‘Toward a Culture of Freedom’: A Review

Thorwald Lorenzen, Toward a Culture of Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments Today (Eugene: Cascade, 2008), viii + 253 pages. ISBN: 978 1 55635 296 6. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

Some years ago I took a fascinating (for many reasons) course on resurrection. One of the principle teachers was Thorwald Lorenzen, who was at that time a Baptist pastor serving in Canberra but now serves as Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dr Lorenzen is an erudite and [com]passionate NT scholar and theologian who brings to the task of doing theology a wide horizon of international experiences which inform his particular concern for human rights, expressed in a deep respect for the United Nations bill on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A key text for the resurrection course was Lorenzen’s Resurrection and Discipleship, a book deserving of a wide readership and one which helped to open at least one undergraduates eyes to a plethora of issues about the nature and role of NT narrative, about the value (and over-value) of tradition, and particularly about the relationship between resurrection faith and justice.

While nowhere near as carefully researched as Resurrection and Discipleship, and even at times offering surprisingly sloppy and unfair caricatures [eg. ‘Calvinist Christians expect God to plan and enact every detail in life’ (p. 1)], Lorenzen’s latest book continues to bring together his passions for justice, human rights, ethics and biblical exegesis in the service of the people of God and their witness to God’s good news in the world. Lorenzen properly resists interpreting the Ten Words moralistically or in abstraction from their deep rootedness in the covenant life and history of a people in communion (however seemingly fragile at times) with their God. He is also concerned at every point to let these Words speak to our world – and address our questions – in light of the wider sweep of the Scriptures’ metanarrative, and particularly in light of the final Word of God’s revelation – Jesus Christ. The chapter on adultery is a case in point, wherein Lorenzen does not shy away from the complex issues that continue to challenge the Church in its faithfulness to the Word of God and to compassionate witness to that Word in the world. On the question of gay and lesbian marriages, for example, he proffers the following:

‘Civil contracts in which gay and lesbian couples make a legal pledge to each other before the law are in order. They provide security and fairness for a committed and long-term relationship. Marriage, however, is another matter because it entails the desire for family. I think that every child has the right to experience the life-shaping presence of a mother and a father. The rights of a child precede the rights of gays and lesbians because the child is the more vulnerable part in the relationship’. (p, 129)

For those looking to rethink some implications of the Decalogue in a contemporary and increasingly politically-aware context, for those looking for helpful ideas for pulpit ministry, or for those looking for a book to work through in small study groups, Towards and Culture of Freedom might be a good place to consider stopping awhile. Not all will agree will every conclusion Lorenzen reaches, or even with the way he gets there; but to my mind, that’s one more reason why reading the book is worthwhile.

Here’s a few more tasters:

‘Each of us has, or rather is, a conscience. Conscience is the centre of our personhood. It makes us who we are. It shapes our identity. It is worth understanding and caring for’. (p. 20)

‘Deeds of liberation call for structures of liberation. God does not liberate people so that they can fall into the hands of false gods. Freedom therefore needs discipline and structures to ensure that it remains grounded in its author. The “ten words”, but also the statutes and ordinances, the cult and the prophets were all intended to preserve, protect and guide the ongoing journey of freedom’. (p. 24)

‘When some reformers in the sixteenth century took down the pictures and removed the statues from the churches, they wanted to make room for the living voice of the gospel. They wanted to celebrate Jesus as the one word that we need to hear, trust and obey in life and in death. But soon others, lesser minds and lesser hearts, came along and put a book where the pictures had been. So for many Christians the living voice of the gospel has been frozen into a book, the Bible. And around the world there are many Christians who spend more time and energy fighting about the Bible than in worshipping and obeying the Christ to whom the Bible points’. (p. 52)

‘A generation that ignores the wisdom and errors, achievements and failures of its predecessors is ill-prepared to face the future. Would the revolutions of Germany’s youth in the 1960s and of America’s youth in the 1970s have happened if their parents had talked about their war experiences and the associated horror and guilt and doubts?’ (p. 86)

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