Public relations today involves almost as many problems of ethics as prospects of sales. Man’s easygoing traffic in words and ideas has swept this “problem of communication,” as it is now often called, onto the expressway of modern concerns.
The use of guise and disguise in contemporary advertising is also provoking a long look at the religious use of persuasive techniques seeking the spiritual commitment of the masses.
Motivational research has bared many deep subconscious drives that influence the purchasing habits of the American people. Madison Avenue agencies gear their promotional efforts to these insights. In The Hidden Persuaders—a book now in its third or fourth printing, with built-in reader appeals of its own, and publisher’s advertisements alert to motivational devices—Vance Packard causticly indicts this “engineering of consent.” Packard touches the pulpit only in a passing way; neither the term “religion” nor “church” is found in his index. But what he says inevitably raises questions about the field of religious promotion.
To the process of confrontation and communication our modern age has made the special contribution of a vast range of electronic gadgets and gimmicks. It is easy to underestimate and to disparage this gift. The physical extension of Christianity in modern times stands vastly indebted to science and invention. The printing press, the radio, and now the era of television; the train, the airplane, and now the jet—who can foresee what these developments still hold in prospect for evangelism, missions and Christian education?
Without special lighting, microphones, and other electronic gadgets, many a pulpiteer today would feel quite cheated, and even lost. Perhaps, right there, is an occasion of stumbling. Do we perchance rely on gadgets more than on spiritual factors for effective proclamation? The psychiatrist Karl Stern reminds us in The Commonweal that “God, in the language of the Old Testament, speaks to us with a still, small voice. He needs no amplifier.” So we are driven to see again that proclamation is essentially a spiritual venture—not simply a program beamed by efficient technical devices to an effective “sales pitch.” What Dr. Ralph W. Sockman has said of religion—that it cannot be sold, but must be sown—is most true of the religion of supernatural redemption.
The work of the Holy Spirit remains the one indispensable factor in our effective presentation of the Gospel. The test of a “good commercial”—does it hurry a potential buyer to a sales transaction?—cannot therefore be pressed. Preaching is a hopeless pursuit apart from the life-giving power of the Divine Spirit. The outpouring and programming of the Spirit are entrusted neither to advertising agencies nor to church publicity clinics nor to ministers who have read Dale Carnegie. Christian virtues like love, joy, peace, gentleness, and faithfulness simply cannot be verbalized into Christian experience. Preaching reaches for genuine spiritual decision, and this cannot be engineered.
If the minister presents the Gospel faithfully and devoutly, must the lack of response be put to his blame? Or is such seeming defeat for the Gospel quite consistent with dedicated Christian preaching? A disturbing feature of motivational research is its tendency to regard man himself as a mere machine to be manipulated, rather than as a personality to be divinely confronted and renewed. Even when the approach to human beings is not made on this subpersonal level, in quest of scientific control, the appeals are addressed to the natural ego so as to reinforce the old or unregenerate nature, instead of unmasking man’s pretensions and driving him to Christ. Can the Gospel actually be presented to the sinner as an “attractive proposition”? The question is not merely about the “sales pitch,” but about the “product” itself which must not be misrepresented. Slick promotion can “soup up” almost any quack product to give it a magical appeal, but dare we permit the distortion, as it were, of the Gospel? Dare its essential nature be hidden by concealing it beneath a wrapping that makes it more palatable to the natural man, that seeks its acceptance by a primary appeal to unregenerate desires and preferences?
At this level the slick promoter easily falls into idolatry, and easily tempts others to spiritual adultery. His manipulation of words like “success” and “happiness” is a quick giveaway. He sets out to show that, without adequate religious experience, every man is really a failure and is foredoomed to despair. He ends up by making religious commitment a means to other ends, without challenging their priority status in the unregenerate heart. A promotional technique that prompts man to seek many “things” but ignores man’s spiritual destiny seems on its surface to run counter to Jesus’ exhortation to “seek first the kingdom of God … and all these things will be added” (Matt. 6:33). Christ pledges blessedness only to those who seek first the kingdom of God, not simply as a means but as life’s highest end, to which all else is consciously subordinated. Were even an angel from heaven to alter the basic nature of the Gospel, flames the Apostle Paul, “let him be accursed.” That curse falls necessarily on modern promoters who would confer contemporary glamour upon the Gospel by adding to it or subtracting from it, by giving it a natural turn for winning friends and influencing people, and relieving it of an obvious supernatural message for saving and sanctifying sinners. Purveyors of a divine word, the success of the ministry depends upon fidelity in proclamation even more than efficiency in communication.
The Gospel stands—once for all given to the saints. Only the package dare be changed, yet never by way of concealing the content. The “good news” is only good because of prior bad news for mankind. If the Gospel proclaims that Christ died and rose for us, it proclaims at the same time our wickedness, our dire predicament in sin. That is why the Gospel cannot hope to appeal to the vulgar desires in men; it repudiates those desires. The Gospel challenges and disputes fallen man’s accepted standards of value. It does not flatter man, but tells him the facts about himself. The plain truth is that he is a liar, and that God alone is Truth; that he is a hater, an enemy, and that God alone is Love; that he is a fornicator, and that God alone is holy; that he is a creature of dust, and that God alone is almighty. Hence the Gospel confronts man as a scandal; it scandalizes him. He can “save face” only by rejecting it—at the cost of “losing soul.”
