At the end of June, I attended the 2018 conference of the International Jacques Ellul Society, “Jacques Ellul and the Bible,” at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) was a polymath. His official job was as a professor of law and the history of institutions at the University of Bordeaux, and he was an active lay theologian in the French Reformed Church.
Although his textbooks on the history of institutions went through several editions in France, he is better known outside France for his pessimistic-sounding social critiques such as The Technological Society (French 1954, English 1964), which claim that the search for the most efficient means to a given end is crowding out the ends themselves.
In theological circles, he is known for his ethics and his biblical commentaries. More of his biblical material has come to light since his death as recordings of classes he gave for church groups have been transcribed. This was the fourth in a series of conferences that started in 2012 with Jacques Ellul’s centennial. The previous themes were “Prophet in the Technological Wilderness: A Centenary Celebration” (Wheaton, Illinois, 2012); “Communicating Humanly in an Age of Technology and Spin” (Ottawa, Canada, 2014); and “Politics without Illusion, Revolution without Violence” (Berkeley, California, 2016).
Walter Brueggemann had been scheduled to give the opening address but was advised by his doctors not to travel, so his paper was read by his son, sociologist John Brueggemann. He designed it as a counterpoint to Ellul’s commentary on Second Kings, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man. Whereas Ellul’s focus was on divine action – how God’s action is different from that of earthly rulers, giving time for the other to respond rather than dominating the other – Brueggemann focused on the contrast between the royal chronicle and the common people’s activities. He contrasts ordinary people’s ingenuity with the inability of the kings to lift people out of poverty, heal from disease, make peace, or provide food.
Brueggemann used the work of the anthropologist James C. Scott, whose description of the state in Seeing like a State has a lot in common with Ellul’s criticism of states and most other institutions in a technically-oriented society as focused on abstractions rather than persons and using these abstractions to manipulate them.
Bernard Charbonneau and Ellul
Christian Roy, who has recently finished translating Ellul’s posthumously published book Theology and Technique, presented on Bernard Charbonneau’s reading of how creation and nature are portrayed in the Bible. Charbonneau (1910-1996) and Ellul became friends in their early teens and had a fruitful intellectual relationship all their lives. Ellul came from a mixed-confession family and became a fervent Protestant; Charbonneau came from a Protestant family and became what conference speakers called a “reverent agnostic”: not claiming to believe in God, but retaining certain pious habits (such as praying the Lord’s Prayer every day) and intellectual emphases (such as the concept of incarnation).
Ellul claimed that some of his insights into the autonomous nature of technology in today’s society originated with Charbonneau. But few of Charbonneau’s works have been translated into English, and even in France, they were not well known. Roy and other Charbonneau scholars think that he will be better appreciated after his death than during his lifetime. They have found that young intellectuals who have little connection to Christianity have discovered Ellul through Charbonneau rather than the other way around.
Another of Roy’s recent translations is Charbonneau’s The Green Light: A Self-Critique of the Ecological Movement. In this book, Charbonneau interprets the creation story (contrary to some contrasts of Abrahamic religions with paganism or pantheism) as meaning that human beings do not have the right to destroy God’s handiwork and that human transcendence over nature is not absolute. It is sin, not human beings’ creation in the image of God, that leads to rapacious domination over nature.
Oratorio: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Albert Moritz’s paper discussed Ellul’s work Oratorio: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This book-length poem can be seen as a complement to Ellul’s prose commentary on Revelation, Apocalypse: Architecture in Movement.
The image of the Word of God breaking into reality – which in the prose commentary is his interpretation of the white horse, which contrasts with the red horse (war), the black horse (economic necessities), and the pale green horse (death) – is present in the poem in the image of the beggar (the Word of God in the world, acting not by power but by love) and the idea of the end in the beginning, which is also reflected in the structure of the poem.
Ellul on the Ten Commandments
I presented on Ellul’s thought and the Ten Commandments. In his theological work, following Karl Barth, Ellul interprets the commandments as promises: in the relationship with the God who gives the commandments, one will not have to kill, covet, worship idols or false gods, etc. Therefore, the Prologue to the commandments – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…” – is an integral part of the commandments.
The commandments define, in various ways, the space in which life is possible. This interpretation of the commandments combines with the distinction between the orders of “truth” and “reality” in Ellul’s thought to illuminate the relationship between Ellul’s theological and sociological work. Ellul sees the order of “truth” as having to do with values and the ultimate destiny of human beings; it is communicated by the word of a committed person. The order of “reality” has to do with things that can be seen and extended in space or existing conditions; it can be communicated by visualizable abstract data.
While writing my dissertation, I discovered that each of the Ten Commandments could be expressed as a call to keep reality open to truth. Ellul’s theological work is oriented around being receptive to the Word of God who brings something from outside existing realities. But as a sociological writer, Ellul intended to make conclusions that could be assessed by anyone, regardless of their stance on the biblical God or Jesus Christ.
There are places in Ellul’s sociological work where he talks about conditions within which life is possible. These sociological descriptions, too, can be expressed in terms of the Ten Commandments seen through the lens of the distinction between truth and reality. Life is sustainable only when one does not trust in reality as a replacement for truth, reduce truth to reality, use language in an empty way so that it no longer bears truth, and so forth.
But – and here’s the great contrast with his theological work – in Ellul’s sociological work there is no Guarantor that it will be possible to keep reality open to truth. Hence his sociological work is filled with depictions of vicious circles, such as how technology is becoming an end in itself, politics is not guided by human ends but ruled by technical efficiency, and propaganda is crowding out attention to values or even concrete facts.
The Meaning of the City
Naomi Stafford put Ellul’s book The Meaning of the City, which sets forth his interpretation of the biblical view of large cities, in conversation with the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda. Ellul sees the city as the epitome of human beings’ rebellion against God – building an environment entirely of our own making instead of accepting the environment God gives us – and for that reason, it is under a curse. Yet God does not stop there but accepts human beings’ desire to build cities, and the eschatological consummation of history is not supposed to be a simple return to the Garden of Eden but a city, the New Jerusalem.
Ellul’s own life was not one of fleeing from cities (except his time in the French Resistance during World War II) but of involvement with them. There is a constant tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Bringing these issues into the 21st century, Stafford asked, “Can Ellul’s city be inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable?” (the four characteristics of the city called for by the United Nations). She drew on Hebrews 11-13, which Ellul did not comment on, to say that Christians should keep faith and live in the city in the face of its shame. But she did not believe that urban renewal would achieve its goals without God.
While the thrust of Stafford’s paper was evangelical, the Ellul Society is not a mono-religious organization but open to scholars of whatever persuasion. In one of the discussion sections near the end of the conference, Daniel Cérézuelle, who had presented a paper on the concept of incarnation in Bernard Charbonneau’s thought, mentioned that he is not a [Christian or theist] believer, and in the course of the discussion, one of the Christian participants expressed how refreshing it was to have people talking about the Bible and thinkers without the pressure of having to check off theological boxes before entering the discussion.
Limitations of space preclude commenting on every paper. The full text of many of the papers is at http://ellul.org/2018-conference-papers/.
Photo credit: By Jan van Boeckel, ReRun Productions [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
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