For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart

Posted on: October 13, 2014

Joan Chittister, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 2006, 152 pp.

This is the second in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Laws of the HeartJoan Chittister’s subtitle to her book on the ten commandments suits her style and contribution. Chittister, as always, speaks to the issues of the heart and soul, looking at the commandments with an eye on the spiritual dimension and attention to the call for justice in the world.

In the introduction, she writes:

The Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the commonwealth. They are laws that are intended to lead to the fullness of life, not simply to the well-ordered life. … The Ten Commandments are, then, an adventure in human growth. We are not so much convicted by them as we are to be transformed by them. (10-11)

Chapter by chapter, commandment by commandment, Chittister examines each in three ways: historically, examining what it meant in the context of early Judaism; in application, imagining how it applies to life today; and reflectively, proposing ways that we can reflect on what it means for each of us to follow the commandments today.

For example, in the first commandment, she explains that the ban on material images was a part of making God bigger than every before, because this Yahweh God was “more than matter, above matter, beyond matter.”(18) She then applies the commandment: “This is the commandment that decides the orientation of our whole lives. This one asks us who or what we are making God now.” (20) Finally, she provokes with a question:

Whatever it is that you give your life to is the shrine at which you adore. The question is, Is this a big enough god for anyone to spend a life on? (22)

I found this book among the most helpful I read in transforming the commandments from exhortative sermons of “Thou shalt not!” into probing questions about the depths of human relationships. Here are some examples:

The fourth commandment reminds us that we are not worlds unto ourselves. We all came from somebody somewhere and we owe them the gratitude that comes with those gifts, however limited they may at first sight be. It is the requirement of this commandment that saves us from the terminal disease of immediacy. This commandment demands we respect the past. (54-55)

“You shall not steal” has been reduced to mean no shoplifting, no pilfering, no pickpockets, no burglary, no petty theft. It has become the province of poor people, sick people, immature people. But the stealing the Decalogue really has in mind, is really concerned about, has actually become the sin of rich people, powerful people, people in a position to say, “take it or leave it” to those who seek a living wage or subsidized housing or medical benefits and pensions. (92)

If I had only one book of these four to recommend to preachers, Chittister’s would be the one. She helps unlock the fixed nature of the commandments and open them to new ways of illuminating our sins and our possibilities.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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