Category Archives: Jacques Ellul

‘Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World,” or why no one really listens

The late French Protestant leader Jacques Ellul in his book Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World

“They comply unfailingly with the law and the commandments. They are unbending in their convictions, intolerant of any deviation. In the articulation of belief they press rigor and absolutism to their limits. They precisely delimit the frontiers between believers and unbelievers. They unceasingly refine the expression of their belief and seek to give it explicit intellectual formulation in a system as coherent and complete as possible. They insist on total orthodoxy. Ways of thinking and acting are rigidly codified.”

And a quotation from Daniel Taylor: “Legalism is one more expression of the human compulsion for security.”

How do you react to a fact?

In Jacques Ellul’s book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, he makes an important point about the way people tend to appropriate facts. Follow his thought through to the end:

‘Modern man worships “facts” — this is, he accepts “facts” as the ultimate reality. He is convinced that what is, is good. He believes that facts in themselves provide evidence and proof, and he willingly subordinates values to them; he obeys what he believes to be necessity, which he somehow connects with the idea of progress. This stereotyped ideological attitude inevitably results in a confusion between judgments of probability and judgments of value. Because fact is the sole criterion, it must be good. Consequently it is assumed that anyone who states a fact (even without passing judgment on it) is, therefore, in favor of it. Anyone who asserts (simply stating a judgment of probability) that the Communists will win some elections is immediately considered pro-Communist; anyone who says that all human activity is increasingly dominated by technology is viewed as a “technocrat”; and so on.’

Christianity as propaganda; Christianity versus propaganda

Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by the late Jacques Ellul could have been written yesterday. Alarmingly current, the book was published in 1965. Marshall McLuhan, famed media theorist, praised Ellul’s book. Ellul, a sincere Christian and a leader in the relatively small French Protestant circles of his time, devoted part of his analysis of propaganda to the propagation of Christianity.

“Obviously, church members are caught in the net of propaganda and react pretty much like everyone else….

“Because Christians are flooded with various propagandas [in our media-driven age], they absolutely cannot see what they might do that would be effective and at the same time be an expression of their Christianity. Therefore, with different motivations and often with scruples, they limit themselves to one or another course presented to them by propaganda. They too take the panorama of the various propagandas for living political reality, and do not see where they can insert their Christianity in that fictitious panorama….

“At the same time, because of its psychological effects, propaganda makes the propagation of Christianity increasingly difficult. The psychological structures built by propaganda are not propitious to Christian beliefs. This also applies on the social plane. For propaganda faces the church with the following dilemma:

Either not to make propaganda — but then, while the churches slowly and carefully win a man to Christianity, the mass media quickly mobilizes the masses, and churchmen gain the impression of being ‘out of step,’ on the fringes of history, without the power to change a thing.

Or to make propaganda — this dilemma is surely one of the most cruel with which the churches are faced at present. For it seems that people manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities, less and less suited for the autonomy of a Christian life….

“I already have stressed the total character of propaganda. Christians often claim they can separate material devices from propaganda techniques — i.e., break the system. For example, they think they can use press and radio without using the psychological principles of techniques that these media demand. Or that they can use these media without having to appeal to conditioned reflexes, myths, and so on. Or that they can use them from time to time, with care and discretion.

“The only answer one can give to these timid souls is that such restraint would lead to a total lack of effectiveness. If a church wants to use propaganda in order to be effective, just as all the others, it must use the entire system with all its resources; it cannot pick what it likes, for such distinctions would destroy the very effectiveness for which the church would make propaganda in the first place. Propaganda is a total system that one must accept or reject in its entirety.

“If the church accepts it, two important consequences follow. First of all, Christianity disseminated by such means is not Christianity. We have already seen the effect of propaganda on ideology. In fact, what happens as soon as the church avails itself of propaganda is a reduction of Christianity to the level of all other ideologies and secular religions.”

Jacques Ellul: A role for Christian community

“I have come more and more to consider that we all have a certain interpretation of revealed truth, but no one possesses it completely. We all ought to come together in such a way that we each may recognize in others what we lack in ourselves.” — Jacques Ellul, In Season, Out of Season

Jacques Ellul: The questions God asks us

“Once again, it was not a question of giving Christian responses or solutions (which would be absurd). How can we propose solutions derived from our faith to people who live outside our faith? But more important, the Bible is not a recipe book or an answer book, but the opposite: it is a book of questions God asks us. So it was necessary to find which questions are pertinent for our society today. Neither experience nor sociology could teach me this: to find the questions and also the reasons to live in spite of everything.” — Jacques Ellul, In Season, Out of Season