What We Encounter When We Encounter the Bible

First in an occasional series of posts ruminating on Jessica Martin’s book, Holiness & Desire (2020).

Growing up submerged in the evangelical sub-culture of the 1980s, which claimed, with a certain desperation, that the Bible was “historically accurate,” I remember a lot of people talking about the search for Noah’s Ark. There was excitement in the air: modern techniques, such as satellite imagery, were going to prove once and for all that the Flood happened, that the Bible was true, for God’s sake (in the weakest possible sense of the word true).

People are probably still searching for the Ark, but I’m not interested enough to Google it. I know about that stupid amusement park in Kentucky or wherever, and that there are certainly a lot of people still claiming “historical accuracy” for the Bible.

Of course, it’s always been a very selective sort of historical accuracy, which I figured out even as a young child. The Bible is factually accurate, we were told, except when it was speaking, you know, figuratively. “Camel, eye of the needle? Well, that’s just a metaphor, kid.” (And these folks were exceedingly liberal in their approach to interpreting metaphors. Except for those who didn’t understand metaphor at all, they insisted that Eye of the Needle was slang for a certain low gate, and Jesus just meant that rich people should watch their heads.)

So, as I was saying, some of these Christians were very interested in finding Noah’s Ark because they thought it would legitimize their beliefs before the broader secular culture (and thus legitimize themselves to their own Enlightenment-soaked minds, pitifully pleading for intellectual affirmation). But I don’t recall hearing about any explorers seeking out the ruins of the Tower of Babel. (Doesn’t mean it’s not a thing; again, no Googling here.)

Holiness & Desire | Jessica Martin

As a kid entranced by the act of reading from a very early age, I found the story of Babel much more fascinating than the one about all those animals on a boat. In Jessica Martin’s book Holiness & Desire, she describes the tale as a “weird thought-experiment” in which people “use their perfect communication powers to threaten heaven: language makes them gods.”

The Babel narrative is brief (only 9 verses long), and strangely wedged between the Flood and the beginning of Abram’s story. Pre-Flood, humans had multiplied (inter-breeding with angels along the way, somehow), and had become so wicked that “every imagination of the thoughts of [each person’s] heart was evil continually.”

Post-Flood, though, human beings came together in a remarkable spirit of cooperation, which the God of this fable found offensive and threatening for some reason.

Martin describes Babel as “another Fall story” that is not about hubris, as I was taught as a child (despite the non-literalness of that interpretation), and is not even really about language, but about understanding. Babel shows that “human systems of meaning are fractured: our edifices, real and imagined, cannot hold; we need God as a relationship cornerstone.”

Genesis specifically says that all this trouble began because there was “one language and few words” – and God’s reaction in the tale was not to addle our brains, or punish or eliminate us like he did with the Flood, but simply to make it impossible for us to understand each other.

Babel is not some alternative history of linguistic development, but an attempt to explain why humans are separated from each other, not only geographically but mentally. Obviously you don’t need to speak different languages to misunderstand each other. (Just look around.)

Perhaps, by scattering people into smaller groups, the God of Babel was actually trying to help humans understand each other better. As Martin says, “Our meaningful communications with each other are embodied. Face-to-face we take more information from tone and body language than we do from words.” (emphasis original)

The substitutes we create for this non-verbal form of communication – whether it’s an emoji in a text, or a sentence structure and phrasing meant to convey my sarcastic sense of humor – are often easily misconstrued.

And yet, one can not only trace the history of civilization through the adoption and use of written language, but God has chosen to communicate with human beings through written language. (Perhaps in another post we can talk about why this choice and not, say, ecstatic mystical visions, the existence of which I do not necessarily deny.)

Yes, as a Christian, I’m talking about the Bible here. But which Bible am I talking about?

Is it the Bible of the literalist church of my youth, which derided Catholics for believing in “non-Biblical” doctrines, yet believed itself in the Trinity (which can only be called Biblical in the same sense that a “right to privacy” can be called constitutional)?*

Is it the Bible of the congregation in my current Episcopal parish, which dutifully listens to each week’s lectionary readings slightly less attentively than they might listen to a co-worker describe a dream they had last night?

Is it the Bible I read when I was a kid, when the story of Sodom and Gomorrah filled me with fear of what I was becoming, or the Bible I read last week, when I was jarred to discover that this same story said more about God’s mercy than his judgment? (Re-read it and see; God was absolutely determined to save Lot despite the man’s ditherings and disbelief.)

These are all the same books, or collections of books, translated (and mis-translated) over the centuries. The only difference between them can be found in the way in which people read them and relate to them.

As a Christian, I accept these books as more than mere texts, and therefore I read them differently than others might read them. As Martin says, “I assent because my acceptance of the Scriptures as holy is not individual but collective and trans-historical … I will treat the letters of Paul and the other letters of the early Christian communities included in the New Testament on a different footing from the collection of early teachings we call the Didache. I will treat the four canonical gospels on a different footing from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.”

But though I may accept the Biblical canon as more than mere text, these books are still texts. They were written by humans, across multiple spans of time, for multiple reasons, be those reasons historical, genealogical, poetical, or evangelical.

Whatever those human reasons may have been, if the Bible is to be more than mere text, then I have to accept that the books were written as a human response to God’s revelation.

But humans have trouble understanding each other, let alone God. When I read the Bible, I am interpreting another human being’s interpretation of God’s revelation; in many cases, actually, I am interpreting an interpretation of an interpretation, etc.

Reading is always a conversation between author and reader. Sometimes it’s easy to answer the question, what is the author trying to say here, and sometimes it’s difficult.

