Monday, January 14, 2008

The Subversion of Christianity

Welcome open minded internet thinkers.

Thanks again for all your prayers. I'm feeling much better.

I'm still a bit sick, but I managed to travel to Columbia, Missouri, this weekend to preach/teach at a friend's church (Woodcrest Chapel). Had a very nice time sharing my testimony. Coughed up a couple phlegm balls, but no big deal.

A bigger deal was the fact that I lost my driver's license on the way down to Columbia (how shocking, right?). I had no other I.D. I thought I was totally up-a-creek, but it turns out you can fly without an I.D. -- it's just a real hassle. You have to be thoroughly searched at every checkpoint and have all this paperwork filled out. But you can do it.

While traveling there and back I read Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity (I'm obviously on an Ellul-kick these days). This is a man after my own heart (and head)!!! Everybody needs to read this book!

Ellul's basic thesis is that the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated with his life, death and resurrection has been subverted -- converted into its opposite, in fact -- in the religion of Christendom. This happened primarily because leaders in the 4th and 5th century decided to give into the temptation that Jesus resisted (Lk 4:5-7) -- namely, acquiring political power (thus, submitting to the devil's authority). Christianity thus was co-opted by "the powers." A movement that was in its very essence non-conformist became a religion of conformity. Indeed, Christianity has historically usually been a defender of the status quo ("conservative").

More specifically, Ellul shows that Christianity has been subverted by:

* SUCCESS. The Kingdom only works when it's lived out in small numbers. Once it becomes a mass movement, it becomes an ideology and loses its soul.
* MONEY. A movement that was founded on people renouncing all possessions got seduced into sanctifying the "right" to possessions.
* MORALITY. This is a huge point. Ellul totally gets that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is judgment and is at the root of all sin (see chapter IV). The Kingdom revolution is a revolution of the Spirit -- which is the antithesis of living on the basis of ethics. He continually stresses that the New Testament and the early Jesus-movement "has no morality." Once Christianity became a ruling power and a successful mass movement, however, it had to control people with rules.
* RELIGION. The Jesus movement is anti-religious. But people crave religion. They have "religious needs" that the Jesus movement undermines. When the movement became a mass movement, it became a Christianized version of pagan religion.
* PRAGMATISM. The Kingdom was founded on the singular concern to be faithful to God, not a concern to fix the world. Once Christianity became successful, however, it wrongly assumed responsibility to rule the world and got practical. Since most of Jesus' teachings are impractical, they had to be set aside.
* VIOLENCE. Non-violence never seems practical, so it was among the things that needed to go. (Here Ellul curiously argues that the example of Islam was the main influence in making Christianity a violent religion, see Chapter V).
* POLITICS. Here Ellul is at his best, showing how Jesus' apolitical/anti-political movement was transformed into the handmaiden of politics. He shows that Christianity has almost always pathetically given divine sanction to whatever political regime it found itself in. Using ingenious theological arguments right out of the Bible, the Church defended the monarchy when it found itself under a monarchy and the Republic form of government when under this type of government. So too, it defended Socialism under Socialism, Communism under Communism and of course Democracy under a Democracy. The movement whose heart is to revolt against all government to manifest the reign of God is reduced to a silly defender of whatever government happens to be in charge.
* POWER. The heart of the problem, Ellul argues, is that we fear the freedom the Kingdom offers us. It's the radical freedom of possessing nothing -- including power. We rather crave the security of things, of power, of rules, and of pretending we are free (e.g. by having a vote) when in fact we are in bondage. The Spirit was to set us free, but this requires relinquishing all these things.

Anyone who knows my work can see why I would be very excited reading this book.

A few other things are worth noting.
* Ellul is unequivocally an open theist, though he (writing in the 80s) doesn't use this term. He never gives a sustained argument for this view, but takes stabs here and there at the idea that the future is pre-settled in God's foreknowledge or will (predestination).
* Ellul's writing style is a bit erratic. Some readers will find his thought process hard to follow at times. Also, he presupposes a lot on the part of his reader. He constantly makes references to people, movements and ideas without explaining them. You can follow the gist of his argument without a knowledge of these things, but it does make his book more challenging.
* Ellul has an assortment of idiosyncratic ideas I find entirely implausible. Sometimes his interpretations of particular passages border on being bizarre -- as when he argues that the "abomination" referred to in Matthew 24 refers to the corruption of Christianity. He also denies that Satan and demons are personal agents or have any reality apart from humans. His view of the Trinity is rather modalistic. And he doesn't seem to endorse the worship of Jesus. There's other quirky things as well.

Still, all this aside, this is a book I'd encourage everyone to wrestle with.

Now I'm onto the next Ellul book: The Politics of God and the Politics of Man. I'll let you know how it goes.