The Gospel USP

My son-in-law has just started hosting a podcast, doing long-form interviews of interesting people in his local area to encourage a community identity. Good stuff.

One of the things he has found interesting in this format arises from his long job experience in public relations. Normally, any “conversation” in that profession would be conducted along well-planned lines designed for the effective delivery of a particular message. You’ll be familiar with this from any political interview or chat show appearance designed to sell a new policy, book or film. Which is to say, all of them.

The purpose of the podcast, however, despite picking interviewees for their particular contributions and achievments, is to get to know them in depth. And as we all know from every real conversation we’ve ever had, conversations are open-ended and discursive, and tend to create their own outcomes rather than achieving pre-ordained goals.

I’m slightly surprised to realise that I first started writing about “the propaganda society” we inhabit over five years ago, which is as long as many of the main prophets of cultural subversion have been aware of the direction society has been taking. I posted here on the book about propaganda by Joost Meerloo in June 2015, and I suspect I only picked up on that because of my developing conviction that the respected media of the press and broadcasters were pushing a particular agenda on sexuality issues, rather than reporting news dispassionately. Now even my builder notices the constant LGBTQ propaganda pitch in every TV ad or drama, and he switches off – which may be a hopeful sign of the eventual collapse of wokeness by being widely rejected as soon as it is properly understood.

I wonder also if I was sensitized to such psychological games, given the main work I was doing then, by the way that the scientific mainstream sought to marginalize by means fair and often foul any narrative of biology outside an atheistic Neodarwinian paradigm. That’s what first led me to suspect the manipulation of information was far wider than any one institution, or subject area. As I argue in my new e-book Seeing Through Smoke we have reached a stage now where virtually all publicly accessible information is either propaganda or counter-propaganda. It’s not only the physical world that is getting buried in useless plastic packaging, but the world of the mind.

Sad to say, this is as true of Christianity as it is of anything else, and I don’t only mean the intersectional syncretism of Anglican bishops and Baptist conferences. Rather, Evangelical Christianity was in fact the first perpetrator of medium as message in modern times, even before the advent of the true psychological propaganda promoted by Edward Bernays and described by those like Meerloo and Jacques Ellul.

It was Charles Finney who placed conversion in the purely psychological realm, by insisting that proclaiming the gospel was not sufficient to engender faith without the “new measures” that became the hallmark of evangelistic “crusades” to the present day, reaching their zenith in the fraudulent miracles and emotionally manipulative music and lighting of the Prosperity Gospellers.

But persuasion-by-technique has become the hallmark not just of televangelists, but of almost all modern religion, from its architecture and liturgy to its technology and preaching. If the preaching is not completely substituted with interactive sharing of feelings, it tends to be punctuated by video presentations, stagecraft and the marketing of a message often unconnected to the text being preached (which is often no more than a hook on which to hang the preacher’s hobby-horses). The question in many pastors’ minds is how to compete with the slick messaging coming from the welter of electronic media to which hearers are constantly subjected. In other words, how can we top the professional progandists with our counter-propaganda?

But it was not always so. Paul, in particular, in several passage contrasts smooth presentation with his “sales gimmick” of having no sales gimmicks. You see in 2 Cor 10:10 that his critics considered him a poor speaker, and he makes appeals to his straightforward honest presentation of the truth about Christ in 2 Cor 2:17; 4:2-7; 5:11 and 1 Thess 12:3-6. He deals with it at most length in 1 Cor 1:18-2:5, where he famously says that he preached nothing but Christ crucified, and contrasts himself with the “philosophers and debaters” of his age.

Now, the closest thing to propaganda in Paul’s time was the highly-developed art of rhetoric, which is what the “debaters” he mentions excelled in: the art of constructing and delivering speech that will win hearts and minds to your cause. It’s a more honest discipline than propaganda, but has the same purpose: to sell product.

Philosophers were trained in rhetoric, but perhaps we can explain Paul’s mention of them in the passage in terms of putting a message in the context of a compelling theoretical framework. It is similar to the way the message of universal white racism today makes persuasive sense to some Evangelicals because of its basis in academic-sounding critical race theory. You feel clever if you understand the theory, just as people felt clever to understand Freudian theory, and thus swallowed the claim that they all had oedipal complexes they had completely repressed. The more intuitive, and correct, conclusion would in both instances have been that the academic theory was tosh. But we’re still as much suckers for “the experts of this age” as they were in Paul’s day.

Paul’s “foolishness of the cross,” though, doesn’t mean that he simply thumped his Bible and shouted louder. He too was seeking to “persuade” (2 Cor 5:11), and just as his letters are logically structured, and even aim to build up a consistent theological “theory,” I’ve no doubt that in his speech he sought to be orderly and convincing. I don’t even believe that he despised the art of eloquence (as exhibited by Apollos) or the discipline of philosophy as such.

