Friday, March 11, 2011

The Ten Commandments Need to be Updated by J. Michael Orenduff

       On the day Mike Orenduff got his drivers license, his father gave him a 1950 Oldsmobile coupe that stranded him in so many New Mexico towns that he got to know every mechanic south of Truth or Consequences. By the time he entered graduate school at the University of New Mexico, he and his wife Lai were driving a more reliable car - a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle - and they drove the wheels off it exploring the northern half of the state. His love of The Land of Enchantment is evident in his Pot Thief mysteries which have won The New Mexico Book of the Year Award, the national 'Eppie' award for best mystery, The Dark Oak Mystery Award, Fiction Book of the Year from PoliceWriter, and now a spot as a finalist for the prestigious “Lefty” Award.

          Mike and Lai live in Georgia where she is a professor of art history at Valdosta State University. Their son Jay is a dean at Columbia University and their daughter teaches art history at Georgia College.

The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein has been nominated for the "Lefty".  This prestigious national award will be given to one of the five finalists at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Santa Fe in March.

The Ten Commandments need to be updated
by Mike Orenduff
                I don’t intend irreverence.  I’m not proposing that we change what God has wrought; that’s not even possible.  What needs changing is the wording.  Writers don’t like to hear this, especially one who created the universe, but we all need editing help from time to time.

                The original phrasings were no doubt appropriate for nomads roaming the desert three thousand years ago, but they are hopelessly out of date for today’s world.  After all, coveting our neighbor’s ass is no longer a major moral issue.  Assuming we mean his donkey.  Coveting his actual derrière could be an issue. 
                Few of us these days covet our neighbor’s manservant either, and even if your neighbor can afford domestic employees, you shouldn’t call them servants.

                My interest in this topic began in 2001 when I read about a former kick-boxer who commissioned a sculptor named R.C. Hahnemann to construct a monument to the Commandments.  The kick-boxer, whose colorful background included working as a cowboy on a ranch in the Australian outback, evidently did the design work himself.
                Weighing in at over five thousand pounds, the blocky structure has all the grace of a concrete bunker.  It looks like a headstone for a hippo.  It’s not only an offense against good taste, it violates at least two of the very commandments it seeks to honor! 
                First, it is arguably a graven image.  Why would you need two-and-a-half tons of granite when God put the originals on two carryout sized tablets that Moses could take down the mountain with him?
                In addition to breaking the second commandment (Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol), the monument also violates number eight (Thou shalt not steal) because the kick-boxer turned designer actually tried to copyright the Word of God!  I guess if you’re going to plagiarize, God is right up there with Shakespeare as a good source.

                I would have written this story off as just one more example of people’s penchant for wacky behavior except for the fact that the kick-boxer/cowboy was Roy Moore, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.  This did not do much for Alabama’s already dodgy reputation.

                The Judge of the State Supreme Court commissioned this monolith without the knowledge of the other eight Associate Justices and then snuck it into the Supreme Court in the middle of the night when the building was closed.  I am not making this up.  On the night of July 31, 2001, the Judge and some helpers transported the colossal cenotaph under cover of darkness and installed it in the Rotunda.  But only after overcoming “some initial installation difficulties and concerns regarding structural support for the monument's weight.” One can only imagine.

                Moore had the installation filmed, and videotapes of the event were sold by Coral Ridge Ministries, which used the revenue to pay Moore's legal expenses after he was booted from the bench. 

                When I first heard about Judge Moore’s monument, I put it down as just another example of an overzealous fundamentalist going off his medications.  But shortly thereafter, yard-signs of the Ten Commandments started popping up in my neighborhood like toadstools after a rainy night in Georgia.  I teach in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Valdosta State University.  Georgia may not be the buckle on the Bible belt, but it’s at least one of the loops, so I was not surprised that Roy Moore ascended to the status of folk-hero for the religious right.  After all, Tim Golden, my local state legislator, introduced a bill that would allow bible study to be part of the public school curriculum in Georgia.  Like many simple-minded folk with simple-minded ideas, it evidently never occurred to Golden to ask which Bible the students would read.  Most people know there is a King James Version and a Revised Standard Version and a few others, but there are actually over 700 other versions, from the Vulgate, commissioned in 382, to the Good News Bible, published in 1976.  And the listings of the Ten Commandments are not the same in all those versions. 

                An even stickier issue than which Christian Bible to read is what to do about all the other holy books.  In contemporary diverse America, we have communities where the majority of schoolchildren are Moslem.  Should those schools be reading the Koran in class?  And what do you imagine the Georgia Legislature would say when they found out that little Baptists and Presbyterians were reading the Koran in school?
                The Roy Moore story made me wonder why having the Ten Commandments in a courtroom was so important that it would drive a Chief Justice to disbarment and spur others staunchly to defend the Judge’s behavior in defying the law of the land that he had sworn to uphold.  After all, no one was being denied the right to study and follow the Ten Commandments.  There are, by actual count, 530 churches in Montgomery, Alabama, site of the Alabama Supreme Court.  Presumable, they all have Bibles and study the Ten Commandments.  It’s difficult to believe that having the Ten Commandments chiseled in granite is more important than having them present in that less weighty substance known as the human conscience.  So I decided to ask my students, a cross section of the young people of South Georgia, what they knew about the Ten Commandments.

                The results were surprising.  At the beginning of class one day, I asked the students to take out a clean sheet of paper and write down the Ten Commandments.  I explained that I wanted them to try as hard as they could to remember all ten, and I gave them as much time as they needed.  That night I tallied the results.

                Before you read any further, I urge you to do what my students did.  See if you can write down all Ten Commandments.  Then compare your results with those of my students.

