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Jacques Ellul: Prophetic or Apocalyptic Theologian of Technology?

Jacques Ellul: Prophetic or Apocalyptic Theologian of Technology?

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Published by Markoff Chaney
In Season Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul.By Jacques Ellul.

Based on Interviews by Madeleine Garrigou-Lagrange.Translatedby Lani K. Niles. (SanFrancisco: Harper and Row, 1982).
In Season Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul.By Jacques Ellul.

Based on Interviews by Madeleine Garrigou-Lagrange.Translatedby Lani K. Niles. (SanFrancisco: Harper and Row, 1982).

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Published by: Markoff Chaney on Oct 07, 2010
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 Jacques Ellul-
Prophetic or Apocalyptic
 Theologian of Technology?*
 In Season Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul.
By Jacques Ellul. Based on Interviews by Madeleine
Garrigou-Lagrange.
Translated
 by Lani K. Niles. (San
Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982).
T
he natural beauty of 
Rio
de Janeiro's coastal flatlands enclosed
within rock mountain barriers serves as the setting of a modern
city constructed with attention to the cultural residues of Europe.
The natural and cultural attractions of the city lure the people of Brazil to the friendly bistros and gleaming beaches, the enticing
restaurants and colorful football matches, as
a
leisured, if not
leisurely, return on hard work within
a
nation struggling to modern-
ize. In relaxing at
one
of the sidewalk cafes that ring the beachfronts
of Copacabana and Leme, one might puzzle over the seeming
 paradox of, from above Corcovado's 2,310 foot peak, a one-hundred
foot figure of Christ the Redeemer dominating this city of leisure
with outstretched arms, until the reality of the city etches itself onto
the glare of its image: penny merchants of myriad goods stalk the
 beaches amongst both the very wealthy and the very poor who share
nature's waves. Thieves of various ages cruise the sands while the
daughters of poverty struggle to survive in packs around the plush,
modern high-rise hotels. Rolls Royces edge past the sub-teen shoe-
shines who attempt to earn sufficient means for their families' sur-
vival
in
stilted shacks over stagnant water. It is this reality of the city
that captures the paradoxes of modernity with which Jacques Ellul
struggles in coming to grips with modern society and technology.
His answers suggest that one must look upward toward the statue
that dominates the city whenever one's gaze rises above the streets.
But alas, electricity is used to flood the towering figure as it main-
tains its vigilance into the night.
For many years now, Jacques Ellul has advanced the most consis-
*The author thanks the Vanderbilt University Research Council for support and
Scarlett Gower Graham for her criticism.
 
214
 THE POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEWER 
tent critical analysis of the role of technology in tranforming man
and society, and has been recognized, especially in the United
States, as the spokesperson for human existence as it is threatened by
technological absorption; From the appearance of John Wilkinson'stranslation of Ellul's
 La technique ou l'enjeu du siecle
(1954)
in
1964
as
The Technological Society,
few serious discussions of technology
as a social issue have avoided attention to Ellul's rhetoric. He has
 provided the framework for discourse concerning technology by
stealing the presumption of argument from those scholars who see
technology largely as the means for improving human existence. In
the literature,
Ellul
reigns supreme as the anti-technology
spokesperson, the theorist most vocal in laying bare the dehumaniz-
ing aspect of progress based on the process of exploiting all available
means of transforming and organizing production and management
under the
,
 principle of efficiency. Moreover, Ellul's prescriptions-
carefully constrained in his works on technology per se in order to
maximize attention to "the problem"-are now being studied by a
wider audience than the small circle of Protestant readers who
would have found his version of Protestant theology interesting.
Social theorists of the reputation of John H. Schaar and Norman O.
Brown have begun to give critical attention even to Ellul's
theological texts and prescriptions.' Thus, in analyzing the work of 
Ellul by placing this newest volume into the context of his corpus, it
is essential that the two themes of his critical analysis be advanced.
The first is the assessment of the phenomenon, technology, as it
dominates modern existence. The second closely related theme is his
 personal religious prescription for dealing with this domination.
These themes revolve around the modern city, which serves as the
representation of the technological system in its full development as
well as the symbol for non-spiritual existence.
The many books of Ellul that are available in English translation
cannot be adequately summarized in a single essay. In reviewing hisoverall position as very personally summarized in the interview for-
mat of 
 In Season Out of Season,
one must pick and choose among
twenty previous translations, not to mention more than a dozen
 books currently unavailable in English.
2
In this essay, therefore,
1.
 John H. Schaar, "Jacques Ellul: Between Babylon and the New Jerusalem,"
democracy,
 Vol. II, no. 4 (Fall, 1982): 102-118, and Norman O. Brown, "Jacques
Ellin: Beyond Geneva and Jerusalem,"
democracy
 Vol. II, no. 4 (Fall, 1982): 119-126.
2.
See
(235-236)
for current list of Ellul's books. All parenthetical page references in
the text are to
 In Season Out of Season.
 
ELLUL-THEOLOGIAN
OF TECHNOLOGY 
215
Ellul's
critical stance on technology and his plea for the spiritual life,
the "two lines of study" he consciously planned for his life work 
(175), serve as our guide to the "ensemble" of his works which he
himself warns cannot be treated as a source for founding a "school of 
thought" (193). Let us begin, then, by placing the first theme in the
context of the literature.
`Technology' and Political Theory Before and After Jacques Ellul
When classical political philosophers introduced the critical
assessment of the social and political consequences of 
technē,
they
raised concern over problems of technology at the very beginning of 
theWestern political tradition. Their recognition that
technē 
was
neutral in the sense that it must be guided by human ends, but that
advances in technique introduce new potential ends, led them to
worry about the
control 
of technological innovations in society. As
Leo Strauss put the point, "The classics demanded the strict moral-
 political supervision of inventions; the good and wise city will deter-
mine which inventions are to be made use of and which are to be
suppressed."
3
Technē 
was viewed as artifact, as humanly created
means to an end, and therefore properly to be subjected to
evaluative standards before particular technological innovations
and inventions are adopted within a society. To be sure, even Plato
recognized the positive potential of technological improvements, at
least to the extent that he knew that the public would desire im-
 provements.
After acknowledging Plato's conservative position
toward forces of change, Mulford Q. Sibley writes:
 Yet the inevitability of social change in the existential world is recognized, for
one of the functions of the Nocturnal Council is to send clever men abroad to
gather suggestions for collective changes-including new technology-which
can be introduced gradually and rationally.*
From the beginning, then, Western political thought has recognized
the potential conflict between the desire for the fruits of improved
technology and the possible costs of unthinking adoption of new
techniques.
The key to the classical position on technology is the commitment
3.
Thoughts 
on Machiavelli 
(New York: The Free Press, 1959), 298.
4.
Technology and 
Utopian 
Thought 
Minneapolis, Minn.: Burgess Publishing Co.,
1972), 13.

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