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The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. This book was published by Williams B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

The church indulges our desire to "feel good" instead of responding to our need to be spiritually challenged and fed through solid exposition of the Scriptures. The electronic church in particular panders to our appetite for entertainment rather than authentic discipleship and maturity. The following chapters make this abundantly clear. Each chapter is a gem by itself, therefore there is an entire collection of wisdom here.

Introduction: Back to Basics
The logical sequence of visual images and the coherence of spoken language are the starting point of this study.

Chapter 1: Seeing and Hearing: Prolegomena

Compared to phonetic language, graphic symbolism benefits in a special way from a degree of independence: its content expresses in the three dimensions of space what phonetic language expresses in the single dimension of time. Images enjoy a dimensional freedom that writing lacks. An image can set in motion the verbal process which leads to the telling of a myth, but the image is not attached to the myth. Thus in the case of picture writing we are in the presence of "groups of figures coordinated within a system that is foreign to linear organization and thus foreign to the possibilities of continual speech."

Chapter 2: Idols and the Word
The text that encloses the truth of the Word of God is never so exact that it only bears repeating. This text invites me to retell the myth, and the recreated myth calls me to listen to the ultimate, absolute Word. The Word obliges me to speak implying that the text should never be fixed, reduced to structures, enclosed within itself, or understood as if it were an exact and precise mathematical formula. No valid semiotic diagram exists that can exhaust the text that is a metaphor for the Word of God. Such a text must be spoken rather than dissected.

Chapter 3: Sight Triumphant
But let’s be careful: people lost patience with language only when visualization began to triumph. The time came when technique was identified with the visual realm, and technically produced visual images gave people undeniable evidence. At the same time, images gave a feeling of unlimited power. This is when language began to be thought of as just "talk," because it did not give the same kind of clear certainty and indisputable results that visualization and technique did (considered separately as well as in tandem and identified with each other).

Chapter 4: The Word Humiliated
We learn to speak. One or several adults teach us the language. Thus we are made to conform; we are molded, enclosed. As soon as I learn a language I am deprived of my freedom. What freedom? Why, to create ex nihilo my own language. And this is an unacceptable deprivation -- a violation of my most sacred right: the right to construct myself as a person.

Chapter 5: The Religious Conflict Between Image and Word
By allying itself with images, Christianity gains (perhaps!) efficacy, but destroys itself, its foundation, and its content. In reality nothing is left to say -- not because the word is false, but because images have emptied it of meaning.

Chapter 6: The Image-Oriented Person
An object seen can have innumerable meanings. Only language, something auditory, can unravel them. No longer is any meaning left to look for. The object is there, and nothing else. So language disappears. No more additional knowledge exists. The very objects of sight and hearing are possessed, since they are inscribed in a certain space. Just as they are. The artist will have to take possession of these instantaneous realities.

Chapter 7: Reconciliation
No longer are we surrounded by fields, woods, and rivers, but by signs, signals, billboards, screens, labels, and trademarks: this is our universe. And when the screen shows us a living reality, such as people’s faces or other countries, this is still a fiction: it is a constructed and recombined reality. Modern people are deprived of reference to truth at the same time they lose their situation in lived reality. This situation is intolerable. It produces acute suffering and panic: a person cannot live deprived of truth and situated in fiction.

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