Recent Review I wrote on an interesting book and author.
Rarely have I taken as long to read a book as I have in working through this one. The content demanded reading, re-reading and pauses to consider what was being said. Make no mistake, this is a book that requires careful and attentive reading to hear what it is saying as well as to discern what it is not saying.
Jacques Ellul was a prolific writer in his native French and more of his works are being translated into English. He is known to most as a philosopher and in particular for his deterministic approach toward technology and its impact upon individuals and society. Ellul however, was a Christian Anarchist too, who had a great deal to say about personal faith, the true nature of the church and the societal, cultural and historical changes that have taken place. The term Christian Anarchist is one that remains grossly misunderstood by many. This is not anarchism in the sense of 18th and 19th century political anarchism. This is in many ways a return to early Christianity and the early churches recognition that relationship and a personal walk with Christ was far more to be desired and in fact was antithetical to a walk based upon obligation and external social pressures toward conformity with an established norm. At its heart it is a return to Christ's direct teaching and strong aversion to the religion of the Pharisees of his day who focused upon the external appearance and had nothing to do with the Kingdom Christ had to establish.
It is really from this that the entire premise of this book springs. Ellul draws a stark distinction between the faith Christ delivered once and for all (Christianity) and what it has become over time due to the influences of Greek Philosophy, Roman Law and many other societal trends over time and in the present age (Christendom.) Christendom, Ellul states, has largely departed from, and indeed is many instances is diametrically opposite that which Christ originally taught and modeled.
Keep in mind that this book was originally written in 1984 in French. This translation of Ellul's 40th book came in 1986. Despite the more than 25 years that have passed since it's being written and the great upheavals and exponential technological change, this message is still very timely and contemporary.
The book itself moves in broad themes to demonstrate the radical changes in the understanding of the basics of Christianity. After initially defining the contradictions that he observed in the first chapter Ellul then moves systematically though several influences outside of the core teaching and relationship model of Christianity that he sees as particularly key. The contradictions noted include,
* the denial of progressive revelation in theory but the practice of progressive changes of interpretation.
* the ongoing struggle of grace and law and the creative and myriad ways that grace is diminished while law is promoted.
* the continued synthesis of cultural and societal values into the core of the Christian religion which in the end comes to reflect society rather than being a change agent within it.
* the foundation of Christ's clear teachings and simple message undermined by Greek Philosophy, Roman Law and turned into an "ism".
* the clear teachings of Christ rationalized away in favor of an intellectually consistent, but content-wise opposite message watered down with the original message cast aside.
With the problem thus defined, Ellul moves on to address how the current forms of Christendom have been arrived upon. The principle elements focused upon is Christianity's historic alignment with political power in direct contradiction to the teachings of Christ about such compromise and use of earthly means to attempt to bring about spiritual results. In a very cursory manner, Ellul covers many of the elements of the paganizing of the church that are covered in far greater detail in Frank Viola and George Barna's Pagan Christianity. Included in these forms is the tendency to moralize or move to legalistic checklists to define how true a person's religion is or may be. The emphasis upon money and wealth in the western church context along with the alignment of Christendom with different forms of governmental theory to prove, after the fact, the validity of the current societally in-vogue economic theory whether that be LaisseFaire capitalism or Marxism, to give but two.
From here then Ellul begins to paint in broad themes through chapters that continue to build upon the foundation laid. He moves from forms within Christendom illustrating his point and then to some of the overlying societal influences that have shaped Christendom into what it is today in the western world especially.
Most of the chapters can actually stand on their own as essays on each individual element addressed. The issues touched up include:
* The artificial distinction between the "sacred" and "secular" in institutional religion.
* The false equation of Christianity with Morality.
* The role of women within society and the church.
* The historical influence of Islam back upon Christendom.
* The perversion of Christendom intertwined with political power.
* The progression of Nihilism in response to societal woes and the themes of it within organized Christianity.
* The heart of why Christianity as a religion is diametrically opposite to historical Christianity as delivered by Christ and received by the early saints.
* The influence of "Dominions and Powers" behind the scenes. (This has to be read to be understood ... it's not what Christians today, would expect it to be.)
* A conclusion that recognizes that despite the broad trends, a remnant or core still remains of faithful people who "get it" and walk outside of and despite the broader perversions and trends that plague organized religion.
Ellul has proven to be an extremely challenging and beneficial read for me. In fact a read that can be said to be pivotal in many understandings that I am currently relearning. Make no mistake, though, Ellul is not a traditional or an easy read. I found elements of things that I'm not in complete agreement with as well. For example, Ellul holds to a form of Universalism and some of his examples of the Trinity come close (or maybe even cross into) modalism. Ellul's personal history as a young Marxist before he came to Christ as well as the context he writes from with the church in France as his experiential model don't line up with everything "neatly" that an evangelical American can relate directly to perhaps.
All these things aside however, this is a powerful read. I strongly recommend it.
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Dogmatism is the comfortable intellectual framework of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is more decadent than the worst sexual sin. ~ Dan Allender