Friday, April 7, 2017

Freedom, Anarchy, and the Immortal Soul

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 80
Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom and Anarchy and Christianity

Jacques Ellul became a committed Marxist during his membership in the French Resistance during World War II. Sometime following the war, he underwent a mystical experience (he left no record of exactly what happened) and converted to Christianity. These two forces, often presented as antagonistic, steered his thinking thereafter. He became a noted scholar of society, technology, and law. His pointed criticisms shaped global policy during the Cold War. But throughout, he remained his generation’s most visible Christian Marxist.

Written at the beginning of his career, The Presence of the Kingdom addresses the unique problems Christians face in the modern world. Ours is a singularly hostile age, stripping the tools we need to communicate with people as humans. Why do we allow technology to write our daily agendas? Why does communication become so muddled as our ways of speaking become clearer? This harsh world doesn't just threaten people; it jeopardizes Christians' mission to spread healing to a darkened world.

This book is basically five linked essays, in which Ellul addresses some of the most important threats to community and Christian theology. Do social philosophies help humankind, or do they add to our suffering? What does it mean for Christians to join in politics? Written during Europe’s postwar reconstruction, some of Ellul's specific references are three generations out of date, but his points remain as harrowing and poignant as they were then. This book provides a thumbnail introduction to his later, vastly complicated work.

Ellul's stark Calvinism offers a needed jolt to many American Christians, who lapse into comfy non-confrontation. His prose is  massively complex. He asks hard questions and requires his readers to think, to challenge their own dogmas. Great minds could spend years unpacking Ellul’s implications; in fact, Ellul himself did just that, devoting his career to expanding, revising, and clarifying points he first addresses here. His Christianity may seem harsh. But his point of view forces us out of the complacency we have enjoyed for far too long.

Jacques Ellul
Near the conclusion of his career, Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity condenses his lifelong philosophic theses into a concise format that provides a good overview and primer for possible future thought. Little more than a pamphlet, this volume restates Ellul’s most timeless thoughts, providing a handy summary of the logic by which he believes the Christian Scripture reveals an anti-statist bent at odds with the tendency of formal Christianity to make common cause with the powers of the earth.

Throughout this volume Ellul insists he is not trying to proselytize anyone for a point of view. Like Luther or Bonhoeffer, he mainly exhorts Christians back to their origins; he vocally insists he would make no converts. The repetition makes me suspect he protests too much, but this book is too short and introductory to change many minds. What it is likely to do is start lively, productive discussions that may allow two camps, often regarded as incompatible, to find commonalities and stop the feud that divides them both.

As a strict Calvinist in a nation losing its spiritual heritage, Ellul expresses disdain for anyone exercising dominion over others. He insists we must be cautious and selective in reading Calvin and Luther. There are some places, particularly in his exegesis of 1 Peter and of Paul, that he must perform interesting verbal gymnastics to reconcile his thesis with Scripture. He might have been better served here to take a bold approach and admit there are some things he just doesn't know.

These two volumes bracket a massively complex and inclusive career. Across nearly five decades, Ellul challenged social mores that devalued and abased human dignity. A survivor of Vichy, he wrote on the corrosive influence of propaganda; a legal historian, he expounded on the consequences of what he called The Technological Society and The Political Illusion. Throughout his career, though, Ellul remained grounded on the one moral foundation he believed Marx and Christ shared, that when one human exercises power over another, that person claims a role belonging exclusively to God.

Jacques Ellul didn't write for dabblers or dilettantes. His prose is ponderous and allusive, citing prior writings by himself and others. His prose aims to engage true believers, activists, and thinkers. Be willing to reserve a healthy measure of time before reading this book. But if you apportion that time wisely, Ellul opens up a new way of regarding our Christian mission on earth. Highly recommended for Christians, for conscientious resisters, and for intellectuals on both sides of the theological divide.

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