For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘ten commandments

Chris Hedges, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, New York, Free Press, 2005, 206 pp.

This is the fourth 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. 

Losing MosesThis was by far my favorite of all the Ten Commandments books I read for the sermon series. Chris Hedges is a powerful storyteller and critical thinker, and I enjoyed hearing his approach to the commandments.

Hedges approaches the commandments sideways, at an angle, in ways that make the connections sometimes less than obvious. The most memorable story, for me, came from his first chapter, where he told the story of his naive move into Boston’s Mission Hill with a heart for saving the neighborhood. As he found himself threatened and bullied by a group of young boys, he tried to hold on to hope and faith, but had to admit his failure, especially as his fear prompts him to respond with violence. It ends his relationship with the church, and shatters his faith.

It is knowledge of this darkness that alone makes faith possible. The church was my last refuge from God. In the shattering of that moral certitude I looked for forgiveness. Idols promise us power. God does not. Before God we all are powerless. We are all afraid. It is in this fear, this darkness, that I found God, even as I thought I was fleeing God. (36-37)

One of my favorite sideways approaches comes in a story Hedges tells about a private bar that attracts men who are immigrants. The bar is populated by women who make it their business to get the men to spend all their money there, with promises of love and words of affection. However, Hedges does not tie this story to the commandment about adultery, but to the one about lying.

These lies, the ones told in the bar, the ones told to us, create false communities. They weaken and destroy real communities. These false communities, which we must pay to enter, are a way to fight despair. We share this despair with these men. We share it with almost everyone around us, although we work hard to pretend it does not exist, this despair of living and dying, of not being the person we want to be, or what we want people to believe we are. (64)

Hedges offers one of the most nuanced and helpful accounts of what it means to “honor your mother and father” among all those I read. He grounds his analysis in the reality that our parents shape our lives, whether we want them to or not, by their action and inaction, presence or absence.

For to honor our parents is to honor our essence, the roots from which we sprung, and even the best parents have oppressive powers that must be broken. We must free ourselves from our parents to become fully formed individuals. The commandment to honor your parents is a commandment to honor yourself, honor the life force that created you, the good and the bad mingled within us, but not to honor abuse. (90)

I also appreciate the way Hedges connects the commandments about coveting not just to envy, but to greed, and, as is obvious if you know Hedges’ other work, his reflections on “thou shalt not kill” in circumstances of war.

As always, Hedges is a beautiful writer who tells stories that are compelling and evocative of the human condition. This time, he does so on the themes of the Ten Commandments, and Losing Moses on the Freeway provides reflections well worth reading.

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Rachel S. Mikva, ed. Broken Tablets: Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999, 148 pp.

This is the third 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. 

Broken TabletsThis anthology of reflections by some of the leading rabbis and Jewish scholars offered me a rich added perspective in my sermon series. It was compiled as a festschrift for Arnold Jacob Wolf, a leading Reform rabbi noted for his emphasis on peace and justice. However, the essays do not revolve around Wolf’s work, but around practical, justice-minded reflections on the Decalogue. Remember, the Jewish tradition divides the commandments differently from the Protestants (like Hauerwase & Willimon) and the Catholics (like Chittister)

Rabbi Mikva commences the reflection on each commandment with a few pages of commentary of her own, followed by a longer essay by another rabbi. All of the essays share a common attention to stories and rabbinic tales that shed light on interpretation, along with the Jewish scholarly pursuit of unanswered questions. It is always fascinating to me how different Jewish approaches, questions and even answers are from those methods used by Christian scholars.

For example, in her essay on the second commandment, Rabbi Mikva asks, “Is Judaism asserting itself as the one ‘true’ religion?” She answers thus:

It would be idolatrous to assert any human creation is the ‘one true religion.’ Judaism simply insists on faithfulness. A parable: A man who has to believe that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world has no wife, for he is constantly looking at other women to be sure that none may be more beautiful. … The purpose of religion is not to learn what is good, but to learn to do what is good, not to disclose secrets but to achieve persons. This is the discipline of living in faithfulness. (19)

One of my favorite essays was by Rabbi Leonard Fein, and focused on the fifth commandment, to honor your father and mother. He raises the question of whether all parents deserve to be honored. We all know their flaws, and some parents can be quite terrible. He then posits not unconditional love for parents, but unconditional honor.

