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My Second-favorite Theology Text


Chris Smith

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I posted the following on my blog today. It is a summary of my second-favorite theology text (behind Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship), The Meaning of the City by Jacques Ellul. It's difficult to explain why I like it so much. Maybe because it understands history and the Bible as a narrative, all of which is going somewhere. Maybe because it contains some deep thoughts about how God can appropriate human fallenness into the divine economy. (Religion makes a lot more sense to me if I can attribute the weird stuff-- like sacrifice and temples-- to human innovation.) Maybe just because Ellul was such a darn good writer that the book feels like it could be a sacred text in its own right. In any case, I hope you enjoy.

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The Meaning of the City is French theologian Jacques Ellulâ??s attempt to grapple with the soteriological meaning of urbanization. Ellulâ??s instinct was to be suspicious of such a development. He was similarly wary of technology, which he felt could fundamentally impede spirituality, so it is hardly surprising that he should depict the emergence of the city as a negative development in salvation history. Ellul traces the cityâ??s origins to Cain. When Cain was cursed to wander the earth, he reportedly feared that someone might kill him. God responded to this fear by placing a mark on Cain to ward away potential assailants. Cain, however, was unsatisfied with the security God proffered. He sought to create his own security by the creation of the worldâ??s first city.

The story, however, does not end with Cain. Ellulâ??s book is concerned in large part with the city of Jerusalem, which God has adopted and turned into a holy city. To Ellul, this seems an unlikely development. The election of Jerusalem is not what we would expect from the warrior God of the nomadic Hebrews. The city is fundamentally opposed to him. Why would he adopt it? Jerusalem, moreover, is the worst of the worst. Why does God not choose a different city, or better yet start a new city? This paradox, according to Ellul, is full of meaning. In it we can discern Godâ??s character and the nature of his plan for interaction with humankind.

In Ellulâ??s construction, the city is a place of open rebellion against God. It is a symbol of humansâ?? lack of trust in God, a search for security apart from him. That is its nature; it is fundamentally opposed to him. Ellul calls it a â??counter-creationâ? (102), manâ??s prideful response to Godâ??s perfect creation. Every city is identified with a fallen angel that is the spiritual force behind the city. These angels would like nothing more than to subvert the authority of Yahweh. In light of these characteristics, God has cursed the city. It seems clear what action he should take in this situation. He should separate his faithful from the cities and then destroy them, as he did with Lotâ??s family and Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet God does not choose to do so. He chooses the city of Jerusalem and makes it a holy city, adopting the counter-creation as his own. He chooses to meet man where he is, to drive out the fallen angels, to separate the city from its negative spiritual identity. God works tirelessly to heal the city, to cure it, to incorporate it into his purposes.

Not only does God resist the urge to destroy all of manâ??s cities, but he also resists simply starting a new city. He chooses to take what man has already created, to adopt it, and to very slowly correct it. When this process is finally completed, the reality of the old Jerusalem will give way to the reality of the New Jerusalem. It would be easy for God to find a nice empty little spot of land and build a city like the New Jersualem, one separate from all of manâ??s creations, one without a negative spiritual identity. But instead he chooses to adopt and transform the old Jerusalem.

That he chooses Jerusalem at all is very strange. It is a pagan city built by the Jebusites. It is a city full of bloodshed, a city so impure that Israel spurned it during its initial conquests in the Judges period. It is also a city of idolatry, and for this nearly all the prophets will condemn it. Even King David, who consecrates the city to Yahweh, does not understand. He insists upon building a temple within its walls. He places the Ark of the Covenant on the mount. These become political symbols more than symbols of consecration. They become symbols of power more than symbols of holiness. Jerusalem is certainly not an easy case. From the day God chooses it, he seems to be locked in an endless struggle with it. He destroys it again and again, exiles its inhabitants over and over. And to what avail? Seemingly none. But God does not give up. Each time he rebuilds the city. Each time he rebuilds the temple. He seems determined that these things be healed, that they be separated from the negative spiritual powers that drive them, and that they become entirely pure and devoted to him.

In all of this Ellul sees evidence that God is devoted to man, that he intends to honor his covenants, and that his love is far deeper than man can comprehend. Godâ??s plan is not to start over. It is not to re-create. It is to adopt, and to heal. These are the truths behind the apparent paradox of Jerusalemâ??s election.

The tale that Ellul has spun here, the fabric of myth and social critique that he has so beautifully woven, is one that I find personally compelling. I cannot profess to know the meaning of the city, but my subjective judgment sees in it both the potential for great evil and the potential for considerable good. I do not know whether the time will come when God personally redeems the city, or whether this is entirely our work. But it is our work for the present, regardless of the eschatological, religious, or non-religious categories we place ourselves in. It is time to take a long, hard look at our cities and the injustices they represent, and to begin to be agents of transforming grace within their walls.

-Chris

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Godâ??s plan is not to start over. It is not to re-create. It is to adopt, and to heal. These are the truths behind the apparent paradox of Jerusalemâ??s election.

-Chris

Adopt and heal the very beings he harmed? Maybe God is just trying to save face for getting us all into this ridiculous mess to begin with, aye?

:P

Interesting stuff, Chris.

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Adopt and heal the very beings he harmed? Maybe God is just trying to save face for getting us all into this ridiculous mess to begin with, aye?

:P

Interesting stuff, Chris.

Indeed. Here's another telling of salvation history (by Erik Hare, not French and not a theologian) I ran across recently that I resonated with for somewhat different reasons...

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One day, God had an idea. It was one of those off-beat ideas that simply wouldn't go away, and so He mused over it for a while. Before long, it was a plan. Being God and all, He decided that it was worth putting into action.

He went into His almighty workshop and got busy. First, he created light. It took a day, but he had it up and running. After a good rest, he went back to the shop and made water, and found that in the light it made a realm of waters above and then fell back to the waters below. It was a neat trick, and he tinkered with it for a day. The next day, he made dry land apart from the waters to watch the rain fall and puddle and collect. He put small plants on the land to hold the water back. The next day after that, he turned the lights on and off to watch the water play and move. This was getting fun.

In a bold departure, he then set loose animals everywhere to frolic in the puddles. Finally, on the sixth day, he created something called "Man" to run the whole operation. It was a difficult procedure involving working up a rib, but a hobbyist has to make do with what he has sometimes. With an autopilot in place, God figured he was pretty much done with it and took a break.

About a month later, the electric company sent him the bill for all that light. God was puzzled by this, and set it in his "to-do" pile. Then came the bill for all that water. Later, he was notified by the city that all of these animals running around without permits were going to produce some steep fines. Just as God was about to do something about it, he got the bill from His health insurance for the complicated birthing procedure and ribectomy. God was simply furious.

In His wrath, God wanted to smite someone bad. And so, there was a lot of smiting and terrible almighty get-back. He even cranked up the water pumps for a while just to show that he still could, drowning everyone except another hobbyist who had a big boat ready "just in case".

When He was done, he looked around. The smiting continued without stop. God realized he had made a terrible mistake, and so he made one more being that He called his son. This new creation told everyone that smiting was wrong, and that God wanted it to all stop. That was when "Man" killed his son in the most brutal way they could think of.

God realized it was hopeless, and retired to become an Amish farmer. He never did pay any of the bills, leaving them to be passed on to later generations. No one sees much of him anymore, except occasionally in the details of some very fine furniture He works up when He needs some cash.

The moral of the story is that life is all about hobbies run amok - and debt.

http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewShortS...21&id=27434

-Chris

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