Right now, I'm reading a lot by and about the mid-20th century French polymath Jacques Ellul, and this week I reread parts of Andrew Goddard's Living the Word, Resisting the World: The Life and Thought of Jacques Ellul. Goddard does his best to try to sort through Ellul's accounts of his conversion to Christianity, which is no small task, given that Ellul was deliberately quiet about his conversion story -- not about his faith, but about the moment of his conversion, which he considered to be an intensely private matter -- and when he did recount it later in life, there were slight differences in the telling. This makes it difficult for anyone writing on Ellul to nail down the details of his conversion as neatly as they might wish they could.
Nevertheless, a few things seem clearer about Ellul's conversion and his early experiences of Christian faith, including the fact that he soon set to testing the Christian faith against some of its toughest critics. Ellul wrote,
I very quickly realized that I was experiencing a conversion and that indeed I should put it to the test to see if it held strong or not. So I set about reading antichristian writers. By the time I was eighteen, I had read Celsus, Holbach, and also Marx, who I'd come across earlier. My faith did not budge. It was for real.
As Goddard writes, Ellul "read the most stringent critics of his new-found faith in order to test its credibility," noting that Ellul's interest in Islam and study of the Koran also stemmed from this same impulse at this same of in his life.
Much could -- and should, eventually -- be said about this aspect of Ellul's conversion. For example, it's worth noting that this doesn't mean Ellul didn't experience doubt or struggle (he did, by his own account, spend years wrestling with what his faith meant and resisting its demands). It's also worth asking whether the test to which he put his faith should be the measure of faith's reality.
At the same time, I wonder what we might learn from Ellul's approach, which seems to me like a sort of courageous engagement. By "courageous," I mean that Ellul seems to have been undeterred by the threat that some sharp critic might pose. Perhaps he thought that if the Christian faith could not withstand its critics, it wasn't a faith worth living. If Celsus or Holbach or Marx made a better case, then perhaps the Christian faith wasn't deserving of his trust. By "engagement," I mean that Ellul was not reading these authors in order to manufacture some take-down. We know this, in part, because he continued to wrestle with and draw upon insights of Christianity's critics (and sometimes religion's critics) as the rest of his career unfolded.
What would it look like to emulate Ellul today? To engage openly, freely, courageously with the best, most challenging critics of our views? What would it look like to do that in our educational institutions and programs? What would it look like to do this on social media, where our echo chambers generally let us hear critics of our position, but often only let us hear the most ridiculous, straw-man versions of their arguments, rather than the strongest?
A. K. Sandoval-Strausz's Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City
Horace Parlan's In Copenhagen
Sam Sifton's Bistro Steak (find it here: See You on Sunday) (This ribeye, with a lemon-shallot-thyme-white wine vinegar butter, is the best steak I've ever made.)