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The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life

By Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.
Abingdon. 1999. 144 pp. Pb. $10. ISBN 0-687-08202-1

Reviewed by Nathaniel S. Murrell Wilmington, N.C.


What should one expect of a book titled The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, published in 1999 when hysteria pervaded the media over a "Bible Belt" idea of posting the Ten Commandments on the walls of an Alabama courtroom?

The authors of The Truth About God are against the notion that “the Ten Commandments are timeless ethical principles that are applicable to all Americans . . . The Commandments are not guidelines for humanity in general. They are a counter-cultural way of life for those who know who they are and whose they are” (p. 18). Americans cannot understand this Jewish-Christian document apart from the worship of the true God; they “are meant for those who are known by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ” (p. 14).

“The first commandment is central to the life of Israel and that of the church” (p. 30). It insists that God “is not a projection of our needs but rather the one who saves by transforming our needs.” We rid ourselves of idolatry only in habitual and constant worship, and in the practice of prayer as “the protest against idolatry” (p. 35).

In the second commandment, God’s name is given as a gift and a privilege to Israel and to Christians “as adopted members of the house of Israel.” For Christians, “to be able to call God’s name entails moral obligation. Because we had to be told God’s name, we cannot make God mean anything we want” God to mean in our culture of modernity. When we attempt to drag God’s name through the mud of our sinful view of reality we blaspheme (p. 42).

Hauerwas and Willimon insist that we keep the Sabbath as an ethical activity through worship. “Sabbath keeping is a sign of trust that God governs the world, therefore we don’t have to work to make things come out right” (p. 57). God is vulnerable to fatigue; so are we. But “Sabbath is much more than doing nothing. We are enjoined this day to remember, recall, recollect, and re-create” (p. 59).

The authors say the Decalogue reminds us of our belly button; it “tells us that we have life as a gift. We are begotten, not manufactured. Someone even changed our diapers” (p. 68). Rather than promote the “idolatry of the family” in a skewed notion of “family values” of the American political right, Christians should be grateful to and appreciative of their belly buttons — the gift of God, parents and their new family made possible by baptism (p. 76).

But how do we tell people in “the most violent culture created” to put up their guns; when owning a handgun is held more sacred and more constitutional in America than owning a Bible? “A sweeping unconditional claim is being made on us . . . . When we take life for any reason we put ourselves in place of God. We steal something that God created and that God owns.” Rather than “ponder how we might skillfully reinterpret this command to suit present circumstances, our time might be better spent wondering how we might change the church to be the sort of place that produces and supports nonviolent people” (p. 80).

The Truth About God reminds us that personality cults must not replace God in our lives; human life must be treated with dignity and not taken recklessly; “manufactured need” only satisfies “legalized greed” and “affluenza” under the cover of “ambition” and “providing for the family;” “domestic violence is a symptom of family life after the Fall” (p. 134); and “we are constantly bombarded with stimuli to our covetousness” (p. 135).

So we need the Ten Commandments not on the walls of the courtroom, but the walls of our hearts. The Truth About God destroys our self-righteous neutrality by forcing us to our knees in repentance before a holy God. But in the same breath the book lifts us to our feet to ask Hauerwas and Willimon some troubling questions.

In their effort to uphold the “Fifth,” the authors say: “In the Bible, when killing is done, it is done under the agency of God, not by individuals or in service to the state, for only God is to kill and to make alive” (p. 80). But why did Cain kill Abel without God’s permission and his example followed throughout the Hebrew Bible?

If the Ten Commandments are meant only for Jews and Christians, are atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. off the hook when they commit murder or adultery? If there were no Christians in the world, would the Ten Commandments still be valuable? Shouldn’t everyone be required to respect the Fifth Commandment? Do we have to be Christians to practice the sexual chastity required by the Sixth Commandment? Do we have to be Jews or Christians to worship one God? How did Christians come to own those ten Hebrew commandments in the first place?

Is Sunday a Christian Sabbath? If all Christians rested on Sundays would there be any public worship of God? My hardest working day in the church week is Sunday. At the end of the day, I am exhausted from preaching and taking the sacrament to communicants in managed care and independent living facilities.

Since Christ has already fulfilled for Christians the Sabbath rest in the resurrection, rather than advocate an arcane impractical Sabbath rest, perhaps Hauerwas and Willimon should just say the truth about Sunday. Christians should honor God in worship on Sundays because the day is convenient; if they get some rest in the afternoon, that’s a plus. But drop the idea of Sabbath worship for Christians; it is a contradiction in terms.

Notwithstanding these critical questions, The Truth About God is one of those little books that forces you to think. I recommend it as excellent reading for Holy Week.