Jacques Ellul(1912-1994)

Author, Professor, Sociologist, Theologian

Jacques Ellul, author and educator, was born an only child to Joseph and Marthe Ellul on January 6, 1912. From the age of fifteen, impoverishment compelled him to tutor Latin, French, German and Greek, earning his own and often his family’s livelihood. He received no religious upbringing, his father a “complete Voltairian” and his mother a devout but uninsistent Protestant. Ellul’s family did possess a Bible, which he occasionally read. As a ten year-old Ellul came upon the pronouncement of Jesus, "I will make you fishers of men". He spoke of it as a "personal utterance" which "foretold an event".

As a young man he enjoyed unimpeded freedom exploring the port city of Bordeaux, befriending sailors and longshoremen. Here was, he recalls, “…a totally astonishing milieu for a child; an environment that was very educational and, of course, rather dangerous, even though nothing ever happened to me.”

In the summer prior to commencing university studies Jacques related that he had a pre-conversion experience. He had completed his secondary school finals, and was engaged in translating Faust, when "all of a sudden I knew myself to be in the presence of something so astounding, so overwhelming, that had entered me to the very core of my being. I jumped on a bicycle and fled. I thought to myself: 'You have been in the presence of God.' I started to run for my life from the One who had revealed himself to me. I realized that God had spoken, but I did not want him to have me. I did not want to be controlled by another."

He received his formal education at the University of Bordeaux. Two further decisive encounters took place during his student years, one with Bernard Charbonneau and the other with his wife Yvette who was to bear him four children: three boys Jean, Simon and Yves, and a daughter, Dominique.

While attending the Faculty of Law, Ellul encountered the philosophy of Karl Marx, which beguiled his intellect for some time. As he studied Marxism, however, he soon realized that it was entirely inadequate to answer existential questions, issues of life, death and love.Ellul remembered the Bible stories from his childhood, and began searching. While reading in the 8th chapter of Romans, Ellul had another encounter with God. He writes:

It was here that the Bible gave me more, establishing itself in my life on a different level than Marx’s explanations about society. In the Bible, I was led to discover an entire world that was very new to me because I was not accustomed to…Christian discourse. A new world when I compared it with the realities of life and of my life experience. I was converted – not by someone, nor can I say I converted myself…but I will say that it was a very brutal and very sudden conversion. I became a Christian and I was obliged to profess myself…in 1932.

When he told his mother (who had avoided any overt religious influence as a promise to his father), he said, "I believe in Jesus Christ. I have converted." His mother replied (without looking up), "I am not surprised. I have been praying for that every night since you were born."

After that he joined an assembly of Protestant students for worship, and a close study of Karl Barth, whose work, next to Marx, Ellul describes as “the second great element in my intellectual life.” Eventually he entered the Reformed Church of France.

In the same year that he was married (1937), Jacques Ellul was appointed Director of Studies at the University of Strasbourg. He held this position for three years, until 1940, when the Vichy government, under the Nazi influence, determined that he was the son of a "foreigner", and had made statements hostile about German intents.

His father, Joseph, was arrested by the Germans for being a "foreigner", and Jacques saw him one more time through the prison bars, thanks to the kindness of a German guard. His father died in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis.

Learning that his wife, Yvette, born in Holland and carrying a British passport, was to be arrested as a "foreigner" also, Jacques took his bride, departed Bordeaux, and vanished into the countryside into the "free zone" just beyond the area controlled by the Nazis. They eked out an existence from 1940 to 1944 by growing potatoes and corn, and raising sheep, chickens and rabbits. All the while they were participating in the French Resistance Movement, assisting Jewish people and others to escape the German forces.

In 1944 he participated in the National Liberation Movement, and became Professor of History and the Sociology of Institutions on the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences at the University of Bordeaux. This assignment was expanded in 1947 to include the Institute of Political Studies.

From 1944 to 1946 he served as Deputy Mayor in Bordeaux, but soon recognized the powerlessness of politics. From 1946 to 1953 he served on the National Synod of the Reformed Church of France, and was active in the World Council of Churches. These political and ecclesiastical experiences led him to become disillusioned with political and ecclesiastical reform.

Ellul claims he has been helped enormously in his discipleship by two soul-fast friends, one an atheist and the other a believer. The militant atheist has kept him honest by showing that Christians have tended to betray precisely what Jesus Christ is and brings. His believer-friend, "a Christian of incredible authenticity", has supported and encouraged him when dispirited. "Every time his apartment door opened upon his smile it was, in my worst moments of distress, like a door opening onto truth and affection".

Ellul’s work focuses on socio-political analysis, establishing him as a sharp critic with particular emphasis upon the increasingly destructive influence of modern technology on Christianity and Western civilization. His primary concern is the tyranny of television, press and radio over human destiny. Far too many educated adults, he complains, are passively accepting the media’s steady dissemination of propaganda. Ellul did not object to the advancement of technology, but rather to the moral and spiritual vacuity of those who operate and receive it.

If a society possesses no foundational values through which to evaluate the relentless onslaught of electronic information, then its citizens are hardly better off than the subjects of any totalitarian regime. As he states in Perspectives on Our Age (1981):

When I say that I “despise technology,” I should perhaps explain. It is not technology per se, but the authoritarian power that the “technocrats” seek to exercise, as well as the fact that technology determines our lives without our being able to intervene or, as yet, control it.

According to Ellul, the answer to the predicament is a simple faith in the living, loving God who liberates His children from a bland conformity, releasing them to an infinitely higher purpose in serving the unassailable heavenly kingdom.

Ellul wrote in French and has been widely translated into English. His works, philosophical, theological and sociological, number over 50, plus hundreds of articles. He is described by editor Saul Padover as a “fresh political thinker, something of a cross between an academic Eric Hoffer and a French enfant terrible.” Padover continues that Ellul’s “analysis of modern society reminds one of the child who blurted out that the emperor was naked.” Ellul’s work has evoked responses ranging from sharp criticism to admiration from those who will no longer allow themselves to remain neutral.

Ellul always insisted that the self-utterance and "seizure" of the living God frees individuals from their conformity to a world which blinds and binds, even as it renders them to useful to God and world on behalf of that kingdom which cannot be shaken. Not surprisingly, Ellul continued to magnify the place of prayer, contending that as we pray God fashions a genuine future for humankind; indeed, God's future is the only future, all other "futures" being but a dressed-up repetition of the Fall.

Ellul's teaching responsibilities and writing endeavors occupied most of the years of his life, but he never ceased to be engaged in the praxis of social involvement, pastoring home churches and providing oversight of a ministry to juvenile delinquents and drug addicts over a period of many years.

In his later years, Ellul wrote during the morning, assiduously guarding his office time before welcoming visitors in the afternoon. Aside from the impact of his revolutionary thought, he insisted that his most important message to the world was his simple witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. "Perhaps through my words or my writing, someone met this saviour, the only one, the unique one, beside whom all human projects are childishness; then, if this has happened, I will be fulfilled, and for that, glory to God alone". The "prophet of Bordeaux", as he was described by some, died May 19, 1994 in Pessac, a few kilometers from the Bordeaux campus.

Jacques Ellul was a confirmed universalist. Please click here to read an excerpt from his book, "What I Belive."

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