Propaganda, Myths, and Witnessing

The Situation:

“We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized….They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure….it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons….who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” (Bernays, Propaganda, 1928, IG Publishing, NY, p. 28)

After hearing this quote in the 2015 documentary, “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” I had to read Bernays’ book. When published eighty years ago, propaganda was seen as a wholesome tool to change behavior for the better. For example, propaganda could teach society about sanitation and public health strategies. Propaganda, from the same root as propagate, was considered a good thing.

Once it had been used nefariously in the period leading up to the Second World War, the term developed negative connotations. Propaganda has two components:

1) A trustworthy spokesman to speak the ideas which one wants to spread.

2) Catchy slogans that will remain in the public discourse when the trustworthy spokesman is no longer available.

Though skewing one’s perception in a different way than propaganda, the notion of an overarching myth also helps to understand why groups behave and believe a certain way. In the PBS series, “The Power of the Myth,” Joseph Campbell spoke of how folks participate in this mechanism. Campbell’s use of the term myth does not imply an untruth; rather, myth is a formative narrative. Simply put, myths are the stories we tell ourselves, individually or as part of a group. The exodus story has been a predominant narrative for America. Adventists have used the concept of a “present truth to call people out of Babylon” as a controlling narrative. Other examples involve stories about race, victimhood, political ideology, group superiority, and national identity.

People of a certain age will remember the phrase “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” That slogan functioned as a controlling myth during the O.J. Simpson trial, and history has shown it to be a misleading premise. Familiar guiding myths within church life are metaphors of swinging pendulums and middle-road-ditch-avoidance. While these “myths” can be useful, they can also be limiting when people routinely defer to catchy phrases to guide in all occasions. For example, what if a middle of the road goal is poorly suited to a certain problem? What if a metaphor based on chemical reactions would be more helpful – one in which the church should get involved to function as enzyme or reagent toward a goal of transformation? Or what about a trinity-based narrative that capitalizes on strength in triads as opposed to binary maneuvering?

Several things keep groups and individuals wedded to one story, whether or not this is optimal. One quick way to evaluate the validity of a myth is to look at its capacity for self-critique. Bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, authority bias, and availability cascade all serve to keep a person entrenched in a certain reality, although the reality may be fake. Social media has made each of these mechanisms even more powerful.

While the initial intent of propaganda was to convince groups toward betterment, its implementation to pressure rather than logically persuade, has made it a key element of brainwashing. Effective brainwashing has five components1:

1) Isolation

2) Control

3) Strong emotions

4) Uncertainty

5) Repetition

A brainwashed person will have narrow horizons so that she titrates all information into preexisting frameworks that use only well-greased neural circuits. A brainwashed person does not have to think, as she has become fact resistant.

Brainwashing does not always occur in a coercive milieu. Consider the notion that all five components can be present in a smart phone user, so that a surreptitious brainwashing may result. First, a person can experience isolation with a cell phone, and then be somewhat controlled by event notifications. One can feel emotion/fear, with uncertainty about what will appear on the screen next, as repeated friends and news sources reiterate specific views on circumstances and news items.

Have most people unknowingly fallen victim to controlling narratives or feedback loops that simply reinforce preconceptions? Are people in control of what they know? Importantly, how can Jesus followers witness when people seem to be living in ever more deeply entrenched all-encompassing narratives?

What now?

A Jesus follower’s imperative is to seek truth, always, and to seek to be a conduit to help other people find truth. When the future of truth is in doubt we may cling to one truth: lies will enslave us, and the truth will set us free. Abrainwashed person has lost the essential essence of being created in God’s image.

The first and most important conversion is to reality. This personal commitment to living in reality and to helping others to move toward reality has to feature a focus on God, away from fantasies, to honest truth about what is. Despite societal hurdles, we cling to the hopeful promise that we can change our stories and that we can be used by God to help others to change their stories. In fact, the heart of conversion is to leave one story behind, turning to another.

Consider Paul’s conversion. His overarching myth changed from seeing himself as a protector and purifier of truth to a story of proclaiming the beauty of Christ’s self-sacrificing love. Paul had a paradigm shift. First, he had to confront the reality that he was part of the problem. His zeal had been misplaced, indeed his self-deception had allowed him to work against God, while thinking he was working for God. Conversion involves rejecting the narratives that are based on lies inherited from the world.

My favorite question to ask when interviewing someone is: Could you tell me about a time when you changed your mind?

Metanoia, the transliteration for the Greek word commonly translated as “repentance,” also includes the meaning “to change one’s mind.” Repentance is a decision to commit to truth.

