Jacques Ellul

I own nearly fifty books by Jacques Ellul. I’ve only read a couple of them. But what I’ve read by Ellul has convinced me that he is a thinker of the first order, and so I’ve gradually tracked down copies of his works, which are nearly all out of print. Why haven’t I read more of them. Well, they’re hard.

Ellul devoted himself to the study of modern society, with a special emphasis on the role of technology. His conception of technology was very broad, encompassing such phenomena as propaganda and bureaucracy. His book Propaganda is very good, but it is also very dense reading (he doesn’t even define the term “propaganda” until page 78). He is most famous for his book The Technological Society, which I have begun a couple of times but never made much progress on.

Ellul was a Christian, a very public one, but he kept his theological writing separate from his sociological writing. For every topic he studied he wrote two sets of books, one theological and one sociological. His theological approach was derived from neo-orthodoxy, his sociological approach from Marxist dialectic, but his thinking is strictly original. Ellul is a bomb-thrower; his value is more in observations made and questions raised rather than solutions proposed.

Ellul has been on my mind lately, and so I started re-reading his very first book, The Presence of the Kingdom. It is a very unusual book; in 127 pages he sketches out a point of view that he spent the rest of his career elaborating, in fifty books and 1500 articles. The edition I have begins with a brief overview by Daniel Clenendin of Ellul’s life and thought, with some representative quotes from Ellul.

Clenendin writes of Ellul’s idea of the antithesis:

Contrary to advocating withdrawal from the world or urging a lifeboat ethic, Ellul challenges us to embrace and preserve the world. God alone will effect our separation in his own time. This resolute engagement requries a dialectical and agonistic style of life which remains very much in the world even as it rejects worldliness (cf. John 17). To be in the world also requires us to understand it in both its material and spiritual aspects, a task Ellul has undertaken in his sociological and theological works and which he challenges us to better. By rejecting the twin perils of spiritualization (which neglects material realities) and capitulation (which simply adopts one of the world’s many different options that appears to harmonize with Christianity), the Christian plays a truly creative role and gives meaning and direction to hsitory, which otherwise has no logic or certitude.

Furthermore, what is first required of the Christian is not action (although that cannot be neglected) but a presence, a style of life, an attitude, a special mode of existence. Few people, of course, will find this advice very heartening, but that only reveals our irrepressible predisposition for and enslavement to the alternative of absolute technical efficiency. Authentic Christian existence trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit to give our “presence” a revolutionary and explosive force in history. By incarnating their God-given identity as light, salt, and sheep, Christians effect a present reality of the Kingdom of God which will be culminated in the future.

And Ellul himself on the antithesis:

A Christian ought to understand his responsibility in this adventure, for Christianity (and God) will not act ipso facto in this sense. This adventure is not the course of history, which will go on, whether we wish it to or not. It may be realized, and it may not be realized. God may act, or He may not act, and when God wishes to act He ought to find instruments which are supple and obedient, ready for his use. We ought to remind ourselves constantly of the lesson given us in the Scriptures, that God rarely acts in a transcendent manner; on the contrary, as a rule He chooses a human instrument to accomplish His work. Now in this work of God, which is actually decisive, will God find the people He needs?

Our responsibility is not to effect change, or even to be the instrument that God in fact uses to effect change. Our responsibility is to be a proper instrument, supple and obedient, suitable to the task, whether or not God chooses to employ us. And wouldn’t that be glorious enough—to become a tool suitable for God’s use? Wouldn’t actually being used just be extra gravy?

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