Things Fall Apart, But the Center, It Holds

This entry is part 11 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Ellul wrote Presence in the Modern World during the very tumultous post-War period of the 1940s — a revolutionary era, as he noted in Chapter 2. He himself served in the French Resistance and had first-hand experience with the conflicting ideologies of fascism, communism, and capitalism.

Despite the ongoing and protracted struggle between viewpoints (within societies, not only between), Ellul wrote that the “appearance of movement and development” was an illusion. “We are in fact in complete stasis.”

Ellul believed this to be the case because none of these “revolutionary” ideologies actually disagreed on the fundamental values of modern civilization, which he listed as “the primacy of production, the constant increase in the powers of the state and the formation of the nation state, the autonomous rise of technique, and so on.” One imagines Ellul at the end of that sentence making a vague sort of “and all this” gesture.

Ellul discusses technique and communications (propaganda) a bit further in this book, and of course he went on to explore them at great depth in multiple volumes. For now, it is enough to say that, from his perspective, civilization is following a path made inevitable by the very structures of that civilization. Any proposed revolution would merely be “surface changes” while in fact reinforcing the existing structures.

“[In order for a revolution to succeed], it would need to use the very means of today’s world. For example, in order to liberate humankind, the compliance of many people would be required; this means that propaganda would have to be in routine use. A politics of the mass would have to be instituted, because that alone can succeed today and it is useless to attempt revolution on some other basis. But if we create a mass, we cooperate precisely with these structures. To free humankind, we would start by destroying everything that still remains free in each person.

p. 20, emphasis added

The differences between parties existed, Ellul wrote, but ultimately they were only about “knowing who will take power.” The point of modern society is the assimilation of individuals into a mass, and once modern premises are accepted, only appearances can change.

Since this book was published 75 years ago, one has to wonder — as we look around the turmoil of the 2020s, wars across the globe and fierce polarization — is Ellul’s belief, that we are in stasis no matter who is in power, still tenable?

In 1989, only 41 years after publishing Presence, Ellul added a footnote to a new edition addressing this section in light of (then) more recent events. He wrote that China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s had aimed to root out Western techniques (along with the very culture of the Chinese people and their traditional social structures), but since then, “China has returned to the path of technique, productivity, economism.” In fact it certainly seems, since Ellul added this note, that China is practically defined by its embrace of technique.

Then there is the matter of Islam. Continuing in 1989, Ellul wrote that Islam “is the only power today that calls the worldwide structures into question,” and that is only because in Islam, state and religion are one. An Islamist revolution, he said, might provide the world’s first true revolutionary victory, “but at the cost of the world’s total enslavement. For Islam is equivalent to what communism was, in its will for absolute domination of the world.”

Given the prevalence of “anti-liberalism” in 21st century political debates, along with “nationalist” and “populist” movements worldwide, is Ellul still correct in his assessment? I would argue, yes.

It’s true that there are a growing number of “Christian” figures who seem envious of the whole Islamic “state-and-religion-are-one” thing, be they Catholic integralists or evangelical “dominionists.” But beyond writing books and arguing with each other, none of them have a realistic path to power in the United States. Some hold out the possibility of taking advantage of, say, the potential re-election of, and subsequent catastrophic reconfiguration of the executive branch by, Donald Trump. But Trump doesn’t care about religion; he specifically upholds technique and a rent-seeking version of capitalism as ideal; he is naked in his desire to wield an expansive power of the state against his enemies.

21st century political “polarization” is centered around mere power. Yes, parties have differences, and those differences can be quite meaningful in terms of specific policy approaches and outcomes for certain groups. But ultimately, these debates are about who will gain power and, once there, how they will stay in power, and for how long.

The companies and technologies made possible by technique and productivity (which have a far more insidious control over our daily lives even than the state) might be regulated, taxed, fined, infiltrated or in some cases, in some countries, even taken over completely by the state — but they are certainly never eliminated. (Would even an anti-liberal, anti-market government that managed to gain control in America even try to shut down, for example, social media — or would it seek to use it to its own advantage, instead?)

