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Living Words:
The Ten Commandments in the Twenty-First Century

by G. Corwin Stoppel
Cowley Publications, 2005

review by John Koize

G. 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 laws.

Stoppel 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.

Stoppel 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.

Jesus challenges men to treat women not as property but as persons and equal partners. Selfish desire and adulterous behavior are equally grave. In 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 meaning.

Stoppel 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.

From 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 at Princeton.

One 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.

Another 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.

As 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 is presented.

Yet, 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.

Copyright ©2006 John Koize

Living Words
To purchase a copy of LIVING WORDS, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.


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