Subscribe to Christianity Today
On Freedom, Love, and Power
University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2010
272 pp., 25.95
On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization
University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2014
296 pp., 32.95
Asking the Right Questions
Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) was one of the most prolific, provocative, and controversial public intellectuals of the 20th century. As a professor at the University of Bordeaux, he authored dozens of books and almost one thousand articles. His best-known work, The Technological Society, was the crowning achievement of his studies in social theory. It was also his most lastingly influential book. Through it, Ellul became Godfrey Reggio's muse as Reggio composed his magisterial trilogy of Qatsi films—Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation, and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War—focused on the depredations of technology. All of the films, but Naqoyqatsi in particular, featured explosions of all sorts, as if life were not only out of balance but counting down to a detonation. At the same time, The Technological Society inspired a number of other explosions: Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber, described Ellul's opus as his "bible."
It should come as no surprise, given the range of reactions to Ellul's work, that while some of his contemporaries praised him as a prophet, others lambasted him as a lunatic. While social change has allowed us to see where or in what ways Ellul's prognostications, especially about technology, have been correct, interpreting and evaluating Ellul's larger contribution to social theory and theology remains difficult.
Many misunderstandings and misappropriations of Ellul stem from a failure to comprehend the breadth of his work. While chiefly known as an intellectual, Ellul was not the ivory tower sort; he was engaged in a wide range of work outside of the academy, spending portions of his adult life as an activist, farmer, pastor, and deputy mayor of Bordeaux. For his efforts to protect France's Jewish population during Nazi occupation, he was posthumously awarded the status, "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Martyrs and ...