From the point of view of the modern state, no matter who is in control, individuals can be a mass, or they can be slaves, or both. But where does that leave Christians?

The World Is Ending Today and Yesterday and Tomorrow

This entry is part 10 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

I grew up in the 1980s being told that the world was going to end at any moment because Jesus was coming back and he was pissed. They gathered us kids together in the church hall and showed us movies made in the prior decade about people who were too stoned or otherwise evil to make the Rapture cut. We watched the hippies on-screen as they were forced to take the Mark of the Beast, which turned out to be a 666 stamped on the back of their hand like they were coming and going from a cool nightclub. As the credits rolled, all of us kids would sing along with Larry Norman:

“Life was filled with guns and war,
and everyone got trampled on the floor.
I wish we’d all been ready!”

Ah, the end times. Weren’t they fun?

It turns out the Soviet Union (I forget if it was supposed to be Gog or Magog, I never understood the difference) grew tired of waiting for its fated role in Armageddon and gave up the ghost, although perhaps Putin is having second thoughts. Those particular end times, well, ended — and we entered a new era of end times.

Because it is always, always, the end times.

In 1948, when Jacques Ellul published Presence in the Modern World, he described the tumultuous post-war world in terms that sound remarkably familiar:

“Disaster in all its forms has fallen upon the entire earth as never before. Totalitarian wars, dictatorial empires, administratively organized famines, complete moral breakdown in contexts both social (nation, family) and internal (individual amorality), the fabulous increase in wealth that does not benefit the most destitute, the enslavement of almost all humanity under the domination of states or individuals (capitalism), the depersonalization of humanity as a whole and individually … Thus, when we consider that the world is in trouble, cure is impossible, and revolution is needed, we are inclined to say that this world is apocalyptic, that it is the world of the last days.” (emphasis added)

(Chapter 2, pp. 17-18)

When I became a young adult and left my family’s church behind, I managed to slowly release the apocalyptic fear that had been ingrained in me, and replace it with … a satisfying smugness. The same sort of smugness you might witness today from “exvangelicals” or “deconstructing” Christians, or whatever the current hashtag is.

“Jeez,” I would say, “don’t you know that people have always thought they were living in the end times? Everybody wants to be last because it makes them important. What makes you think you’re so special?”

Thankfully, Ellul had no patience for this kind of silly dismissal of the very real fears of actual human beings (as opposed to the caricatures we so easily turn other people into). It is “easy to respond” that way, he said — but it is the wrong response. He wrote:

“What matters in our eyes — not the eyes of the historian, but of humankind — is not objective, material ‘reality’ but the idea that we form of it and the suffering and hope and worry of those who live within it. It is not unreasonable for the average person today to feel completely distraught. This is what matters. And besides, as Christians, it is essential to understand that each moment we live through is actually not historical but apocalyptic … The only vision that Christians can have of the world they live in is an apocalyptic one. Well aware that the present moment may not be the end of the world in the historical sense, they must act as if it were the last.” (emphasis added)

Chapter 2, pp. 18-19

Look, the whole Rapture, premillenial dispensationalism thing is just bad theology of very recent American origin, and it’s been used by people (often with good intentions, sometimes not) to engender fear and paranoia and subservience, and to support lots of really stupid political movements.

But you don’t have to believe in any of that stuff to understand that Ellul is making a valid point. If Christians take seriously the concept of the Fall, which led to the presence of death, and also the promise of a resurrected Christ that death has been overcome, then they must accept that, for them, history has already ended.

When humans naturally react to the continuously troubled times in which they live with fear and trembling, convinced that the world is on the verge of ending, then Christians should not wave away their concerns while sharing data points about how much better life is today than it was for the people of a thousand years ago, or a hundred, who had the very same fears. Shouldn’t these Christians be prepared to say: Yes, you’re right. These are the end times. Something big is going to happen.

