Ellul on Living into the Future

This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

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.

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.