Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Presence of the Kingdom: A Review

(This is my review of the book "The Presence of the Kingdom" by Jacques Ellul)

In this book, the author simply explores and answers the question, “How should the Christian live in the modern world?” In this age of technological advancement and mass media, Ellul vigorously pleads for Christians to live out their identity as the salt of the earth and light of world to this decaying and darkened society. Christ calls His followers to function as “visible signs” of the presence and reality of God's kingdom here on earth.

In order to fulfill their mission, Christians ought not to separate themselves from the culture as most pietists do. However, they ought not to be triumphalistic either, engaging themselves deeply into the culture in order to conquer it or “redeem” it. While modern men are fascinated with, even enslaved by, technology and progress, Christians, however, should be preoccupied with God's kingdom and His righteous rule in the world, living as loyal subjects of King Jesus in all areas of life by the power of His Spirit. They should never forget that God has placed them in this fallen world in order to bear witness to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This seems to be Ellul's main message in this book.

Ellul of course recognizes that the task of witness-bearing is not an easy responsibility. In fact he identifies several obstacles and enemies that every Christian has to contend with in seeking to remain faithful to his calling in the world.

First, the world is not only a place of warfare but also a force that tries to exert pressure upon the Christian so as to conform to its wicked ways. This makes obedience to God's will for him difficult. Ellul quips, “The fact of living in the world, from which we ought not to escape, is a stumbling block for our faith” (p.9). Second, the reality of sin also renders the Christian weak and ineffective in bearing witness for the truth of the gospel of Christ. Third, we may also add to the equation the devil himself, completing the number of the believer's age-old arch enemies, namely, the world, the flesh and the devil. Ellul is aware of these enemies when he writes,

Living in the world we are living in the domain of the Prince of this world, Satan, and all around us we constantly see the action of this prince, and the result of the state of sin in which we are all placed without exception, because in spite of all our efforts and our piety we share in the sin of the world. We are involved in it because in spite of our faith we are and remain sinners; we are also involved in the sin of humanity through the various “orders” of life created by God, so that when a person of my family, or of my nation, commits sin, I am responsible before God for this transgression (p.9).

This leaves us desperate of ourselves. However, this desperation should not make us totally discouraged. We should instead recognize that though “it is impossible for us to make the world less is impossible for us to accept it as it is” (p.9). Thus as Christians, we must learn to live in this tension in the world, being fully aware that God calls us and equips us by His Spirit to live as His people, serving as God’s preservatives and light-bearers exactly in this tense situation. Our lifestyle that is consistent to our calling as citizens of God’s kingdom brings genuine transformation that the world needs.

In terms of concretizing this Christian lifestyle, Ellul observes that this is not all about techniques. The techniques which the world propagates will not foster real change in man or the society where he lives in. This is because man has this mistaken idea that with modern technology comes transformation. What modern technology has actually accomplished, according to Ellul, is that it helped shift our focus from end to means. Rather than thinking of what is good and just, and what brings peace and order to society, people start to think about how to make things work and how to do things efficiently. These have become man’s preoccupation.

This shift of mindset somehow affected many Christians. Thus instead of influencing society by being the salt of the earth and light of the world, Christians try to seek influence using social, economic and political means, thinking that these powers would accomplish the Christian task. By doing so, Christians have resorted to the means which natural man uses.

But no matter how hard the natural man tries to transform society and to make it a better place to live using man-made techniques, the result is always further destruction, decay and deformation of the society. The natural man, regardless of his ingenuity in creating technology, whether social, political, or economic, is totally hopeless in his attempt to promote lasting change in the world. The reason of course is that, the modern natural man employs strategies that only address the external issues of life, leaving the internal, most basic issue and need of the individual and society unmet. Thus at the end of the day, technology and mass media further enslave the sinful man rather than liberate him.

However, the power that is at work among believers is able to effect genuine transformation for every man and society that it touches. Only the Holy Spirit quickens dead spirits of men and causes them to do what is right and good, bringing personal and corporate peace, order and freedom. Ellul believes that the Christian faith alone is able to transform society not because of the Christians per se, but because of its revolutionary agent and king, i.e., the Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus Christ. When the kingdom of God is lived out faithfully by sinful men who are led by the Spirit of God, following their Lord and King, genuine revolution takes place in this fallen world.

Thus Ellul can say, “Whatever work is undertaken by man does not reveal its meaning or its value save in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit” (p.102). He adds, “If Christians have a special mission here [on earth], it is due to the fact that they are witnesses to an event on which all other events are based, an event which took place in history, and an event which sums up and guarantees all other events, personal or historical, and renders history and life irreversibly. This event is the intervention of God in the course of human history, it is Jesus Christ” (p.108).

The book does not really offer concrete easy-steps to readers in terms of prescribing a lifestyle for Christians to follow in order to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The author himself admits this when he writes, “My aim was not to give ready-made solutions, but only to open the way for a work of the renewed church” (p.113). He nevertheless gives suggestions as to what Christians should bear in mind as they seek to live the reality of God’s kingdom out in the world as individuals and as body of believers, the church.

One of the things he points out is that we Christians must be aware of our weak or abstract, if not dead, witness-bearing of the power of the gospel of Christ before the watching world. The reason why the world is in such a mess is partly because Christians have forgotten who they are and why they are in the world. Additionally, they have abandoned the powerful means which God has entrusted to them, i.e. the gospel, which is the power of God for the salvation, in all its aspects, of those who believe.

Further, Ellul shows that if Christians are to effect radical change in the world, they have to take their identity and calling seriously, engaging themselves in ordinary human activity, proclaiming the gospel to the world both in meaningful words and kind deeds. In order to actualize this transformation, Ellul points out that Christians themselves must have been, first of all, transformed by the renewing of their mind, which the Holy Spirit alone can do by the Word of God.

I think Ellul’s analysis of the culture is right on target. While he is not against technology per se, he is denouncing the increasingly destructive influence and control of modern technology not only on Western civilization but particularly on the Christian faith. His observation of our failure as Christians to live out our identity and mission in the world is also quite indicting. While he prescribes no easy solutions, his critical thought helps us to think deeply our life and lifestyle before the watching world.

I would not fault Ellul for his lack of suggestions on how to address the Christian dilemma in the world. From my other readings of his life and writings, I came to realize that he tried to live out what he taught and preached. He was actively involved both in the church and the society, serving as a consultant to the Ecumenical World Council of Churches from 1947-53 and was a member of the National Council of the Reformed Church in France. He also had a long academic career and participated in local civic affair where at one point he served as Deputy Mayor of his hometown in the mid-1940’s. Finally, he was also involved in ministering with many troubled youth and drug addicts.

If there is anything that he accomplished in this book it is the fact that he reminds us that faith and obedience in the living and loving God who called His people out of slavery from sin and worldliness by His Spirit constitute our best weapon to let the kingdom of God in Christ be seen and felt by the world.

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