As Ellul writes, “What counts is not the world’s actual end but that life is truly apocalyptic at this very moment.”

The apocalyptic world is what makes people sense a need for revolution, while they are also convinced that revolution is already happening. As we’ll discuss in the next part of this series, Ellul is convinced that this is a recipe for stasis disguised by chaos.

Ephemera, 9/18/23

Have been “blog silent” the last couple of weeks as I went through a rather hideous cold (which seems a very weak label for such a terrible experience). Not COVID-19, according to the tests, but something in that wheelhouse. On the whole, just very unpleasant. But I will try to resume posting here with at least some regularity.

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I need to decide what to do with these “Ephemera” posts, or whether to continue them at all. The idea was along the lines of “here’s what I might tweet if I tweeted, if Twitter still existed in any meaningful way,” but on the whole I don’t find them particularly useful (for myself, and certainly not for others). For one thing, I’m afraid I fall right into the trap of “commenting” on things that don’t particularly need any further comment.

That last sentence basically describes the Internet, and one thing I never wanted this blog to be was a place for “takes.” But it’s hard to get out of that mindset when you’re producing online content, isn’t it?

This morning, as I cleaned through my inbox and RSS feeds (and maybe this is just a result of the contemplation forced by spending ten or so days feeling like crap), I found myself once again overwhelmed and irritated by all the writers making up things to get mad about. It’s difficult to find needles of insight buried in haystacks of things like, “Stop writing about the color blue, already! Quit oppressing all the other colors!” (Seriously, though, do you know how many books have been written about the color blue?)

Of course, just writing the above paragraph is the perfect example of what I’m complaining about. You see how easily I fall into this trap. I’m pure Gen X, and I cut my teeth blogging in the mid-aughts, and it’s hard for me to resist a snarky take. Snark is what happens when you pretend to take lightly, but are actually taking too seriously, something that shouldn’t be taken seriously at all.

What happens when we actually take lightly those things that should not be taken seriously, which is almost everything? Well, I’m guessing — a more peaceful life? As Sam Bush writes at Mockingbird, while explaining how the greatest things in life, including Christian theology, are pointless: “The last time I looked, none of the fruits of the spirit were a monthly training regime. But in light of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, the joys of life can actually be enjoyed. The game has already been won — the stakes of our daily lives are much lower than we think.” (bold added)

Certainly the stakes of this blog, this little conversation with myself, are quite low indeed, and so I will focus on the things that I find personally interesting and useful, like my read-through of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, which I hope to resume soon. And less on the snark.

* * * *

Still, I think one of the most useful roles any blog can play is as a clearinghouse of links of particular interest to that particular blogger. For example, here’s a very interesting essay on James Baldwin’s Another Country and how it demonstrates the potential value of telling over showing (contra lots of generic writing advice):

We’re coy, these days, in fiction, inculcated as we are in Show, Don’t Tell. Every writer shows and tells, yet as a teacher of writing, I understand how that maxim came about when I see early writing by students that is all information, no magic.

But I also think that, as writers, we’re fearful – of being sentimental; of being obvious; of our writing being viewed, if we state an idea simply, as simplistic.

There is nothing simplistic about Baldwin’s straight-forward simplicity. Everything in Baldwin is complex.

Living in Reality

I believe I’ve mentioned Alan Jacobs’ book The Year Of Our Lord 1943 before. I think that book may be where I first heard of Jacques Ellul, even though it’s more about Auden, Weil, Eliot, Lewis and Maritain. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Jacobs in The Point magazine with interesting background on Ellul (bold emphasis added):

RK: You conclude this unlikely story with a nod to Jacques Ellul, who became one of the leading prophets and critics of the burgeoning technocratic society. Anticipating how problem-solver culture would take hold, Ellul envisioned a future starved of creativity, devoid of spiritual depth and purpose, where “children are educated to become precisely what society expects of them.” Apart from the fact that aspects of his vision seem to have come to life, why was it so important to give Ellul the final word?

