Reflection Paper on Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word

Posted: June 14, 2016 in Book and Article Reviews
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Why is Ellul concerned about the humiliation of the Word? What does that even mean for him? What is “technique” for Ellul and how does that impact the current church culture? How do you think Ellul would prescribe a way forward for the church?

Ellul is concerned with the humiliation of the Word for several reasons.  He sees the word as primarily concerned with truth.  Images, which are dominant in our world, are primarily concerned with reality.  Images, in his opinion, cannot be true.  They can only offer a perception of the world, which is not reality but gives the appearances of containing the whole of reality.  As such, images deny words their power and place and rob people of necessary community for discerning truth.  With the proliferation of images, the word and its vitality are diminished and finally discarded.  This is the essence of the Decalogue’s prohibition against images.  They necessarily (due to the fallen nature of the world) become idols.  But, it is the Word that cannot become an idol, allows us to understand truth, and become open to God’s activity in the world.

Technique is difficult to describe because Ellul never fully describes it.  Essentially, technique if about efficacy, efficiency, technology, and utility.  It’s primarily about productivity and its ability to direct people toward whatever end is deemed necessary.  In many respects, technique is about shaping us to the ideology of the image.  In other words, It constructs a world in which we live but can do nothing about because images call for action but do not actually create action.  Instead, images render us merely observers.  It is only the word that can bring about change.

This is where Ellul sees the largest impact in the Church.  Namely, the liturgy and icons have become the primary vehicles for creating meaning within the Church.  These images do not convey truth but the perception of reality.  People are easily and efficiently enculturated through the use of images.  What can only be an eschatological sign (and therefore inappropriate now) is deemed necessary for creating disciples.  At the same time, the Word is diminished in its power and primacy within the Church.  Part of the reason, in Ellul’s thought, that the Church has achieved such a dominant place in society for so long is due to its use of images, which is later rejected for the Reformers.  The image is domineering and tyrannical in that it creates subservience rather than freedom.

It’s difficult to assess where Ellul would forge a way forward.  In many respects, it seems that he would wish to strip churches of ornament, liturgy, and icons.  He would want simple, austere buildings (if any buildings).  He would not allow media technologies to play a part in worship services.  Words would be read, heard, and memorized.  It would require preaching and teaching that used words about the Word.  So, in many respects, it seems Ellul would have a heavy emphasis on Scripture and singing and prayer.

In all honesty, I agree with much of Ellul’s assessment of the dominance of images and how that impacts our epistemologies, our way of knowing and understanding.  There is little doubt that we have been shaped in significant ways by our technologies.  They are not innocent mediums.  But, every medium has its costs.

However, I largely thought Ellul’s theological and Biblical reflection was full of holes.  He begins by talking about the Decalogue’s exclusion of images.  Yet, within only a few chapters Exodus records the building of the Tabernacle, which included a multitude of images.  The Ark of the Covenant later becomes a symbol for God’s presence.  The same is true of the Tabernacle.  The High Priest also become a representative of God to the people and the people to God.  Those are images, albeit not pictures or movies.

Jesus even takes up these images upon himself.  He claims to be the new Temple, which is then extended to the Body of Christ, the Church.  Also, John 1 says that the “Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (my translation).  That which was invisible in the beginning became visible among us.  Not to mention Paul talks about Christ being the “image of the invisible God.”  If truth and reality were truly divided in the Fall, God has already begun to bring these back together in Christ.  And, as “sent ones” we are called to continue this same work.  Perhaps images aren’t as off limits as Ellul would suggest.

To make one more point, the Creation is spoken into being.  Everything in reality has its origin in the Word.  As those created in the imago Dei, we are both spirit (breath) and dust!  To separate truth and reality, word and image, is to create a false dualism and dichotomy.  Nothing is ever so simple as that kind of bifurcation.  Does the image need the Word?  Yes!  But, perhaps words can also benefit from images as well.  After all, doesn’t the writer of Romans not talk about those that have “seen” the Creation are without excuse and have tangible, visible evidence that God is Creator?

Does the Creation contain the totality and mystery of God?  Of course not!  A picture of any human being does not dissolve the inherent mystery of that person, even if the image might suggest that.  That is where we must do constant, careful work as pastors.  Explain the images that we employ.  Don’t use images haphazardly because they’re cool or look great.  Rather, be intentional about teaching and preaching and leading people to “hear” the images of our faith in faithful ways.  Is it not true that the Creative power of the Word is also capable of breathing life and meaning into icons, liturgy, images, and art dedicated to God’s glory?  I hope that is true, otherwise things like the Eucharist would have no meaning beyond mere bread and wine.


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