Ellul on Jesus and Mammon

jacques-ellulIn preparation for an upcoming sermon on money I’ve been dipping into Money and Power by Jacques Ellul. In a section titled “What Money Really Is” Ellul makes a theological point I’d not previously considered. (Others have surely made it, but Ellul does so forcefully and provocatively, as anyone familiar with his writing would expect.) Reflecting on Jesus’ teaching on Mammon in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, he writes that “money is a power.” By this he means that money acts autonomously, has a spiritual value, and is oriented personally. Mammon cannot be used by people; rather, in opposition to God, it uses people.

With this articulated, Ellul moves to “What Money Does.” Here he describes the pervasive force of Mammon on society.

This power of money establishes in the world a certain type of human relationship and specific human behavior. It creates what could be broadly called a buying-selling relationship. Everything in this world is paid for one way or another. Likewise, everything can, one way or another, be bought. Such is the character that the power of money imposes on the world. Although money is only one means of this power’s action, it is the most visible and concrete sign of the universality of buying and selling. The world sees this behavior as normal. Without constant exchange, we could not continue to live.

Ellul is thinking of more than slavery – though he includes this among his examples of Mammon’s power; poverty, alienation, and betrayal are other ways this buying-selling milieu is manifested, though rarely acknowledged or challenged. We might consider the valiant and noble efforts to stop human trafficking, efforts that often overlook the economic conditions that make such injustices possible. Challenging these conditions is almost impossible as most people with the agency to oppose trafficking are also benefitting from the structures that make slavery profitable.

And then the move I hadn’t considered: Into this market-driven world steps a God whose nature is grace and gift and this God submits to being sold. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver may be consistent with a wold governed by Mammon but it is utterly inconsistent with God’s nature. Yet Jesus submits to Mammon for our salvation. That is, the spiritual forces that dehumanize and commodify people do their worst to the only one who successfully resisted their power. Thus, as Paul writes, we are bought with a price by the only one whose payment leads to freedom. And Jesus, because his nature is that of a giver (“I lay down my life of my own accord.”), cannot be held captive by a force that knows only the language and power of transaction.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2012

During the year I collect a list of the books I read and then, in a completely unscientific process, choose the five I most highly recommend to you.  This year I read 27 books – a pittance compared to some of your lists, but still enough to make choosing five a small challenge.  Previous years’ lists can be found here: 2007200820092010, and 2011.  What about you?  What books did you read in 2012 that you can recommend to us?

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson (2011).

The Warmth of Other SunsI don’t read enough fiction – and this book is historical non-fiction – but the The Warmth of Other Suns was the narrative I most enjoyed this year.  Wilkerson is masterful at taking the bits of history to tell a story that is so important to the demographic and cultural texture of America today.  Important, yes- but the history told in these pages is regularly overlooked.  By showcasing three individuals who made the trip north or west from the Jim Crow South, Wilkerson brings into focus the massive migration of African Americans that has shaped the country we know today.  Our church is situated in a neighborhood with deep ties to the stories in this book so I found it especially interesting. (One of the three characters the author follows is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who moves from Mississippi to the South Side of Chicago.)  Ultimately though, The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story, one told exceedingly well by Wilkerson.

The Meaning of the City, Jaques Ellul (1970).

Jacques Ellul The Meaning of the CityJacques Ellul has been a footnote author for me over the past decade: an author who is regularly cited in appreciated books. Regularly enough that at some point the footnote must be traced back to the original source.  Ellul was a French sociologist, philosopher, and professor of law who is known for his writings on technology, among many other topics.  He was also a Christian whose theological work – in my cursory observation – is either seen as increasingly relevant in our technological age or anachronistic.  I lean toward the former.  In this book Ellul gives us his Biblical reading of the city: its origins, symbolism, role in redemptive history, and location for Christian witness today.  Some see Ellul as a pessimist whose view of the city leaves no room for positive change or reform.  I suppose there is some truth to this but I read him differently.  The vision found in The Meaning of the City is one that allows Christians to bear witness to Christ regardless of perceived reform.  For the growing number of young, Evangelical-ish Christians who see the city as the place to change the world (for God), Ellul provides a necessary corrective.  We witness to Christ in the city because of God’s love for the city and we continue to do so whether or not things turn out as we hope because, ultimately, we are simply called to bear witness.  The One with the power to change operates outside our time and plans and one day His heavenly city will replace all that continues to plague the residents of earthly cities.

Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith (2009).

Desiring the KingdomI recommended this book more than any other this year.  Desiring the Kingdom is the first book of a planned three-part series and the second book is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered.  James K. A. Smith is a professor of philosophy and theology at Calvin College and, as the book reveals, an astute observer of American cultural practices and artifacts.  The book opens with a description of a typical American mall from the perspective of an alien who believes this massive edifice and those coming and going from its doors must form some sort of religious center.  Smith shows how humans are primarily desiring beings.  We do what we love rather than what we think or even believe.  Others have made this point and Smith’s important contribution is in showing how these desires are formed within us.  Liturgy is an important concept in this formation and the author shows the cultural liturgies that compete with those observed by congregations.  These are liturgies with radically different ends, liturgies that aim to form distinct desires among their practitioners.  For a long time I’ve thought about the occasional dissonance between a congregation’s spoken theology and the accepted practices (liturgies) that hinder the implementation of this theology and Smith has given me additional tools to think carefully about this unfortunate tendency.  There are questions I have after reading this book – Is a congregation’s liturgy limited to a worship service? – that I hope Smith will address in the next two books.  But those questions are mostly evidence of just how convincing I find Smith’s thesis and how helpful.

Life Itself, Roger Ebert (2011).

Life ItselfI read a few different memoirs this year and Roger Ebert’s was by far the most enjoyable.  I remember watching Siskel and Ebert’s movie reviews during high school- I didn’t watch very many movie’s then but was still fascinated by these two witty critics who made a living… watching movies?  (Check out this great oral history  about that unlikely show.)  In more recent years I’ve begun to appreciate the world of film more and Ebert has been one of the writers who has pointed me to the many great options beyond the megaplex.  Life Itself is worth reading for so many reasons: Ebert’s descriptions of journalism in a bygone era; his reflections on religion as an atheist married to a Christian woman he adores; the many, many stories of the women and men who make movies, each told without a trace of the cynicism or celebrity worship we’ve come to expect from such stories.  But what makes this book truly fantastic – why I’ll read it again – is Ebert’s writing.  These pages contain more than interesting remembrances of a more than interesting life.  It’s the words and sentences Ebert selects and crafts that make this book  a page-turner even to those who care little for the films with which the author will forever be identified.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (2010).

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessI said more about this book on the blog than any other this year. My friend Richard and I blogged our way through the book and it was gratifying to hear of others who were reading along.  Briefly, author Michelle Alexander makes evident the hard-to-grasp and harder-to-believe systems, policies, and narratives that have led to the mass incarceration (and huge racial disparities) that has become common in America.  The statistics Alexander provides will make you angry- and that’s the point to some extent.  The America beloved by so many and the one experienced by those portrayed in The New Jim Crow are two different Americas.  What will it take for those who’ve been privileged to know the supposed best of this country to see through that privilege to the appalling injustice on the other side?  Alexander’s book has been that catalyst for many already and, I hope, for many more.