AJ: Auden was born in 1907, Weil in 1909, Ellul in 1912. He’s not that much younger than them, but the difference is significant. Also, he lived in occupied France, where Weil wanted to be but couldn’t get to. During the war she was mainly in London, Auden in various parts of America, but Ellul was trying to raise food for his family, preach sermons to his tiny Reformed congregation, and smuggle Jews out of France. This was an existentially threatening time for Ellul, and it happened when he was still a very young man — so the whole war was formative for him in ways it wasn’t for any of my main characters. And perhaps for this reason Ellul saw with remarkable immediacy and clarity that the victory was not that of democracy but rather technocracy. The other five lived through a great struggle for, as they all would have seen it, the soul of the West; but Ellul came into his intellectual maturity when that struggle had been concluded. I thought it important to end with a look at a brilliant thinker who didn’t worry about whether rule of the technocratic elite could be averted, because that rule was already established, and the only question remaining, for thoughtful and serious Christians, was how to live in it.

Ephemera, 8/31/23

Justin E. H. Smith in his meandering essay on Generation X:

“In order to be a suitable candidate for redemption, a being must of course be flawed. It was long thought that to be this way was simply the general condition of humanity, but today, if you were to seek to learn about our peculiar species by studying the daily tide of social-media discourse, you could easily come away with the impression that it is the condition of only some people (roughly half of them) while the rest are consistently righteous … To identify some work of art, literature, or entertainment as problematic is not overtly to seek to censor, nor to call categorically for moral condemnation. It is simply to taint public perception, to inform readers or viewers that enjoyment of the work in question will likely result in some sort of subtle social sanctioning. It is a weasel word, employed by people who lack not only the courage of their convictions but also anything beyond convictions … “

* * * *

Along those lines, this piece claims to be against the “binary” of good and bad books, but it seems actually to be about the need for people to be nicer to other people when talking about the books they like. Ok, sure. Essentially another entry in the modern dominant genre of discourse, which can be described as, “I’m not an asshole, but boy, what about those other assholes, huh?”

There remains, in fact, good and bad (and mediocre) literature; I’ve hated some good, loved some bad, and passed the time with (and written) some mediocre. Also, the thing about human beings (see Smith’s quote above) is that we’re all assholes.

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Minor housekeeping note: since my series of notes on Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World is spiralling out of control, I’ve created a series page listing them in chronological order, including the corresponding page numbers in the book. You can also access the series from the Archives page, and in the header to each series post, which lists the number.

Ellul: The World’s Will Is Always a Will to Suicide

This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s see if I can wrap up my notes on Chapter 1 of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. In the last post, we discussed the redemption of time, and how it depends solely on Christian “behavior and preaching.”

Ellul concludes the chapter by noting that, if Christians are going to participate in the world’s preservation, they must put themselves at the point where two different wills collide: the will of the Lord, and the will of the world.

God’s will is revealed in Scripture, and it is both “judgment and forgiveness, law and grace, commandment and promise.” God’s will never changes, even if it must be explained in a way that makes sense during each era.

There are no political, economic, or social conditions through which the world can preserve itself on its own. In other words, there can be no heaven created on earth no matter how mightily we strive toward the justice that the gospel demands, because the world’s preservation depends on salvation. Ellul: “For God is not preserving the world on the one hand and saving it on the other. He is preserving it by saving it, and he is saving it by using this preservation.” (italics in original)

The will to preserve the world, and the way it will be preserved; and the will for the world’s salvation, and the way the gospel will be proclaimed — these are the same thing. Christians have to make this will “incarnate in a real world,” the present world in which we live, through actions and words alike.

This means that those actions and words must be oriented toward the actual world in which we live, not a world that no longer exists, or that we imagine used to exist. Yet even as we live fully in the present reality, and seek to reach our fellow humans also living through the same moment, we must remember that God’s will never changes.

