October 2016 Feature Article
This year marks the 50th anniversary of two landmark books in English by the provocative French Christian thinker Jacques Ellul. His profound analysis of the underlying social and spiritual forces shaping our age in The Technological Society and Propaganda were widely respected outside as well as inside religious circles.
After becoming a Professor of Law and Institutions, he developed a wide-ranging critique of society and culture based on sociological and theological perspectives. Ellul’s insights into the way our preoccupation with technical solutions and new technologies would increasingly supplant other forms of problem-solving and relating, and of the extent the media and propaganda would increasingly influence all kinds of communication, were breathtakingly farsighted.
During his life Ellul published over 50 books. These included a series of striking expositions of several biblical writings. In other works he was critical of the way churches and theology had been subverted by the forces shaping society. In The Presence of the Kingdom he outlined the way thoughtful Christians should approach their wider responsibilities in the world. He wrote:
“Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo”. As such “we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”
The problem is that we have lost our edge. More biblically inclined Christians have largely settled for a privatised faith based on the church and family. More liberally oriented Christians tend to conform too much to the issues and ideologies of the wider society. What is really needed is for us to develop a full-scale vision of life, encompassing every aspect of what we do, that springs out of our faith in Jesus Christ as revealed through the Scriptures.
Ellul argued that it is less important to have views about, or to take up a definite economic or political position, than to create a consistent and distinctive way of life. The early Christians developed this. So did believers during the Reformation. We need a similar movement today.
“The whole of life is concerned in this search. It includes the way we think about present political questions, as well as our way of practising hospitality. It also affects the way we dress and the food we eat … as well as the way we manage our financial affairs. It includes being faithful to one’s wife as well as being accessible to one’s neighbour. It includes the position we ought to take on current social and political questions, as well as the decisions which relate to the personal employment of our time … Absolutely everything, the smallest details which we regard as indifferent, ought to be questioned, placed in the light of faith, examined from the point of view of the glory of God.”
How can this come about? According to Ellul, we must resolve to do three inter-related things:
(1) to wake up and become more sharply aware of what is really happening around and within us.
This means looking beyond what is given to us trough the media and hand-held devices. The news and messages we receive through the day are mainly about secondary matters, coloured by the world’s illusions and values, and permeated by political or personal ‘spin’. The deeper forces shaping both ourselves and our times remain largely hidden. Discerning what is taking place below the surface will only come if attentive prayer and mediation is also part of the search.
(2) to listen to our own and others’ inner selves to detect the personal effects of what is shaping our world.
This reveals more specific and profound insight into the forces at work in our society than we get from the news, reports, polls or statistics. But it requires greater self-examination and deeper interaction with others than we are used to. This enables us to work out, for example, how much our technical devices – some of which we check two or three hundred times a day – are changing the way we think, speak, relate and behave. We cannot fully achieve this, however, without drawing on the Holy Spirit’s ability to search the deepest recesses of our minds and hearts.
(3) to act locally even though we think globally, helping to transform that part of the world closest to us.
It is Ellul who coined this popular phrase. Only through engaging in our work and play, community and civic life, where we live that most of us can have the greatest public influence. It is precisely there that we confront decisions affecting conscience, issues others find discomforting, opportunities to make a difference. It is there that we can most challenge the illusions that tend to bind people, inventions that seek to enslave human beings, and destructive or even demonic forces in our society
Creating such a style of life is a corporate as well as individual work.
- It must be a part of everyday family life. – a topic of conversation with children over meals, joint decisions between husband and wife, private as well as public behaviour.
- It should also be a central part of what local churches are about. They need to create communities within them where members can explore life’s responsibilities and changes, pray and search the scriptures about these, encourage and support each other to live out this new style of life. In doing so they will learn how to relate, manage conflict, handle money, deal with political agendas, indeed develop a style of life that provides clues for the wider society.
- It ought be at the heart of what christian groups based on the work place, sporting activities, and social action discuss and undertake. It also requires the help of Christian institutes, centres and think-tanks which contain special expertise in envisioning a distinctive whole-of-life vision of how faith can leaven and transform the world in which we live.
Ellul’s own life provides a model of what he wrote. Though a layman he founded a small church in his locality alongside his denominational commitments. He initiated informal vacation classes for interested students as well as regular University courses. He worked among troubled youth in his neighbourhood and served as Deputy Mayor in the city of Bordeaux. He was a member of the local resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War and was the first to bring the plight of the persecuted Kurds to the attention of the Western world.
A distinctive style of Christian life, he argued, alone has the innovative and explosive force to make a difference in the world today, potentially affecting every part of human life, society and culture. It was also the only way that Christianity today could once again have a compelling point of contact with the world from which to proclaim the Gospel.
Robert Banks is a biblical and practical theologian, based in Australia but with teaching experience in universities and theological colleges in Europe, North America and Asia. He has written a number of books on such biblical themes as God the Worker, Jesus and the Law and Paul’s Idea and Community, He has also written or co-authored others on The Tyranny of Time, Private Values and Public Policy, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity and Re-envisioning Leadership.