But reading the Bible as a Christian is even more complex, because this conversation is not with the human authors, who had their own agendas and philosophical limitations, but with the God whose revelation the writers are describing or exploring.

As Martin says, “This isn’t just playing about with words. The word ‘conversation’ describes mutually successful communication: it can also mean the sexual act … The etymology of ‘conversation’ itself refers neither to language nor to touch, but to mutuality.”

A conversation is a relationship, and Martin describes her reading of the Bible as exactly that, using intentionally provocative, relationship-oriented words like “vulnerable” and “violent.” By choosing to speak to humans through written communication, she says that God makes himself “vulnerable” to being misunderstood; by claiming that every word of the text is divinely-sourced, inerrantists trap themselves in a “form of intimate violence,” “the human reader … a blank to be filled.”

Martin compares reading the Scriptures to a relationship with a spouse, where the inevitable disagreements, misunderstandings, and arguments begin from, and lead back toward, a place of trust, “because love underpins the conversation, love makes it possible.” That trust, she says, “goes both ways. I am not expected to be ‘mute and spiritless’ before its holy voice. But I must know how to listen.”

I wonder, however, if the intimacy of Martin’s metaphor actually isn’t quite intimate enough. When reading the Biblical books in order, you can’t help but notice how jarring it is, jumbled, passages veering sharply between hatred and condescension, passion and politics, judgment and affection.

If reading the Bible is like anything, it’s not so much like a relationship as it’s like my own life experience – the same sort of experience we all have but can never really explain, and usually don’t even try: how we move through the day in our own mental spaces, our own jumble of emotions and memories and half-cocked outrages.

Our individual lives can’t be explained to other people in any way that makes sense unless we impose a structure onto it. Someone asks, “What did you do this morning?” I might reply, “Oh, not much, got up, walked the dog, took a shower, responded to some emails.”

But that doesn’t begin to describe the actual richness of activity that happened to me during and in between those events: the petty grievances remembered, the fantasies imagined, the plans considered and discarded.

In the same way, whenever we encounter another person, we impose a structure on their life that can never resemble their actual existence. It can only be thus; we simply can’t know any more of somebody else than what we can see or hear.

There’s the woman exchanging a chipper greeting across a gas pump as you both fuel your car. And there’s the woman that afternoon you see running her car through a busy crosswalk while scrolling on her phone. Are they the same woman?

Even in the most intimate of relationships, even as you grow closer to each other, and continually learn more about each other, you still have no choice but to impose a mental structure on each other’s life, to explain the other to yourself in a way that you can understand. You know that this is the sort of person he is, until one day he does something out of character, but then it’s no longer out of character, because that is the sort of person he is.

The only person we can’t impose this structure upon, the only person who remains completely inexplicable to us even when we ardently try to explain him or her, even though we can hardly think about anything else, is us, ourselves.

It’s why classes about memoir writing talk about themes and organization, not memory. Try writing a memoir that feels to the reader exactly as it felt to live; no matter the actual events described, you’d wind up with something both dull and horrifying.

Which is, to me, exactly what it feels like to read the Bible. It’s as if God is speaking to me, through the experience of these other human beings, in a way that feels to me like actual human experience. At times nonsensical, at times disagreeable, at times beautiful, but never objective, dictated statements of “fact.”

The Bible itself is so disorganized, so self-contradictory and multi-layered, that academic theologians continue to capstone their careers with books titled “Systematic Theology” that attempt to convert Christianity into some sort of coherent way of thought. You won’t find a systematic theology in the Bible unless you weave it together yourself.

As Martin says, “Few bits of the Bible offer fortune-cookie generality, stuff that can be slapped onto human condition … Often the piece of Scripture you find will undermine some previous religious code, show the presence of God in an unexpected place. Following rigid behavioural rules as a way to salvation is undermined within the Scriptures about as often as it is recommended.”

I think that the only way that humans ever “change” is when their experience allows them to change. And when we encounter the Bible, we encounter it as who we are, in our experience, at that time. In that reading, we find our experience reflected back to us.

That’s how I can read the Sodom and Gomorrah story now and find myself amazed at God’s mercy, while relegating the whole “burning the city” thing to a minor plot point, and ignoring the whole “hospitality or homosexuality” debate altogether. Notice that I’m not saying these other parts of the story aren’t worthy of consideration; I’m saying that, as with everything else in my life, I can only experience the Bible, only experience God through the Bible, as I am able to experience it (and him) right now.

Also, please don’t accuse me of saying that the Bible doesn’t show us a way to actual truth (in the fullest sense of that word), because I believe that it does, but it can only show us the truth that we are able to see. We are always the same individual, but not always the same person.

In that way, we are exactly like the human beings who wrote the Bible. They could only see what they were able to see, and that’s what they wrote down. All we can do is read it, and try – try, as we are able right now – to understand.

* To be clear, I think that both of these things are there to be found in their appropriate places.

Ellul on Being Alive

This entry is part 23 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

By this point in our lengthy reading of Chapter 3 of Presence in the Modern World, perhaps you find yourself asking (as I do): So, uhhhh, what exactly is it Ellul thinks I’m supposed to be doing here, like, day to day?

That’s what we always look for – a plan, a process, a roadmap to success. Yet all this time, Ellul has continued to insist that there is no plan, other than God’s, and in God’s plan there is no call to action or arms for us to follow.

We are not supposed to be doing anything; we are supposed to be.

Our world, Ellul writes, “is completely oriented toward action. Everything is expressed in actions, nothing is finer than action, and we seek slogans, programs, means of action. Our world is in the process of losing its life because of action.”

