Review: Conspicuous in His Absence

Conspicuous in His Absence, Chloe T. Sun. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Adopting the approach of theological interpretation, explores through various lenses the significance of the absence of mentions of the name of God in Song of Songs and Esther.

If it is accurate to say that God is the central subject of the Bible, what do we make of the absence of mentions of God in two of the books of the Bible? Absence? What books? Song of Songs and Esther. If we hadn’t noticed, we might have been absorbed in the love poetry of Song of Songs, or the storytelling of Esther. Chloe T. Sun has noticed and makes this the subject of one of the most thoughtful considerations I’ve read of these two books. The experience of the absence, or apparent absence of God is one most of us have experienced and Sun notes that these two books serve as a counter to the overwhelming presence of God elsewhere in scripture.

After some introductory material, Sun begins by considering the theological work exploring the presence and absence of God in other parts of scripture. She notes the receding character of God’s presence in later periods of scripture, and the placement of these books at the center of the arrangement centers the experience of absence amid presence. Chapter two looks at these two books as countertexts to the wisdom books, showing wisdom in nature, erotic love, and human responsibilities–a fuller picture of the wisdom of God.

Chapter three looks at the element of time in both books. There is the timelessness of love in Song of Songs and the breaking in of time in the lover’s absence. In Esther, there is the central idea of “for such a time as this,” the coming together of the strands of Esther and Mordecai’s lives and the plots against the Jews. These moments in time of absence intensify the longing and expectancy for the presence of God. Chapter four shifts from time to temple. Much of Song of Songs revolves around the garden, a place of love, and Esther occurs in a palace with gardens, harking back to the garden temple of Eden. The imagery points toward the presence of God even in absence.

These books bookend the megilloth, five books connected with the five feasts. Song of Songs is associated with Passover; Esther is connected to Purim. In time Purim ends the Jewish year, weeks before the beginning of the year with Passover. This is a season of absence within a year of presence. Sun considers the resonances in the books with the associated feasts and the significance of a rhythm of absence and the remembrance of presence. Finally, Sun looks at the canon, and the resonances and dissonances in other books with these two. Here again, Sun develops the dialectic between presence and absence.

As she concludes the work, Sun made an observation that tied together much of the material for me:

“Christian faith is a dialogic faith. Through prayer and interaction with God, we may find the dynamics of a Christian journey that involves doubt, protest, lament, faith, and hope. In other words, when we sense God’s silence, we do not keep silent. We voice our thoughts to him and we take action using the best of our knowledge to enact change and to maintain order as much as we are able” (p. 294).

This book combines careful theological reflection that brought out new insights into both books for me while helping connect them to the broader testimony of scripture. While the book reflects good theological scholarship, what made it “sing” for me is that it is a book of theological formation, that makes sense of our own longings for presence in the absence of God, not only through these books but in the larger dialectic of presence and absence that runs through scripture.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Conspicuous in His Absence

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2021 | Bob on Books

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