Words from the Fire

Posted: Nov 27, 2009 10:27 PM

So, how to persuade you to buy a book about the 10 Commandments? Specifically, R. Albert Mohler, Jr.'s new Words from the Fire: Hearing the Voice of God in the 10 Commandments.

This isn't the sort of book that normally arrives in my radio studio or turns up at my law firm. Into the former flow the novels and books of contemporary politics or popular history that publishers are hoping will merit an on-air interview. The latter is the resting place for the policy books on the Endangered Species Act, products liability or the hundred Con Law textbooks that legal publishers are hoping will be adopted for my classroom.

Since my show is a secular one, it is relatively rare for one of the great Christian publishing houses to send along a review copy (though a shirt-tail relative inside Tyndale House tips me to their key books.) I am thus often late to the news that a big book is roiling the Christian waters.

My friend Russell Shubin, Deputy Director of National News and Public Affairs for Salem Communications, does his best to flag for me the key books that Christian leadership are or soon will be reading. This week Russell sent along The Rev. Dr. Mohler's latest, and immediately I was struck by the turn it represents for Mohler. I am often on a conference call with Dr. Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and so know the general outline of the areas in which he is working. Mohler writes frequently on preaching and on subjects of current debate in the public square. He is a widely respected theologian and a leader of evangelical Christianity in America who has earned the enormous respect of his friends and opponents alike because of the depth of his reading and learning and because he avoids the sorts of personal attacks that define much of what passes for debate on the cable channels while still bringing sharp arguments and passionate conviction to whatever serious issue is laid on the table.

As more and more of evangelical Christianity's "big names" get older and intentionally begin to retire from the lists, the 50-year old Mohler is becoming if not the most influential voice in American Protestantism, than certainly one of the very few that command instant and serious attention from all quarters that matter.

A book about the 10 Commandments was thus not what I expected next from Albert Mohler, but because Russell had sent it along, I began reading it --and finished it in two days. I strongly recommend it to you. Give it to yourself for Christmas. Give it to your family and friends. Propose it as the text for your small group. Send a copy to your pastor.

If you are an ardent secularist, or a liberal Christian critical of your conservative colleagues and want to really understand the worldview of those evangelicals who appear to be reviving and reunifying as a political force, Words from the Fire is for you as well.

There is theology in the book, and a great deal of Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin and Martin Luther (with more than touch of Augustine thrown in). But these big brains from the past are employed effectively to move along the discussion of what the various commands delivered by God to the people of Israel mean to the Christian living thousands of years later. Theology often shuts out a modern reader who hasn't gotten much from his or her pulpit much less their schooling. But Mohler carefully introduces each key concept in a short paragraph or two so as to lose no one and advance everyone's memory or first encounter with a questions such as "How are we to understand the operation of the Mosaic covenant in distinction to the covenant of Christ?" A daunting sentence and question, right? It should be since it has troubled theologians for centuries, but don't let it deter you because this is a book that bothers to pause and explain what such questions mean and why they matter. In a few short, easily understood paragraphs Mohler explains for the layman what all the debate is about and why it matters. Having handled that and related matters of deep theology in the introduction and first chapter --the idea of a God who speaks but is not seen as opposed to the ancient world's vast legion of gods being seen but not speaking directly if at all is too little reflected upon these days-- Mohler begins a commandment-by-commandment examination of the law given to Moses. In these essays on the commandments is the lasting impact on the reader.

An example: "We live in an age of intentional orphans," Mohler writes at the start of the chapter on the commandment to "Honor your father and your mother." "All around us are people who would disregard and disrespect their patrimony, who would reject the tradition and throw off all the inheritance of father and mother in order to be orphans." The dozen pages that follow cover not only the crisis in our culture that comes from the wholesale abandonment of this rule, but also a powerful exposition of what parents and churches are called to out of this commandment, as well as a reflection on those who break it routinely. "Augustine asked 'If anyone fails to honor his parents, is there anyone he will spare,'" Mohler writes. "Those who dishonor parents would dishonor government, would dishonor authority, and would dishonor God." What many quickly dismiss as the child's commandment suddenly takes on a societal significance that is more easily seen in the wake of the withdrawal of its influence.

Again and again Mohler explains the original significance of one of the 10 and then its place in Christian theology and its significance to the modern church and the contemporary world. Mohler's vast memory and reading is on display throughout with an effortless summoning of whichever modern writer or theologian or historian of the past is needed to help make a case. So too are the sort of stories that only a dad can add to the mix, such as Mohler's son's adventure in the Stanford University book store.

I confess I almost put the book in the big pile that my wife takes off to the Assistance League thrift store, certain that it would make a fine read for others but not really the sort of book I was looking for right then and there.

But I opened it and was hooked within a couple of pages, as you will be. It is as relevant to the headlines as any other book or article asking for attention, and far more meaningful than mostly of them combined. On this Black Friday of shopping, redeem the day with the purchase of Words from the Fire for yourself and any truly loved ones.