Remember, the world’s will always leads to suicide, and it is dragging everyone with it by grinding their individualities down into a mechanical uniformity. In the modern world, humans become a mass, lifestyles are standardized, attention spans segmented by algorithms. People forget themselves as they are swept away into a life of doing, acting, consuming, producing.

“People who spend their time in action,” Ellul writes, “cease in this way even to live. People at the steering wheels of their cars … have the sensation of living through speed, acting, and ‘gaining’ time. But a mental stupor overtakes them, and they become increasingly stupid, a machine operating a machine. They have reflexes and sensations but no judgment or awareness. They have lost their souls in the perfect whir of their engine.”

That was written 80 years ago. It’s 2024; forget the car driving analogy and think instead about the phone in your hand, or the computer on your desk, or, most likely, both. Talk about increasingly stupid! We’re always doing something on our phones, doing something on our computers.

But if Christians are called to be the presence of the end in the modern world, then we have to free ourselves from the world’s demand for doing. We have to, Ellul says emphatically, refuse “the action that the world has proposed to us.”

Just as they did in Ellul’s time, “Christians” today come together to choose action, to decide whether they will march or vote or organize or fight, for Progress or political power or, at the very least, to punish and pulverize their “enemies.” Sometimes these “Christians” still meet in churches, but church is so often now beside the point that they are more likely to connect and rage in subreddits, or Twitch streams, or Twitter threads, or political rallies.

We are all so “imbued with the fundamental doctrines of the world” that we have no choice but to act, right? We must act, and now! People are going to destroy our way of life, or something. If we don’t act, who will?!?

“We have lost the meaning of true action that is the evidence of a deep life,” Ellul writes, “action that comes from the heart, that is the product of faith and not of myth, propaganda, and Mammon! It is a matter of living, not of doing, and that is the revolutionary attitude in this world … We must take seriously the spiritual powers that are enclosed within the fact of being spiritually alive.”

And being alive, for Ellul, is “the complete situation of human beings placed before God.” The world wants all of us to forget that we are unique individuals in relationship with a living God. The world causes this forgetfulness with demands that we orient ourselves toward action, with means improperly separate from ends, with consumerism and ideologies and philosophies that distract us from our state of being.

In the human world, action always takes “the rational form of mechanical means.” All worldly action is designed to make something happen, to achieve something, to influence the future, to gain us physical needs or comforts, to turn us all into markets, all through the use of means that generate new means.

But Christians are called toward a different kind of action, depicted in the Scriptures as seeds that grow, yeast that causes dough to rise, light that dispels the dark – the seed, the yeast, the light are not doing something. They are being. And that, Ellul says, is what is required of us, because “this is how the Holy Spirit works.”

“In a civilization that no longer knows what life is,” Ellul writes, “the most useful thing that Christians can do is precisely to live, and the life held in faith has remarkably explosive power. We no longer realize it, because we no longer believe in anything but efficiency, and life is not efficient. But it – and it alone – can provoke the astonishment of the modern world by revealing to everyone the ineffectiveness of techniques.” (emphasis added)

And so we come to the end of this remarkable chapter with a final reminder from Ellul that he is not, most definitely not, speaking of life as some kind of mysticism or hermetical existence. He is talking about “the expression of the the Holy Spirit working within us and being expressed in our material life through our words, habits, and decisions. We are speaking, then, of rediscovering all that the fullness of personal life signifies for human beings, standing on their own feet, within the world, and who can recognize their neighbors again, because they themselves have been recognized by God.” (emphasis added)

This sounds almost exciting, a glorious rediscovery of what it means to be human, but the word Ellul chooses to describe it is “deflating.” It’s much easier to live one’s life within the constraints of the culture, as a member of a mass, a cog in civilization’s wheel, following the will of the world.

But Ellul tells us we must reject that civilization completely, and to instead leap into uncertainty – into a life where there is actually only one certainty, but it is one that is both promised and granted at the same time: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all the rest will be given to you.”

In the next chapter, “Communication,” Ellul makes a provocative turn toward what he describes as one part of being alive – the Christian intellectual life.

Ellul on the True Value of Means

This entry is part 22 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, we are still in Chapter 3. As discussed in the last post, in God, means and end are unified: the end is God’s Kingdom, and it is God’s Kingdom, through the presence of Christ and his followers, that will bring about that end.

On a more practical level, what are Christians to do about the means of modern humanity, the ones whose ends are simply created to justify those means? We already know that Ellul does not advocate withdrawal from the culture in which we live; quite the opposite.

First, we have to recognize that these means (and he lists some: “money, mechanical power, propaganda, the cinema, the press, modern conveniences, or means of communication, all this pandaemonium of noise”) are in no way effective at bringing about the true end. None of them will result in God’s Kingdom.

Ok, you say, maybe not God’s Kingdom, but that doesn’t have to be the only end, does it? We are adapting our means to more immediate, material goals, not aiming for the whole, spiritual enchilada.

That’s bullshit, Ellul insists (not a direct quote). For one thing, the very idea of Progress is synonymous with a misguided attempt to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth — in piecemeal, step by step, with small improvements in the lot of humanity. The coming of the Kingdom, Ellul says, will not be gradual, but “catastrophic.”

And for another thing, Ellul says that you cannot separate, for example, the material and the spiritual, or grace and law, etc. “In reality, the two orders, of preservation and redemption, are not separate but integrated with each other. All the actions of human beings are in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

This means that even humanity’s means are essentially ordered to the one true end — the Kingdom — rather than whatever end toward which they claim to strive. We must view all of these modern techniques from the perspective of “this end that is already present in the means that God uses.”

