Monday, February 06, 2012

Starting a new book

I just started reading a book that has been in my cart for a long time, The Subversion of Christianity written by Jacques Ellul. Written in the mid 80's, Ellul asks a very pointed question, one that I think is obvious to all but addressed by very few. He puts the question right on page one, wasting no time at all...

It may be put very simply: How has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible, to what is indisputably the text of the law, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul? I say advisedly "completely opposite". There is not just contradiction on one point but on all points. On the one hand, Christianity has been accused of a whole list of faults, crimes, and deceptions that are nowhere to be found in the original text and inspiration. On the other hand, revelation has been progressively modeled and reinterpreted according to the practice of Christianity and the church. Critics have been unwilling to consider anything but this practice, this concrete reality, absolutely refusing to refer to the truth of what is said. There is not just deviation but radical and essential contradiction, or real subversion. (Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, pg. 3)
I think that is fascinating. Critics of the church refuse to hear the truth of what we say. Why should they? I always assume that is because of the hardness of their hearts and that certainly is true but I am coming to believe that it is also true that they don't even consider what we say because what we say has little or no bearing on what we practice. To the unbeliever with an unregenerate heart, what is often observed is a massive disconnect between what we say we believe and what we practice. We say we love one another but our love is often demonstrated in the most perfunctory way. We say we care about the poor and point to our food pantries and other charitable endeavours, boasting about how more religious states give more than less religious states but the reality shown by the church is often an image of constantly begging, cajoling and guilting church attenders into giving money that perpetuates the machinery of the organization rather than to help the poor, widow and orphan. In most ways that are visible to the world we are little more than religious versions of every other person.

When faced with external charges like that, our impulse to to rush to defend the church from the charges leveled against us. That might not be the right way to go, or so suggest Ellul...

Instead of defending ourselves against them and attempting a maladroit, useless, and contemptible apologetic, we should listen to them and take seriously what they say. For they demolish Christianity, that is, the deviation to which Christian practice has subjected God's revelation. (pg. 6)
That runs counter to our normal methodology. When the critics of the faith criticize the church, we leap to the defense to show why they are wrong rather than looking at what they are saying and considering that they are right. I am not talking about the people who troll religious news story comment threads parroting the same silliness over and over again (following a Jewish zombie, worshipping an imaginary man in the sky, etc.). I am talking about the substantive criticisms that are based in the deviations of our practice. These deviations are legitimate targets, they are legion and they are truly crippling to our witness. The fault here does not lie in our unbelieving critics but in our own failure to grasp how crucial our public, external witness truly is to our mission. We have divorced the two for far too long, talking the talk but rarely walking the walk.

Only a few pages into this book and it already promises to be a foundation shaker. I am curious to see where Ellul takes his argument but from what I have observed so far it is getting to the very core of what is wrong with our witness as the church. I am certain I will be posting more quotes before I am done!


Unknown said...

Sounds like a good read.

Aussie John said...


I was given Ellul's book at least twenty years ago.

His insights were relevant to the mire in which churchianity wallowed then, and is even more relevant to the situation today.

You will be blessed as you complete your read, and I look forward to your take on Ellul's words.