Neither does the world’s will ever change. “The world’s will is always a will to death, a will to suicide.” If the world is not moving toward God — and it cannot be, it is burdened by sin, a fallen world — then it is moving toward death. Those are the only options. If we try to build a “City of God” here on Earth, and ignore the fact that the world is heading toward its demise, then we will fail. Remember, the world cannot preserve itself; its preservation depends on its salvation. We can’t make the world less sinful by human means.

Instead, our job is to place ourselves where this world’s suicidal will is most active, and apply our efforts toward promoting the world’s preservation and salvation right there, where it is most needed. When we do this, “we understand that the work of preaching necessarily goes along with the work of material redemption.”

We end with a more full understanding of the tension into which we must live as Christians. I read it as:

  • The world is sinful, and we can’t accept it the way it is, but neither can we make it less sinful.
  • The world’s will always leads to death, but we are still called to work toward “material redemption” and the preservation of the world.
  • We must proclaim the gospel in a way that makes sense in the context of the world’s current situation, without distorting the content or unity of God’s unchanging will.
  • We must do our work where it is needed most, living fully in the present reality as it currently exists, not placing ourselves outside of it.

Ellul says that the following chapters of the book will look at the “contemporary manifestations” of the world’s suicidal will and explore a Christian response to each. I may not note each chapter as granularly as I did this one!

Ellul: Walking the Talk, Redeeming the Time

This entry is part 8 of 19 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.

Ellul: Thoughts & Prayers

This entry is part 7 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s continue on with Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, shall we? Blog post #5, and I haven’t even finished page 12 yet!

Earlier, commenter Mike mentioned salt’s use for preservation in the ancient Near East, which was a bit of a foretaste of the next section.

As we’ve seen, Ellul believes that we must accept that we cannot make the world less sinful, but neither can we accept it as it is. This is the tension in which we must live, because we “must participate in the world’s preservation.” It is not our job as Christians to simply shrug off the world, retreat, and wait for it to pass; we “really must work toward” its preservation.

The problem is that, when it comes to saving the world, we try to do so by doing those things that the world thinks are best. Like, trying to win elections, pass legislation, or, in the global crisis most recent to Ellul’s writing of this book, going to war with Hitler.

Now, very important: Ellul did NOT think that the world should not have gone to war with Hitler. Nor did he think that Christians themselves should not have joined the military to go to war with Hitler. He states unequivocally that the world was completely right to have fought and destroyed Hitler, just as, post-war, the reconstruction efforts were also wholly appropriate and good things to do.

His point is that, by limiting their own efforts to the same efforts being undertaken by the world, the Christians were failing to do what only they, as Christians, could do. And since the underlying causes of all the world’s problems are spiritual issues, it is that which only Christians can do which can actually solve those crises.

Now, specifically speaking, what could Christians have done before and during World War II that the rest of the world could not? Well, bear with me now, one thing is: pray. He wrote:

“… in facing up to Hitler, if it is true that he represented a Satanic power, there was first a spiritual battle to wage. Prayer is what should have been decisive, but we no longer have confidence in the extraordinary power of prayer! Prayer was the exorcism that drives out demons by the Holy Spirit, the armor of faith. It is quite possible that if Christians had truly acted according to these means, while everyone else was thinking of material warfare (which was also necessary) or simply of blessing the guns, the result would not have been this horrifying triumph of the Hitlerian spirit that we see now throughout the world. The world today is reaping what Christians have sown. In the face of spiritual power, Christians called “to arms!” and fought materially. Materially triumphant, we are spiritually vanquished.

(italics in original; bold emphasis added)

So. Let me be clear that I am not generally the sort of person who is comfortable with the idea of saying something like, “Maybe World War II would have gone better, or even been avoided, if only Christians had prayed more diligently.”

But I’m also open to trying to become that sort of person, because, as Ellul points out (but which we already knew), the world’s attempts to solve its own crises continue to fail.

