The Ten Commandments in the Twenty-First Century
by G. Corwin Stoppel
Cowley Publications, 2005
Corwin Stoppel’s latest book is a fresh and engaging look
at the commandments through the lens of a twenty-first century Christian.
While not afraid to admit that they are “almost impossible
to fully obey,” Stoppel argues nevertheless that properly
and faithfully understood, the Ten Commandments form “the
framework for personal and corporate relationships.” For Christians,
of course, the model for this is Jesus, and Stoppel includes numerous
references that incorporate New Testament insights into the ancient
pays careful attention to understanding the commandments in terms
of the social, cultural and political systems in which they were
first elucidated. Commandments that seem pretty straightforward
on first glance are often not so simple. The Jews of the Old Testament
could not have imagined Internet pornography, for instance, and
postmoderns have a tough time understanding polygamy and patriarchy.
A careful and conscientious reading of the seventh (forbidding adultery)
addresses all of these and more.
reminds us that while the fruits of fidelity are numerous, for both
families and societies, Old Testament prohibitions against adultery
and related texts were more about property than people. The patriarchy
was more concerned about adultery’s negative effect on the
male ego than its destructive force within the family. Stoppel explains
that it is not until the revelation of the New Testament that a
full understanding of adultery as sin emerges.
challenges men to treat women not as property but as persons and
equal partners. Selfish desire and adulterous behavior are equally
a world where pornography is widely and easily available via the
Internet—and more socially acceptable than ever before—the
seventh commandment and Jesus’ revelation take on clear, new
concludes his ruminations on the individual commandments by noting
that they are not so much about external prohibitions as they are
about paragons of right relationship. He reminds us that when questioned
about the commandments, Jesus taught that their essence is relationship,
not requirement, matters more of the heart than of the head.
analyzing the individual Commandments, Stoppel turns his eye toward
the larger cultural issues surrounding them. Religious conservatives
of recent memory hold aloft the Ten Commandments as the touchstones
of the social order. All of the sideshow hoopla of the marble monuments
aside, the Ten Commandments remain icons of Judeo-Christian ethical
thought and are rightly written about and debated in circles spanning
the full spectrum of believers, from people in the pews to the scholars
of the problems with displaying the Ten Commandments in the pluralistic,
secular public square is not so much that the atheist or non-believer
is somehow excluded from the “in-club” of the Judeo-Christian
worldview by their display—but that too many people are quick
to claim understanding of the Ten Commandments prima facie.
In introducing his work Stoppel points out that over the centuries,
the commandments have been the subject of “constant arguments”
among Christians, Jews, and “almost everyone else.”
What’s more, proscriptions against lying, murder, theft and
the like were common in legal systems long before Moses made his
climb up to Mt. Sinai.
danger, implicit in Stoppel’s argument, is the notion of relevance.
The easiest and surest way
to ignore something is to carve it in stone and put it up on a pedestal
for all to see. The Ten Commandments—and any
other sacred texts—are living words, meant to be carried along
for the ride of history, not turned into rigid rules and tied to
a specific regime. Theocracy, Stoppel is quick to point out, never
lasts more than a generation, and more often crumbles within a decade
or so of its founding.
engaging as this text is, Living Words suffers some from
its pedestrian and overly simplistic analyses of complex realities—and
quick judgments about which side a Christian is to come down on.
Shopping at large discount retailers, for example, is equated with
“stealing opportunities from the poor,” in violation
of the eighth. Without a mention of even the time period he’s
describing, Stoppel writes that dishonesty on Wall Street (number
nine) “sent the Dow Jones Averages plummeting, ruined the
American economy, and destroyed the personal savings of hundreds
of thousands of innocent investors.” There are indeed critical
ethical issues at stake alongside economic ones in each of these
cases—issues that deserve more thoughtful attention than what
despite its shortcomings, Stoppel’s book presents a valuable,
and needed, perspective. Living Words offers a clear and
sound basis for understanding and unlocking the meaning of an ancient
code in an era of dizzying social, cultural and technological change.
©2006 John Koize
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