Friday, February 05, 2010

The Bible: A History - Ann Widdecombe on the 10 Commandments

Update: oh dear. If Doug Chaplin's review is anything to go by then it's probably a good thing I missed it. Perhaps it wasn't worth a look after all, my apologies.

Part 3 of 'The Bible, A History' airs on Sunday evening, with Ann Widdecombe looking at the origins and relevance of the 10 Commandments.

Foremost among the programmes is Ann Widdecombe's investigation into the story of the Ten Commandments. The film sees her investigate the origins and influence of the Commandments, before she confronts forceful opposition from atheists Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, and meets a mother who helped her critically ill son to end his life. It is Widdecombe's second foray into this area for Channel 4, having presented a programme on the Reformation in the acclaimed series Christianity: A History in 2008.

The Channel 4 site has a good interview with Widdecombe, put together last year after she recorded the programme:

A lot of this programme is about how the Commandments have shaped British society and British law. How important have they been in doing that?
They've been massively important. If you think about it, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, these things are very, very central to our law. But to our society as well. Thou shalt not commit adultery - adultery may not be a crime in the legal sense, but it's still regarded as undesirable and immoral. Thou shalt not covet is perhaps the first attempt to make us careful about what we think as well as what we do.

The Commandments were influential in early English law, weren't they?
Yes. Alfred the Great produced the first real codification of English law, and it was based very heavily on the Ten Commandments.

You look at whether the Commandments have a role to play in modern society. Presumably you would say yes?
Well, I think that if we all lived by the Ten Commandments, we'd be a much better, more considerate, more orderly society.

Do we not essentially live by them as it is?
Do we? What about 'Thou shalt not covet' and bankers' bonuses? What about 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' and the complete breakdown of marriage? 'Honour thy father and thy mother' and nowadays we stick granny in the nearest residential home.

Could it be argued that others of the commandments are a bit dated? In a secular society, the idea of keeping the Sabbath holy is no longer relevant.
I would've thought that keeping the Sabbath holy made a much better society, because it gives you a family day.

Should be worth a look.


  1. Do well educated and intelligent people like Widdecombe honestly believe that our species didn't realise these things were bad ideas until someone wrote them down in the 1st century?

    We should perhaps give good'ol human beings a little more credit WRT figuring out what is ethical and what is not through reason and experience, there are clearly universal rules of thumb existing across the globe regardless of any particular scripture (or none), its very patronising to assume that you can't be good without Yahweh.

    It's an interesting thought experiment to consider where the mainstream religions would be if it weren't for the copious "coveting and killing" that powered the ages of empire and enlightenment which substantially funded the institutions we are left with today, there is an insidious hypocrisy in there somewhere that programs like this and speakers like Widdecombe seldom explore.

  2. I doubt that's what Widdecombe believes, and I think it's worth debating whether spelling out those 'rules of thumb' in the way the 10 commandments does is helpful. Having said that, the Jewish scholars spent ages working out in fine detail what the commandments meant in practice! I think that's how they're designed to work anyway: here is the baseline - don't kill, honour your parents, don't steal, rest and make sure you let others rest too - but we're left to work out what that means day to day.

    It doesn't sound like Widdecombe gets it all her own way in the programme. Whether or not there's been hypocrisy - and there certainly has - it's hard to dismiss the 10 commandments when covetousness has been at the root of both a major economic and political crisis. And I'm not going to mention sportsmen and adultery. Ooops.