Old Sins Cast Long Shadows: America’s Enduring Fascination with the Ten Commandments

Some of The Ten Commandments by Keith Haring

What inspired you to write Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments?

I have to confess that it wasn’t anything lofty and elevated that got me thinking and writing about America’s relationship to the Ten Commandments. An object, and, arguably, a rather curious one, at that—a miniaturized, faux stone version of the Ten Commandments brandished by casually-dressed protestors as they encircled the United States Supreme Court in 2005—drew me in.

Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments
Jenna Weissman Joselit
Oxford UP
May 2017

At the time, the Justices were considering the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays and the complex interplay between what was happening within and without their chambers caught my eye. Surely, there’s a whopper of a story here, I thought; one that went back quite a number of years and that encompassed matters of faith and ritual practice, material culture and daily life as well as the law. I then spent a number of years tracking down, unearthing and interpreting the many iterations of the ancient biblical passages that turned out, much to my surprise and delight, to be just about everywhere in the United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

What a country! The stalwart, enduring presence of the Ten Commandments—and within every nook and cranny of American daily life—is something to behold and interpret. So, too, is the porousness of the divide between religious and cultural expression and, most especially, the vitality and interpretive utility of things.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

No, not really. The book is loosely organized around the different physical elements of stone, paper, stained glass and film from which earlier generations of Americans shaped the Ten Commandments. I suppose I could have multiplied the examples or case studies, but then the book would have read less like a narrative and more like an exhibition catalogue (not that’s there’s anything wrong with that). Besides, I tend to write tightly and prefer a text that’s lean and supple to one that goes on and on and on.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Some folks question whether anything new, or noteworthy, could be said about the Ten Commandments. Others take exception to the book’s emphasis on the quotidian uses to which Americans have put the Ten Commandments (“The Ten Commandments of Love,” anyone?). When it comes to matters of faith, or Moses or these ancient dos and don’ts, I’m not being disrespectful or even irreverent when I train my sights on the ways in which all three phenomena insinuate themselves into the rhythms and paraphernalia of daily life. I’m being an attentive historian of American culture. To put it another way, some people have a hard time enlarging the parameters of the Ten Commandments beyond that of divine writ. To them, they’re set in stone. To me, they’re continuously in motion.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

When my publishers asked me that question, I responded by pointing to the usual suspects—the academic market as well as the readers of this, that and the other smart little magazine. But what I really had in mind was less a specific constituency and more a particular mindset: open, curious, intellectually nimble.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

Jolt and startle is more like it. I’d like my readers to come to the book bearing a set of preconceptions about the Ten Commandments and then to put down its pages having them (the preconceptions, that is; not my readers) altered in some way, perhaps even shattered…just like you-know-what.

What alternative title would you give the book?


How do you feel about the cover?

Since the book is about the ways in which Americans physically and visually encounter the Ten Commandments, the cover was key to the success, and the integrity, of the enterprise. I had hoped for a graphic design that would signal to the casual reader that what was inside was not what she might expect from a book about these age-old biblical passages: an edgy cover that might feature, say, Keith Haring’s stridently colored, extravagantly scaled and idiosyncratic renditions of each of the commandments. Alas, that was not to be. The cost of using even one of the artist’s images turned out to be far too prohibitive even for Oxford’s deep pockets. The cover that the design folks came up with is clean and striking, if rather tame.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Sigh. What springs to mind, generating considerable envy and much wishful thinking, ranges from Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects to Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah. A disparate lot, they’re bound together by the gloriousness of their prose, their acute sense of pacing and their wide-eyed, imaginative approach to material culture and its relationship to history.

What’s your next book?

I’m leaning towards something that calls on my inner Sherlock Holmes, something with lots of clues but no clear-cut resolution: an early 20th century scandal, a whodunit. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’m tempted to call on your readers for suggestions, much as the filmmaker, Cecil B. DeMille, years before, had called on movie-goers to participate in a contest to come up with the most compelling answer to the question: “What is the most vital modern problem suitable for picturizing?” Contestants were told to “boil down your hunch into the fewest possible words.” And then “reboil.” Within the space of two months, thirty thousand ideas awaited DeMille.

I’d settle for one or two.