Ten Commandments as coloring book

In a previous line of work, and in some ways a previous life, I was a poetry critic, and one of my favorite local poets was Connie Wanek. As you can see, she’s a local artist made good with credits in Poetry and The Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere, with books and awards to her credit, named alongside some pretty famous poets, at least as modern poets go.

I think this is richly deserved. What I admire about her poetry is the “noble simplicity,” if I may borrow that term, of her language, and her clear images and metaphors. It was a joy, then, to see one of her poems pop up on Poetry Daily.

In some ways, “Coloring Book” is vintage Wanek: a poem with a single, simple image at its heart, a purity of language that still allows some music to flow (“heartbreakingly banal” in the opening line).

But I want to take up the argument I see implicit in it.

Consider these lines:

A coloring book’s authority is derived
from its heavy black lines
as unalterable as the Ten Commandments
within which minor decisions are possible:
the dog black and white,
the kitten gray.

Well.

Rembrandt
Rembrandt depicts Moses and the Ten Commandments. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Ten Commandments are an interesting choice of metaphor. In looking at just these lines, it would be possible to imagine the comparison being made in passing, but just a few lines later, she is comparing the short phrases found under coloring book images to Psalms and sermons.

In such an accomplished writer, this is not an accident. It’s a poem about biblical religion, then, and not a flattering one. Biblical religion is the cheap, “heartbreakingly banal” thing she’s talking about, with its hard lines allowing only “minor decisions.” (Note that the colors in Wanek’s coloring book are black, white and gray.)

I take up this discussion not to single out a poet whose skill I admire but because I think the view expressed there is a very common one. It relates to the divorce of contemporary culture from the Christian culture which built it, not just among secularized intellectuals but even among average Christians in the pew, who often do not know Augustine, Aquinas or Chesterton – or even their Bibles.

As for the Psalms, it’s enough to say that anyone not long estranged from them knows they are among the most profound works in world literature, sounding the depths of the human experience, even considered apart from their divine origin. If they are banal, I would like to see what isn’t.

The more potent salvo is at the Ten Commandments. Isn’t that part simply obvious fact? That those unalterable lines in the Mount Sinai sand, and all that follows from them, restrict our freedom and leave us only “minor decisions” and vanilla, cookie-cutter lives written in black and white?

That’s what most people think, unthinkingly, I would contend. The more specifically one looks, the less plausible that idea becomes. The Ten Commandments forbid idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, lying and coveting.

Is it the case that you cannot be free, that you can only make “minor decisions,” if you cannot revile the sacred, embrace unjust violence, betray the spouse to whom you have made solemn oaths, be consumed desiring and finally taking that which is not yours, and deceive those around you? That’s silly.

I am not free to betray my spouse by leaping into bed with someone else, but if that law is observed I am free to trust her, raise children with her, grow old with her when I’m long past being desirable to anyone. I am not free to murder my enemies, but if that law is observed I am free to walk down the street and even express unpopular views in relative safety. I am not free to lie, but if that law is observed I am free to trust a business partner, a friend, a repairman, an eyewitness. I am not free to blaspheme what is holy, but if that law is observed I am free to worship, to wonder, to reverence that which is greater than me, and aspire to be better.

A just and good order is the foundation of freedom, the foundation of peace. Anarchy looks free but is instead a tyranny of competing wills governed by force and by fear. One who flouts the laws of physics is free to do many foolish and self-destructive but not to build a bicycle. Similarly, one who flouts the Ten Commandments is free to self-destruct but is correspondingly less free to live a good and happy life.

I think this is actually bound up in Wanek’s own metaphor. In the closing lines we see what freedom has supposedly been denied by those hard black lines of the coloring book: a blank page upon which we scribble when we are “tired and sad” and can “bear no more.”

But coloring books are for children, to teach them line and form and rudimentary hand-eye coordination so they may progress to more advanced forms of art. A six-month-old or even a monkey can scribble on a blank piece of paper without any instruction or practice. An older child who has worked through a few coloring books can begin drawing stick men and some day, perhaps, with great training and discipline, the Mona Lisa.

Which is more free, the monkey or the master?

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One thought on “Ten Commandments as coloring book

  1. I don’t take this poem so much as a commentary on biblical religion, so much as I see it as a search for Jesus. “But nowhere do we discover a blank page where we might justify the careless way we scribbled when we were tired and sad and could bear no more.” Jesus has taken away the heavy black lines. “For the law of the Spirit in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Rom. 8:2. But to scribble carelessly, to be tired and sad and able to bear no more, evidences one who has not found the law of the Spirit in Christ Jesus. One who has found Jesus, will not scribble carelessly – not because there are heavy black lines confining them, but because their spirit will guide their coloring carefully, happily, and fully.

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