Mini review: Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City

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Cain is not the city and Abel is not the country, but the relationship between them also illuminates the relationship between the city and the country. All of man's history is not limited to the history of the city and its progress. But they have nevertheless intermingled, and neither can be understood alone. The two realities are realities for God, and only in him can we know exactly what they are. But the problem becomes serious when the city kills the country, when Cain kills Abel. When that happens, man and history are so thrown out of kilter that nothing can modify the new situation. But it can be no other way. Cain could not stop being himself. From the beginning he had to kill Abel. The city, so mediocre, so puerile with its poorly carved blocks artlessly stacked one upon another, with its scanty population still rustic in nature -- this city was, from the day of its creation, incapable, because of the motives behind its construction, of any other destiny than that of killing the country, where God put man to enable him to live his life as best he could.

... The city has, then, a spiritual significance. It is capable of directing and changing a man's spiritual life. It brings its power to bear in him and changes his life, all his life, not just his house. And that seems a fearful mystery.

The first thing most people probably say upon reading the meaning of the city is that it reads like the theological counterpart to Ellul's The Technological Society. Whereas the latter was a critique of technical development from a socio-cultural standpoint, the meaning of the city is an essay on the spiritual significance of technique and urban living. It is refreshingly free of the historicism, structuralism, form criticism, and other anti-traditional hermeneutics which one expects from modern works on Biblical history. It is, as Ellul admits, a 'naive' work, which refuses to view the Bible from a historical distance or to dissect it with the benefit of modern science, but rather as a whole, at once historical and contemporaneous with the present.

Traveling through the Old Testament, Ellul traces a metahistorical narrative of spiritual conflict between the urban and the rural. Ellul examines what he says is a change in piety and religious behavior as the Jews emerge from a nomadic existence to establish a regionally influential and prosperous urban civilization. He compares the spiritual fruits of the Jews' forty years of exile in the desert to the moral decline of Israel at its apex of influence under king Solomon, where pagan temples abounded and merchants ruled the day. The first city, founded by the murderer Cain; Nimrod the great builder, proud and contemptuous of God's power; God's wrathful destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Babylon the Great Whore and symbol of urban domination - with these events and figures Ellul argues that civilization, in Scripture if not in history, represents a "counter-creation" to the original creation of God, provoking 'hardness of heart' and surrounding man with artificial reminders of his vainglory.

Turning to the New Testament, which makes up only a small chapter of the book, he discusses Jerusalem, "the city that murders its prophets" and new Babylon, and the nomadic itinerancy of Christ's lifestyle (for Christ was a stranger to the city), ending with a few chapters on the secular history of the city and its intellectual, economic, and social impact on mankind.

Yet Ellul insists that the genie cannot be put back, that the city will remain an inseparable companion of humankind until a future day of judgment; indeed, God Himself has intervened to unveil the city as the 'crowning moment of history'. Cynics will charge that this is Ellul's excuse for his hypocrisy -- he lived all his life in a city with modern amenities -- but Ellul has always insisted that he relates to the problem of technology not as a savior from without, but as a victim, afflicted with the same changes (symptoms) that he criticizes.