In C. S. Lewis’ novel THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, published in 1945, he foresaw the age of propaganda. An unobtrusive organization, the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), was engaged in implementing its program of eliminating undesirables. Although not well-known to the public, the N.I.C.E. controlled parliament. It didn’t really matter whom you, as a voter. elected. Once elected, the MP would be beholden to the N.I.C.E. for their success. Similarly, the media organizations were also under the thumb of the N.I.C.E.
At one point the protagonist, the malleable Mark Studdock, in his quest to always be part of the progressive element at his college, is roped into writing propaganda pieces for the N.I.C.E. for its many initiatives destined to remove people’s freedoms and liberties. Studdock’s template propaganda pieces appear in customized form in all of the nation’s papers. Lewis presents a brilliant picture of how a well-educated, articulate, academic can write convincingly and compellingly on almost any subject. As a reader, who knew the true events behind the story, I could nevertheless only marvel how a clever writer could twist the context to make the facts fit the wholly deceptive perspective desired by the N.I.C.E. The malevolent Progressive Element in the N.I.C.E. goes on to stage fake protests, use the media to mislead the public to rage against the innocent, all for the purpose of eliminating those people who oppose their pragmatic agenda of efficiency and control. Lewis has a real knack for making the propaganda so persuasive that the reader would be taken in if he didn’t see the actions behind the rhetoric. To me this prophecy is happening before my eyes seventy-five years after this book was written.
How does one, then, become a truth-seeker in an age of propaganda?
Before beginning a discussion of a difficult subject about truth and propaganda, it is important to define the terms.
Truth is a very important word in the New Testament. In the Greek the noun, transliterated, is ALETHEIA.
As I work to be a truth-seeker, two important points stand out to me:
- Truth (Aletheia) is connected to reality. It is quite dangerous to ignore truth because reality, by its nature, will win out.
- Truth is not always easy to identify, since appearances may be misleading. Often appearances can be created by what people say.
With regards to propaganda, it is not the opposite of truth, but often is a caricature of it. As the definition indicates, propaganda uses publicity and selected information with an end in mind. They may want you to buy a product, vote for a particular party, censure some group, or believe a particular message. The publicity and selected information is chosen in order: to get the audience to accept the teaching or take the steps desired.
So how do I become a truth-seeker in an age of propaganda? I think there are four steps that are important for me to take:
- If I am given information driving me to a particular belief or action, argue against it. If the information is part of a propaganda initiative, the propagandists are likely telling me half-truths and omitting all counter arguments. If the information is true, I won’t find any compelling counter arguments and the information will become even more convincing.
- Look for data and make the discussion about data. Often the most convincing propaganda is based on emotion, perhaps appeals to sympathy. That is to say, the propagandist avoids asking whether the statement under question is true or false. Instead they focus on how someone has been hurt or denigrated by the assertion.
- Look at the presuppositions. In propaganda, often the assumptions behind the information is never discussed, much less critically evaluated. Yet the whole argument rests on the validity of these assumptions.
- Become a two-column person. By that I mean, assume there is data for and against any position. If none is presented, as is often the case with propaganda, seek it out. Don’t be satisfied to leave one column empty.
I am reading the Father Brown stories for the second time. I believe I now have a complete set and can read them all in chronological order. I particularly want to focus on one story I had not read before:
- Chapter 1 entitled “The Resurrection of Father Brown” in The Incredulity of Father Brown
The Resurrection of Father Brown (caution spoilers)
Father Brown is in an unnamed south american country (it is on the northern coast of the continent) quietly serving as a priest to some of the poorer citizens when his ministerial assignment is discovered by an american reporter named Paul Snaith. Mr. Snaith wrote so many glowing articles of the famous Father Brown serving in South America to readers in America, that Father Brown was invited to go on an american speaking tour (which he declined). At Snaith’s hands, Father Brown’s fame continued to grow. He received a bottle of wine from a Mr. Eckstein, asking him to try it and say what he thought of it. Knowing the lunacy of american advertising, Brown had a glass and went out for an evening walk. He realized he was not alone. But he was a man of courage and even stronger curiosity and walked on.
“All his life he [Father Brown] had been led by an intellectual hunger for the truth, even of trifles.”
He was beset by two men, one with a knife and one with a cudgel. This attack was observed through a window by John Adams Race an american engineer who happened to be an evangelical Christian. Race left his house and rushed to the scene. As he arrived, the cry went up: “Father Brown is dead!” Snaith was there and confirmed it. The death was also confirmed by Dr. Calderon.
The funeral, with Brown in a wooden coffin at the foot of a wooden crucifix, was held a short time afterward, and Mendoza, one of the local politicians gave a long oration, praising Father Brown. His political opponent, an atheist and revolutionary named Alavarez kept his peace until the oration grew to be too much when Mendoza, as part of his speech, began berating his political opponents.
Alvarez, beside himself with rage, berated and blamed God for this and every other tragedy. He ended up defiantly by saying:
“I defy the God who is not there to waken this man who sleeps forever.”
“Stop! Stop!” cried Snaith; “somethings up! I swear I saw him move.”
The wonder at this miracle, as expected, caused the crowd to roar with excitement. Surrounded by the adulation of the crowd and of Snaith, Father Brown sat up and tried to calm everyone down. When he failed he staggered off.
Later on, Race asked Brown where he had gone. Brown explained he had rushed to the telegraph office to tell his bishop to disregard the reports of this “resurrection miracle” since it was a hoax.
My Personal Thoughts
If I put myself in Father Brown’s shoes, wouldn’t I be tempted to use this supposed miracle to strengthen the faith of believers? Wouldn’t I be tempted to use a “noble lie?”
Father Brown’s answer to this question is telling. Brown told Race that he would praise God not for saving him from death but from disgrace.
“And if it had only been my disgrace! But it was the disgrace of all I stand for; the disgrace of the Faith that they went about to encompass.”
Snaith, Mendoza, Eckstein, and Calderon had set the whole thing up. Eckstein drugged Brown. Calderon confirmed his death. Snaith would have published the miracle broadly and then he have “uncovered” the hoax he had orchestrated. Snaith had even duped Brown into writing a few letters, although innocent at the time, later would have made it sound as if Brown had perpetrated the hoax.
For me this underlines that commitment to the truth is paramount. There are no shortcuts. There are no “noble lies” permissible. This, of course, doesn’t mean I don’t believe in miracles, but rather I must, through diligence and a certain degree of skepticism make very sure they are indeed miraculous, much as the gospel writers and Father Brown did.