Real God, Fake Churches: Jacques Ellul is Laughing in Heaven

The great church cave-in…was

It is tempting to see the church lockdown as some new thing challenging the unchallengable…the sovereignty of God.  Actually it is just a smoking gun enabling even the dullest of observers to note how in the overwhelming number of cases, churches have conceded practical sovereignty to something other than the One whom they endorse as ultimately sovereign.  Usually discussions of this topic iterate between the tiresome poles of legality and doctrine, between tax exemptions and Romans 13.  This will get you nowhere, because they are side issues which distract from what is really going on.  What is really going on is the absorption of all society into a standard-sized propaganda envelope, the churches included.  This is a phenomenon which antedates the numerous crises of 2020, which antedates 9-11, which antedates the cold war, which antedates the Second World war…and back and back.  How far back?  Farther than most people are inclined to think.

I don’t claim any originality for this insight.  It was best developed by Jaques Ellul.  Ellul (1912-1994) a French citizen, endured many of the epochal events which transpired during Europe’s eventful  mid-twentieth century: the labor disputes of the Depression, the break with Communism, the Nazi/Vichi occupation of his country, the American/Soviet joint domination of post-war Europe, the corresponding rise of globalism and the Islamic challenge to the West.  He was a multi-talent and a person difficult to categorize, being, among other things, a jurist, academic, philosophical anarchist, and Christian theologian.  Although self-identifing as a man of the left, he is one of those seminal thinkers who can be usefully appropriated for paleolibertarian purposes in the context of the present opposition to globalism and the incipient world state.

Ellul on Propaganda and the church

According to Ellul propaganda is technique, not ideology.  This doesn’t mean that it has no effects on ideas or what people believe, rather, it means that technique tends to undermine convictions based on rational disputation, and is alien to convictions based of the insights of spiritual experience.  Social institutions absorbed by propaganda systems loose their basis on principles of any objective discovery process, and are increasingly characterized by variously manipulated group psychology.  According to Ellul, the churches are no exception to this tendency.  Even though Ellul makes the generous assumption that churches in the modern world will be tempted to make their own propaganda, (which now seems less likely than that they simply parrot the propaganda of society-at-large) this propaganda-making possibility forces churches into a double bind.  Either they refuse the temptation, and become drowned in the sea of propagandized society, or they adopt propaganda techniques and corrupt their doctrines.

Ellul forestalls the excuses made for “putting modern techniques in the service of religion” with his insight that technique, not ideology, is the essence of propaganda.  It is not quite as mechanical as saying that a church which draws its converts from rock concerts today will shut down on government order tomorrow.  None the less, modern propaganda techniques have a functionality and a totality which is at odds with religion born out of personal spiritual conviction.  As Ellul writes,

From the moment the church exposes itself to the conflict between sociological determinants and the contrary inspiration that comes from God and is directed towards God–from the moment the church uses propaganda and uses it successfully, it becomes, unremittingly, a purely sociological organization.  It looses the spiritual part, for it now only transmits a false Christianity; it subordinates the essence of its being to sociological determination, it submits to the laws of efficiency to become a power in the world, and, in fact, it succeeds: it does become such a power.  At that moment it chooses power over truth.(Propaganda, The formation of men’s attitudes, p. 231)

It should be noted that Ellul was writing this back in what we would call the “Kennedy era.”  Except that he was writing from France in the early days of the Fifth Republic.  This difference in both temporal and geographical perspective adds, I think, some credibility to the universality of Ellul’s thesis.

In terms of my own sensibility, not necessarily shared by Ellul, when I hear of power over truth, my first inclination is to highlight the activity of the contemporary left, which always result in the secularization of society and the increase of state power.  Indeed, the largely untold, or at least unheeded, story of Communist infiltration of the churches forms a major theme of the propaganda-church connection in America’s 20th century and beyond.  However, in terms of Ellul’s comprehensive propaganda thesis, the same techniques (albeit with a different ideology) have corrupted “patriotic” churches.  Either way, churches face a double bind of either appearing irrelevant to society by eschewing propaganda emitted from social power nodes, or cooperating and losing control of their own message.

Ellul and faith

To wind up on a positive note, none of the above means that real belief has vanished from the face of the Earth.   Ellul himself is an interesting example of someone who, though skeptical of churches, had a spiritual perspective grounded in his personal encounter with God.  His denominational affiliations were with that endangered but hardy species, the French Reformed.  Although a cultured man who’s insights were formed by an eclectic reading of Karl Marx, his sympathies today would probably be closer to the “yellow vests” than the Cultural Marxists. Emphatically, Ellul was not the kind of theological ventriloquist who would attempt to make the Bible speak feminism, gay rights, and identity politics by imputing his own attitudes to the text.  And although Ellul is frequently characterized as a “dialectical” theologian, his dialect was not immanent to humanity, let alone his own thought process.  Rather, it was a dialectical encounter with a transcendent and objective God, which demands discipline and restraint in the handling of scripture.

If this sounds like Karl Barth, that is because Ellul was influenced by that famous Swiss theologian.  However Ellul went beyond neo-orthodoxy, reformed theology, and even Greek patristics.  Ultimately he took his stand on the Bible, and especially the Hebrew prophets.  It was in this encounter with the Hebrew scriptures that he discovered his notion that the Bible was the foundation of “anarchism.”  Whatever one thinks of anarchy (and on rhetorical grounds I find myself in disagreement with both Ellul and Murray Rothbard) what Ellul intends is the separation of unchanging legal principle from the mutability of its administration.

This unchanging covenantal God who speaks for all time may not be, as He was for Jacques Ellul, to everyone’s taste.  However He might be preferable to global forces who seem to be saying, “Sorry, we’re discussing how to reinvent the universe…we’ll get back to you later and tell you what we’ve decided.”

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