This semester I’m teaching a course on the topic of Christianity and popular culture. We started the semester reading selections from Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and Andy Crouch’s Culture Making, trying hard to make the case for a Kuyperian transformational approach to how we should live in the world. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to include Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City on the syllabus… in April… when students and professors alike start thinking about the end of May. I’ve always had this weird fascination with Ellul’s work, one that isn’t necessarily shared by my neo-Calvinist colleagues. He seems to be too much of a curmudgeon for even the crustiest of Kuyperians. Ellul throws a wrench into our Kuyperian attempts to save the world, our attempts to squeeze as much as we can into “every square inch,” our attempts to build up institutions that will last until Christ comes again and beyond. Ellul doesn’t let us equate our work with the coming Kingdom of God because we don’t bring the kingdom – God brings the kingdom. All of our attempts to build up religious and cultural structures, baptizing our work with pious rhetoric, ends up in idolatry. The best we can do is wait, seeking the welfare of the city by bearing the word of God in the midst of the cold, dark, reality of this life. We wait for the city that is to come; we wait for the future life that God will bring.
This engagement of Ellul corresponds with my rediscovery of the Cohen brother’s film No Country for Old Men. The opening scene is a monologue about the old days, about the time when sheriffs didn’t even have to wear guns. The voice wonders what some of the old timers would have thought about the type of crime committed today. Evil acts that aren’t done for anything in particular, they don’t seek wealth or power, they just seem to be about the act itself. The harsh, cold, reality of a coin toss. “Call it,” we hear Anton Chigurh say. “I need to know what I stand to win,” the man behind the counter says. “Everything.” Anton responds.
It’s the last scene of the film that the most powerful. The old sheriff, now retired, talking to his wife about his dreams. His father passes him on horseback, riding through the mountain pass, through the cold and the snow. He doesn’t say anything, but he’s carrying fire, he’s going on ahead “fixing to make a fire in all that dark and all that cold…” Fixing to make a fire – this, it seems to me, is what it means to be the Christian community. To have the courage to choose to be in the world, to live in the “city” as Ellul puts it, in the midst of the dark, the cold, and the “tyranny of evil men.” It might not be triumphalistic, but it might just be the gospel.