Paying Attention to the Label

Some things aren’t worth worrying about. For example, the label on the bottle that warns me, with the exhortation “for external use only,” that shampoo is only for hair. The only one in my household whom I am remotely concerned about confusing the shampoo for a cocktail isn’t old enough to be able to read warning labels anyway. Of course there’s the dog, but he has previously demonstrated an intense distrust of things associated with the bathtub, so I don’t think ingesting shampoo is high on his list of priorities. Otherwise I can’t imagine downing shots of conditioner every morning in hopes of attaining fuller, healthier hair. How long would one have to do so before being driven, presumably by mediocre results, to actually read the directions on the bottle? There are lots of things to worry about besides the taste of Garnier Fructis as compared to Herbal Essence, thus it is only natural to filter out some of the superfluous warnings in deference to more pertinent dangers.  As far as shampoo goes I think I’ve got that one covered, thus I don’t spend a lot of time sweating the cautions on the label. Happily, most of us can say our shampoo does not pose a major threat to our way of life.

However there is one threat to our way of life that likely does not enter into our thought processes nearly enough, normally because we simply assume that we know better. The threat happens to be none other than the Ten Commandments, ten warning labels that in many cases appear to be no brainers. If you are a Christian or even just an upstanding moral citizen, it may seem rather counterintuitive, or downright odd, to think of the Ten Commandments as a threat to your way of life. After all isn’t at least one of the supposed purposes of those rules to maintain some semblance of rational justice in an otherwise no-holds-barred world, thus helping make civilization possible? Well, yes, sort of. But there’s more.

It might surprise you to know that I don’t think the Ten Commandments should necessarily be posted in every courtroom in America, lest we fool ourselves into thinking that our national consciousness has embraced something it would much rather hold at arm’s length…or further. My dog is fully aware and understands the implications of the fact that there is indeed a bathtub in the house. He’ll walk up to it, sniff it, and look around it. That doesn’t mean he’s cool with taking a bath in it. The presence in the house of the tub itself is not that difficult for our beloved schnauzer to accept, relatively speaking. Rather it is the tub’s relationship to warm soapy water, and his being carried toward it against his will that is of concern to our poor, beleaguered schnauzer. Awareness, while part of the problem, isn’t really the primary issue.

Likewise it’s not the Ten Commandments’ relationship to ethics that poses a threat to our cultural norm. Who among us has serious heartburn with the assertion that generally speaking, stealing stuff is wrong? It is the commandments’ relationship to Christ which makes them troublesome. And as Richard Niebuhr* pointed out way back in the innocent happy days of the ‘50s, there is no bigger threat to culture than Christ himself. Thus whether one chooses to dismiss them like the label on a shampoo bottle or avoid them the way a dog runs under the bed at the sound of a running bath, there’s no escaping the challenge the commandments present.

Speaking of Happy Days, if “The Fonz” taught us anything besides the value of a good shampoo, it was that relationships can be difficult and some seem destined to fail from the start. Such is the case with the Ten Commandments and Christ. The former is the law. The latter represents grace and forgiveness. How’s this going to work? But then we must realize that Jesus himself is in fact the author of the Ten Commandments. Furthermore he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Thus he set about doing just that, submitting to the will of his Father, obeying all he commanded, and calling others to follow him in doing the same. Therein lies the threat.

Niebuhr parsed it out quite thoroughly, as if he spent a lot of time thinking about this or something: Jesus, a Jew, was rejected by Jews because he posed a threat to…Jews, and their culture. Jesus took offense to powerbrokers who used the law as a means to oppress others and acquire wealth and prestige. And of course the Romans couldn’t embrace Jesus either because, well, the first commandment is “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me,” and they had a lot of other gods before him that by and large they were not comfortable giving up. All those gods were a unique facet of Roman culture. Worshiping Caesar was part of Roman culture and it seemed to be working quite well at the time. Consequently Jesus and his summons threatened culture.

Jesus still threatens culture. As it turns out following Jesus, just the mere attempt, is by its very nature going to cost us something. Perhaps it will cost a lot of somethings, and yet through faith in him we’ll never pay what we owe. The Ten Commandments do help keep things under wraps, yes. But they also reveal two more things; God’s will and exactly, given our shortcomings, how great our need of God’s mercy is. One may deem such revelations to be about as necessary as the warning on a bottle of shampoo, trying to filter them out in favor of moving on to more important matters. That is after all exactly what our culture compels us to do, which is why the Ten Commandments stand as perhaps our culture’s biggest threat. 


* Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: HarperCollins, 1951), pp. 2-5.