My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us the last few years of her life when I was in grade school. I have many fond memories of those years, including how grandma helped me memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the twenty-third psalm (each one, of course, in the stately cadences of the King James’ version of the Bible).
That’s a classic collection of texts, which later in life I found perplexing and even abrasive. I mean, a set of commandments (carved into stone, according to the ancient story) on the one hand, and on the other, poetic verses about God as a gentle shepherd leading me through both verdant pastures and scary valleys alike and eventually bringing me safely to God’s own home.
As a young adult, that collection of memorized texts came to symbolize the dissonance I associated with the religion of my youth, constantly extolling the glories of divine grace while at the same time monitoring our adherence to rules and regulations.
That contrast is at least part of the reason why an increasing number of people today identify as “spiritual but not religious.” For some good reasons, many people today associate religion with institutional bureaucracy and rule-making. Or more pointedly, keeping institutional rules for the sake of the institution itself.
I sympathize with that critique of religion, which I myself have made many times. So I’ve surprised myself in more recent years by adopting a slightly different posture toward religion and its rules, or what I would prefer to call “disciplines and practices.”
That’s a linguistic difference worth making on this third Sunday in Lent when many Christians heard once again the recitation of the “Ten Commandments” and when most Episcopalians heard an intriguing prayer to begin their worship this morning, a prayer that reads in part like this:
Keep us, Almighty God, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul…
Notice how the desire to be kept bodily and defended from adversities in that prayer is paired, nearly intertwined with the desire to be kept inwardly, in our souls. Whatever that vital, animating essence of human life is that we call “soul,” apparently it can be damaged, as that prayer notes, by “evil thoughts.”
Any rule worthy of being kept, in other words, ought to help protect our souls from becoming wounded.
That sounds terribly abstract and old fashioned; but it’s actually quite concrete and contemporary. Witness the epidemic of post-traumatic stress among soldiers returning from combat, most recently from Iraq and Afghanistan. The stress may have nothing to do with being physically wounded; as some scholars and counselors are noting, these military personnel suffer from “moral injury,” or that which might assault and hurt the soul (see also the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University).
Or consider the psalm appointed for this Sunday in Lent, which begins by noting how the heavens declare the glory of God and how the skies show forth the Creator’s handiwork. In that very same psalm, the psalmist also glories in God’s law, which, declares the psalmist, revives the soul, just as God’s statutes rejoice the heart and should thus be more desired than even the finest gold!
I like to think this is why my grandmother helped me memorize the Ten Commandments—to treasure them more than material wealth and to protect my soul when it falls into danger.
I dare say, such danger lurks around nearly every corner these days, disguised as the ordinary routine of the modern world. Ana Levy-Lyons urges us to notice this with her recent book, No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments. A society perpetually enamored with freedom and liberty, she writes, cannot begin to fathom why commitments, communal support, and shared rules are so crucial for resisting the temptations of modern life.
The “temptations” she has in mind infuse a corporate-driven consumer culture in ways we scarcely recognize, streaming toward us endlessly in advertising, entertainment, and the digital monitors populating nearly every public and private space. We’re fooling ourselves, she notes, if we suppose we’re smarter than that vast cultural machine, able simply to say No to what is actually slowly killing us.
To reach “escape velocity,” as she puts it, we need some serious counterforce—exactly what the Ten Commandments in particular, and religion more generally, provide.
I can’t help but wonder whether John had something like this in mind with the temple in Jerusalem, an obvious and potent symbol of religion, its institutions and rules, its disciplines and practices. The story from John’s gospel for this Sunday is sometimes described as Jesus “cleansing” that temple, healing it, as it were, of its moral injury. The “soul” of that sacred place had been damaged, its worship and piety reduced to a mere mechanism of exchange, as if bartering and trading one item of value for another could ever reveal how deeply the Creator God delights in the Beloved Creation.
No, Jesus dramatically insists, the crude mechanisms of a marketplace do not revive the soul, do not rejoice the heart, do not come anywhere near the precious value of those religious disciplines that can clear the clutter and create space for the healing of our wounded souls.
Notice in this familiar story what is not so familiar about John’s version: how early it appears in his account of the gospel—the second chapter! Most Christians, I wager, usually think of Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables as a story that comes rather late in the gospel narrative, something like a culmination of the escalating tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. But John puts this moment right up front, one of the very first stories he recounts in his account of the Gospel.
That is a prime story-telling location that every story-teller wants to leverage for the greatest narrative effect. So, why this story in this prime spot? Obviously, we can’t know with any certainty but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that John understood this story as one of the key components for framing the kind of account of the gospel he wanted to offer. This seems even more likely given what John has Jesus say about the Temple, or rather, how Jesus confused the religious leaders by talking about the temple of his body. This is, after all, the Gospel writer who declares in his opening verses that the Word of God became flesh.
This surely matters in a culture where far too many black and brown bodies are treated as disposable objects; in a culture flooded with #metoo hashtags, each one of them marking a moment of turning a woman’s body into a commodity to own and control; in a culture where a constitutional right to own guns takes precedence over the safety of our schools and the lives of our children.
If the language of “harming our souls” still seems just a bit too clunky, then let us speak instead of how many people today keep spiraling farther into alienation and loneliness (witness the British prime minister recently created a new governmental “minister of loneliness” to address this). Or we might pause to realize just how many turn to consumerist excess to medicate an epidemic of bodily shame, and when this fails, anti-depressants and opioids, or (which is often easier) purchasing and stockpiling assault weapons.
In such a world as this, religion and its disciplines have perhaps never been needed quite so desperately.
Or perhaps the world has never been quite so desperate to remember what it has mostly forgotten about religion: its purpose is the thriving and flourishing of life; and perhaps too many religious leaders themselves have forgotten this about religion.
Or as Jesus declares a bit later in John’s gospel, the point of all this is that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
That declaration from John’s Jesus can remind us how the ancient biblical writer introduced the Ten Commandments and the frame through which to read them and live them:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…(Exodus 20:1).
The rules worth keeping—the rules we simply must keep—are the ones that liberate and give life.