Started reading Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World a while back and set it aside because I had to read some Kierkegaard for a couple of Catherine Project groups, and I can only take so much. After those months of strenuous mental exercise, I’m returning to the Ellul and it feels a tiny bit lighter, like picking up a 50 lb weight after months of picking up 75 lb weights every day. (Or whatever weight analogy might make sense here, I don’t know.)
I’ll be posting some notes as I make my way through Presence — notes in the broadest and quickest sense possible; I’m not aiming for essays here.
According to the foreword to this edition by Ted Lewis, this is the foundational text in Ellul’s surprisingly large oeuvre. It combines both his sociological insights — the thoughts later expanded in such works as Propaganda and The Technological Society — with his theological vision. He was apparently unhappy that people were not reading these two types of works in dialogue with each other, since that is how he wrote them:
“On the one hand he was unveiling a dark vision of technological totalitarianism that pulls every facet of Western culture (and every person) into its vortex; on the other hand, he was presenting a theological vision where human freedom and responsibility could lead to a hopeful future.” (Ted Lewis, foreword)
According to the first chapter, “The Christian in the World,” that “hopeful future” may depend on your perspective. The world is “heading toward death” and the role of Christians, on a planet not our home, is not to change the world’s trajectory but to serve as signposts for those who still cling to it.
Christians “are not called on to select the human activities that they consider good and then participate in them.” Christians have a “specific function” as Christians that is decisive for the world’s fate.
Ellul locates three images from the Bible — You are the salt of the earth, You are the light of the world, I send you out as sheep among the wolves — and states that these metaphors, despite being actual metaphors, are not “similes or special terms to use when speaking of Christians,” they are “not figures of speech or pretty pictures.”
They are also, he says, not possibilities for Christian life; they are what we are here to do, how we are meant to live.
- “Salt” is the sign of the Covenant, according to Leviticus. First and foremost, we are here to show the world that there is an alternative to the death toward which it is hurtling. If we are not here to demonstrate and point to God, then the world will not know that there is a God.
- Christians shine the “light” on history and make sense of it all. Christianity provides the logic of history, which is otherwise just a series of random events. We are a sign of the end toward which all is headed, where God has already won.
- Christians are not to be wolves, seeking spiritual dominance; they are to be sacrificial “sheep” and accept the domination of others. “They are sheep not because their action or sacrifice has a purifying effect on the world, but because in the world’s midst they are the true, living and ever renewed sign of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.”
In just these first few pages Ellul has staked out a very counter-cultural claim — counter to not only the broader culture but also certainly to the Christian culture in the U.S. I’m reminded of Kierkegaard (still percolating in my mind) and his scorn for the Christendom of his day. A century later and Ellul was just as derogatory towards the church of his time (which sounds similar to the church of ours).
If Christians do not fulfill their specific function as Salt/Light/Sheep, Ellul says that “they are not fulfilling their role and are betraying Jesus Christ and the world also. Christians can always strive to do good works and exhaust themselves in religious or social activity, but this will signify absolutely nothing if they do not accomplish the one mission that Jesus Christ charges them with specifically — to be, first, a sign.” (emphasis added)