  • Defeat Hitler, and that’s great! But did it lead to some sort of global spiritual awakening or world peace? Well, no.
  • Defeat the Soviet Union, and end the cold war — awesome! But did it lead to some sort of global spiritual awakening or world peace? Well, no.
  • Defeat Osama bin Laden — terrific! But … well, you know.

The fact is that you can play this game for pretty much everything. We get together and solve a problem — Christians and world working together in lockstep — and nothing gets solved; somehow, things get worse. (We elected Obama, a black man, president! And then … Donald Trump.)

I think it is possible to make genuine improvements in the lives of human beings, and obviously I think we should do so, whether that’s by providing food to local families or by funding vaccine development with federal tax dollars. But every time we do make a genuine difference in one area, it seems, something else gets worse.

Let’s take, for example, something non-controversial (kidding!), like guns in America and the whole fight over “thoughts and prayers.”

To paint with a broad stripe, and I will focus only on the wings of the American church: conservatives respond to the latest shooting tragedy with “thoughts and prayers” for the families involved, and progressives sneer and demand that maybe they try doing something instead.

It seems to me, thinking from the perspective Ellul offers in this chapter, that both sides are getting a lot wrong.

For one thing, everyone knows that the sort of people who tweet “thoughts and prayers” aren’t actually praying for anything in a meaningful way. It’s something you say. It’s well-wishing, basically. Any prayers said are for the comfort of the families and souls of the murdered, which is nice, but not the same thing as praying for the Holy Spirit to exorcise the demons that are leading to these mass murders in the first place.

Whoa, did that last sentence make you wince a bit? It did me. I’m trying to imagine someone adding a line like that to the Prayers of the People at next Sunday’s Eucharist.

No, the progressives at your local mainline church will absolutely say a special prayer in the wake of a horrible shooting tragedy, but usually it will be about asking God to please give our government’s leaders “the courage” to stop gun violence.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that, in the model prayer Jesus gave us, there was not a single line petitioning God to change other people.

This kind of prayer and sentiment is evidence that our fellow parishioners have completely bought into the idea that the world’s problems are material problems, not spiritual problems, and that as Christians, they believe that their role is to advocate for material solutions to those problems. Which is not specifically a Christian role at all.

Personally, I believe that governments at all levels should be working on material solutions to the tragic issue of gun violence in America. But I’m no longer naive enough to believe that whatever solutions they arrive at will actually be a solution to senseless tragedy. And supporting or opposing a particular political solution has nothing to do with being a Christian, if non-Christians can support or oppose it, too.

According to Ellul, for those of us who desperately want these sorts of tragedies to end, praying — actually praying — for the Holy Spirit to exorcise demons is one of the primary methods by which we can preserve the world.

I certainly don’t think Christians should sneer at prayer as “doing nothing,” even if the people who claim to be praying are on the other side of a political divide.

Ephemera, 8/21/23

Yesterday’s lectionary included Matthew 15, featuring the infamous Canaanite woman and the dogs-eating-crumbs metaphor. It’s a cringe-inducing gospel that lately has been used by certain mainline preachers as a way to show Jesus experiencing a “teachable moment” about his own racism, which is really a bizarre sort of anti-Christian Christology.

In this fascinating essay, Ben Crosby reveals why so many clergy are falling into the trap of calling Jesus a sinner based on this passage, and it’s because they have apparently been taught to do so by seminary professors who insist that each book of the Bible should be read independently of all the others. In other words, if Matthew 15 reads like Jesus is committing the sin of racism, then that’s what it says and how you should learn from it, irrespective of all of the other Biblical passages pointing out that Jesus was God incarnate and thus did not sin.

I can see the appeal of this approach to preachers: if all you have to do is read a passage and think about it for a minute, you can quickly come up with a sermon that wraps up with a neat little moral at the end. But it’s a pretty useless approach for teaching your congregation an accurate theology for Christian living, which is what I think you should be doing.

