In 1954, Jacques Ellul published his most influential work: The Technological Society. He argues that “la technique” (the drive towards ultimate efficiency) harms humanity. The Meaning of the City can be viewed as a theological accompaniment to this work.
Ellul argues from the whole sweep of the Bible that the city represents humanity’s self-alienation from God. When Cain was sent wandering, he founded a city. Babel, Babylon, Sodom, Nineveh—these all build exemplify life without God.
God, however is not content to leave humanity on its own. God chose to use Jerusalem to take “a foothold in man’s world” (101). Despite God’s beachhead, Jerusalem’s character as a city often rose to the surface. Jesus found solace in the desert, and death in Jerusalem. Revelation refers to Jerusalem by it’s parent-city: Babylon. Of course, God still used the city’s rebellion for his redemptive purposes.
The Bible ends with a vision of a city that has the characteristics of a garden. God capitulates and works with humans in providing a city, but it will be a city redeemed. Creation begins in a garden and ends in a city.
The Meaning of City helped me to understand the theme of ‘city’ throughout scripture in a way I had never before put together. Ellul self-consciously analyses the entire Bible without getting bogged down in issues of “classical exegesis, of form criticism, of the extensive research into literary and cultural history, of the new hermeneutics, and even of the more recent studies of structuralism” (xvii).
I have mentioned my frustration with systematic theology before. Ellul has reminded me just how profitable an honest systematic approach can be. He draws out the overarching themes of the canon without twisting chapter-and-verse to fit his thesis.
The power of the Internet to make the entire world one global city makes Ellul’s criticism and insight more valuable today than ever before.
—Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of City, trans. Dennis Pardee (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).