Imagine you suddenly found yourself transported into the world of your favorite book or film, a new character in the midst of a story whose ending you knew very well. You would be surrounded by characters for whom that ending may not even be conceivable. Accepted by those characters as one of their own, with your own agency and role to play, would you involve yourself in the story’s action, or simply stand and observe, awaiting the inevitable outcome?
This is essentially the situation in which Christians find themselves, according to Ellul, as we continue in Chapter 2. But simply observing the story unfold, smug in our own knowledge of the ending, is not the choice we are called to make. It’s not even an option for faithful Christians, Ellul says.
Essentially, Christians know that history has a direction, and they know how it’s going to end, in the coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God. “Without this direction,” Ellul writes, “history is an explosion of insanity.”
The role of Christians is to bring this eschaton into the present day. Christians are able to view current political and social realities, somewhat objectively, in the light of what is “more authentic, more real” — Christ’s imminent return. (As noted earlier, as far as Christians are concerned, the end times are always imminent.) And they are supposed to live out this reality in their daily lives.
This does not mean, as has already been said over and over again in these chapters, that Christians are supposed to try and turn the world into the Kingdom of God. It won’t work, and it’s not their role anyway — instead, Christians play a prophetic role. Note that prophets did not merely announce the coming events, Ellul writes: “Prophets are those who live out the event now and who make it real and present to the world around them.”
Which means what, exactly?
Well, so far Ellul has told us that Christians live in a state of permanent revolution — one that may indirectly lead to government or economic changes, but not “necessarily lead to direct conflict with authority” — by virtue of the fact that their ultimate loyalty lies with the Kingdom of God, and not the world. Yet they they still must live and work and act within the world’s present realities. Now we see that Christians must do this living and working and acting, with an orientation to the future — the future coming of the Kingdom of God.
Christians are not to be oriented toward the past. Ellul writes that “those who know they are saved by Christ are not people attached jealously or fearfully to a past, however glorious it may be.” (So, it’s a big “no” to the right-wing movements openly longing for the culture and economy of 1950s America, no matter how distorted their vision of that decade.)
Instead, Christians are to “judge the present time by virtue of a meta-historical fact. This fact’s intervention in the present time is the only thing capable of freeing civilization from the suffocating social and political structures under which it is slowly weakening and dying.”
In a world where we have seen that all existing institutions, parties and governments accept the underlying structures of modern civilization, then one wonders exactly how Christians can live their lives challenging these structures. And not privately challenging them, but challenging in such a way that they “make it real and present to the world around them.”
Perhaps it will become clearer as we continue with Chapter 2.