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“The great hypocrisy of our skeptical age is that its greatest moral accomplishment — a moral vision founded upon universal human rights — depends on enchantment, a belief in the sacred character of human beings and life. No scientific equation or empirical test reveals this truth to us. The inviolate dignity of human persons doesn’t show up in petri dishes, brain scans, or Hubble space photographs. Our shared belief in the sacred value of human beings is not a factual, empirical, testable, observable, data-driven claim. Our dignity is an enchantment, the ghost of God still haunting the machine, and it’s the bit of supernaturalism that keeps the secular world from tipping into the moral abyss.”

— Richard Beck, Hunting Magic Eeels

Ellul: Stop Making Sense

This entry is part 6 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s keep going with Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, because by God, I want to finish it.

In the last post — well, let’s see if I can summarize Ellul thus far (and please correct me where I’m wrong):

  • Christians should live fully in the sinful world, understanding that we can neither make it less sinful, nor accept it as it is.
  • Societal problems — economic, social, political — are all caused solely by the underlying spiritual problem of sin.
  • Therefore, our role as Christians is to point other people toward the only solution to that spiritual problem, Jesus Christ.
  • One way we do this is by how we act (and react) in daily life.
  • Our actions should be tailored to specific situations, informed by a living, ever-deepening, individual faith in God, and consistent with the broad guidance of Christian ethics.
  • Christian ethics are not a “moral system,” or rules that must be followed in every circumstance. Instead, they are broad, general outlines to be considered.
  • Christian ethics are also subject to ongoing review and change by the broader church community.

Whew, ok.

Does this mean that a Christian can do, willy-nilly, whatever she claims that her faith is leading her to do? No; she still must objectively consider the implications of her actions, and that’s where ethics come in. Ethics are what we use to evaluate our actions before deciding what to do in a specific circumstance.

Now remember, this whole question of Christian ethics came up when Ellul was talking about how laypeople need to live in the world as salt (manifest God’s covenant), light (bear witness to salvation), and sheep (reflect ongoing sacrifice).

Ellul is not talking about being nice, or doing those good things that everyone would recognize as good. In fact, he says that, when we live and act in accordance with our faith and true Christian ethics, our works won’t even make any sense to the world. Everything we do should point directly to God, should only make sense “in the light of Jesus Christ.”

In other words: if your church is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving money to the poor, these are certainly good things, but are they specifically pointing people toward Jesus Christ? Do those you serve understand the difference between you and every other nonprofit, non-sectarian, community service organization? Is there a difference?

Ellul says that everything we do must be oriented toward the “combat of faith” with the world, and should result in glory to God. If we simply do what the world already thinks it would be good for us to do, then the world will have no reason to look to God.

This is a difficult concept. Most of us think that “being Christians in the world” means, for example, running a food bank, donating clothing, or, perhaps, advocating for certain legislation or political outcomes. Ellul says that none of these activities matter in and of themselves. If the world already thinks that your actions are “good,” or at least understandable, then there’s no reason to look past those actions toward God. (Your political advocacy, even dressed up in Christian language, keeps people focused on the world, not God, and won’t make the world any less sinful, or save your society from collapse, in any event.)

Now, I don’t think that Ellul is saying that we shouldn’t be feeding the hungry or fighting oppression. I think he is saying that our goal is not to solve the world’s problems, because we cannot, but to bear witness to the only one who can solve those problems.

It’s easy to volunteer at a soup kitchen, or drop off a bag of canned goods, and then just go about the rest of our day. Instead, about everything that we do, before we do it, we should be asking: is this pointing the world toward Christ? And I don’t mean in some abstract, “Maybe If I’m Nice Someone Will Ask Me Why and Then I’ll Be Sure to Mention God” kind of way.

Finally, remember that when we treat ethics as absolute guidelines or specific moral instructions, we are actually rejecting the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives.

Are we done with Chapter 1 yet? Ha, hardly. Up next: Praying for Hitler!