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Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America


Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America

Chris Hedges, son of a Presbyterian minister, earned a degree from
Harvard Divinity School --- and then abruptly decided NOT to be
ordained. Instead he went to live in one of the most dangerous slum
ghetto areas of Boston, working under appalling conditions to try
to better the lives of people who responded by plotting to kill

Unable to make headway against the hopelessness, rage and vice that
surrounded him, he became a foreign correspondent, writing for
twenty years about war from Africa, Central America, former
Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. In time he became disillusioned
with much of organized religion, politics, popular culture and the
media, but his religious upbringing kept him thinking about them in
ways that might not occur to most people.

His approach in this small but meaty book is to take each of the
Ten Commandments in turn and show how today each one seems to have
been perverted, distorted and made to justify actions that plainly
go against its spirit.

Hedges's vision is a dark and discomforting one, a grim Cotton
Matherish catalogue of the modern world's sins, failures, fallacies
and foolishness. For each commandment has a story --- sometimes two
--- illustrating misuse of the "sacred" text for obviously perverse
ends. Hedges, who spurned a career in the pulpit, seems here to
have constructed a literary pulpit of his own. You can almost see
the lectern being thumped, hear the denunciatory voice echoing off
the rafters.

Some of his targets --- corporate robber barons, lying politicians,
misleading advertising, greedy televangelists --- are easy
pickings, of course. Other, more personal devils are less obvious
because they lie within ourselves --- the quest for pleasure, for
wealth, for "fulfillment."

He is appalled when the state appropriates the trappings of
religion to further its own ends. His personal experience of war
makes him loathe those who stir it up unmindful of its human and
psychic cost. His chapter on honoring parents affords him the
opportunity to reprint the entire text of a furious antiwar speech
he delivered at the commencement ceremony of a small Midwestern
college in 2003, and for which he was nearly driven from the
platform by his audience. It was, he says, his way of honoring his
own father, who would have approved of his views.

Some of his modern parables carry more weight than others. The best
he can manage to illustrate, envy, for example, involves a feud
between the owners of two competing chess shops in Greenwich
Village. Fairly small potatoes.

Over against this witches' brew of pervasive evils, Hedges sets up
a single road to salvation --- but even that comes with an
important caveat.

His agency of redemption is simply love. The word occurs on
probably half the pages of his text. Love, he says, is "as vital as
water." He means selfless, unquestioning, unequivocal love --- but
wait! There is one kind of love that can destroy us as surely as
the blackest of sins, and that is the love of self. We have to
forget ourselves and live for others, or we are doomed to fail. A
hard gospel indeed!

Hedges is a good writer (he was part of the team that won a
Pulitzer for the New York Times in 2002). His hectoring tone
can be a problem, but at least he makes the reader examine his or
her own life more deeply. And his awkward title tells the reader
nothing much about his book's substance.

His message, too, is not especially new or original --- Philip
Wylie, for one, made somewhat the same point about love rather more
deftly in his little book, THE ANSWER, half a century ago. Hedges
might be thought of as an updated Wylie, or perhaps as Cotton
Mather somehow brought back to denounce once again all we poor
benighted sinners.

Reviewed by Robert Finn on January 7, 2011

Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America
by Chris Hedges

  • Publication Date: May 31, 2005
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Religion
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • ISBN-10: 0743255135
  • ISBN-13: 9780743255134