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Frank O’Hara, “Nocturne”

Is it April 30 already? My goodness, I’d hoped to post more poems during the month, but time slips away. Here is one more, anyway.

I’ve always struggled a bit with Frank O’Hara; whenever I read through a collection of his, I find myself moving rapidly through the pages, the poems themselves running together (and my eyes glazing over a bit) as if I were flipping through someone else’s bedside dream journal. It has only been relatively recently that I have tried to train myself to read him more deliberately, one poem at a time, to see what lies behind the apparently unstructured work.

For example, flipping through his collected poems the other day, I came across this one. The first quick read brought me to a full stop and demanded several rereads, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. The poem reminds me of my first few decades, that sense of misplaced orientation (“It’s the architect’s fault”) provoking distance from other people – but which was frankly more of an excuse for certain attitudes and behaviors than their cause. You have no telephone, and live so far away.

Nocturne

There’s nothing worse
than feeling bad and not
being able to tell you.
Not because you’d kill me
or it would kill you, or
we don’t love each other.
It’s space. The sky is grey
and clear, with pink and
blue shadows under each cloud.
A tiny airliner drops its
specks over the U N Building.
My eyes, like millions of
glassy squares, merely reflect.
Everything sees through me,
in the daytime I’m too hot
and at night I freeze; I’m
built the wrong way for the
river and a mild gale would
break every fiber in me.
Why don’t I go east and west
instead of north and south?
It’s the architect’s fault.
And in a few years I’ll be
useless, not even an office
building. Because you have
no telephone, and live so
far away; the Pepsi-Cola sign,
the seagulls and the noise.

Frank O’Hara

R. S. Thomas, “The Absence”

Today, instead of opening a book at random, or even flipping through to find a poem that strikes my interest, I turn to one of my favorite poems. R. S. Thomas was apparently quite the character, a grouchy parish priest in a hardscrabble Welsh village; his love for his country and fellow citizens was so fierce that one can see in a lot of his regional poetry why that emotion can sometimes be confused with its opposite.

This is the first poem of his I ever read — or rather, heard, since it was read to me in a seminar a few years back — and it has stayed with me ever since, earmarked inside Thomas’ Collected Poems, 1945-1990 on my bedside table.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

R. S. Thomas

The other day someone said to me, “I don’t think faith and reason are incompatible, I think they are both equally valid.” As I nodded politely, I thought: Really? Or is this just evidence of the compartmentalization we all do in this modern age, segregating spiritual and scientific into their own spheres?

We say, faith and reason are surely compatible, because look, they reference different things, they are useful in different ways! But this reduces faith to a frame of reference, a utilitarian tool, something that “comes in handy” when you need solace or comfort, or a way to explain away the unexplainable, or an ancient and mysterious ritual to zhush up your boring life, or an excuse to get together with similar people and do “good deeds” for the needy. For all of the actual business of daily living, let’s face it, what we call “faith” doesn’t come into play.

True faith starts when we realize that God is not here for us at certain times or to fulfill certain needs. In fact, God is never going to make himself known at all; he’s never going to act in a way that can’t be explained by some other means.

Seek solace, get silence.

And yet we still recognize that there is an emptiness within us, Pascal’s God-shaped hole, that demands God’s existence, and is quite literally the only thing we can offer him.

William Stafford, “Bess”

I pulled down a copy of William Stafford’s The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems and noticed a dog-eared page in the middle of the book. It’s not like me to turn over a sheet like that, and in this case it looked like I had twisted two pages downward, as if emphatically.

I don’t recall reading this poem, “Bess,” let alone marking it, but based on the subject, I can only assume I must have read it in the throes of my stage 4 diagnosis and treatments. Depending on which day I read the poem, I might have marked it out of recognition, aspiration, irony, or disdain — I don’t remember with which emotion I reacted, but any of them would have been honest.

Bess

Ours are the streets where Bess first met her
cancer. She went to work every day past the
secure houses. At her job in the library
she arranged better and better flowers, and when
students asked for books her hand went out
to help. In the last year of her life
she had to keep her friends from knowing
how happy they were. She listened while they
complained about food or work or the weather.
And the great national events danced
their grotesque, fake importance. Always

Pain moved where she moved. She walked
ahead; it came. She hid; it found her.
No one ever served another so truly;
no enemy ever meant so strong a hate.
It was almost as if there was no room
left for her on earth. But she remembered
where joy used to live. She straightened its flowers;
she did not weep when she passed its houses;
and when finally she pulled into a tiny corner
and slipped from pain, her hand opened
again, and the streets opened, and she wished all well.

