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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 Edward 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. A brainwashed 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 this: 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. Walter 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.



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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