The Ten Commandments
in America

by Chris Hedges
Free Press,
224 pp.; $24

At first glance, a book by Chris Hedges on "America's broken covenant with the Ten Commandments" seems radically misplaced. The complaint that U.S. society has failed to follow the Decalogue is usually heard from the Religious Right or the evangelical center.

So what is this left-leaning former war reporter for The New York Times doing with a thesis more suited to Alabama's former chief justice Roy Moore?

A Presbyterian pastor's son who trained for the ministry at Harvard Divinity School while pastoring in a Roxbury, Massachusetts, ghetto, Hedges was born to preach. In the opening chapter on the initial commandment prohibiting worship of foreign gods, he narrates the gulf between Harvard's liberal theology and the loveless, hopeless lives in his neighborhood.

Hoping to rescue two teenage heroin addicts from sin and oppression, he instead descended to their depth. By the end of his second year, they were trying to kill him, and he was using the police and the courts to try to destroy them. Hedges discovered the truth that "the darkness … in Roxbury was my darkness, our darkness." Chastened, he left the ministry and the church to become a war correspondent.

Hedges weaves this story with those of other souls struggling with the idols that separate them from God. Here and in the rest of the book, he's still preaching-crying out against idolatry, violence, and selfishness, and calling for repentance, community, and love.

When Hedges left Roxbury, he ritualized the moment by throwing an empty bottle against the front door of his church. Some readers might feel that Losing Moses on the Freeway is a similar act of vandalism against God's church. It isn't. True, swear words for Hedges include institutional religion, rules, television evangelists, and (sometimes) theology. True, he sometimes writes about Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) as if it inherently champions violence while opposing life and love. And the fact that he skewers liberal and conservative theology alike probably won't offer readers much comfort.

Yet in a book on the Decalogue, this discomfort isn't such a bad thing. Israel became so uncomfortable when God spoke the Ten Commandments that they begged Moses never to let God speak to them directly again (Ex. 20:19). Similarly, our first instinct may be to silence Hedges by closing his book, especially if we won't hear criticism of the Iraq invasion (there's a lot). But just as every commandment contains a hidden promise (according to Karl Barth), so Hedges's criticisms offer the promise of real community. His denunciations are meant to call us from idolatry to authenticity, from fear to trust, from selfishness to sacrificial love.

Article continues below

The book offers 10 chapters, each loosely focused on one commandment, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Hedges does not convey much about what the commandments mean, nor how we might faithfully keep them. Instead, he tells stories. His approach is shaped by his inspiration for the project, the 10 films on the Decalogue by Krzysztof Kieslowski. In Hedges's description of the films, we find an apt account of what he is trying to do in Losing Moses on the Freeway.

First, he shows that the commandments are not "dusty relics of another age," but are relevant "to the human predicament." Second, his approach to each commandment is indirect, by way of stories that present "the lives of ordinary people." Finally, he seeks to free the commandments "from the clutter of piety."

Hedges believes that for many people, one commandment-or its violation- will dominate their life. He writes of Beth Senturia, the "Phish head" who so idolized the band that she wasted a decade following it around; Bishop George Packard, the retired army chaplain whose soldiering began with hundreds of killings in Vietnam; H. R. Vargas, the angry ex-gang member who was abandoned at birth by an adulterous father; Karen Adey, caught in the covetous web of a self-help guru.

What all these stories manage to show, and show well, is that "no one … violated the commandments without tremendous anguish and no one suffered violations without great pain."

Readers may struggle with just how "uncluttered with piety" these stories are. In some cases, we probably should struggle. Hedges's Sabbath story is about a Jewish family that keeps Shabbat even though they are agnostic. While their secularized practice might fight materialism and self-indulgence, as Hedges asserts, it is a far cry from remembering God's creation of the world (Ex. 20:8-11) and redemption of Israel (Deut. 5:12-15).

More importantly, Hedges's morality is not rooted in Scripture or God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, but in his intuition that love is the highest value. Intuition is his only recourse, since he believes that "the God of the Bible is ineffable, unknowable, hidden." The author obviously does not recognize that this same God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, which leads to the book's greatest fault. Recognizing that we will all fail to keep the commandments perfectly, its advice appears to be that we repent of our sin and make our own atonement.

Article continues below

Thus Hedges is right that the covenant has been broken, but he is not able to proclaim the Good News that in Jesus Christ it has been repaired and fulfilled. Knowing that it has, we can read this un-pious book as a window on the human soul, as an indictment of U.S. society, and as an invitation to the work of evangelism.

D. Brent Laytham is associate professor of theology and ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Related Elsewhere:

Losing Moses on the Freeway is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

More information is available from the publisher.

Yesterday, weblog commented on the Supreme Court's Ten Commandment's decisions, which allowed a monument in Texas, but not in Kentucky.

A collection of all of our Ten Commandments articles is available on our site.

For book lovers, our 2005 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.