William Stafford

Jorge Luis Borges, “Everness”

It isn’t necessarily my goal to always cite poems to which I happen to open a book at random, but for the second time in a row, I can’t help myself, after reading the random poem in question. This translation comes from Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems:

Everness

One thing does not exist: Oblivion.
God saves the metal and he saves the dross,
And his prophetic memory guards from loss
The moons to come, and those of evenings gone.
Everything is: the shadows in the glass
Which, in between the day’s two twilights, you
Have scattered by the thousands, or shall strew
Henceforward in the mirrors that you pass.
And everything is part of that diverse
Crystalline memory, the universe;
Whoever through its endless mazes wanders
Hears door on door click shut behind his stride,
And only from the sunset’s farther side
Shall view at last the Archetypes and the Splendors.

Jorge Luis Borges (Richard Wilbur, trans.)

Lately, deep inside volume one of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, I’ve been thinking a lot about the despair of belief and the relief of doubt. How those who claim that they “doubt” too much to believe in God are taking such an easy and really silly path, as if doubt matters or is even interesting.

To look inside ourselves and see that we, in fact, are not alone — that there is an Other — with full access to our individual consciousnesses and histories, which even we as human beings do not have because of our tendency to both forget and lie to ourselves — is absolutely frightening.

Wish as we might, there is no oblivion; there is no forgetting. Everything is, everything that was continues to be.

There are, however, doors that click shut behind us.

To me that’s the sound of mercy, which is not the same as forgetting. Isn’t it both more valuable and more terrifying to be fully known, to be actually seen — everything we are, everything we’ve done, all the horrible things we’ve thought and imagined and planned, all of which together comprise Us As Ourselves, not loosely-connected diapsalmata, not generic “individuals,” but actual Individuals — and yet still be welcomed with love?

Donald Justice, “On the Night of the Departure by Bus”

It is April, which has been designated (by somebody, somewhere) Poetry Month, and given the importance of such Official Pronouncements, I find myself drawn to thinking, again, about poetry.

Now, my relationship with reading poetry is complicated, in the sense that one might describe a relationship with a great-aunt as “complicated” if one only encounters that particular great-aunt once every year or three, even though one always enjoys those encounters because said great-aunt is so insightful and wickedly funny. But then one also hears murmured stories about her abrasive and alcoholic personality, and how she pushes (literally) everyone away whenever she gets in “one of her moods,” and those are the stories one recalls whenever one thinks that maybe one should try to get together with the proverbial great-aunt before time runs out for all concerned.

I wondered over coffee if it might be a useful experiment, during this Poetry Month, to pull a volume of poetry off the shelf, not every day but maybe a couple times a week, and share it with my Breathlessly Expectant Readers, along with (if any) my own thoughts on the selected poem.

But don’t worry, I don’t think that this will be as dull and useless as it sounds, so no need to turn off the email updates or delete my RSS feed just yet. (There’s more Ellul coming, after all.)

For one thing, I’m not going to try to explain poems, and any thoughts I actually do share, I promise, will be scant. I think that reading poetry is similar to reading Kierkegaard, in that the purpose is not to figure out what the author is saying, but what the work is saying — to me, specifically. And even I recognize the limits of interest anyone else might have in my specific emotional reactions.

This morning, the first volume that grabbed my eye was Donald Justice’s Collected Poems, and that’s because it is always the closest in proximity, the volume with which I am most familiar, since I read through it every couple of years. I discovered Justice in a college class, and since even then I was already old beyond my years, I found myself drawn to his elegiac, but plain-spoken, voice. I mean, I was reading “Men at Forty” and only pretending to roll my eyes when I was barely in my twenties.

Which is a perfect lead-in to the following poem, which I must have read many times but don’t recall, and to which I randomly opened the book this morning.

On the Night of the Departure by Bus

Tell me if you were not happy in those days.
You were not yet twenty-five,
And you had not yet abandoned the guitar.

I swore to you by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
You swore to me by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
The moon swore to us both by your nakedness that you
had abandoned yourself completely.

Who would not go on living?

The typewriter will be glad to have become the poem,
The guitar to have been your body,
I to have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter.

A passenger has lost his claim-check,
The brunette her barette,
And I – I think that there are moths eating holes in my pockets,
That my place in line is evaporating,
That the moon is not the moon and the bus is not the bus.

What is the word for goodbye?

