No Other Gods: An Interview With Ana Levy-Lyons


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When I first received a copy of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments, I’ll admit that I put off reading it. Growing up in the church, I thought I knew all about these ten ways. When I did read it, my first thought was regret that I had waited so long! (In reality, it had been just a few weeks.) I wanted to tell everyone about it! Ana Levy-Lyons masterfully brings the Ten Commandments back to life and made me confront about ten different ways in which I actually don’t follow these best ways of living. She doesn’t do this in a condemning way but in a way that helped me understand just how these practices impact our society, our environment, and our relationships. Ana helps us envision a world that is restored as we incorporate those ways back into our own lives.

I’m so glad to introduce you all to Ana Levy-Lyons, who has graciously taken the time to answer some of my questions. I hope you find this interview encouraging!


Annie: Welcome to the Red Couch! Tell us a bit about yourself and your new book, No Other Gods.

Ana: Thanks, Annie. I’m serving as senior minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New York City, finishing my sixth year now. I’m blessed with a loving husband and seven-year-old boy-girl twins who keep me grounded, bring me joy, annoy me, and never let me disappear completely into my head! No Other Gods is my first book and I’m really excited to be connecting with new communities, beyond my congregation, about these ideas. In the book I reintroduce the Ten Commandments, exploring them as spiritual and political practices. They are spiritual in that they call us to look deeply at our motivations and constantly ask ourselves who or what we are serving through our actions. Is it God, the power of love and liberation, or is it the “other gods” of status, materialism, the approval of others, etc.? The commandments are political in that they speak, not just to each of us individually, but to all of us collectively as a society. We are called to build a society that doesn’t kill, that doesn’t have theft built into its economic structures, and where everyone has the financial resources to keep a Sabbath day. I hope that this book shows how the spiritual and the political are inextricable from each other – and how the Ten Commandments call us to a shift of consciousness on all levels.

Growing up Christian, the 10 Commandments have been part of Sunday School stories and sermon series my whole life. But you totally transformed the way I read and interact with them. You really pushed my thinking and made me reconcile a lot of my daily practices. Can you share a bit of your journey toward relating these ancient ways with modern habits and practices?

Mainline Sunday schools (maybe like yours) and Hebrew schools tend to flatten out the Ten Commandments into the most literal and old-school interpretations – “do not take God’s name in vain” means don’t curse; “do not steal” means don’t rip off someone’s wallet. Secular people, meanwhile, tend to think of the Commandments as irrelevant and associate them with the culture wars and the battles over installing them in courthouses. I was raised in a secular home but I am Jewish in my spiritual orientation (and by heritage) and I have always been enthralled with religious traditions. I’ve found great depth and beauty and wisdom in the biblical texts and I often feel that modern people are throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to religion.

The Ten Commandments are a perfect case study in this because they are so misunderstood and underestimated! In my own exploration of this text (and it helped to study biblical Hebrew so I could read them in their original language), I discovered that there was so much more to them than we usually see. They were written in a very different time, in a different cultural context and we have to adjust for that as we read them. At the time the commandments were written, for example, no one could possibly have imagined that human actions could affect the very temperature of the earth we live on and cause drought and famine, so climate change is not explicitly addressed. But it’s our job, as modern inheritors of this tradition, to use our spiritual intuition, to follow the thread of the spirit of the commandments to make the leap to our context. When we do this, the commandment “do not kill” dilates beyond just the individual murderer to include systemic killers like climate change. The commandments speak clearly and loudly to today’s world if we let them.

I loved how you ended the book with the story of the reintroduction of the wolves to Yellowstone National Park. You gave us permission to start small and make changes as we could. I so appreciated this because sometimes it can be overwhelming, seeing God’s word in a new light. You offer examples from our food choices to material purchases to the way we expose our children to play and adventure as ways to reimagine the Commandments. What would you say the biggest change to your own life has been? If you could give people one practical starting point, what would it be?

