Jacques Ellul

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jacques César Ellul (ehl-luhl) was one of the most provocative and prolific writers among twentieth century French intellectuals. He was born on January 6, 1912, in Bordeaux, France, the son of an impoverished Serbo-Italian father and a French mother. Although forced to support himself by age sixteen, Ellul performed brilliantly in school, earning degrees in history, sociology, and law.

At age nineteen, he read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867-1894).“I plunged into Marx’s thinking with an incredible joy,” he recalled.“I had finally found the explanation.” Marx taught him lasting lessons, especially the dialectical method of analysis, and he briefly belonged to the Communist Party. He believed, however, that Marx did not have the answers to the existential questions of life, death, and love. Ellul began reading the Bible and in 1932 experienced “a very brutal and very sudden conversion.” He then joined the French Reformed church. Ellul refused to choose between Marxism and Christianity, incorporating into the foundations of his intellectual life a dialectical interplay of these contradictory totalities.

In 1937 Ellul received a law degree but decided to teach, since that would allow him to work with the young. With Fascism growing in Europe, he joined the Popular Front in 1936 and participated in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. During World War II he supported his family by farming and joined the resistance. In 1944 he became professor of law at the University of Bordeaux, and he was deputy mayor of Bordeaux from then to 1946.

Ellul continued his political and social reform activities as the war ended, but while he remained a committed political activist, he expected little positive result from any activity that had to be carried out through an organization. The reason for his pessimism can be seen in his influential book The Technological Society. Ellul did not concern himself narrowly with machines and technology, but with “technique,” the rational and efficient methods of activity in politics, administration, religion, law, and all other fields of human endeavor. Technique eliminates the spontaneous and nonrational from human affairs. Modern humanity is oriented toward technical progress, he maintains, and technique grows at a geometric rate. According to Ellul, technique has no moral or idealistic goals, and an evil-producing technique cannot be made better by placing it in the hands of better people.

Ellul explored the implications of technique in studies of propaganda, administrative and legal systems, politics, and the environment. His primary work, however, was in theology. Many theologians see modern humanity’s life in the “technological city,” brilliantly described by Ellul, as resulting in God’s death—death in the sense that God has become irrelevant.

Ellul’s theology confronts that condition. Like Karl Barth, Ellul wanted to demythologize the world, a world in which humanity’s religious needs have imbued technique with sacredness, making it a religion. Ellul believed that, through Jesus Christ, God confronted individual Christians with questions, not with answers. The honest answer to God’s challenge places people in contradiction with their technologically shaped world, a contradiction that can be neither reconciled nor escaped; it can, however, be freeing. Humans achieve freedom...

(The entire section is 774 words.)