“The ultimate expression of this Christian attitude toward the power of money is what we will call profanation. To profane money, like all other powers, is to take away its sacred character…. Giving to God is the act of profanation par excellence…. We need to regain an appreciation of gifts that are not utilitarian.
“We should meditate on the story in the Gospel of John where Mary wastes precious ointment on Jesus. The one who protests against this free gift is Judas. He would have preferred it to be used for good works, for the poor. He wanted such an enormous sum of money to be spent usefully. Giving to God introduces the useless into the world of efficiency, and this is an essential witness to faith in today’s world.”
― Jacques Ellul, Money and Power
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
“We must be convinced that there are no such things as ‘Christian principles.’ There is the Person of Christ, who is the principle of everything. But if we wish to be faithful to Him, we cannot dream of reducing Christianity to a certain number of principles (though this is often done), the consequences of which can be logically deduced.
“This tendency to transform the work of the Living God into a philosophical doctrine is the constant temptation of theologians, and also of the faithful, and their greatest disloyalty is when they transform the action of the Spirit which brings forth fruit in themselves into an ethic, a new law, into ‘principles’ which only have to be ‘applied.’”
I’m still in the middle of Jacque Ellul’s great work, The Technological Society, which is really helpful in understanding the way our modern world works. When Ellul talks about technique he does not mean merely the physical machinery or medicine or digital technology, but more importantly, the manner in which so much of our life is managed according to systems and measurements; our activities are prompted and organized according to the primary value of efficiency. Here he explains it himself: “Technique”
Not bothered by the fact that I haven’t finished that book (or his Humiliation of the Word, which I also loved), I began to listen to another one by the author: Propaganda. Propaganda is just one facet of the technological society. Ellul’s books are so thought-provoking and full of insights, it’s hard for me to pick a few of the best paragraphs to share. But here is one, which I broke up into smaller parts for ease of reading:
“To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events.
“Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks.
“Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.”
-Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1965
What is the difference between optimism and hope? One difference is that the word “optimism” is not in the Bible, and the word “hope” is. They are two distinct words and at least one of them is worth contemplating. I like to quote Fr. Alexander Schmemann on this topic:
“If there are two heretical words in the Christian vocabulary, they would be ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism.’ These two things are utterly anti-biblical and anti-Christian…. Our faith is not based on anything except on these two fundamental revelations: God so loved the world, and: The fallen world has been secretly, mysteriously redeemed.”
Hope is one of the three foundational virtues of the Christian life, as this article, “Hope,” explains. Its description of the absence of hope tells us:
“The opposite of hope is despondency and despair. According to the spiritual tradition of the Church, the state of despondency and despair is the most grievous and horrible condition that a person can be in. It is the worst and most harmful of the sinful states possible for the soul.”
The author of this article discusses the philosophy of Jacques Ellul, and quotes him as saying, in Hope in Time of Abandonment, “You cannot talk about hope. The question is how to live it.”
Matlack comments, “The reason you cannot talk about hope — or rather, cannot describe the action it takes — is this: Hope is not a program for reform, a solution to implement, or a prescription to follow. To borrow from the farmer and writer Wendell Berry, hope means ‘work for the present,’ whereas optimism means ‘making up a version of the future.'”
“What we do know is that Ellul’s own life bears ample testimony to hope. Here is one episode of many. Having lost his university position during the Nazi occupation of France, Ellul and his wife Yvette settled on a farm in a small village near the demarcation line, opening their door to Resistance fighters and Russians escaping German prison camps. With the help of neighbors — since Ellul knew nothing about farming — he grew potatoes and corn, with his wife raising chickens. As he once told the story, “I spent most of my time helping people get across into the free French zone. I was in cahoots with an organization that dealt in forged papers. So I was able to provide a whole series of people with forged identity cards.’”
About their own aims the editors of the journal from which I quote write: “Dystopian dread is the shadow of utopian dreams. The hope of The New Atlantis is to help steer away from both — and instead toward a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.”
In another article on this general subject, of how to live in a technological age, Alan Jacobs wrote in last winter’s issue; he also mentions Jacques Ellul as one of the early critics of the technological society in “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living.” It is accessible to read right now. And Samuel Matlack has written previously about Ellul, in 2014: “Confronting the Technological Society.”
There he writes, after Ellul: “What is needed is a true revolution, which Christianity by its essence is uniquely equipped to effect — being in the world but not of it, living the hope of a kingdom already here but not yet.”
True revolution is not a change in the political order, but has to be something far beyond that realm, and deeper; may the Lord show us the basis for our true Hope, and teach us how to live it.
Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and shield.
Yea, our hearts are glad in Him, because we trust in His holy name.
Let Thy steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in Thee.