Apocalyptic Reading in a Technological World: Why We Need Jacques Ellul Today
"Future hater" or misunderstood? Meet the apocalyptic thinker who deliberately cut through empires.
In the early nineteenth century, groups of British textile workers destroyed the newer power looms and other textile machinery in protest of the working conditions at the time. This movement of workers' protests coalesced under the mythical leader, King Ludd; a character inspired by the story of Ned Ludd, an eighteenth century man who apparently destroyed two stocking frames in a fit of rage one day. Since then, those who oppose technology or alleged technological "progress" have been called "Luddites." Whether or not the historical Luddite revolutionaries have been misunderstood, today the term "Luddite" has hardened into a tool we use to brand an individual as irrationally fearful of and overly reactionary to new technologies.
Among twentieth century thinkers on the subject of technology, the French scholar Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), author of the well-known book, The Technological Society (1954), would seem to be an obvious candidate for the term "Luddite." Ellul's obituary in the New York Times quotes Alvin Toffler, author of Futureshock, who described Ellul as "one of the most extreme" of "a generation of future haters and technophobes." And Ellul does not make it easy to avoid such judgments. Near the end of The Technological Society, Ellul, in emphatic fashion says,
Enclosed within his artificial creation, man finds that there is "no exit"; that he cannot pierce the shell of technology again to find the ancient milieu to which he was adapted for hundreds of thousands of years. . . . In our cities there is no more day or night or heat or cold. But there is overpopulation, thralldom to press and television, total absence of purpose. All men are constrained by means external to them to ends equally external. The further the technical mechanism develops that allows us to escape natural necessity, the more we are subjected to artificial technical necessities.
It is then with some irony that Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly begin their book, Understanding Jacques Ellul, with this verse by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
"Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric."
And then coyly remark, "Jacques Ellul is one of the looms of the last one hundred years." With this subtle wink to the reader, Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly signal a central contention in their book: Jacques Ellul has been misunderstood. Ellul was not a Luddite who simply sought to destroy the proverbial textile looms of society; rather he was an expansive thinker whose specifically Christian beliefs and convictions led him to think about and relate to technology (and media, government, the economy, the city, and other major social institutions) in novel and complex ways that defy easy categorization or understanding. According to the authors, we will only understand Ellul's critique of late-modern society if we appreciate the ways in which his commitment to Christian belief, in particular, informed and shaped the method and content of his life and scholarly work.
As they highlight in their opening biographical overview, in many respects Ellul was an outsider. Unlike other intellectuals, Ellul grew up in poverty. He was from the provinces of France, not Paris, and though he only wrote in French, his work was and is most popular in the United States. As a young man, he experienced two major turning points in his life: reading Karl Marx, whose own methods of expansive, critical social analysis would have a deep impact on Ellul, and his conversion to Christianity. Even as a Christian, Ellul seemed to maintain his outsider status. In a historically Roman Catholic country, Ellul joined the small Reformed Protestant church, and even within the Reformed tradition he was critical of John Calvin and instead more influenced by Karl Barth.
Ellul's intellectual output over the course of his life was staggering; he authored more than fifty books and a thousand articles on a broad array of subjects, ranging from a three hundred page commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, to a sociological study of propaganda, to an analysis of the meaning and significance of the city. Yet, Ellul was not merely an observer and commentator of present and historical society, he was also distinctly involved in it. During World War II, Ellul took part in the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France and helped Jews to escape the Holocaust. After the war, he served briefly as a city administrator in Bordeaux, was president of an organization that worked with and advocated for marginalized youth, and participated in an environmental organization that sought to protect the Aquitane region of the French coast. Ellul also took on the responsibilities of a lay pastor of a small Protestant church that had otherwise lost its leadership and served as a member in the National Council of the French Reformed Church. As the authors observe, although Ellul is often emphatic in his writings about the broken condition of present society and the futility of strictly human endeavours to achieve salvation, he nonetheless advocates for and occupies that curious, Christian position of "in the world, but not of it."
Indeed, a critical conviction and theme in Ellul's writing is that Christians should serve as faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ in the midst of present society. Ellul's emphasis on being a faithful instead of successful witness is important. Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly note that,
For Ellul, Christians are called to faithfulness rather than success. The task of the church is not to bring in the kingdom of God. . . . The kingdom of God marches toward us; we do not march toward it. While we await the coming kingdom, our task is to faithfully symbolize and signify what the kingdom of God is like. . . . An overarching commitment to success compromises faithfulness. It involves the presumption that we know perfectly what ought to be, and that we should bring about those conditions no matter what the cost.
Besides revealing a distinctive posture of humility in Ellul's calls for action, Understanding Jacques Ellul reveals a Christian thinker who often thought and wrote in an apocalyptic register. Here "apocalyptic" is not meant to connote doomsday predictions, but rather the biblical apocalyptic literature described by James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, as "a genre of Scripture that tries to get us to see (or see through) the empires that constitute our environment in order to see them for what they really are." As an apocalyptic thinker and writer, Ellul sought to reveal the deeper truths behind and amid everyday existence, and accordingly a central endeavour in his work is to cut through or unveil the false promises of peace and satisfaction that technology and other major social forces offer us. But Ellul did not deconstruct the organizing social systems in an ad-hoc manner; rather, he took his bearings from the future kingdom of God revealed in Scripture and made present through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. However, this is not always explicit.
