G.K. Chesterton once described with mirth the experience of imagining Churches turned upside down, their spires pointing into the ground. The effect for him was of seeing something in an entirely new way, a twisting or tuning of reality that made something assumed appear in a fresh light. It is an effect that Chesterton frequently practiced in his writing, because he knew well that the mundane can easily be marvelous again with merely a change in perspective. This twisting, perspective-changing characteristic is the great strength of Joy Davidman’s take on the Ten Commandments, Smoke on the Mountain. From it, I have come away with a renewed perspective, a challenged and changed view of the assumed and sometimes mundane Ten Commandments.
Davidman was the wife of C.S. Lewis and a fascinating character in her own right. She was Jewish, a former Communist, an American, and these characteristics are reflected in her book. As Lewis says in the introduction to the book, “every story of conversion is the story of a blessed defeat” (7), and in submitting to Christ all of Davidman’s diverse history is brought into the service of her faith, providing the unique lens through which she views the Ten Commandments. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in reading about her life, I highly recommend Lyle Dorsett’s A Love Observed.)
As I’ve hinted already, Davidman’s strength is in her ability to take the familiar words of the commandments and tune them in such a way that you hear them in fresh and challenging ways. In her discussion of the second command, to make no idols, Davidman says the following: “The essence of idolatry is its attempt to control and enslave the deity” (33). Here she cuts to the quick of the matter, and shows that idolatry is not a matter chiefly of gold or silver, but of the heart of man and his attempt to create gods that he can control rather than submitting to the God he cannot control.
Or take the third commandment (against taking God’s name in vain). Challenging our assumptions, Davidman dismisses the simple interpretation which likens this commandment to a kind of cursing, observing that “Profanity does not insult God—a man cannot insult God; but it does cripple man” (44). Instead, according to Davidman, “what was prohibited was the misuse of power” (44). Not leaving us to simply meditate upon this truism, Davidman takes it a step further and shows how we’ve taken God’s name in vain by applying to our own personal causes the name of the deity.
“If we object to meat-eating, we declare that God is vegetarian; if we abhor war, we proclaim a pacifist Deity. He who turned water into wine to gladden a wedding is now accused by many of favoring that abominable fluid grape juice” (46).
And of course she is right, because the real danger in taking the Lord’s name in vain is applying to our own preferences a kind of divine approval. And thus she brings these observations even closer to home:
“There can hardly be a more evil way of taking God’s name in vain that this way of presuming to speak in it. For here is spiritual pride, the ultimate sin, in action—the sin of believing in one’s own righteousness. The true prophet says humbly, ‘To me, a sinful man, God spoke.’ But the scribes and Pharisees declare, ‘When we speak, God agrees.’ They feel no need of special revelation, for they are always, in their own view, infallible. It is this self-righteousness of the pious that most breeds atheism, by inspiring in all decent ordinary men with a loathing of the enormous lie” (46).
Of course, the book has its share of issues as well. The individual chapters feel a little formulaic (story, debunking of assumptions, re-telling of commandment), and some of the examples are locked into 1950s America. What is more, on several occasions Davidman’s interpretations are not always on target. She relies a little too heavily on some common, anthropological theories about the development of both man and religion (theories which were presumed facts in the decade of this book’s writing) and neglects some of the bible’s own witness. For example, in her discussion of the command against adultery she identifies the impetus of the injunction as a protection of property, and while property rights are surely a portion of the seventh commandment, she misses the broader and more important element of covenant breaking which stands at the biblical heart of the commandment. These kinds of oversights serve to remind the reader that one is reading a reflection and meditation on the commandments and not a proper commentary. On the whole, however, the experience of reading Smoke on the Mountain was rewarding and enriched my understanding of the Ten Commandments.
Who Should Read This Book:
Anyone looking for a fresh devotional meditation on the Ten Commandments, but perhaps especially a minister preparing to preach on one or all of the commandments.
Other Memorable Quotes:
126 – “We sometimes come to God, not because we love him best, but because we love our possessions best; we ask Christ to ‘save Western civilization,’ without asking ourselves whether it is entirely a civilization that a Christian could want to save. We pray, too often, not to do God’s will, but to enlist God’s assistance in maintaining our ‘continually increasing consumption.'”
135 – “It is a poor sort of faith that imagines Christ defeated by anything men can do.”