Ellul: Walking the Talk, Redeeming the Time

This entry is part 8 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

A friend of mine who has been following along with my blog posts about Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World asked if, based on the discussion of actions in this post, Ellul was dismissive of “the way words are also actions?”

Here we come to the answer, which is no, he isn’t dismissive; in fact, he believes that the two are inseparable.

Christians and churches, Ellul said (and again, note that he sees a role for both the individual and the institution), must recognize the true spiritual reality of the world in which we live, and “seek after and preach the order of God” and that this is the work that only they can accomplish. If they don’t do this work, then everything else they do is futile. (He doesn’t say they shouldn’t do anything else. Only that they must do that which only they can do.)

Ellul wrote this book during the period of reconstruction immediately following World War II. It was essentially a global reset, a chance to build a new world order. Specifically in this work, he is addressing the events of that time, and calling for Christians and churches to focus on their spiritual work first rather than to only support what the world itself is doing. He says that everything the world was doing would only result in more disorder if the church didn’t fulfill its role.

And of course, ultimately, that’s what happened (the disorder, I mean). (Read Alan Jacobs’ book In the Year of Our Lord 1943 for a fascinating discussion of how Christian intellectuals of the time, including Ellul, attempted to steer the world toward a more “human level” and failed.)

But I don’t believe that Ellul’s guidance was only meant for the time in which he lived, or even only for specific times of global unrest or reset. Although, is there ever a time when there isn’t global unrest, or the possibility of reset? I’ve lived now through multiple eras of anticipated long-term peace that turned into fear and disorder, and I’m not that old. Anyway, I suspect as we continue in reading Ellul we will see that, despite this book’s age, many of his descriptions and definitions of modern problems remain not only relevant, but even more true (if such a thing is possible), today.

Whatever time we live in, it always requires redemption. As humans we live in “time” (not only a specific era, but “time” itself), time is enslaved, and requires redemption to be free. He brings up two Pauline passages, from Colossians 4 and Ephesians 5, and places them side by side in a table, which I will recreate here:

Colossians 4:5-6Ephesians 5:15-17
Walk in wisdom toward those who are outsideSee that you walk circumspectly, as the wise.
Redeem the time.Redeem the time.
Let your speech always be accompanied by grace, seasoned with salt.Understand what the will of the Lord is.

Studying these passages is a way to study the situation of Christians living in the world. Our time is captive and requires redemption; this redemption lies at the “pivot point between conduct (and thus the question of ethics) and preaching — between good works, which are the fruit of wisdom, and the knowledge of God’s will.” Redeeming the time is literally the center of Christian life, and “there can be no separation between preaching and behavior.”

Remember that Ellul’s explanation of the “light” role for Christians revolved around the fact that Christianity makes sense of history, providing a structure and an endpoint; without Christianity, history is just a series of random events.

Along that same line, Christians, individually and collectively, are given a unique meaning in the own time in which they live, as well as time/history overall. The redemption of time depends on Christian actions and words alike.

Which actually leads directly back to the tension in which we live. Remember, we can’t make the world less sinful, but neither can we accept it as it is. Our job is to work towards redeeming the time, by performing our specific Christian function.

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