The Humiliation of the Word – a review

The Humilation of the WordHow do we figure out what the truth is? The answer to this question is the topic of the book to the left. The author, Jacques Ellul, claims that the primary means humans have to discovering truth is sight and language, especially oral language. Increasingly, society is depending on perception to define truth, while diminishing its reliance on dialogue. In other words, for us, perception is reality, and reality is the truth.

Yet, the book’s convincing analysis shows that we can never arrive at truth through what we perceive, we always need language to explain what we are seeing. It is an important distinction because we live in a society increasingly dependent on images to communicate and less able to talk, listen and read. As we move away from meaningful conversations in favor of pictures, we lose our access to knowing and understanding the truth. Worse, from a Christian perspective, this dependence on what we can see makes it more difficult to commune with the God whom we can only know through the Word. God is always seeking to be in conversation with us, while we are looking for clear, unmistakable signs of his existence. We miss his “still small voice” because of the visual noise all around us. Ellul writes, “Evidence is absolute evil. We must accept nothing based on evidence, contrary to Descartes; recommendation. The evidence of reality is quite useful for action, but in no way help us to understand the meaning of our lives. As soon as we allow ourselves to be invaded by this obsession with evidence, the discretion of the word vanishes. We become insensitive to language, which, even if it is the Word of God, loses its meaning. Thus we no longer pay any attention to it.”

Personally, there were a number of insights (ha!) that I hope influence me for the better.

1. As a father, I want to raise my children with the ability to think beyond appearances. That is, a judgmental attitude is always a result of sight. We see a particular pointillist view of someone’s life and infer so much from what we see. I hope to raise children who will take the time to listen, to think deeper and to be open to more than just what’s immediately in front of them. Ellul writes, “Today it is almost impossible for a child – but also for an adult- to fix his attention on something besides images. If a person wants to teach or to make something known in our day, he must, without reserve represent it: express it in a picture, a diagram, or a reproduction. Oral explanations overwhelm and tire the listener; words no longer hold people’s attention or their interest. Knowledge today is expressed through images.” 

2. Technology tempts me to participate less in my life. Another quote from the book, “We actually live with a continual play acted out before us (on television); our home becomes nothing but scenery. An imaginary mutation takes place that is continually renewed and that erases and takes shine off reality. A screen of images is placed between me and my world—-a circle of images that become so much truer than my own life I cannot rid myself of them. Television is the supremely powerful drug. I end up living my existence before the very thing that eliminates me.


2 thoughts on “The Humiliation of the Word – a review

  1. Some students of mine are reading “Fahrenheit 451” right now. It’s about a future where society burns books because the words in them reveal more about existence and human relationships than people can comfortably endure. It’s much more pleasant to stay drugged and emotionally distant, wearing our earbuds and being continuously entertained by screens.

    Many students are bored with it, but get a little more interested when they realize how the dystopian future of the book so closely resembles the world we currently live in.


    1. In the current Ellul book I’m reading, “The Ethics of Freedom”, he says that the first step of freedom is to become aware of the influences that keep us alienated from our real lives. You’re students are lucky they are getting the chance to name their oppressor, and they’re fortunate they have you to explain to them that “Fahrenheit 451” is now. It’s amazing to me that we could swap students and they’d be basically the same in the school environment.


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