As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) inÂ Ministry to Emerging GenerationsÂ (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.
The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd Edition
Jacques Ellulâ€™s The Technological Bluff (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990) and The Technological Society (New York City, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964) offered excellent conversation starters for my labors at Carnegie Mellon University. What a surprise to find in The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd Edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmes & Howard Publishers, Inc., 1989), the foundation for Ellulâ€™s perspective.
In 1946, Ellul gave four lectures on â€œthe Christian in modern societyâ€ at the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey. Birthed by the call to rebuild France after World War II, Ellul wrestled with the tension between resting upon Godâ€™s provision and active political engagement. Romans 12:2 informed the book adaption.
So I asked myself the question: If we are to take this decisive verse seriously, what, then, might be the attitude, the â€œstand,â€ in the world, for the Christian? (xiii)
William Stringfellow comments in the Forward to the 1967 edition:
Ellul laid down the perspective from which his subsequent penetrating criticism of society would be made. In a real sense, The Presence of the Kingdom is Jacques Ellulâ€™s most astonishing book. . . . breathtakingly farsighted . . . in Ellul one finds that ideas and acts are so integral one to the other that his decisions and actions in actual life are an incarnation of what he thinks and writes. . . . Americans live, both in their society and in the churches of this society, so insulated from the gospel, therefore so distorted in the region of ethicsâ€”and in that most esoteric precinct called theological ethicsâ€”that we had better listen to the extraordinary witness that is Jacques Ellul (xv, xiv).
In the Introduction to the 1989 edition, Daniel Clendenin walks through the development of Ellulâ€™s Marxist-Christian dialectical lens:
Although Ellul never joined the Communist Party, like Marx he remained convinced that understanding the material forces of society holds the key to interpreting our world. For him the constituent element of the society is technique, and he suggests that if Marx were alive today he would study it and not money. . . . Marx and Jesus Christ [after a radical conversion] from Ellulâ€™s two â€œreal sourcesâ€ and catalyzed a lifelong dialogue:
I thus remained unable to eliminate Marx, unable to eliminate the biblical revelation, and unable to merge the two. For me, it was impossible to put them together. So I began to be torn between the two, and I have remained so all my life. The development of my thinking can be explained with this contradiction (xxii-xxiii)
According to Clendenin, The Presence of the Kingdom is â€œan introduction to his entire corpusâ€ and â€œthe necessary primer for all Ellul studyâ€ (xxxviii).
[H]istory is open . . . there is an ambiguity in its direction that depends in a radical way upon the choices people make. . . . today we live in the seventh day of creation [and we are to walk in] the Christian way, which refuses to separate means and ends. In Jesus Christ the means and the end are joinedâ€ (xxxviii-xl).
Ellul opens â€œChapter 1: The Christian in the Worldâ€ with Godâ€™s call for Christians to be salt, light, and sheep in the midst of wolves. He declares, â€œA major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin. Everyone bears the consequences of the faults of othersâ€ (6). Ellul gives the direct application of nations at war, but extends this concern to â€œall social situationsâ€ and that Christian perfection in such a world is an â€œillusionâ€ (6). What is our hope? â€œ[T]hroughout the course of history God uses material meansâ€”in other words, he acts by his Spirit through human instrumentsâ€ (11). Ellul argues for the laityâ€™s â€œcontact between the ideologies of the world in which he lives and theologyâ€”between economic realities, and the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for those realities, which cannot otherwise be altered in the sight of Godâ€ (11).
The combating of Satanic powers (e.g., Hitler) is material and spiritual requiring prayer. Christians must not forget that the â€œwill of the world,â€ which is to death and suicide must be countered by â€œRevolutionary Christianityâ€ offering the story of life. Christianity in a permanent state of slow, deep revolution rising out of the Lord Jesus Christâ€™s stand against â€œthe great modern divinity, the Moloch of fact,â€ which is what has even broken the revolutionary power of socialism (32, 42, 27, 29). To resist cultural absorption, Christians â€œmust turn to Godâ€ praying for the Holy Spiritâ€™s revolutionary force, grow in knowledge of the world, and create a Christ-centered style of life leading to a new civilization (italics in original, 46).
In â€œChapter 3: The Ends and the Means,â€ Ellul confronts the loss of end and truth in a â€œfactâ€ and means (i.e., useful technique) â€œprogressâ€ driven culture. â€œEverything that succeeds is good; everything that fails is badâ€ (57) afflicts not only Communism and Socialism, but also the Christian tradition when it fails to act out of the heart guided by faith (76). â€œâ€˜Seek ye first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all things shall be added unto youâ€™ (Matt 6:33)â€ (78).
In â€œChapter 4: The Problem of Communication,â€ Ellul underscores the importance of the Christian intellectual (guided by the Holy Spirit) in destroying myths, finding objective reality, grasping reality on the human level, looking at present problems as profoundly as possible, and engaging the world (98-100). Ellul begins â€œChapter 5: Prologue and Conclusionâ€ by underscoring that his â€œaim was not to give ready made solutions, but only to open the way for a work of the renewed church.â€ (113). â€œWe need a revolutionâ€â€”â€œa new style of lifeâ€â€”because of â€œthe fundamental weakness of our evangelizationâ€ to penetrate â€œinto the reality of human lifeâ€ leading people to â€œseek other solutions, listen to other promises, to other gospelsâ€ (118, 120, 114). What will enable the people of God to overcome, even in contemporary conflicts shared by Ellul in the afterward given in 1989, e.g., anti-colonialism, Cultural Revolution of China, Islam? Christ aloneâ€”a Lord who transforms by Spirit and intellect, including sufficient political maturity to come to the table.
About the author:
Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the Northeast Regional Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). For a number of years, the Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine was the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!