Overturning tables

Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul was a prolific writer, and not one to toe the line. Much of his writing turns the tables in the courts of the Cathedral of Christendom. His book The Subversion of Christianity argues that while early Christianity was a radical movement, later developments moved Christianity back towards a more conventional, if that is the right word, religion. For example, Ellul says, against many religions’ tendency to imbue the natural world with sacred significance, the Genesis creation story is, perhaps primarily, a demythologisation. It suggests there is nothing inherently sacred about rocks and trees and particular places. After-all, all the Earth is the Lord’s. However, eventually Judaism and Christianity both slid back to thinking of particular places as holy, such as places of worship. We have a tendency to mythologise and sacralise, even in our modern secular world – we create shrines of sport, politics, art and science. But the early Church, to the ire of Rome, consistently dismissed the sacred, in the sense of shrines and the like, or in the sense that food could be made unclean by being offered to idols. To the Christians, this was a load of superstition. Part of the fun of reading Ellul is his constant upending of conventional views.

Or, for example, Ellul suggests that the initial democracy of the early Church was superseded by hierarchies, and, in particular, the cult of saints, which suggested that particularly generous acts were beyond the scope of ordinary people. Ellul also makes a forceful, and compelling, case that Christianity isn’t about morality, with which of course the Church is always associated. In line with Paul, Ellul stresses the freedom of the Christian.

Ellul’s prophetic calling to the Church to be on guard against religiosity could be somewhat depressing if he didn’t remind us that God works through the Church, despite its deficiencies.


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