The authors of Understanding Jacques Ellul note that, in Ellul's substantial body of work, there are two main categories of writing: Ellul's social theoretical works (such as The Technological Society, Propaganda, The Political Illusion, and The Humiliation of the Word) and his theological works (such as The Meaning of the City, Money and Power, The Ethics of Freedom). While the theological works explicitly lay claim to Christian belief and frameworks of analysis (such as idolatry, justification, and so on), Ellul's social theoretical works make little or no explicit appeal to Christianity. Reading only Ellul's theological works or only his social theoretical works is likely to leave the reader with a skewed perspective of Ellul. It is then a strength of Understanding Jacques Ellul that it offers readers a broad survey of Ellul's writing. Each chapter in the book considers a different major topic (technology, communication, the city and urbanism—an especially clear and insightful chapter—politics and economics, scripture, and ethics) and examines several of Ellul's works that relate to that topic. The authors are thus able to draw attention to the larger conversation that Ellul is carrying out over the course of his writing concerning the difference that Christian belief makes in understanding and living in this present society.
For example, one of Ellul's sociological works, The Technological Society, casts technologies and the organizing patterns of technology (what Ellul called "technique") as a monolithic force of efficiency running roughshod over human existence. Left there, Ellul's analysis of modern technological society is bleak and discouraging. However, Ellul never intended his social theoretical works to stand completely apart from his theological works. In a fascinating insight, Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly claim that, "for Ellul, hope is the place where the two sides of his correlative work meet. His social theoretical work offers no genuine hope, creating a crisis for the reader, while his theological work offers hope in God's new creation." In this pattern, we see the strategy of an apocalyptic thinker who deliberately cuts through the empires that constitute our environment in order to reveal the more profound truth that frames this present reality. Interestingly, though, he does not do this in a single book but rather over the unexpected scale of several books.
On a practical level, as the authors emphasize in their excellent final chapter, this means that readers will need need to patiently read several of Ellul's works so as to glimpse the unfolding dialectic that takes place, especially between the social theoretical works and the theological works. Indeed, as they quote Ellul himself, "I have not actually written a wide variety of books, but rather one long book in which each 'individual book' constitutes a chapter. It's a gamble and a little insane to believe there will be some readers patient enough to see how my work . . . hangs together." This book's short introduction to Ellul's body of work should give readers some of the tools necessary to actually read Ellul himself and even more to be willing to see how things do, in fact, "hang together."
Thinking a bit more broadly, though, we might also observe that in setting forth ideas over the unexpected scale of several books, Ellul follows in the footsteps of other prominent thinkers, including Socrates/Plato, Jesus, and Kierkegaard, who have each in different ways recognized that pursuine the truth often requires a certain obliqueness in approach. And herein we glimpse an important strategy for doing public theology in this present technological society.
According to Ellul, technology/technique self-propagates by creating increasingly favourable conditions for its continued adoption and development. Ellul focused in particular on the way in which propaganda perpetrated through modern mass media serves as a specific technological tool by which to, as the authors of Understanding Jacques Ellul put it, "integrate humans into a dehumanized world, to adapt them to the technological society." A ready and current example of this is way in which Apple is able to generate enormous, favourable attention from the press surrounding the future release of a new electronic device or software operating system, thereby subtly beginning to prime consumers to rabidly anticipate and desire a product that they never knew they needed before. The pattern is pervasive, and human desires, hopes, goals, and practices are relentlessly subjected to the possibilities and limitations of new technologies. In a provocative though underdeveloped point, Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly highlight Ellul's insight that Christians, in striving to bear faithful witness to the ministry of Christ and the kingdom of God, must be shrewd lest their testimony be co-opted by the possibilities, tendencies, and limitations of technological systems, such as propaganda. Looking then for a strategy of resistance, we might be able, by approaching the truth of things from an unexpected angle or scale, as Ellul does, to disrupt the hotly anticipated possibilities, well-worn tendencies, and subtle limitations of daily technological existence and strive to maintain an authentic Christian witness.
Of course, this raises critical questions. How do we develop the skill of pursuing truth accurately but from a slightly different angle or scale? More specifically (given that many of you are reading this review in its electronic format on a website that is broadcasted from a remote server that is part of vast network of servers that facilitates the immensely complex and powerful technological system of the Internet), how do we learn to do this while conscious that we are already thoroughly involved in and shaped by this present technological society?
Reading Jacques Ellul at length may not only be important for understanding the meaning of what Ellul was trying to convey, but the actual practice of reading substantial portions of Ellul's body of writing could serve as a critical skill in learning to live and think outside of the dominant patterns and tendencies of modern technological society, and thereby maintain a margin of maneuverability to pursue and present the truth of things from an unexpected scale or angle. That is, the practice of reading a single thinker, such as Jacques Ellul, in depth over a long period of time offers a powerful rebuttal to contravening tendencies in society that encourage us to consume increasing amounts of fragmented and fleeting pieces of information. In particular, the patience necessary to read a thinker such as Ellul is a virtue that is decidedly at odds with the virtue of speed that is peddled and pushed on today's electronic social networks. A growing arsenal of digital screens and constant connectivity finds us always standing somewhat removed from this present moment and place, wandering with at least one eye or finger from texts, alerts, notifications, emails, phone calls, or websites, and back again to our dinner conversation with a friend, a family member, a spouse. But the patience cultivated in reading an expansive thinker, such as Ellul, who demands our attention and critical faculties affords a different posture; no longer do we lean back and away, always ready for the next screen, but instead, we learn to lean in to the depth of the human person glimpsed within the text and who strives to establish a dialogue with us across the space of paragraph-long thought, pauses in commas, and silence marked by periods. It seems that precisely from this slightly odd posture of leaning in when everyone else is leaning out and away that we are better positioned to see the truths that exist just beyond the realm of raw facts. That is, we might be better positioned to think in an apocalyptic register, which seems remarkably similar to the traditional posture of prayer.