This doesn’t represent an arbitrary rejection or “casting off” of our modern civilization’s means. Instead, we are to judge, accept or reject, humanity’s means based on their value to God’s means and end. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about any of our means or structures; they are neither bad nor good; they must simply be judged on “their eschatological content, their ability to be integrated into the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

We are not to look at these modern techniques and structures as means at all, but only as content, as activities. These are simply things that human beings do. As Christians, our one task is to act as God’s presence and prepare for the preservation of the world by showing it the way of salvation. Where do these particular human activities fit into our task? They can be useful, Ellul says, unless they are not.

I’m old enough to remember when the Internet was going to bring people together. This is not the way it panned out. Now, AI is going to — do something good, we’re told. Something something medical breakthroughs, something something problem-solving, I don’t know.

The point is that these technologies are created and pushed because of what they will do. In the mid-90s, when I eagerly climbed online, the cultural and political climate assured everyone of the good things (ends) that would be brought about by these new capabilities. If we had looked at it as an activity (not as a means), evaluated the Internet as the content that it was (not what we imagined it might be), then perhaps we could have properly judged it.

AI, same thing. Etc.

Ellul’s recommended approach is to view and judge all of these techniques and institutions and structures, not based on their consequences (which we should know by now never materialize as predicted, at least not without many unintended consequences as well), but on their actual content, as purely temporary activities from the perspective of the kingdom.

The world looks at what it is doing in terms of how it believes or wants those activities to affect the future. Humans labor under the false notion that the present will inform the future. Christians, Ellul insists, already know the future, and in God, it is the future that informs the present.

So yes, we might seek institutional reforms should we find a Scriptural basis for it, and use modern techniques, understanding that all these things are temporary, with no value beyond their role in helping us further God’s presence (which is never, remember, about political power, or “Progress”). But we also must reject those things whose content and activity has no value to the Kingdom.

There is no end but God. There is no means but God. All else is disposable.

But how can we stop this stance from becoming just one more ineffective ideology?

Ellul on God’s Unified Means and End

This entry is part 21 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Ellul’s Presence, we are still in Chapter 3. As we have seen, Ellul believes that Christians are engaged in a spiritual struggle against the supremacy of “means,” which have eliminated any common “ends” except for imaginary ones created only to justify each new set of means.

But Ellul refuses to recommend any specific actions for Christians to take against this totalitarian system, because that would essentially be “opposing one technique to others.” This is similar to the way that he has argued against the existence of ethical guidelines outside of any specific, individual situation.

Instead, Ellul wants to point us toward “an old Christian road, abandoned for some two hundred years, and which leads in the opposite direction from the triumphal path of modern techniques.”

Now that it’s been nearly three hundred years of abandonment, let’s see if the same path might still work.

“For Christians, there is no separation between end and means.”

Christ the Incarnation is God’s means for human salvation; but where “Jesus Christ is present, the kingdom has come.”

In our society, means has consumed end; ends are simply made up, and continually revised as necessary, to justify and accommodate self-generating means. (What are we trying to achieve? Whatever our means will allow!) But in Christianity, “the means never appears except as the realized presence of the end.”

Purely by happenstance this morning, I read Mark 4. It’s the parable of the sower. What caught my eye (and reminded me to get back to Ellul and this blog) was that the Kingdom of God was described not as a place, but a process. The sower is the Word, Jesus; his presence is the Kingdom.

In God, all is unity. The end of history is God’s kingdom, and yet it is God’s kingdom, through the presence of Christ and activity of the Spirit through the followers of Christ, that is redeeming the world and bringing about, well, itself. End and means, together.

The same must be true of the Christian life, Ellul says. We have to oppose our “slavery to means.” But how can we fight technique with itself? Churches (in Ellul’s time and even more in our own) try to combat the world by imitating it; they write strategic plans, implement programs, focus on bottom-line “action and results.” This, Ellul says, is “bound to fail.”

Instead, we must remember that the church and all its members are both God’s means, and the presence of the end (God’s Kingdom), all at once.

“God establishes his end and it is this end that is represented through our means.”

Most Christians go about their daily business and append God to it. This is “radically anti-Christian,” Ellul says, because it creates a separation between our work and God’s work — we say, God’s will be done, etc., while ignoring the fact that God’s will is done through us.

There is a very practical significance to understanding that Christians are God’s means and end.

For example: are we to strive for justice on earth, or are we to be just ourselves, “bearers of justice”? Are we to work for peace on earth, or are we to be peaceful ourselves? “For where the peaceful are, there peace reigns.”

Try to think of it this way. Is justice something to be attained, something external that can only be accomplished through action? Or are you a just person? Is peace something that exists outside of yourself, something to be found and argued for and delivered? Or are you a peaceful person?

Justice and peace, Ellul says, are gifts from God. These are God’s good goals that can only be expressed through our lives (means and end in unity). We have already been given grace, peace, love, justification — which are God’s ends — and by expressing them in our lives, we are also the means.

Human means are rooted in “pride and power.” Based on the techniques we have developed, and are developing, we try to accomplish something — whether it’s colonization of Mars, or criminal justice reform. It’s something we believe we can do.

But in (as) God’s Kingdom, we are not called to achieve, but to be.

“I am quite familiar with the reproach that will likely be made.”

Ellul already knows that your response to the above will likely be an eye-rolling scoff. This can’t be right, can it? It’s so individualistic, even selfish; goals like justice and peace require collective action, and political organization, and institutional reform. The problems aren’t found in “individual consciousness” but in society at large. Addressing those problems will require “adequate means.”

To which Ellul says: wrong!

In God, just as there is no separation between end and means, there is neither a separation between individual and community. Yes, God is in relationship with every individual human being, but God is the same for all. Our peace and justice are not ours, they are gifts from God. These are not individual means and ends, but God’s unified means and end. They unite as individuals into a collective through the activity of the Spirit.

