchadnezzar is a god too. And because he's the king, he's actually the one god that matters. The one they need to fear the most. Which brings me back to secularism.
Excerpted from "Faith Among The Faithless"
Copyright © 2018 Mike Cosper.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Finding Ourselves in a World Gone Mad xi
Chapter 1 Empire of Idols 1
Chapter 2 Conquest and Compromise 25
Chapter 3 The Girl with Two Names 49
Chapter 4 Resistance 67
Chapter 5 The Plot 93
Chapter 6 The Crossroads 111
Chapter 7 The Throne Room 129
Chapter 8 The Feasts, the Honor, and the Downfall 143
Chapter 9 Remembering 163
About the Author 177