Let us consider if we are inadvertently advocating a skewed sort of repentance when we double down to force a flat, plain authority of the Bible as an ultimate evidence of repentance. Pious claims to live Biblically are easy to pierce by comparing how a group gives priority to certain verses and ignores other verses. How does the group decide which verse is the most authoritative or which verse provides the overarching narrative? For non-believers, such discrepancies support their decision to reject a Biblical voice as authoritative.

Believers must acknowledge the struggle in deciding which verses to follow with a plain reading and which to exegete as to context and setting. A flat reading of Bible as codebook will fall short in application, and loses steam in convincing people to submit to biblical edicts. Likewise, a modernistic use of scripture as databank, serving as a fount of science, can seem nonsensical, as it is obvious that the text was not written with a scientific, truth defending, worldview.

Authentic, winsome witness would shift emphasis away from using Bible as a monolithic, authoritative codebook. Most of us are not reading it in the original language, and have tended to interpret it through the lens of Enlightenment thinking – when conventional wisdom made people believe they could search and articulate all truth. I suspect that God’s intention in preserving the sixty-six book canon was to provide a multi-voiced longitudinal account of God interacting with humanity over millennia.

Jesus demonstrated how to interpret ancient sacred texts, choosing to broaden the scope to love, grace, and inclusion (see Luke 4, for example). A nuanced angle of Biblical authority, filtered through Jesus as “Word made flesh,” is more powerful than simply claiming it to be the inerrant proclamation of God’s will. It is helpful to look at scripture as the Hebrews did – a record of Yahweh’s dealings with His people. Alden Thompson’s proposal that the Bible be used as a casebook, not a codebook, could be one of the biggest present truths our denomination has to offer.

Maybe the way forward is to respect the bigness of God and what He is trying to do. Brueggeman recently addressed this phenomenon in a video tweet in which he recommends using God’s holiness expressed in neighborliness as an optimal guiding narrative for Jesus followers. The Christian life involves re-understanding our whole lives and the world in light of God’s revelation. Key to being in this process is to be mindful of the atmosphere we project. Do we repel people or attract them?

Instead of loud, frantic Bible defenders, let me suggest that it is time for a Jesus follower to become like a new kind of first responder. Let us be the ones to take a courageous step toward the other, and to do something other than reject or attack based on a Biblical arsenal. We can do this with siblings and mates and friends and colleagues and maybe, most urgently, with those whom we disagree. The best witness now might be done at an angle without the traditional demands to creedal acquiescence. Jesus’ life was infused with humility and love. Jesus did not debate non-violence. He lived it. He did not just teach – He taught with the individual in mind, giving special attention to the individual stories of people in His audience. In this way He was able to break through the overarching narratives and encapsulated personal stories of people around Him. He was able to subvert the existing religious and political myths and bring those who were willing to a new plane of understanding.

Isaiah describes the pitiful situation of people boxed in by misconceptions:

“What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever.” Isaiah 5:21,22 NLT

Perhaps the book title “Your God is Too Small,” could be the most potent expression of a controlling narrative for witness now. But, such witness will not be easy.

“The world frequently conspires to muzzle or destroy its truest seers. The way of the prophet/reformer has usually been hard and not infrequently fatal. There is no reason to suppose it would ever be different for God on earth (assuming He has bound Himself not to accept celestial intervention). Indeed, just because this is it, real Truth, real Goodness, real Beauty, real God focused in human form, it is not unreasonable to imagine that all the truth hating and self loving spiritual powers will join forces...Misrepresentation, slander, the deadweight of age-long custom and authority, false propaganda – all weapons will be used.”2

Challenging times. God will be with us. Jesus walked the path.

Notes:

1. Kathleen Taylor, “Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control,” 2006, Oxford University Press.

2. J.B. Phillips, (1953) “Your God Is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike,” location 863.

Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.

Image Credit: Philip De Vere – Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7941
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We live in a culture susceptible to propaganda and fake news like never before. We have failed to teach how to verify source reliability. We have failed to teach open-mindedness. We have failed to teach critical thinking. We have failed to teach what our focus needs to be on. We have failed to teach what an effective witness should be. We have failed (not entirely) to do our part in the Gospel Commission.

