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Saturday, July 9, 2016

"A Doubter's Guide to the Ten Commandments" (John Dickson)

TITLE: A Doubter's Guide to the Ten Commandments: How, for Better or Worse, Our Ideas about the Good Life Come from Moses and Jesus
AUTHOR: John Dickson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, (224 pages).

Can we be good without God's laws? Are the laws and ethics of today original and independent from the Ten Commandments? How extensive is the impact of the ancient Torah in contemporary times? These questions and more are covered in various degrees as author and historian John Dickson writes a guidebook for skeptics, doubters, and unbelievers. An honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Australia, Dickson is also an Anglican minister a well as a multi-media think tank. He contends that our world of today has benefitted greatly from the Ten Commandments in more ways that we have ever imagined. There are no equivalent list that has impacted our lives more than these commandments. He gives three examples. The Code of Hammurabi, a Mesopotamian king in the 1700s BC contains nearly 300 laws, but not many people knew about Hammurabi. The 6th Century Greek's "Maxims of Delphi" contains "147 pithy imperatives" but its knowledge is largely restricted to historians and researchers of ancient history. Even Richard Dawkins's secular "Ten Commandments" do not gain much traction. Comparing these three humanistic lists with the Ten Commandments, the former pales in comparison. Dickson goes on further to point out that the Ten Commandments do not simply instill fear of punishment or rewards for obedience. It goes much further as these very commandments reflect the Personhood of God. They are personified in the Person of Jesus Christ. They connect the relationship vertically with God, and horizontally with fellow people. More importantly, they liberate rather than enslave one toward being the people they have been created to be.

Once this has been stated up-front, the rest of the book is about each of the ten commandments and why they matter to us today. The First Commandment is not about do's and don'ts or principles for living. It is about the reality of living as created beings who reflect the character of God. That is why we cannot simply do good on the basis of human preferences. Neither can we base morality on secular values or common senses. In other words, Dickson tries to rationalize the foundations of any good living, that laws are meaningful only if applied on personal terms rather than impersonal principles.The Second and Third Commandments are about the dangers of reducing God to an idol or trivializing God's Name respectively. While ancient people tend to divinized everything, modern people do the opposite, in particular, the idolizing of the mind through secularization. Both of these commandments involve a kind of idolatry and disrespectful treatment of God's Name. The Fourth Commandment is the Sabbath Law, which if broken damages everyone, including Christians. For the Sabbath is created for people, and not people for the Sabbath. Dickson calls the Sabbath a humanitarian commandment. Being perennially busy all week is sub-Christian and can cripple faith.
The Fifth Commandment has deep implications for societies that are aging. It preserves the nuclear family and the foundations of societal well-being. The Sixth Commandment is not simply about the prohibition from murder but about the sanctity of human life. If we truly love, we will not kill. Jesus addresses the root of murder by nipping the bud of murderous intents in the minds. The Seventh Commandment protects the institution of marriage. Unlike modern corrupting of the meaning of sex, the commandment is about the beauty and protection of sex within the confines of marriage. The Eighth Commandment is about fairness and justice. Dickson calls it "giving what is due." Breaking the commandment means a violation of that trust. The Ninth Commandment covers speaking the truth. The Tenth Commandment deals with coveting by comparing it to desire and comparing the social, the spiritual, and the internal effects of the human dimension.

Each chapter is written with the wit and wisdom of Dickson. As he engages the typical skeptic and non-believing thinkers, he makes it a point to paraphrase the meaning of the commandments in plain logical sequences. Rather than to stick to religious labels that may put unbelievers off, he adopts a disarming everyday logic and common symbols to float up the essence of the various commandments. That is why the book is called a "Doubter's Guide." Without wavering from the essence of the original commandments, the author manages to speak in the language and tone of the modern skeptic, asking probing questions about the commandments and their relevance for today. He lists some common criticisms of the Christian worldview before responding with grace. He does not deal with the symptoms or external looks of the criticisms per se, but moves further into the foundations on which the criticisms are based on. For instance, he responds to Richard Dawkins accusations of Christians "sucking up" to God by saying that Dawkins's perspective tend toward "caricature" rather than "motivation." On those who insist on common sense as a way forward for basic morality, Dickson argues that without a Moral LawGiver, there is no objective or ground for true morality.

All in all, this is more than simply apologetics. It is written to invite Christians to listen into how ancient laws are still very relevant to this day. By paraphrasing the commandments in everyday terms and recognizable cultural symbols of today, readers will find the book easy to identify with. Moreover, the book does not simply defend the Christian faith. Dickson is convinced that behind the commandments is a Lawgiver who loves us. The laws are given not to harm us nor to keep us from being free people. They are given to protect us from ourselves.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of BookLook Bloggers Network and Zondervan in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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