The Ten Suggestions?
an essay on
Smoke on the Mountain
Smoke on the Mountain presents an appraisal of the state of western moral and cultural values, ca. 1950, in the light of the Ten Commandments, as interpreted by a Christian thinker. Full of sharp insight into the thinking of her time, it also reveals the author's broad and timeless perspective on the eternal issues raised by human nature in opposition to God's great statement of His intent for His people. It concludes with a consideration of Jesus' formulation of the greatest commandments summarizing the Law and the prophets.
For those who recognize the name of the author as being the wife of C. S. Lewis, I should point out that, even though Smoke on the Mountain is dedicated to C. S. Lewis, it was written before she married him. I am not sure, but I believe that it was finished before they met. That said, it is no mystery why the two of them found strong mutual interests: Joy Davidman was a brilliant writer by any standard, and her wit and insight are in full bloom in this book.
Many epiphanies came to me in the course of reading Smoke on the Mountain, not the least of which is that so many of the things Davidman predicts as logical outcomes of tendencies at her time have in fact emerged in our time. The world has become "more so" in the intervening years, and part of the revelation is that the author shows why this must be so.
The structure of the book hangs on the Ten Commandments, and it centers on the way that the commandments indict our society, its values, and its pursuits. For much of the world, the Ten Commandments might as well have been written in disappearing ink. But for Western, supposedly Christian, society, the Commandments have met with a worse fate. They have been watered down, turned into rules, avoided, replaced with euphemisms, even though their implicit morality is in fact pervasive, e.g., we must not use the Lord's name in vain; so, we do not use the Lord's name at all!
One aspect of the Law that Davidman brought out to me is its moral force. Its ramifications are everywhere in our society. Jesus added to that moral force in the Sermon on the Mount. Davidman writes,
"Remember that the distinction between act and intention, letter and spirit, hardly existed at all before Christ made it for us; nor can it be preserved without the constant guidance of Christ..." chapter 4 (on the fourth commandment)
a reference to the discussion about the Sabbath that Jesus ends by asking whether the Sabbath made for man or man made for the Sabbath.
Again, in the discussion of the second commandment, Davidman brings out a point that few would think of:
"Idolatry lies not in the idol but in the worshiper."
chapter 2 (on the second commandment)
The author then uses this principle to develop the insight that there is in fact a lot of idolatry in our society. In each case, for each commandment, once she fashions the analytical tool, she applies it rigorously to our times, often with devastating results.
I read Smoke on the Mountain over a long weekend. This is an excellent read, entertaining, disturbing, enlightening, thought-provoking. If you can find it in the public library, I recommend checking it out.
I have had occasion to quote Smoke on the Mountain several times in CQOD. It has evoked many responses from CQOD subscribers, sometimes harsh ones. It would be too judgmental to say that it struck home. Nevertheless, there is still a good deal of the Pharisee around, in even people who outwardly seem completely free of it, not excluding myself.
RMA, June, 2000
Davidman, Joy, Smoke on the Mountain, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia: 1953.
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