It’s more that he deliberately by-passed these “special measures” himself, because he believed firmly that the gospel did not need them, because the message itself, being like the dabar (word) of the Old Testament prophets, had its own supernatural power to convert the soul:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Rom 1:16)

This belief goes back to the first Old Testament prophecies of the New Covenant, which present it not merely as the offer of a second chance for Israel, but as something far better than the covenant of Moses, a word from God’s own mouth that would itself give them a new heart to obey God.

To Paul, then, the less he had on display in the way of “new measures,” the more the power of the gospel itself was on show. I’m pretty sure that’s what Paul means in 1 Cor 2:2 by “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,” though the Charismatics quickly jump to the conclusion that Paul means persuasion by signs and wonders. But he doesn’t – the power is in the life-changing effect of the word proclaimed faithfully and truthfully.

The writer of Hebrews, whoever he was, has the most accomplished Greek and rhetorical style of any of the New Testament writers. And yet he too places his confidence in the spoken and written word:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Heb 4:12)

I think Billy Graham discovered that truth, well before he had won more people to Christ than, possibly, any other man in history. He started in the tradition of the fiery Finney-type revival meeting, and that’s what I expected to experience when I first heard him preach in 1984. But his low-key, simple gospel presentation at first struck me as evidence he was having an off night, until the crowds at Sunderland began to go forward in response. The word itself, proclaimed in the Spirit, demonstrated the power of God. Anything added to it tends only to detract from it.

It seems to me that ordinary people generally are becoming increasingly suspicious of, and indeed sick to death of, the crafted PR that they see wrapping the silver bullets intended to manipulate them in their politics, their morality, their buying habits, their intellectual development, their human relationships, and their religion.

Simply to explain the age-old unpalatable truth of their sinfulness before God, and the hope of forgiveness and new life only through the shed blood of Jesus, whilst expecting the Spirit of God to bring real conviction, might well soon become the unique selling point of Christianity again, as it was in the beginning. It may be less obviously “successful” than the mega-church filled with beautiful young people, loud music and plastic glory glitter in the air-conditioning, but it would soon be producing changed, deepening lives that cut across the grain of a corrupt and narcissistic society, instead of being typical examples of it.

Stammering preachers, unprofessional musicians, hard pews and old treasures drawn from the storehouse of two millennia might then begin to be seen as evidence for the power of the gospel, rather than as hindrances to be swept away by the latest church growth fad. Such things would not be mandatory, of course: there is every reason to give of our best for God’s work. It’s just that we wouldn’t spend so much of our effort worrying about the gift wrapping instead of the gift.

The sleeve notes of the first 1962 album by Peter, Paul and Mary end: “Honesty is back. Tell your neighbor.” How sincere the Warner Bros hack who wrote that was is open to doubt – PP&M were, after all, a group manufactured around the plan of making wholesomeness commercial by manager Albert Grossman, who was positively hated by many New York folkies intent on establishing world communism, not family values.

Still, the cup of progressiveness having been drained to the very dregs by now, it is possible that returning our local churches to being companies of decent people who make it their ambition to “lead a quiet life, to mind their own business and to work with their hands” will be world-changing. Plain honest living, you see, like plain honest preaching, wins the respect of outsiders, especially in a day when both living and speaking are more often done to please social media.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to The Gospel USP

  1. Elizabeth B. says:

    Very good piece.

    “ The word itself, proclaimed in the Spirit, demonstrated the power of God. Anything added to it tends only to detract from it.”

    Yes and not only that, it is as if to disparage the word as not good enough. So, they come with all manner of gimmicks. They disparage all of us seekers by throwing up barriers to simple truth.

    “ Stammering preachers, unprofessional musicians, hard pews and old treasures drawn from the storehouse of two millennia might then begin to be seen as evidence for the power of the gospel, rather than as hindrances to be swept away by the latest church growth fad. ”

    I find this profound. In this age of Covid worship, it may be the simple, rather than the gaudy and slicked, to survive.

    I have never really listened to Billy Graham, now I am curious.

    Very hopeful article. Thanks!

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Maybe the flip side of this is to look at that noble concept of “competing in the marketplace of ideas,” in which Christian apologetics must start on the same level as every other idea.

    Except that nowadays, the actual situation is more often a marketplace of PR, not of ideas. We’re not in general very good at assessing ideas on their own merits, because we’re so used to the slick documentary whose narrative precedes the interviews, with the political slogan that appears to occupy the moral high ground, and (in religious terms) with the message that will appeal to the target demographic.

    The Gospel claims to cut across all that. It proclaims ones willful alienation from God, and offers a life of suffering (“tale up your cross daily”) before the blessing of eternal life – and even that is an eternity of glorifying God rather than the houris advertised elsewhere. The miracle is in the saving power of the gospel truth itself, so why do we not rely on that as much as many rely on power for healing or prophecy?

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