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The Ten Commandments In The Digital Age


If you had a few days off for spring break and you turned on the television, you might have stumbled across the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster "The Ten Commandments." That spring staple may be one of the few times increasingly secular Americans think about the origin of the commandments, which by faith tradition were delivered to the Hebrew prophet Moses. For centuries, these commandments have been viewed by believers as the essential guide to an ethical and faithful life.

But apart from the movie or Sunday school or bar mitzvah study, do you ever think about how those commandments fit into the fabric of life today? That is the question the editors of the Deseret News asked, and their recently published 10-part series sought to provide answers.

Joining us now to tell us more is Paul Edwards. He is the editor of the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church. It's based in Salt Lake City, but we caught up with him on a visit to Washington, D.C. And he's here now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

PAUL EDWARDS: Wonderful to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, I drew the analogy of the movie just because it seemed like every time I walked past the television, it was on this spring. But what gave you and your editors this idea?

EDWARDS: Well, actually, Michel, as the Deseret News has focused its investigative journalism on some core areas of national concern around family, around faith and so on, and we thought there would be an opportunity to find something that would touch on many of these areas. And...

MARTIN: And did you find a through line in your investigation? I mean, it's actually a very kind of original approach because you're not just investigating, like, the sociology of those particular commandments or the faith story. You're talking about what's the relevance of this right now.

EDWARDS: That's right.

MARTIN: Did you see any through line?

EDWARDS: Really, the through line was that we saw a number of faith leaders, including Pope Francis, emphasizing the 10 commandments recently. So many faith traditions have had - seem to have said, we need to roll these out, talk about them. Pope Francis led an evangelization effort in Italy last year that said, how do we have a good, thoughtful, ethical life through the 10 commandments? He called it the art of living through the 10 commandments.

MARTIN: One of the findings that really stood out to me was about adultery. Quoting from your piece, "Americans place cheating on a spouse dead last on a list of acceptable behaviors, behind abortion, cohabitation, pornography, out of wedlock births and divorce, among others." I found that very interesting. Did you?

EDWARDS: Well, I think some people might find that surprising because there have been so many changes in attitudes towards other kinds of sexual behavior. And yet, clearly, Americans really value marital vows. They think that stepping outside of those marital vows is a real problem. They may have less concern about premarital relations and so on. But adultery is a real concern.

MARTIN: And one of the other findings of your piece that I found fascinating is that one of your pieces reported that people even experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, which I think might be surprising just how devastating it is.

EDWARDS: Yeah, it's almost a physiological response. And yet one of the things that was a through line in the series was how contemporary media effects our relationship to these ancient commandments.

MARTIN: Well, that's another thing I wanted to mention. One of the other pieces drew a very interesting observation about covetousness - in other words, envy - in the digital age. It said that the degree to which we are exposed to more things makes us want more things. Want to talk a little bit about that?

EDWARDS: Well, we call that the Instagram effect. And really in social media, what we're able to do is portray ourselves in our best light. And we show a lot of different things or different activities that may create significant envy among those around us. And if people aren't liking what we're doing on social media, if we're not showing enough, then people have different kinds of negative reactions to that.

But there's also - yes - this envy that we get when we see someone on a great vacation, or they have a swanky new piece of clothing. This is what the psychologists call relative deprivation. So it's not absolute deprivation. People may actually have a very good existence, right? They have a shelter. They have clothing. They have what they need, and yet they feel relatively deprived because, now in relation to what these other people see, they have this sense of envy and concern, which is truly dissatisfying and unhealthy.

MARTIN: Is there anything that stood out to you since you supervised all of these pieces and got to read all of them and also the original reporting as it came in? Is there something that really jumped out for you?

EDWARDS: Well, I think that the way that we work through a new canvas of social media is actually one thing that came through. So again, on adultery, what are the bounds for different kinds of relationships online? This actually was a question. Everyone is quite clear about a certain line crossed with physical relations in a marriage, but we saw this post-traumatic stress syndrome among people who had felt that there had been infidelity just even in a virtual space.

How do we think about theft? The rates of crime around physical property have declined significantly. But we have significant increase in online theft, identity theft and so on. So we're really working out our social cohesion, the rules of the game in a very new space. And I think that was one of the main things that stood out for me, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, you mentioned earlier in our conversation the whole question of thou shalt not kill and that you noted that the murder rate has in fact declined precipitously in years. So I have to confess, I was surprised that you didn't discuss the death penalty.

Some people consider, you know, that to be state-sponsored killing, and...


MARTIN: ...It remains a very polarizing issue in this country, particularly given that capital punishment continues to be practiced in the United States when it isn't in other countries that we consider to be less advanced and sophisticated than this one. And I was surprised that you didn't take that up.

EDWARDS: Well...

MARTIN: May I ask why?

EDWARDS: Well, we just really focused in on a few issues, right? So we couldn't take the whole gamut of this...

MARTIN: Well, there are 10 issues, so...

EDWARDS: Yeah, but on these specific ones, we went deep on one aspect. And I agree with you, Michel. I mean, this is really a very interesting dimension in American life right now. And I think as we see real questioning of convictions - you know, the evidence that's come in about the way people have been falsely convicted - how that plays out with this particular penalty is hugely important.

Let me just say in regard to that, probably the most troubling aspect of what I saw in the series actually had to do with thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor - OK, that commandment. We really explored that from the perspective of perjury, which was one strong aspect of this commandment anciently. And I was very troubled to learn about an epidemic of perjury in the United States. And in particular, I was very concerned about what it said around law enforcement officials perjuring themselves on the stand in order to get rapid conviction. And I think that goes to the very core of our criminal justice system and faith and trust in that system.

So there are many other kinds of things that the Deseret News will certainly explore in the future along these lines.

MARTIN: Paul Edwards is the editor of the Deseret News which is based in Salt Lake City. But he was kind enough to drop by in our studios in Washington, D.C. The series is called...

EDWARDS: The Ten Today, and it's at national.deseretnews.com/ten.

MARTIN: Paul Edwards, thank you for joining us.

EDWARDS: A pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.