Jacques Ellul was a brilliant thinker, writing in both sociology (The Technological Society) and theology (The Presence of the Kingdom). His works are not fun to read, if anything, they nearly leave you hopeless. Some writers will paint a dark picture of the world and then end on a hopeful note, listing what we can do to fix it. I come away from Ellul’s work wondering if there are structures built into our culture that increasingly preclude us from taking the call of Jesus seriously.
I mean, sure, we call ourselves Christians. But that mostly often just means we rush into grace as an excuse to not take the actual teaching of Jesus seriously. But, you might say, that is cheap grace! Congratulations, you’ve read your Bonhoeffer! Ellul leaves me wondering if in the lived, real world, there is any, what Bonhoeffer would call, costly grace remaining?
As I have been going through this list, I read Ellul’s first book, The Presence of the Kingdom. I wish I had read this one before reading his others, as in it he sets out the plan for his life work. Having read his other books, so much clicked into place. Things I had not grasped well all of a sudden made sense. So if you’ve never read Ellul, start with this one.
That said, my favorite book of his is Propaganda. It fits in well with the dystopian novels of the mid-20th century, as if it is the theory behind books like Brave New World and 1984. In it Ellul almost appears prophetic, writing about things that have become even more stark in the social media world. Here’s a taste:
“Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. They learn more and more that their group is right, that its actions are justified; thus their beliefs are strengthened. At the same time, such propaganda contains elements of criticism and refutation of other groups, which will never be read or heard by a member of another group…This double foray on the part of propaganda, proving the excellence of one’s own group and the evilness of the others, produces an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society…Thus we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly views his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks and nobody listens”
“To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; be is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events…And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented”
This is the book that convinced me Ellul is a prophet and is the reason I will read more of his work, as well as rereading it again and again.