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Thank you, “Spectrum” and Carmen Lau, for your continuing conversation in matters of thought, faith, and action. Since you asked, I would like to tell you about the time I changed my mind from thinking about the Bible as " a record of Yahweh’s dealings with his people," as some would have it, to thinking of the Bible as “a record of his peoples’ dealings with Yahweh.” This is the leveling casebook we struggle to understand: our thoughts about Yahweh. To ascertain that we could authoritatively discern God’s intentionality in his communication with believers is holding onto one last crag of exegetical entitlement. I say, let go, convert to the reality of recognizing that the commanding myth that we enjoy a selective interpretive grace that separates us from our neighbors is also a myth that needlessly separates us from God.

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The post modern world is based on doubt for many good reasons. The best remedy is to consult several translations of Scripture and to hold as an anchor to the essentials of the Apostles Creed. Then live in accord with assurance. Then to walk humbly with God in Spirit and Truth. All the prophetic way marks lead to salvation through and by the Christ event. Worship is to sing and praise the creative power and redemptive love of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ and coming King of Kings. Worship in love and joy with all who hold that assurance foremost in their lives.

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From my experience, what Adventism has created is a whole generations of unhealthy individuals. Those who have followed the “blueprint,” and gone on to higher education are daily performing a balancing act between the faith of their childhood and and cognitive reality, leading to an unhappy experience. It might not play out in everyday experiences, but in the quiet moments of fading sunlight on a Friday evening, a longing for the days long gone comes rushing in.

We have created generations dependant on that Adventist “myth” (as meant in the article). Adventism isn’t alone in this regard - all religion is based on a given story, perpetuated through generations. The more of the 5 points given by Carmen Lau, incorporated in practice, the more damage is done. In my experience Adventism is particularly good at #1 isolation and #5 repetition through its educational system.

Coming from a public school system, I found the SDA college a cocooning experience, welcomed at the time. Changing my major from “education” to English was my salvation. My family came to include third generation Adventist, very few of the third generation still in the church - most hanging out in the periphery. It’s about that “no-man’s-land” that concerns me. Those who are regular churchgoers are not your typical 1950’/60s Adventists. Even there, many of the early taboos have been shed - but what has replaced that which has been dropped?

…but we were never taught to “search the scriptures” - we were taught to search and memorize the “myth”. Do we even know how to read the Bible? Isn’t it marked in yellow with marginal notes (unless you have one of the new ones published by Pacific Press). It’s those marked passages we read, one leading to another - and there we have that myth, etched in yellow within our Bibles. So, yes, we are people of the Bible, who never have really read it.

Where do we go from here … - we may not have enough time to tell the rest of the story.

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Yes, though after some serious study, I’m at the place where I’m pretty sure that any ‘plain reading’ is lacking. There is usually more to understand.

Truer words never written. Yes, not history or science in the modern sense. The bible isn’t a textbook and does not address natural history, or even history. The Jewish Bible is a story of a people and their struggles to define themselves. The Christian bible that of a man, later elevated to the status of God, and his followers.

I don’t see this happening much within the church. My pastor seems averse to suggestions of more in-depth understanding of ancient times and scripture, especially if there’s a hint that discovery my be at odds with the 26, no 27, no 28 “fundamental” beliefs, poorly thought out and written as they are. I see Ted W. doing everything he can to prevent a better understanding of the Christian faith.

Last I checked men assembled the bible and preserved it, selecting from the writings of the day scripture that seemed the most politically and theologically centrist and acceptable. It’s a matter of history, I think, especially for the NT, where the Roman Christian faction won out due to their wealth and influence and chose the books that agreed with their theology, some 400 - 600 years AD, at the expense of other Christian groups.

As far as what they came up with, 66 books you mention are only one version.

The King James Version, always popular with the KJV-only crowd, was first published with 80 books. Some versions still have them today. Other bibles have 78, 87 or other book counts, and some include or reject books others considered sacred. Your statement makes it sound like there’s one bible we accept, but that doesn’t work given the very basic disagreements among Christian churches about which set of books is to be included, never mind how to read them and what they mean. As diverse as these modern camps are, they pale when compared to the early church, which operated without a canon for hundreds of years.