We honor our parents because it is they who gave us life. If they are loveable, we may love them. But whether or not they are loveable, we must honor them. (70)

I also appreciated the reflection by Rabbi Richard M. Levy on not stealing. He extends the prohibition against theft into a mandate for generosity.

Stealing is a serious crime in Jewish tradition. So is the sin of encouraging stealing by refusing to share the bounty God has temporarily entrusted to us. (108)

Because each essay was so tightly crafted and each argument so bound together, I found it difficult to pull excerpts or insights that directly informed my preaching, or to quote the rabbis, even at length. However, I know my thinking was deeply enriched and I found great joy in reading this volume.

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.

Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Truth about God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999, 144 pp.

This is the first 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. 

Truth About GodI posted this on Facebook midway through this book:

I keep reading their (Hauerwas & Willimon’s) books, but I need to stop. For every compelling and enlightening sentence, there are two that make me want to throw it against the wall. There’s some good stuff in there, but it’s all so tangled up with garbage. The chapter on adultery was ridiculously bad and out of touch. Oh, the arrogance! The arrogance of these two!

This remains my assessment of the book as a whole.

First, some of the good stuff. Hauerwas and Willimon’s take on the Ten Commandments is that they are a central showcase for God’s saving work in the world. True to their Methodist roots, they see obedience to the commandments as a path toward sanctification, a response to God’s grace with a willingness to follow.

We live by the commandments as a way of worshiping the true God. When we thus worship the true God, we show forth to the world the sort of people God is able to produce. (17)

This makes the commandments not a generalized set of rules that apply to everyone, but a unique covenant initiated by God in relationship to the people.

God knows that Israel, left to its own devices in the wilderness, is prone to reestablish Pharoah’s rule in different forms. So the commandments are given as a basis for a radically alternative society that is counter to all that the empire demands. (27)

We don’t need God–we worship God. That is the first commandment, to stop attempting to get something out of God and instead to bend our lives toward God. (34)

Unfortunately, this interesting chapter quickly becomes a screed against scholars who question how this exclusionary God can hamper interfaith relationships, against a major denominational leader who questions Jesus’ divinity, and even (somehow) against parents who help their teenagers access birth control. As I said, for every good point, there are two that make me want to throw the book into a wall.

There were two main reasons I kept reading. First, Hauerwas and Willimon did detailed research that saved me a lot of work. Each chapter addresses one commandment, and they quote extensively from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and other historical theologians. It is helpful to read those commentaries without having to track them down separately. Second, there remained regular appearances of good and insightful observations, like these:

On “Thou Shall Not Kill”: They (the Religious Right) seize upon the Ten Commandments as a universal, general code of conduct for every thinking American and forget how exceptional the community is rendered by the Decalogue. That our society is so terribly violent is in great part the result of the church’s failure to be a community of nonviolence as a byproduct of our worship of the God of peace. (88-89)

On “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness”: The church must be a testimony that the truth is known by people who have learned how to trust one another through sharing goods, committing one another to lifelong fidelity, the practice of nonviolence, who do these things because they know they are creatures of a gracious God who would have them worship him in truth. (123)

However, you must also put up with obnoxious, arrogant and clueless conclusions they draw. The chapter on adultery is especially heinous.

The only good Christian reason to get married is the conviction that you can live out your baptismal vocation better within marriage than without. Furthermore, we believe that love is the fruit of marriage, the result of our faithful commitment to one another rather than its cause. (98)

The term “planned parenthood” doesn’t quite fit how Christians ought to have children, for children are not our choice as much as they are God’s choice of us. (100)

You have never had good sex until you have had it with a Christian. (100)

However, it’s not limited to that one. They make gross generalizations about the misery of rich people and call out whole congregations for spoiling their children. Then you get this commentary on government, which somehow emerges from their commentary on lying.

