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Propaganda and persuasion

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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A customer watches Russian President Vladimir Putin on a computer screen in an electronic hypermarket in Grozny, regional Chechen capital, Russia, Thursday, December 18, 2014 (Credit: AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)

In the West, we tend to look down on other countries that use propaganda. We read news stories about the Russian and Chinese governments’ use of propaganda to spread party messages and wonder at the brazenness of those governments’ attempts to control the minds of its citizens. We rarely realize, though, that many non-Westerners do the exact same thing about us.

They see the modern advertising machine as a form of propaganda that distorts and shapes the minds of the people within the culture. Instead of imparting party rhetoric, though, advertising disseminates a message of consumerism, materialism, and selfishness. Both perspectives would see the others’ bondage to a particular ideology through propaganda.

This difference in perspective is largely cultural, and highlights the way we are all shaped by our context. We in the West sometimes like to think of ourselves as the autonomous individual, freely choosing the life we want to live, but we are naïve if we follow this logic to its source. While we may have different types of freedom in the West, we are still dramatically shaped by our context in ways that we sometimes fail to understand completely.

Part of the enduring call of Christianity is to preach the Gospel and engage in persuasion with those who have a different worldview. Paul, the foremost apostle, is the best example of someone who obeyed God’s call to him to do those two things. Acts 17 tells of Paul in Athens “reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17) These included Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of the day.

I may not need to persuade you that we should be engaging the culture of our day with the Gospel, but many still think that understanding culture is unimportant, that we must simply preach the Gospel and let it fall as it will on the hearers. As Os Guiness in his book Fool’s Talk answers, though, this idea is “Faithful sounding, perhaps…but too pious by half, and has no warrant in the Scriptures. If the Bible knows nothing of an apologetics that does not lead to evangelism, it certainly knows nothing of preaching divorced from the needed work of persuasion. The two words preach and persuade, and the two ideas behind them, are indissoluble.”

If we are going to engage in such a way, we must know what other perspectives and cultures think about the world and how they view themselves in relation to it. The primary way we can begin to grow in this way is through developing personal relationships with others from different cultures. In the interpersonal sphere, we have the opportunity to gain incredible insight into other cultures as we share perspectives. The second way we can grow is to read widely and with a discerning eye.

Here’s a quick example. Today I was reading a few articles about upcoming commemorative events of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in China and Japan. It was fascinating to explore how these two nations are observing this anniversary, and how their respective ceremonies point to the worldview they hold of their past as well as their future place in the world. It didn’t take much reading to realize that they were coming at this anniversary much differently than we in the West will.

But as we engage the world like this, we can begin to understand those around us in more of a 360-degree perspective. And as we do this, we can have new points of discussion with others that might open up an avenue for the Gospel. Interpersonal relationships are fruitful places for sharing Jesus with others, and the nations have arrived at our doorstep. God has placed you in a particular situation, amongst particular people, with an opportunity to show them his love.

This is but one way we can better engage the news of the day to bring glory to God. Through learning about other cultural perspectives and sharing the truth of Jesus that sets all men and women’s hearts free, we bring God glory as the Light inside us shines before others.