Reading Leo Tolstoy's religious writings earlier this year made me want to have another go at reading Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity. I began to read this book some years ago, only to find that the copy in my hands was a misprint and half the text was missing. Life intervened, and it took Tolstoy to remind me of it.
In some ways, Ellul was a French equivalent to the Englishman CS Lewis. Like Lewis he was a prominent Christian intellectual of more or less orthodox Protestant views. Like Lewis, he had a depth of theological knowledge but was mostly self-taught (although Ellul did complete most of a theology degree before the Second World War intervened) while pursuing an academic career in a different discipline (Ellul in sociology, Lewis in literature).
Of course there are also differences. Lewis wrote for a popular audience and much of his writing is highly accessible. Ellul was far more "intellectual" and his writing can be dense and difficult. However, for both their place outside the theological establishment allowed them to present perspectives and raise issues which would be difficult for someone operating fully within the institution.
The Subversion of Christianity was one of Ellul's later works, first published in French in 1984 and English in 1986 when the author was in his 70s. In many places he refers the reader to the more detailed analysis of some of the issues in his earlier works. His basic thesis is that Christianity, by which he means the gospel of Jesus and the apostles, has been subverted and robbed of its power by ideas and approaches imported from elsewhere.
For Ellul, Christianity is not an ideology, an "ism", but the denial of ideology. It represents a rejection of earthly power and wealth in favour of the crucified Christ. Nor is it a religion in the usual sense - it is not a way of defining things that are sacred against things that are not but a way of making the whole of life subject to God. It is not a cultural artefact or even the basis for a culture but God breaking into culture to transform us in his image. So how is it subverted?
Ellul discusses five sources of subversion. These are not sequential, but run as themes through the relationship between Christianity and the multiple cultures within which it has been situated.
The first is what he refers to as the process of "sacralisation". He sees Christianity as the ultimate piece of descralisation in that the boundary between the sacred and the profane is broken down. In Christianity there are no sacred places or objects because everything is sacred, everything belongs to God. Christianity did away with the temple in Jerusalem and the shrines in the sacred groves because anywhere and everywhere was the right place to worship God. It did away with sacred objects or talismans because everything belonged to God. It did away with priests because anyone could access God directly in humble prayer. Yet it didn't take long for Christians to recreate their own sacred places, objects and persons - consecrated churches, sacred sites, holy relics and a consecrated priesthood. The result was that God, who should be understood to permeate all of life and all of creation, was put back into a box, confined to certain places and people while everyone else got on with their lives untouched by his presence.
The second process is the growth of moralism. Christianity is meant to be a religion of grace, its emphasis on God drawing us to himself through Christ. Certainly there was a sense that certain behaviours were more appropriate for Christians, but these were consequences of this fundamental act of God's grace, not a moral system in themselves. Yet from early in its history its leaders began to develop it as a moral system, and to spend their energy on enforcing a set of rules on their followers. Morality became divorced from grace and the church was turned into an instrument of social control.
The third, perhaps surprisingly, is the adoption during the middle ages of various theological and political ideas borrowed from Islam. In Ellul's telling, Islam was by far the most advanced and intellectually developed culture of the medieval period and Christian thinkers learned a lot from them, even though this debt was rarely acknowledged. He points out two particular influences. One is the emphasis on God as wholly "other" to us and sitting above us in judgement, as opposed to the incarnate God of Christianity. The second is the idea of the unity of divine law with human law - that God's will can and should express itself in the laws of nations.
This leads on to his fourth process, the process of political perversion or capture. Of course the paradigm for this is not so much Constantine himself but his lionisation by the church. Constantine is said to have experienced a charismatic conversion, after which he went into battle with the cross on his banners. How, asks Ellul, can the cross be turned into a symbol of political power and military conquest? Yet "Christian" kings and governments have been blessed by the church ever since. For Ellul this is directly contradictory to Christianity, which sees power itself as a form of idolatry. He sees Christianity as neither politically neutral, nor as blessing any particular political structure or ideology, but as resolutely anti-political, opposed to political power in any shape or form.
The final process is, in a way, the other side of the coin of the four that have gone before. Through the 20th century, the certainties of this perverted form of Christianity were stripped away in the face of the rise of nihilistic world views such as Nazi-ism and Leninism, and by the brutalities of the two world wars. We no longer accepted the sanctity of places, our morality was revealed as hypocrisy, our laws and governments were shown to be completely secular and far from worthy of praise. Yet at the same time we no longer had a clear sense of what the gospel meant, so Christianity itself became nihilistic, firmly aware of our irredeemable corruption but not of the grace that has come in Christ.
How is it that Christianity was so easily and comprehensively subverted? There are two elements which, according to Ellul, worked together to ensure this subversion. The first is that the revelation itself is so difficult. What is difficult for us is not its "religious" or "miraculous" elements, the sense of God's power and the comfort of his presence. All of these have been welcome and easily accepted for most of history. What is difficult is its thoroughly anarchic nature - not in the sense that it is chaotic but that it is so thoroughly opposed to human power and system. We find this difficult to live by, and try to substitute structure, predictability and secure authority for the unpredictable movement of the Spirit.
The second, which abets the first, is that the things which have corrupted the church are, in biblical terms, "powers" in their own right. Political power, wealth, the ability to control others, the self-will of moralism, are not simply neutral. They are active spiritual forces, demanding our attention and allegiance. The gospel of the New Testament, of Jesus and Paul, asks us to follow a difficult, uncertain path. The powers of this world tempt us from this path, drawing us aside with their claims of holiness and security. The devil, as it were, appears as an angel of light.
It turns out that I was right to allow Tolstoy's writing to drive me on to Ellul. Although the two were superficially very different, the heart of their message is remarkably similar. Ellul was a careful and thorough scholar, Tolstoy an idiosyncratic amateur. Ellul was an active lay member of the Reformed Church of France, Tolstoy a perpetual outsider and habitual individualist. Yet Tolstoy, in his own way, put his finger on the very same ills - the capture of the church by the political powers, its focus on a false and hypocritical moralism at the expense of following Christ, its diversion from the teachings of Jesus to the worship of relics and the mystification of the sacraments.
Yet Tolstoy's answer is, perhaps, too simplistic compared to Ellul's. For Tolstoy, the only thing worth valuing in Christianity was Jesus' moral teaching, summed up in the Golden Rule - "do to others what you would have them do to you", or alternately "love your neighbour as yourself". Ellul, with a more thorough theological grounding and the resources of a non-state reformed church around him, has a more holistic view of the gospel as an expression of God's grace. Ellul presents a very similar challenge to Tolstoy, but he also shows a path to God's grace and acceptance, a path to the peace which the tortured Tolstoy never found.
Despite his damning review of the history of Christianity, Ellul remains profoundly positive about the gospel. In his final chapter he adopts Galileo's phrase: at his trial Galileo recanted of his "heretical" view that the earth orbited the sun, but as he stepped down from the dock he is reported to have said "eppur si muove"- "and yet it moves!". Likewise with the gospel. For all that the power of the church and the tangles of theology and law have obscured it, the gospel still lives and still moves among us. It cannot be stopped, no matter what - as Jesus says, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18). In every age it is born anew despite whatever we may do to it. Thankfully, we are not powerful enough to kill it off.