Donald Justice

Oh, misty-eyed Donald. Setting aside the unfortunate last line (which I think should have been left off, but let’s face it, Donald liked that heavy-handed sort of thing), this poem jarred me this morning, the jar of recognition of a conflicting set of emotions in myself. A sense of loss for youthful dreams and artistic ambitions, and the understanding that, with age, our pathways first narrow and then vanish completely. The poem brings forth my outright grief for those things I wanted to achieve, but didn’t — and yet, also, for me anyway, a profound sense of gratitude.

It’s true that most of us will not achieve all that we dreamed, and yet — and yet — aren’t we lucky to have known that desire? To still know that desire?

Who would not go on living?

I would, until I cannot.

Ellul on the Unreal Life

This entry is part 24 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing, after an extended break, my read-through of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World; this will be the first of likely several posts here discussing Chapter Four, simply (and somewhat misleadingly) titled “Communications.”

As citizens of the modern world, on any given day we are inundated with thousands of bits of stories and information and data — what we (and Ellul) might call “news” that we “learn” (in his day, of course, he spoke of “newspapers, TV, and radio”). This data is all very sensational, and demands our attention, unlike the humdrum routine of our actual daily experiences.

It is these phenomena — which we only hear about, learn about, see from a distance — that feel “real” to us more than the things we actually do, the people we encounter, what we actually experience. “[M]odern people, caught up in this flood of images that they cannot verify, are in no way capable of mastering them, because these images lack all coordination,” Ellul writes. “One item of news follows another without pause. An issue appears and then disappears … It is replaced by other issues and is forgotten.”

Since our attention is consumed entirely by the appearances of these phenomena, “drawn to facts that have no deep importance and constitute trivial news items … people focus their passions” on “politics, the military, the economy, the democratic system” — all of these things which we become convinced matter, although they only exist as external appearances that we do not actually experience, over which we have no control, which we can only accept as true without any sort of personal verification.

But none of us can exist only as an “unmoving eye” receiving appearances — we require some sort of coherence. And so “the more necessary it becomes to simplify … to provide the explanation and connection for all this trivial news.” These explanations, Ellul points out, “must be at the level of the ‘average reader'” — a bar which is always being lowered.

And so comes the “explanatory myth” that establishes the connections between all of the phenomena with which we are pelted. Ellul says that we usually associate an explanatory myth with an authoritarian regime — he references such explanatory myths for communism (the myth of anti-revolutionary saboteurs, the myth of Soviet-era Moscow control over other countries’ internal affairs) and fascism (the myth that Jews were enemies of the people).

But, Ellul insists, such over-arching explanatory myths are not limited to dictatorships; the explanatory myth is “an essential part of every contemporary kind of politics … It becomes the intellectual key for opening all secrets, interpreting every fact, and recognizing oneself in the whirl of phenomena.”

In our own time, we see some of this in contemporary tribalism: the explanatory myth accepted by a viewer of MSNBC versus those accepted by a viewer of Fox News; the explanatory myth of the NPR listener versus that of the Epoch Times reader.

I’m not trying to assert equivalency between these viewpoints, but only to show that they are, in fact, viewpoints. I accept that the New York Times front page is true, even though I have no way to personally verify anything reported on it. You assert, also without any evidence, that it is false.

Essentially, we have removed our own experience from what we believe to be important. We believe that important things are happening, we believe we know why they are happening, we believe these things somehow have meaning to us — even though they are not happening to us! We are not important, our personal experiences are not important: only the phenomena are important, and the myth that explains those phenomena.

As a result of our society’s requirement of belief in an explanatory myth, we are, Ellul said 85 years ago, completely separated from reality: “the major fact of our time is a kind of unconscious but widely shared refusal to grasp the real situation that the world reveals.”

The “real situation,” unchanged after so many years except for becoming, so to speak, more real, is that we are not individuals, but an audience; not agents, but consumers; not active participants, but data points to be sold and bought.

It’s not as bad as it sounds when you’re actually living in it. As Ellul writes, “This enables everyone to avoid the trouble of thinking for themselves, the worry of doubt, the questioning, the uncertainty of understanding, and the torture of a bad conscience. What prodigious savings of time and means, which can be put usefully to work manufacturing more missiles!”

How did this happen? How did we come to live inside such a “complete unreality” where our conscience is clear, where all our questions can be answered, where everything can be explained by the “countless facts and theories” in which we choose (are required) to believe? And what is the role of the thinking Christian living within this “permanent … realistic dream”?

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 24 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 24 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 24 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.”