Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments by Joy Davidman (The Westminster Press, 1953)
I recently re-read Joy Davidman's book because it seemed logical to include in my C. S. Lewis retrospective. How long ago was my previous reading I can only guess, but it's likely two decades or more.
The first time around, I remember being quite impressed by Davidman's take on the Ten Commandments; this time, less so. It's still a book worth reading, but perhaps two decades further on has made her examples and emphasis seem more dated. Her analysis is still pretty good, however. Basic human nature doesn't change—and neither do the Commandments.
The one thing that bothers me most is certainly very minor in the scheme of the book, but it comes up over and over again. Not in anything directly related to her arguments, but in her assumptions about society: that is, that one of the biggest problems of this world, and a concern of all intelligent people, is overpopulation. I think my children don't understand quite how intense the pressure was in my generation to have no more than two children. I'm very glad that has now eased—but the attitude still rankles when I run into it.
Maugre all that, there were plenty of quotes worth extracting. Remember that Davidman was writing in the early 1950's, and reflect how à propos they still are.
The articulate, the leaders of opinion, the policy makers, all those who set the tone of our society, seem for the most part to be frightened men. (p 18)
Despite her fears of overpopulation, Davidman has a pretty good take on much of what's wrong with family life today.
Everybody today ... will agree that that family life is indispensable to human health and happiness. Yet we find ourselves accepting conditions that make war on the family. The lands behind the Iron Curtain deliberately weaken family ties in their schools, lest loyalty to parents should conflict with devotion to the sacred State. Our own country tries to keep the home fires burning with verbal sentiment about Mom, but meanwhile forces Mom to leave the hearth fire untended while she tends the factory machine. A century ago, American houses were twelve-room affairs designed to hold grandparents, and maiden aunts, and uncles, as well as parents and children; today they are usually cramped little flats and cottages, and we feel lucky to get those. We can hardly do much about honoring Father and Mother if there's no room for them in the inn. (pp 63-64)
I will add that the Iron Curtain may have fallen, but schools are doing no less to weaken family ties, and today they've been joined by a host of other assailants, from governmental policies to music, movies, and television.
Every age has its professional apologists, and ours are working hard to convince us that our worst sins are virtues. A mother forced to take a job needs a crèche [daycare] for her baby, admitted—but that does not justify the false comforters who tell us a crèche is better than a mother. An overcrowded school must pick up its pupils in large handfuls all of an age, and pass them along without paying attention to their individual abilities—yet this hardly warrants the current theory that children ought to be herded in age groups, as if we gave birth to them in litters! The cooped-up small families of cities are likely to develop unhealthy tensions, as we all know—need we, therefore, swallow the fashionable psychological doctrine that it's natural for all sons to hate their fathers? Were it really true that sons and fathers are natural enemies, how could mankind ever have dreamed of such a thing as the Fatherhood of God? (p 65, emphasis mine)
Through such apologies, and our own mental laziness, we are in danger of accepting without question some very queer distortions of human life. Already our generations are being walled off from each other: teenagers flock together deaf to all language but their own, young couples automatically drop their unmarried friends, whole magazines address themselves to age groups such as the seventeens or the young matrons or the "older executive type." Vast numbers of people think it is "natural" to hate your in-laws, "immature" to ask your parents for advice after your marriage, "abnormal" to value the companionship of anyone much older or younger than yourself. (pp 65-66)
Our modern cities have created a society in which children are in the way. They are physically in the way, and therefore we find them in the way emotionally too. There are many who do not want them at all, like the girl who recently told this writer that a civilized woman can "realize her creative impulses through self-expression" without needing anything so dirty as a baby! Even those who do want them are sometimes rather shame-faced about it; pregnancy, once something in which a woman gloried, is now treated as a disfigurement to be concealed as long as possible; and giving suck, the greatest joy and greatest need of both mother and child, is quite out of fashion among us. "I'm not a cow!" some American women will remark scornfully, as if it were preferable to be a fish. (pp 66-67)
Worse yet, perhaps, is the taming process we are forced to put our children through in order to keep them alive at all in city streets and city flats. In their infancy we must curb their play, and force adult cautions and restraints on them too soon; in their adolescence, on the other hand, we must bend all our efforts to keep them children at an age when our ancestors would have recognized them as grown men and women ready to found families. Our objection to child labor is admirable when it prevents the exploitation of babies in sweatshops, but not when it keeps vigorous young men and women frittering away their energies on meaningless school courses and still more meaningless amusements. (p 67)
It is gratifying to know that in our time pregnancy, nursing, and rearing independent children have been enjoying a comeback, but the gains are yet small and the opposition still great.
Let us remind the innumerable Americans who don't seem to know it that begetting and rearing a family are far more real and rewarding than making and spending money. (p 69, emphasis mine)
"Honor thy father and thy mother" is not the only Commandment on which Davidman expounds—it's just the one for which I found the most interesting excerpts. Here's one for "Thou shalt not steal," followed by one each for "Thou shalt not bear false witness," and "Thou shalt not covet."
Our society, in some respects, is a vast confidence game. Even our money sometimes becomes a swindle; no crueler form of theft was ever devised than an inflation, and since the value of paper money depends on that doubtful commodity, faith in the Government, it is hard to see how all present currencies can help inflating. Those who remember the German inflation of the 1920's know what happens, in such cases, to trusting old people living on pensions and savings. (p 105, emphasis mine)
Sadly, even our professional economists seem to have forgotten the horrors of inflation. I only need to look back as far as the 1970's to fear inflation—and we were in a good position then, with salaries that inflated along with the dollar. Inflation is very attractive to governments and other debtors; it rewards spending beyond our means, promotes consumerism, and punishes thrift and contentment. Unfortunately, for governments and those crippled by debt, inflation looks like a promising get-rich-quick scheme. We all know where those lead.
Perhaps what unsettles the modern mind most is its despair of ever knowing truth and the conflicting and untrustworthy and very dusty answers we get in our daily life. There are people who believe that not only are there no truths, but there are not even facts—all is a matter of "subjective values." Whatever the merits of this as a philosophy, its practical use is often as a method of evasion and rationalization. ... The denial that truth exists is a good beginning for habitual lying. And if we start confessing our habitual lies, shall we ever be done? There are the lies of gossip, public and private, which make haters out of us; the lies of advertising and salesmanship, which make money out of us; the lies of politicians, who make power out of us. And the lies of the sort of journalist who manufactures a daily omniscience out of the teletype machine and the Encyclopaedia Britannica! And the lies of a professional patriot who assures us that our cause is so just that it doesn't matter what injustice we commit in its name! Two hundred years ago Dr. Johnson wrote:
"Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warrior and the relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie."
The observation still holds good, except that the scribblers no longer live in garrets. The pay is bigger nowadays—but then, so are the lies. (p 111, emphasis mine)
Seeing God face to face is our goal; the pleasures of life, and even life itself, are the means to it. Therefore the milk and honey and corn and wine and soft chairs and fine houses and swift automobiles—all those pleasant things!—exist primarily as a kind of currency of love; a means whereby men can exchange love with one another and thus become capable of the love of God. ... We value such things not only for their pleasantness, but also because we can give them away and give our love with them; or else because, in receiving them, we receive others' love for us as a baby at the breast sucks his mother's love with her milk. (p 122, emphasis mine)
What a delightful view of the giving and receiving of gifts!