When we decide to take charge of these goals, build a rational plan to put them into place, then we deny God by refusing to let go of “the anthropocentric dilemma,” whether you are talking about individuals or collective action. Our focus should be on God. If all Christians act as God’s presence (salt, light, sheep), as we are called to do, then this could hardly be called individualism.

As far as institutional reform — the very mention of which just reminds me of the similarities between Ellul’s world of 80 years ago, and today — then Ellul says that Christians who believe that human institutions can change human behavior are either hypocrites or liars.

It is Marxism, Ellul says, to believe in the existence of a human condition (which can be modified by external structures) but not a human nature (which cannot). And it is hypocritical for Christians to refuse to look at “the problem of the human in its fullness” and instead focus on its environment. He says:

“We turn our eyes from the being’s picture in order to look only at the frame. If it is true that the frame can more or less enhance the picture, it is not true that it is what gives the picture its value. And if we act in this way, it means that we refuse to be fully involved to this venture.” (emphasis added)

This doesn’t mean that there’s no value to reforming institutions, only that it is not our priority, and as we have discussed before, what passes today for reform is merely a struggle for power. Left or right, allegedly Christian or not, sides are wrestling for institutional control, not against our civilizational structures.

The truly Christian, on the other hand, has a “fundamental position” which is “a pure and simple expression of the presence of the end in the world.” This may lead to the valid pursuit of reform, but it is this presence that can carry out the transformation. (And, I would argue here based on what Ellul has said so far, Christians might validly pursue worldly reform, based on their faith, but never worldly power.)

“Institutional reforms must come out of the church’s faith,” Ellul writes, “and not from the technical competence of specialists, whether Christian or otherwise.”

That Which We Measure May Be Forgotten

It’s the end of a year and a new one beckons, another way in which we humans try to control things by measuring them. I am as guilty of this sort of thing as any, and probably more than most — how much time have I wasted over the last few years meticulously noting down everything I eat into a food journal, for literally no actual purpose?

I also track the books I read, movies and TV I watch, and my opinions about them, etc., for only slightly greater purpose — unlike the food journal, the book lists might be revisited once or twice in the future. These lists also let me do things like this, an end of year summary that will certainly be of interest to no one but me. (Of course, the same can be said of all the other articles on this little WordPress outpost.)

For many unmeasurable reasons, this has been a very good year. Below are some of the things that can be weighed, tracked and listed.

Books

I finished 64 books this year, down a bit from prior years, but then this is also the year I dove eagerly down the Kierkegaard rabbit hole. It started with a Catherine Project reading group of Fear & Trembling, continued with another CP group tackling Sickness Unto Death, and then a courageous few of us decided to stick together for The Concept of Anxiety. We’ve also read a few of Kierky’s discourses, including the three contained in The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air.

All of these books rank naturally as my best reads of the year, probably the best reads of my life; in January, our group begins Part 1 of Either/Or, and I begin thinking about how to actually turn Kierkegaard’s insights into personal action (or to use more precise words, inwardness and reflection).

I am still, of course, unfinished with Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, which I am reading at perhaps the slowest pace of any book in my life. I’m glad to be doing so. God willing, I will continue notating my way through it here at the blog through 2024.

A few other books I read and loved this year:

Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell (2020) — Beautiful writing about a messy life (and is there any other kind?).

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (2009) — Quiet and wonderful. How did it ever become a movie?

Secret City, by James Kirchick (2022) — Long but fascinating.

Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates (1992) — Should have read this a long time ago, but I am a latecomer to JCO’s work.

Jessica Fayer, by John L’Heureux (1976) — I read two L’Heureux novels in 2023 as part of my ongoing meander through his work; this one shows its age, but is a provocative examination of how death creates meaning for even the most desultory life. (The other one, The Handmaid of Desire, a weak attempt at academic satire, was mediocre.)

Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, by Rowan Williams (2018) — Small but dense, worth rereading again. Also convinced me that I really need to read Iain McGilchrist, if only his books weren’t so damn massive.

Works of Mercy, by Sally Thomas (2022) — A first novel from a Catholic poet; funny and heartbreaking.

Howards End, by E. M. Forster (1910) — A good friend convinced me to read this as part of a group, and I didn’t regret it.

Philosopher of the Heart, by Clare Carlisle (2019) — A very good biography of Kierkegaard, though there are others I plan to read as well.

How to Inhabit Time, by James K. A. Smith (2022), and For the Time Being, by W. H. Auden (1944) — I didn’t plan on ending the year reading these particular two books, or imagine that they would wind up being such a one-two punch.

Movies

Not a lot of movies this year, though we wound up actually going to the movies more than I would have expected, and mostly just for fun: Barbie (which was more serious than most people seem to think), the new Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible films (which were both more fun than most people seem to think), Theater Camp (which was hilarious). Also saw both Vertigo and Shadow of a Doubt on the big screen, which were terrific experiences.

Passages, which I wrote about here, was the best new film I saw all year; I still enjoy thinking about it.

Finally, we stumbled across Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise on the Criterion Channel, and what the actual fuck? Amazing weirdness; I can’t believe I’d never heard of it, let alone never seen it before.

Television

Not a lot of TV this year, and hopefully even less next year. But we finally got around to watching the third season of Atlanta, and it was such pure genius that we are putting off watching the fourth and final season until we feel a craving for something perfectly sublime.

Also, Somebody Somewhere on HBO (or whatever they call it now) is heart-wrenching and hilarious and beautifully acted; and the first season of Poker Face was just sheer fun; and All Creatures Great and Small starts every year on the perfect note. (New season next week!)