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‘plain reading’

If only they could agree on what that was! :wink:

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Let’s go to “secular” matters : “Alcohol Damages the Brrin, Permanently” (“Listen”, about 1970) The theory to get red blood cells to clogginh cannot be uphelts. Not even with fake illustrations. Guy Hunt, LOma LInda, , wheen asked, regrets that the sceientific acumen available - for instance in LL - was not made use of. The retired historian from PUCwrites about Czechowski in “Advetist Rveiew”, suggesting in the last paragraph Cehechowski is found in a document - the coroners report - as a “Cahtolic”- no, we have at least two other documents here in Vienna ((“Haupt - Stantdesprotokoll der niederoesterrechischen Landesirrenanstal” and the diary of the Protestant City Church in Doriotheergasse, where he is named a “Protestant” - just. Professor, do not only read the first psage of Uevbersax ’ firts report on the theme out of 1976. Around 1850 Du Bois - Raymond explained the flow of electrivc potentials along the surface of the nerval cells, therewith clearing question coming up with Galvani quite d a century berfore . I n the mid eighties of the 19th century there wa a quarrel between two scentists, presented to the “WIener Akademie der Wissenschaften” about te priority of discovering the EEG - - It took decades until Berger had the amplifiers available to measure potentials through the human scull, the others before him implanted eletrodes into cats brains. Anyhow, in the matter of “Electric Currents in the Baiin” EGW is - far behind ! - - - -One with academic degrees of Higher Adventist Education gets the assignemnt to write für the “Week of Prayer”. She wrote about the woman in John 8 - : " - but she was a postitute !" - No, this person of high character apologized : she had mingled the woman of John 8 up with the one of John 4. At least she apologized. After millioons have acceptingly read the error. - - - . One of Greek origin, Newbold -trained, teaching somewhere in the Phillipines, boldly declares with authority :"glwssa ever and always means and meant “language, speech”. Period, Pentecosalstls are at the end with their arguments - Well, he is not even aware of Acts 2 :3 . : Something like fiery flames on heir heads - languages ? Look at the Bauer or the BDAG of "bible Works an maybe - of Greek origin - know about Aischilos’ Orestie / Agamemnon, here Kassandra beginning with verse1072 - goingon for 142 verses ! .- - - - Did anyone protest ?

Such “scholarship” just - hurts.

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The GC, around the early 70’s had produced a film on alcohol.
Part of the film was a demonstration of impaired circulation related to amount of alcohol consumed.
It used the blood vessels of the eyeball with microscopic photography illustrating that.
With red blood cells “sticking” together, there was impaired circulation at the capillary level of the
blood circulation. So tissue cells did not receive the Full Amount of Oxygen they needed to function
completely. And the return to normal red blood cell function with the ability of red blood cells to
easily go through the capillaries to deliver Oxygen and to retrieve Carbon Dioxide of metabolism
occurred as alcohol blood levels dropped.
That was the substance of that part of the Movie.
It was available from my GA-Cumb conference office. I borrowed it a number of times to show to
my Senior Health Class students at Laurelbrook back then.

“The Days of Wine and Roses” was the most powerful anti-drinking film ever. I saw it as a freshman in college. Its impact has been powerful and permanent. It was shown at our university on a Saturday night.

God cannot alter the past, but historians can. In times like these it is difficult not to write satire. Hang the whole human race, and finish the farce.

As is the usual case with Spectrum that article is interesting and informative. In my professional life as an engineer, I found two questions to be essential. They are deceptive by their simplicity. They are anything but trivial. The first question is So. The second question is So what.

The first question is concerned with what is. Facts, data, models, and other items that are common in science. The second question So what is concerned with the meaning of that information within a context. To use those questions well is almost always a lot of work. However, the power of those two questions for those able to use them effectively is great.

As I mused on the article, I find much that answers the question so. When I came to So what, I am left puzzling. Honestly, today I find that most SDA believers are firmly in the camp of those who cannot see beyond the ideas that define current Adventism. There are those who do and I suspect the majority of Spectrum readers are in the later camp. But still… so what?

So What

Taking the so from the article, I am going to be so bold as to suggest my own So what.

  • First, there is no such thing as truth that the human mind can understand. We were created in a way that prevents us from understanding truth as God does. This has broad implications. The proof for this is several chapters in a book.

  • The so what to the simple fact that mankind can only think in models and is therefore incapable of understanding “The Truth” says that we can be only be on a journey toward truth. And it also says on our journey, we will find bright stones to pick up. We can carry those stones until we find better stones. But in all cases, they are just stones. The stones are not the journey.

  • There are several important conclusions to be drawn from these two so what. First is that we were created to love and not understand “The Truth.” Is this one of the current or even past Adventist truths? No, no and not yet. Could it be? It must. The reason why is found in the rampant theology of Fundamentalism in the church. These people know they have The Truth. I laugh! Really? You honestly think you have The Truth? What a lie. I call Fundamentalism the greatest lie Lucifer ever told. But if you look for an antidote to Fundamentalism, look no further than love. What it is and how is it practiced.

Just my 2 cents about so what.

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Very thought provoking. Thank you.