There can be no freedom that does not acknowledge God. The Constitution attempted to construct a government without God… Democracy is an attempt to get around the necessity for a hierarchy of virtue by majority vote. (126-127)

So, there you go. Hauerwas and Willimon being their usual selves. They are full of scholarship and insight into the meaning of the commandments, in their richness and connection to God. They are also full of themselves and their own arrogant and outdated opinions, which they then try to argue emerge from the biblical text. My original Facebook assessment stands.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)

Photo by revjmk. Columbus, IN

I used to think passage evoked the worst image of a vengeful God. Not the fact that God is jealous and possessive, demanding our absolute faithfulness–that seems a reasonable request for relationship given God’s devotion to us. But a God who would visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” seems to know nothing of forgiveness and grace.

This promise that a father’s (or mother’s) sins would bear out in punishment upon their grandchildren and great-grandchildren is repeated as often as the commandment, also appearing in Numbers 14:8, Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9. In good biblical fashion, it is also directly contradicted in several other places. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” This standard of justice, which accords far more with our own understandings, is reaffirmed in the Hebrew Bible in Ezekiel 18:19-20, and in the Gospels in John 9, the story of the man born blind.

Yet the commandment stands: the sins of the father will haunt the lives of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The more I come to understand human relationships, the less I believe this is the sign of a vengeful God, and the more I come to know that this is simply the truth of human relationships and earthly life. Our actions, especially our sins, have consequences that last for generations. The things we do in this world, in this lifetime, will shape the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for good or for ill.

The evidence is most dramatic in families with a legacy of sexual abuse or addiction. One parent who acts as an abuser will distort the sexual lives of his children, whose brokenness is repeated in their children, who pass it along to their children. An alcoholic family member warps the interactions of the rest of the family members. Even those children who do not follow the pattern of addiction live with shriveled expectations and wilted relationships, unable to teach trust and intimacy to third and fourth generation. To consider it even more broadly, in this consumerist, energy-hog world, our pollution, decomposing trash and environmental catastrophes will haunt our future children for hundreds of years.

The pattern persists even with less cruel and dramatic patterns of sin and brokenness. Every generation of mothers and fathers tries to do better than their parents did. My grandparents talk about the ways they tried to raise their children to be stronger and more compassionate than their parents. My parents still carried wounds and longings from their childhoods, which they tried valiantly to fight off as they raised my sister and I. They did their best, and yet the same wounds and longings that they carried are still alive inside of me. As I start to raise my son, I can already see what I cannot give him. I will try to do a better job than my parents, just like they did for me, but B will still carry my inherited brokenness forward. As a family, even across generations, we have not the knowledge or power to break out of the damaged patterns, even if we try.

Photo by revjmk. Taken in Columbus, IN.

They may not have called it family systems theory, but the writers of the Torah understood the pattern of human relationships. We are locked in systems of relationships where we live out circular roles and behaviors again and again. We can alter our actions to try to change the system, but one generation is not sufficient to break its hold on us. We pass on our human failings to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the same way we pass along our genes for curly hair, or freckles, or nearsightedness.

As I come to appraise this reality, the message of that commandment seems less vengeful and more hopeful. “Follow me,” says God, “and your brokenness will not last forever.” There is no curse applied to the thousandth generation—only three or four. While we cannot fully escape the bitterness and behavior of our parents and grandparents, nor can we avoid passing our own lack and longing on to our children and grandchildren, nothing will last for all time. If we follow God’s command to serve and follow the Holy, these curses will not go on and on. Each generation can take a step to leave behind the problems of their predecessors. Our false idols of ourselves, of what is good, of what is bad, of who we are and what we can become—these will fade away, albeit slowly, if we keep trying to orient ourselves toward God. By the fifth generation, perhaps they will be gone altogether. It may take generations, but grace prevails.


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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