This Blog

This will be the 44th post since June 27. It feels weird to launch a blog in 2023, knowing that, unlike the glory days of 2005, it will be pretty much impossible for anyone to find it. But I’ve never really felt at home anywhere else, and whether anyone else ever reads any of these posts or not, I still feel a particular moment of apprehensive excitement when I press the “publish” button. Here’s hoping I am able to do so even more frequently in 2024.

Books In and Out of Season

I admire people like Joel Miller who are able to plan out their reading, which seems infinitely preferable to my habit of perusing my to-be-read shelves (now numerous, spanning multiple rooms) waiting for a certain inspired curiosity to fall on my head like, well, a book from a high shelf.

But I doubt I will ever be able to join the ranks of the planners. Instead, every time I must choose my next book, I’m seized with a bit of paralysis. What’s the book for me right now? is one of the questions with which I struggle. And, is it a book I want to have read, or one I want to read? — which are sometimes the same, sometimes not.

This is why my husband rolls his eyes at how many books I bring whenever we go anywhere, weighing down the luggage. Well, I don’t know what I will feel like reading when I finish the one I’m reading right now! I must have choices.

Unfortunately, once I defeat the paralysis and answer the questions, sometimes those answers are wrong.

I have a habit of accumulating books that make sense for a certain time and place in my life, but then never getting around to reading them — until, possibly, they are well past their season.

For example, John Fowles’ The Magus has existed in a corner of my shelves in various editions throughout multiple housing situations since I was in high school. I didn’t know much about it, but as a young man (boy) the idea of it, as encapsulated in whatever marketing copy was on the back of that original tattered paperback, thrilled me.

But I always put off reading it, imagining it would be an experience I could savor at any time. Last summer I found a very nice Modern Library edition at a bookstore in Maine, and then last week, when asking myself, What’s the book for me right now?, I decided to answer myself, Why, it must be The Magus, finally.

Oof. Wrong answer. 700 pages of, to be frank, absolute shit, which does not qualify as the most insightful book review ever written, I agree. But this book started off as the sort of faux intellectual potboiler I would ordinarily enjoy, and very quickly devolved into what can only be termed a “hate read.” I finished it only because I couldn’t believe it was as bad as it was. I sometimes wondered if Fowles was pulling my leg.

But, no. This was his first book, though he worked on it for years and published it as his third, and then later revised it again in 1977. (If this edition was an improvement, I shudder to think what the original was like.) Fowles was as serious as the seriously despicable-yet-dull narrator he had created.

I hated this book so much that I don’t even want to dwell on all the reasons why I hated it — the complete misunderstanding of women (or men), of sex, of religion, of simple adult human living and decision-making. I wasn’t bothered by how horrible all of the characters were, I was bothered by how boring they all were, despite the author’s desperate, interminable attempts to make them all seem so sinister and twisty and interesting.

Anyway. Even Fowles admitted in a foreword that he didn’t quite understand the book’s popularity, and that said popularity seemed to be centered among adolescents. If I’d read the book when it first caught my eye, instead of putting it off for 30 or so years, I might have found it just as transformative as some of the gaga Amazon reviewers. I was a pompous ass, after all — God is dead, so let’s drink coffee, and all that crap — and the book’s naive ramblings and endless circularities would probably have struck me as profound when I didn’t know what profundity was.

This isn’t the only time this has happened; I had a similar experience with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was first published when I was in college, and reviews convinced me so thoroughly that I would love the book, that I always held off on reading it until there might be a time when I felt the need for a truly transformative reading experience. Such a time finally came, and I read the novel while in the waiting room every day for six weeks undergoing radiation treatments.

And oh my God, I hated that book, all of it, every word. Again, perhaps I would have loved it, if I experienced it earlier in life.

I know, some will say — life’s too short, stop reading if you don’t like it. And generally, I do; there are lots of books I’ve started and set aside, but I don’t hate those books, they just weren’t for me at that time. (Some of them I return to, and find it has become the right time.) The books I loathe, for some reason, I tend to finish. It may be that the books which engender such strong feelings have other compensatory traits that drive me forward.

So I’ve learned that the books I self-consciously put aside as a younger self to read later may not scratch any particular itch I develop in, shall we say, middle age. But I’m not sure this lesson is compelling enough to change my haphazard approach to selecting books, even though a schedule, or at least a goal, might be helpful. For example, I’ve been toying with the idea of declaring 2024 a “big book” year, and focus on finishing a few big novels I feel guilty about not having read.

But I’m hesitant to make a commitment. After all, any fiction I read is in addition to all of the Kierkegaard, Ellul and similar authors I am determined to continue absorbing. Can one actually read Either/Or and Moby-Dick in the same year?

Hmm. Come to think of it, perhaps one can and should.

Ellul on the Illusion of Inner Freedom

This entry is part 20 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing in chapter 3, Ellul dwells a bit more on the meaning of means, which is “that they are totalitarian. Our civilization is entirely one of means, and means affect every domain. They respect nothing.”

There are two angles from which to consider the totalitarianism of means.

First, means destroy everything that might hinder their advance. Morality? It falls before technique (if it works, how can it be immoral?). Humanism falls, because technique will not be limited to the interest of human beings. (Paging AI, again.) “Gratuitiousness” — anything for its own sake, such as art — is flatly rejected; everything must serve. (What’s the point of art with no market value? Is it even art?)

Instead of accepting human values, means will construct their own. What Ellul calls the “new myths” — such as state, nation, race, labor, parties — are mere props for means. Humans accept these illusions because they hide the “appalling desiccation of the world” created by means.