                Of my thirty-one students, only two remembered all ten of the commandments.  Two!  That’s less than ten percent.  Two students could list only four.  The average was 6.3.  The only commandment that everyone remembered was “Thou shalt not kill.”
                Here are the commandments in order of the frequency with which the students remembered them:

Thou shalt not kill. (31)
Thou shalt not steal. (28)
Thou shalt not commit adultery. (25)
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (22)
Honour thy father and thy mother. (21)
Thou shalt not covet. (20)
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. (15)
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (14)
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. (14)
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (11)

                It seems honoring the Sabbath has pretty much gone the way of the horse and buggy.

                In addition to errors of omission, my students also made errors of commission – they listed things that are not among the Ten Commandments.  The most frequent one was “Love they neighbor as thyself,” which six students added to the Decalogue.  Other mistaken additions ran from the ever-popular “Judge not” to “Avoid gluttony.” One student added, “Do not cut people off in traffic,” but I chalked that up to the fact that he was a sophomore and belonged to a fraternity.

                Roy Moore would probably think my students’ imperfect knowledge of the Ten Commandments demonstrates the need for his monument.  I have a different view.

                I love today’s young people; they are honest, open, and possess a strong sense of fairness and compassion.  What they lack is enthusiasm for anything that seems old and out of date.  Growing up in today’s world, young people have a deep and abiding commitment to contemporary notions such as the right to privacy and protecting the environment, two things that don’t even rate a mention in the Ten Commandments.  On the other hand, the idea of a graven image never enters their consciousness. 
                I can just imagine the bible thumpers and snake handlers proclaiming that if it was good enough for Moses and his people, it should be good enough for us.  But the people who might say this don’t talk or dress like the ancient Israelites.  They don’t sacrifice animals, anoint each other with myrrh, or smote their enemies.  Or is that “smite” their enemies? I’m not sure how to conjugate that verb.

                Yes, right and wrong have not changed.  But our understanding of what is right and wrong has been shaped by forces that Moses and his people could not even have imagined - Greek civilization, the Roman Empire, The voyages of Columbus and Magellan, colonialism, the rise of empirical science, the industrial revolution, splitting the atom, putting a man on the moon, the computer, decoding the human genome. Must right and wrong be forever clothed in the words and customs of the distant past?


Mary Jane Maffini said...

Nice to have you here, Mike! And thanks for giving us something to think about.

What's that pot thief up to today? I love the series.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Mike, Welcome!!!

I love the series too, and have ordered the Kindle version of The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein. Congratulations on the Lefty nomination and good luck! WISH I could be at Left Coast Crime, dern it.

You have, for sure, given us something to think about - Thank You.

MJ - Thanks for stopping by. Just finished reading your latest Charlotte. Loved it! (but, of course).

Julie D said...

Excellent! This cracked me up. Some things cannot be explained, yet you managed it, Mike.

BTW, I got 6 out of 10 right. I, too, went with the 'love thy neighbor'. Still and all, it gave me lots to think about.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mike:

Loved your post. I confess, I'm one of those hidebound golden oldies who prefer the King James Version for the beautiful language. Pure poetry to me. I grew up with that version, and for me it knocks the spots off any
updated, modern version.

Good luck with the Lefty competition. If I had a vote, you would get it!

Pat Browning

Mike Orenduff said...

Thanks Mary Jane. I'm really looking forward to your latest with the class reunion. I can already imagine the hi-jinx Charlotte will be involved in.

Mike Orenduff said...

Thanks, Julie. Good to know you did as well as college students, right? Better than being as smart as a fourth-grader or whatever that TV show is called.

Mike Orenduff said...


We must be of the same generation. I grew up with the King James, and all the newer ones strike me as pale imitations.

Radine Trees Nehring said...

GREAT essay. As one who memorized the Ten Commandments (KJV) as a first lesson in Sunday School, I was sure curious about your topic. Heresy? Ah, not so. I agree with your "musings."

(Now reading THE POT THIEF WHO STUDIED PYTHAGORAS and wondering---just a bit---if Hubie might be an alcoholic? Margaritas for supper and champagne for breakfast? Hmmm.)

Still, you get my vote for Lefty! Alas, they don't allow mail-ins.

Sunny Frazier said...

Two of my favorite bibles are "Da Bible," a Hawaiian version, and what I suppose was a Buddhist "bible" in a hotel room in Maui. It was like reading hundreds of fortune cookies.

I balked at your subject matter until I realized that fundamentalists probably haven't discovered the Internet yet. And, it's not so much knowing the 10 as it is about following them.

Unknown said...

Mike, your solution to reading the bible in school is to change it allowing students to read "A" bible in school-whichever one they want. Of course, the schools run the risk someone may whip out a Satanic bible, and I guess the Atheists would sit there and do nothing.

I had forgotten the worshiping the false idols one, although I do follow it, unless Baskin Robins counts.

Holli Castillo
Gumbo Justice

Mike Orenduff said...


I'll have to find a copy of "Da Bible" - sounds like an interesting version.

Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Radine. That no mail-in rule is a bummer.


Mike Orenduff said...


Maybe you could work the Satanic Bible into one of your books; I'm sure Nawlins has some of that along with Voodoo, and you name it.


WS Gager said...

My kids went to a Catholic elementary school and I remember in second grade my daughter trying to memorize the 10 Commandments. She had difficulty because it was the King James Version. She is the kid who must understand everything frontwards and backwards or it isn't worth her time. Try and explain thou shall not commit adultery to a second grader...I failed that lesson. Sent her to her father who could relate from his years of Catholic schooling. She survived. I'm not so sure about me...

Vicki Lane said...

Excellent post! I wish a lot of Christian folks who want to push their religion into public life would heed the verse about praying in their closets, rather than in public. (Matthew 6:6)