The biggest change in my life has been Sabbath practice. I’ve kept a weekly Sabbath with my husband for eleven years (and now with our kids for their whole lives) and this is part of what opened my eyes to how powerful the Ten Commandments can be. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, we don’t do any work, buy things, run errands, get stuff done, read the news, or even talk about difficult issues. We just hang out together, sometimes with friends, go to our synagogue, eat, go for walks. It has been difficult and wonderful and an incomparable blessing for our children to know that one day a week they have our full attention and we all get to relax. The difficulty, of course, is that the secular world is constantly telling us that this is not okay; that we don’t have time for this; that we need to accomplish more, be more, do more, and get more. And we have to fight our urges to succumb to that worldview every week and try to embrace the worldview of awe and gratitude, relationship and connection instead.

So as far as a practical starting point, I would suggest trying a Sabbath practice. Some of us are forced by financial necessity to work seven days a week, but for many of us, the real obstacle is not that, but rather the voices of the “other gods” of our world. So be gentle with yourself and if a full 24 hours feels like too much, start with a shorter timeframe – sunrise to sundown or even just four hours. The important thing is that it be non-negotiable, sacred time and that you really unplug (from work, media, consumption, and striving) and plug into God, spirit, nature, and the people you love. The effects can really ripple through your entire life and give a whole different perspective on what’s important and what’s not.

In the acknowledgments, you mentioned that this started as a sermon series. What prompted you to transform those initial sermons into a book? How did this different medium change or deepen the way you related to the text?

Really it was my congregants who prompted me to turn the sermons into a book. They loved the sermons and started encouraging me to try to publish them. I was struck by the fact that this liberal religious community – which often has little use for religious traditions – was so moved by this biblical text. It became clear to me that when a sacred text as deep as this one is interpreted in a new way for our time, it becomes not a liberal thing and not a conservative thing, but a human thing that can be a resource for all of us who are hungry for meaning in this confusing world. My sense of this only grew as I had the luxury of delving deeply into the words of the Ten Commandments and read the layers of interpretations and stories surrounding them. It’s such a rich tradition with, truly, something for everyone. The experience of living with this text for a year or so was very personal. I found that the Commandments can challenge us or nurture us, depending on where we are and what we need in our lives.

Your resources list is rich! What one companion or follow-up book would you recommend for those who want to dig a bit deeper?

I would recommend Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. I read this book as I was finishing mine last spring and I found great synergy with his ideas of countercultural religious life. Dreher is a conservative Christian and his values differ from mine when it comes to some of the family and “bedroom” issues. But the fact that our visions were so similar showed me, again, that religion can transcend liberal versus conservative. We can share critiques of the spiritual poverty of modern life with its individualism, consumerism, materialism, and self-centeredness. And we can share aspirations toward a spiritually-rich alternative, practiced together in community.

Also, I know you asked for just one, but I would suggest that everyone read Richard Elliott Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah. It is a beautiful translation and accessible commentary on the five books of Moses and, especially for Christians and secular people who may have only been exposed to Christian “Old Testament” versions, it can be eye-opening to read this text closer to its original meanings.

What’s next for you as a writer? How can we best connect with you?

I am starting a blog called “The Religious Counterculture.” It will be a forum to discuss the ideas I just mentioned – of how religious and spiritually-grounded life, lived in community, can offer a powerful antidote to the values and exploitative norms of the secular world. And who knows? This may become my next book. You can find the blog on my website – where you can sign up for my newsletter and I’ll keep in touch with you and let you know about upcoming speaking and preaching dates. You can email me directly at [email protected] I also preach and lead worship most Sundays at First Unitarian in Brooklyn. We have a warm community and amazing, joyful music – so if you’re ever in NYC, stop in for a visit!

Thank you, Ana for taking the time to help us understand No Other Gods a bit more! I know I’m looking forward to reading your next book!

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