I have heard that you are never allowed to write on the walls of dorm rooms. At least, those were the rules in my time. But rules were made to be broken, right?
Placing things on walls—paintings, words, snapshots of a story—has never been a gift of mine. If you were to walk into my house or office today, you’d notice that most of the walls are bare. (I tell people I’m too busy living in my rooms to decorate them.)
Only one room has ever escaped my penchant for plainness: a wall in a dorm room, just over my desk, where the afternoon sun would rest. On that wall, I painted an e.e. cummings poem.
Unsurprisingly, those words (and others by cummings) began to weave their way into my academic papers. Those words still shape my memory of that year in my life: They tether me to the people, the sorrows, and the hopes that once met in that room. Even now, many of cummings’ poems bear testimony to my innermost prayers.
My act of creativity was also an act of accidental catechesis—a testament that the words we inscribe upon our walls often impress themselves upon our hearts. It’s no wonder I struggle with décor.
Perhaps this is why the Church has sought (and sometimes fought) to display the Ten Commandments. After all, they hold the chief legislative power among other laws offered in the Biblical text. We base this interpretive emphasis on several things:
• The Ten Commandments: Are given twice in the Old Testament (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5).
• The Ten Commandments: Are given directly by the Lord to the people, and written “with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18).
• The Ten Commandments: Are the first utterance of the law—the first pieces of legal material presented to God’s people in the Biblical text, from which other statues and ordinances function as interpretive specifications.
• The Ten Commandments: Are placed in the ark of the Covenant, the Lord’s dwelling place in the midst of the people. 1
This last point is the most striking to me. From the beginning, God’s people have been placing the Ten Commandments—physically and visually—at the center of their lives together. These words matter.
But they only matter insofar as they inform our theology—the way we think about God, speak about God, and act in response to God.
To what words have you ascribed physical and visual primacy? What is written upon the walls of your home? The walls of your church? Your Facebook wall? Around which words—around whose words—do you arrange your life?
With the return to visual communication in our society (as evidenced in the rise of Snapchat and Instagram), we are reminded that our catechesis is not as accidental as we would like to think. The words and images we encounter—whether they seek to break down, or build up—do, in fact, inform our theology. Likewise the words and images we put on display will form and inform all kinds of narratives about who God is and who God calls us to be.
Unfortunately, in both our words and deeds, we are really good at breaking the rules. But here’s the good news: the promise of the God who penned the Ten Commandments is that our transformation—our redemption—does not hinge on our ability to follow the rules. The promise of the God who penned the Ten Commandments is named even before the first commandment is uttered: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Before anything was required of God’s people, God reminded them that they were set free—that their cries for deliverance were heard. Grace precedes the law, then and now.
This promise is born afresh in the God we know in Christ—the One whose flesh and blood meets us in the joys, sorrows and hopes of our lives. And the story of God’s work with and for a covenant people continues to be written as we participate in a community called to place the words of this story at the center of our life together—and sometimes even in the words painted on our walls.
For a more robust summation of the heavy focus on the Old Testament throughout the history of Christianity, see Patrick Miller’s The Ten Commandments, which my list here references. ↩