Second, means relentlessly extend their dominion over all aspects of human existence. Humans, Ellul says, are just as much objects of technique as material goods. We are hacking our lives, not just living them; psychological problems, spiritual problems, “self-knowledge” — these are all grist for the mill of means. One “solution” leads to another to another. We never stop working on ourselves because we are actually being worked upon. Ellul writes:

“Because human beings have become objects and the spiritual is classed among spiritual means, existence no longer has any possible meaning. Existentialism, the philosophy of our time, is correct to remind us that our existence is such, but it is incorrect in saying that human beings are free to restore meaning to their lives. The irreversible triumph of means eliminates any freedom for human beings to follow this path.”

We have all been captured in a trap laid by means, whose triumph is total. “It is useless to act smart and claim inner freedom,” Ellul writes. “When a freedom is not a part of my life, it is false.”

Ellul claims that this predicament is especially hard on Christians because, while it has always been impossible to live out one’s faith fully as Christian, that was always because of inner weakness. Now, it is made even more impossible (if you’ll pardon the expression) because of the external world.

This external world, controlled by means, constrains modern humans not only physically, but mentally. It is totalitarian precisely because it changes the ways in which humans value themselves and others. Historically, Ellul believes that all ancient “civilizations have exercised certain constraints, but they left to each person a wide field of freedom and invididuality. The Roman slave or the medieval serf was more free, more individual, more socially human (I do not see materially content) than is the modern worker or Soviet functionary.”

I think that Ellul is suggesting here that, even in a world of limited social mobility and physical constraint, people were allowed the freedom to think for themselves. In the modern world (and Ellul does not deny the benefits of modern medical and scientific advances), societies claim to be free from constraints, but actually they try to “seize human beings in their totality and confine them within a detailed framework, in which all their gestures and secret thoughts will be controlled by the social system.”

Under the system of means, our human “inner freedom” is an illusion. The modern social system makes it twice-over “impossible” to live out one’s Christian faith, by layering this external framework on top of our inner weaknesses. As David Gill notes in a footnote on page 50, Ellul is arguing dialectically here, that it is impossible to live as a Christian but also, because we are called to resist and act against both internal and external forces, possible. We must ensure the continued “social expression” of Christianity by fighting “to the death” (in a specifically spiritual sense) against the primacy of means.

Advent Begins. Or Continues.

So Advent begins, the season in which we recognize the state in which we all live, all of the time — this in-betweenness. Lately I’ve been thinking not about Christ’s birth, or even his return (whatever that may mean), but about his death and resurrection.

Lorenzo Lotto, "The Nativity": Jesus is born in a manger and a crucifix hangs on the wall.
Spoiler alert.

I’m part of a group Advent reading of Auden’s For the Time Being, and before our first meeting yesterday, I became somewhat fixated on the poem’s epigraph, from Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.”

This verse sounds, fittingly for Advent, as if we are in mid-conversation with Paul. It pulls me not toward the verse itself, or what comes after, but what comes before: Romans 5 and its discussion of Adam and Jesus, the one whose trespass brought sin and death, and the one whose sacrifice brought grace and life. I can’t help then but read the opening sections of For the Time Being (which is all I’ve read so far), about the annunciation, through the lens of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) rather than birth. Which I think is what is intended.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the Anglican writer Evelyn Underhill, who once wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury: “The interesting thing about religion is God.” The italics are mine but that’s how I hear the words, and I can imagine her emphasizing each with a poke in the Archbishop’s chest.

I think of something similar about Advent, reduced to overpriced calendars of jams and dog treats and tiny bottles of booze counting down the days to a federal holiday: “The interesting about Jesus’s birth is his death.” The point of the Incarnation wasn’t the God-baby in the manger, which is the frustrating obsession of the modern church, but the God-man brutally murdered on the cross — and his miraculous, unbelievable, paradoxically life-bringing-for-all resurrection.

This particular theme is also on my mind because I’ve started reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus in preparation for a class (just “for fun,” ha) on the Theology of the Cross. I may note my way through Rutledge’s book here on the blog, but for now I will take comfort in the way she makes it sound sensible to focus more on Good Friday than Christmas, even at this time of year.

“Surprisingly,” she writes, “the liturgical season of Advent, rather than Lent, best locates the Christian community. Advent — the time between — with its themes of crisis and judgment, now and not-yet, places us not in some privileged spiritual sanctuary but on the frontier where the promised kingdom of God exerts maximum pressure on the present, with corresponding signs of suffering and struggle.”

Or, as Auden writes, “The Demolisher arrives / Singing and dancing!”

Ellul on Self-Justifying Means

This entry is part 19 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

There was a time when society might grapple honestly with whether or not particular means were appropriate to a desired end. But ends have vanished into abstraction and are no longer necessary to justify means, which justify themselves in the answer to a simple question: Do they work?

“In reality, what justifies the means today is whatever succeeds,” Ellul writes as we continue Chapter 3 of Presence. “Whatever is effective, whatever possesses in itself an ‘efficiency,’ is justified. By applying means, a result is produced. This result is judged by these simplistic criteria of ‘more’: larger, faster, more precise, and so on … What succeeds is good, what fails is bad.” (emphasis added)

Value judgments relate to ends, not means. “Once the means becomes a matter of technique it knows no bounds.” Certainly some technical achievements — like atomic weapons, concentration camps, painless euthanasia of the disabled and depressed — are considered shocking and awful to most people. But not to all; as Ellul points out, a “Russian communist does not recoil from camps in Siberia, or a Nazi from extermination camps.” Citizens tend to accept whatever means are normalized within their own particular society or sub-culture, as long as those means are successful and meet their technical objectives (which are not ends, Ellul carefully points out).

