Jacques ELLUL. Essential Spiritual Writings, selected with an introduction by Jacob E. Van Vleet. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016. pp. 183. $22.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-183-6. Reviewed by Sarah L. MacMILLEN, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282.
Orbis Books has again fulfilled the aims and scope of the house’s mystic-informed vision, with the selected writings of the 20th century French Reformed Christian and sociologist Jacques Ellul (d.1994). Jacob Van Vleet’s introduction gives a well-researched historical, social, and biographical introduction to the author and his work.
Jacques Ellul was known for having two parallel intellectual trajectories concerning modernity’s social and existential problems—that of sociology and theology. This volume’s focus is on the “spiritual” writings of his corpus. They reflect “sermons” of scriptural text pastorally applied to contemporary issues.
For the reader of this Catholic Reviews website, Ellul is definitely not a Catholic. This is especially evident in his arguments about the relationship between society and God, knowledge of God, ritual, and universal salvation. Ellul embraces the apophatic: God is unknowable (p.23-24). Knowledge cannot reach or build towards the divine—which is God’s ultimate transcendence and absence from the world. This is completely unlike the analogical thesis by theologian David Tracy, reinforced by priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley, who articulate how faith in God in Catholics creates a certain dispensation and attitude about the way Truth is reflected in things of the world, including liturgy, art, relationships, and engaging with society for justice.
Ellul’s measure for Truth is the “Word.” In fact “the Word” is a concept repeated throughout several excerpts included in this book. Again this reflects a fairly anti-Catholic disposition where the Word trumps relationships, hierarchy and church. “Church” remains in the text with a lower-case “c”. Upon reading this repeated concept, and also the other sections of the text which are homiletically responding to the ills of modern society, a sociologist of religion might wonder if he was a separatist: especially when invoking how Christ is antithetical to modernity. His sociological concept of “technique” illuminates this tension and drifts into these theological writings. Van Vleet discusses it in his introductory chapter. It is a variation on themes on instrumental rationality and alienation introduced by the social thinkers Max Weber, Ferdinand Toennies, and —not to forget Ellul’s favorite—Karl Marx.
Ellul’s work provides a Christian commentary on modern, and postmodern, times. Though Ellul did not live to see the preponderance of today’s communication technologies, nor the advent of modern terrorism, he poses this important question: how do Christians live amidst the mechanisms of power and technology, which have a tendency to work against the Gospel? His answer is one of a radical non-violence, responding to the world’s tendency toward the divisiveness of politics in a pan-technocracy (p. 67). For the student of social theory Ellul is blending Marxian strands from the atheist’s early writings, with a radically emergent Christian realism. He boldly asserts the Holy Spirit is the solution to the problems of modernity, involving not just prayer but action (pp. 56-57). Modernity’s myths of progress and politics are, in his word, the diabolical. In modern visions of progress the once classical virtues are empty of content (pp. 110-111). A result of capitalist self-interest and instrumental rationality, modernity confuses its ends and means. Economics and science become unbridled impulses, and the realm of politics is built on inequality, conflict and division.
Jacques Ellul’s faithful call to the Gospel and response to modernity gives a sincere new life to the New Testament: Christians are to be salt, light, and sheep. Literal interpretations of famous passages concerning these famous metaphors are reflective of the author’s concept of the “Word” as semiotic. Christians are to be signs.
Some parallels between Ellul’s volume and Catholic literature are found in the writing of his contemporaries: Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan. These authors also emphasized the important connection between prayer, action, and nonviolence. Though Ellul would reject an authoritative or codified Catholic Social Teaching as too “rigid” of a morality, he would agree with many of its inspirations. Overall, Jacques Ellul’s message stands as a radical call to Christians to live the Word and sign of the Resurrection in all domains—in society and in quiet—but warns that Christians are always strangers and pilgrims in the politics of the world.