The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The Ten Words

Commandments are less rules to be followed than a way of life to be walked

Former NBC Tonight Show host Jay Leno used to love taking his camera crew onto the streets of Los Angeles to interview random people. The subject matter was always of his choosing. Sometimes arcane, off-the-wall topics formed the questions. Most of the time routine facts about history or culture inspired the interviews. 

In one episode, Leno asked university students to name the Ten Commandments. Not surprisingly perhaps, none of them could name a single one. One student ventured a guess: “Freedom of speech?” No, freedom of speech is not one of the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not drink and drive” isn’t one of the commandments either, in case you were wondering. 

Americans, and this would include a high percentage of Christians, struggle to list the Ten Commandments. A famous survey conducted some years ago revealed that a strong majority of the respondents could name the seven ingredients of a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger, but few could articulate more than a handful of the commandments. 

We are an ignorant but talkative people when it comes to valuing the Ten Commandments. As Christians, we prize their role. The words delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai form the centerpiece for much of the ethical thinking in our spiritual lives. Or so we say. But do they really? If we can barely name individual commandments, how central are their claims to our lives? If they are so important to us, why don’t our actions more frequently back up our words?

I think of the businessman who told Mark Twain of his dream to visit the Holy Land, ascend Mount Sinai, and loudly recite the Ten Commandments to the vast sky. With great pride, the man had committed the commandments to memory. Twain’s sardonic response was one we can all appreciate. “I have an even better idea,” he reportedly said. “You could stay home in Boston and keep them.” 

In recent decades we have seen a clamoring to get the Ten Commandments posted in more public spaces and chiseled into more courthouse doorposts. This crusade for more plaques and tablet sculptures seems to grow from the anxiety that some people feel when they see moral decay in America.

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Embracing diversity