The self-justification of means results, Ellul says, in three outcomes:

  1. Human beings are no longer able to choose between means. Technique chooses instead, demonstrating which means is truly effective, and there is no reason for people to refuse it.
  2. Technique is considered neutral, and so extends into all areas. His example: if a table is neutral, then so must be a machine; then so must be the state, the division of labor, propaganda, and on to nuclear missiles and concentration camps. When we say something is neutral, we mean that it is good.
  3. Since means no longer require ends, the ends that get proposed are “useless or inadequate” ones. Technique moves itself forward, step by step, and with each step, human beings create new ends to justify those means. Remember when the Internet was going to make citizens more knowledgeable, connect communities, ease loneliness, etc.? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t; with each step technique takes, we create new ends to explain those means, which will only create new means for which we create new ends.

“Technical human beings do not need goals in life,” Ellul writes, “they are content with the instant success of means. In fact, we have got hold here of the primary reason … that the church and Christianity have lost ground. If the church no longer seems relevant in the world, it is because of the new situation of the problem of means.”

Never mind that some self-consciously moralistic people are still “scandalized” by the idea that a brutal or alienating technique might be excused by its loftily stated goal. I can’t help but return once again to the (already exhausted) example of AI. Politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders pretend to “grapple” with the “ramifications” of this technology. They hold conferences, issue memos, testify before Congress, propose regulations — but who has said, why should we do any of this at all? (And if they do, how can the response be anything but an eye-rolling dismissal of their naiveté? Genies, bottles, toothpaste, tubes.)

Ellul on the Disappearing End

This entry is part 18 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

As we begin at long last Chapter 3 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, we come to his first exploration on technique, that for which he became best known and which he later explored in multiple books, most famously The Technological Society.

When one thinks of “means and ends,” the questions that come to mind are philosophical: Can the end justify the means? Are these the “right means for the right ends”? Ellul says that these questions are no longer relevant, or that at least they cannot be asked in the same way, because they no longer represent philosophical abstractions but the concrete fact of “technique.”

Ellul argues that modern life has become concretely, and specifically, about means; there is no longer any “end” in sight. With enormous and innovative means at their disposal, our modern societies have turned the human beings they were meant to serve into mere servants themselves. Politicians pay lip service to “men and women” as the beneficiaries of their programs, but who are these men and women?

What, for example, is the role of the individual human being in America today? We all know the answer: to participate in the economy. We must make things that can be bought so that we can buy things. “Thus, humanity is transformed into an instrument of these modern gods that are our means,” Ellul writes, “and we do it with the good intention of making humanity happy.” But who is this humanity we are told will benefit from our work, from the programs of politicians, bureaucrats and corporations? It doesn’t exist, and never will, as anything other than an abstraction.

But lest you think I (or Ellul) am specifically criticizing the market economy here, there is no difference to be found in socialism, either. Writing as he was in the 1940s, Ellul found as strong an example for his ideas in communism as he did in Western capitalism. In communism, he wrote that “we have an admirable political machine that perpetuates itself by means (because the dictatorship of the proletariat is also a means), with a view to illusory and hypothetical ends. And to produce the happiness of future people, those of the present day are sacrificed.”

Though I try to avoid social media these days, one can’t avoid the lust for “socialism” among many on the left today. They criticize the market for the same reasons Ellul does, that it turns humans into mere producers and consumers. But they have embraced the same mistaken notion of means versus ends. Whether capitalist or socialist or somewhere in between, everyone accepts the same abstract ends (happiness, justice, “humanity”) without question, so that they can focus on their own preferred concrete means.

But these ends (and I repeat myself here, for emphasis) simply do not exist. “We do still talk about happiness, freedom, or justice,” Ellul writes, “but we no longer know their content or conditions … Once these ends have become implicit in people’s hearts and minds, they no longer have any formative power. They no longer have any creative capacity. They are dead illusions that have been stored away among the props of the contemporary scene.”

Think about the state of AI, and the latest pointless kerfuffles over related corporate leadership. Just a few months ago, I might have used the (equally content-less) phrase “cryptocurrency” instead of AI. “Social media” would also work in exactly the same way. None of these things can be said to “matter” in any meaningful way. They are created because they can be created, not because they are doing any good. That is the nature of modern means, Ellul points out, which cannot lead to ends, but only create more means: “genius is no longer necessary for the majority of technical discoveries, but having arrived at a certain stage the next discovery comes along almost as a matter of course…”

This is true in every field — technical, financial, political, industrial. “It doesn’t matter that people do not need these new products,” Ellul wrote nearly eighty years ago, “or that these new creations are completely useless. One means generates another. A particular one is used, for why would it not be? Why would it be called useless?”

Ellul uses airplanes and medicine as further examples of the abstraction of means and ends. We congratulate ourselves when speed records are shattered, but what is the point of saving time? (I can only look through my long and extensive Amazon purchase history, or all of the unused apps in my Mac’s Applications folder, and ask myself what all the time-saving things I’ve purchased have actually meant for me.)

Or medical research that produces new cures. Ellul asks, “[W]hat is the point of the life that we take so much care to preserve? What is time for? What is life worth, when precisely through the interplay of the means set in motion through this civilization, time and life no longer have any meaning, when human beings really do not know what to do with their time, and when life is more absurd than ever, because the spiritual foundations of time and life have been destroyed in their hearts?”

In a world with a will toward suicide, whose relentless drive toward its own destruction becomes more apparent all the time, is it any wonder that “ends” have been turned into happy abstractions by those who can only see history as a series of random occurrences? “Human beings,” Ellul writes, “have set off at astronomically high speeds toward nowhere.”