The study of psychology and public relations, however, can provide insights helpful in “protecting” this spiritual clash against unnecessary and unjustifiable offenses which belong not to the essential nature of the Gospel, but to the crudity and insensitivity and lovelessness of its ministers. Public relations, therefore, can help to bring even the churches under criticism of the Gospel, provoking earnest self-criticism. The Church bears an awesome task of proclamation and communication. How often she fails to make herself intelligible to modern men—not simply because she finds the locus of her message in past redemptive events outside the purview of modern preoccupations, but because she has not learned to speak the vulgar language of our times (as did the inspired New Testament writers). Thus the Church compounds the scandal of the Gospel with the burden of linguistic remoteness. She faces the danger, of course, that in translating her message into the jargon of the age, she in fact may reduce it, blunting its offense, masking the Gospel. But no amount of evangelistic energy, or multiplication of study conferences, holds hope for significant Christian penetration into the cultural order unless the Gospel is preached and understood.
Some current discussions of the theology of evangelism are so full of existential and/or dialectical jargon, obviously balancing conflicting theological points of view, that evangelists seeking to apply these covering principles would simply wander in the wilderness of contemporary confusion. Evangelism has a primary obligation to the evangel. The evangel itself is simple enough—so simple that Jesus could speak of it in terms of sower and seed, new birth, living water, living bread. Whatever may be said about the unintelligibility of the Bible to unchurched multitudes today, there is nothing intrinsically impenetrable about Scripture; indeed, it often appears refreshingly direct and perspicuous in contrast with much of the preaching and theological literature of our era. It is sheer tragedy to seek modern relevance—and to gain irrelevance instead—by complicating it with the subtle prejudices and complex idiom of modernity.
For those whose vocations border on the religious sphere, the communications problem seems specially acute. The clergy are obviously called to measure success or failure by more complex criteria than extensive publicity and a “good press”; questions of morality and truth crowd their moment-to-moment deeds. But what of religious promoters and public relations experts? Responsibilities of sacred ordination do not devolve upon them. Their very vocation, moreover, requires their creation of highly favorable interest in special programs and particular personalities. What does “a good conscience” imply for them?
Some temptations peculiar to secular promotion seem happily absent from religious promotion. Among these are the striving for an artificially created sense of obsolescence, and the creation of wants that do not really exist. Yet other temptations remain: shading the truth by telling “the good things” and ignoring the bad (the sin of “weaseling,” as some call it); catering to people’s wants, rather than promoting what they ought to want. These failings color almost all persuasive communication of the day; not even preaching is immune from them. They are sins of the pulpit as well as sins of the public relations desk. Are they therefore to be excused and justified as simply an inevitable part of the human equation?
If the most precious thing in human relations is truth, if the Holy Spirit uses truth as an instrument in the conversion of sinners, if Jesus Christ is himself the Truth, if the Holy Bible is a rational revelation of the nature of God and his will for man, then Christian communication is answerable to the priority of truth. Integrity in communication cannot be sacrificed without demeaning these values. The cause of true religion is best advanced by a regard for Christ the living Word more than by one-sided reliance on the gimmicks of manipulative psychology.
Insensitivity to truth, or devaluation of truth, in the course of religious promotion, implies a latent cynicism about basic spiritual values, and cheapens the “word business” to sheer commercialism. The modern manipulation of audiences by rhetorical devices, the professional reliance on subtle techniques to evoke predictable responses, recall the ancient sophists who looked upon words and ideas as mere instruments of persuasion but not as bearers of objective truth. It must be obvious how much this practice, ancient or modern, has in common with those perverse naturalistic theories in our own century that deny the existence of changeless truth and morality, and repudiate Jesus Christ as the Truth. If spiritual realities are most effectively promoted by unspiritual means, then life’s vital dynamisms are serving false gods.
The great truths of revelation and the facts of history are still the best persuaders. Reinforced by the Spirit of God, who employs truth as a means of convicting and converting men, these truths have proved their mettle in each generation and in all quarters of the earth, serving to call men out of darkness into light, and shaping a new race of twice-born men. The Church of Christ doubtless has much to learn about the secret workings of the mind and the subtleties of human response. But some things she does not need: a new gospel, a new scale of values, new principles of blessedness. The weakness of pulpit proclamation and of religious promotion lies in the concealment of sanctions for action which still stand in the forefront of the biblical revelation. What the Bible unveils, the Christian movement seems again to have covered from view. Having hidden the persuasive features that stand in the forefront of biblical teaching, the Church and churchmen fall easily into a temptation to advance spiritual forces through dependence instead on the hidden persuaders of manipulative psychology.
What then shall we say? That man is a dependent creature, because God is his Maker; that man is a sinner, because he has violated the dignity and squandered the righteousness that were his by creation; that man has a rendezvous in eternity, because God has fashioned him for this inescapable destiny; that Christ Jesus alone can lift man to life fit for eternity, alone can wash away his guilt and shame and restore him to fellowship with the Father, because man cannot save himself; that the life of unregenerate men seldom rises above the curbstones of morality, because the enduring virtues are the transforming work of the Spirit of God who sanctifies the redeemed; that an awful and irrevocable doom awaits those who spurn the opportunities of redemption, because the holiness of God cannot be forever mocked; that God providentially superintends the sweep of history for the ultimate good of those who put their trust in him, because the ultimate triumph of divine love is assured; that Christ himself will return to climax the movement of history and unveil in fullness the promised Kingdom of justice and peace, because God has already pledged to his Son those kingdoms of earth for which the tyrants of our time bargain away their souls. These are the persuasive truths by which the Church of Christ lives, to which Christian witness is bound, and by which Christian promotion must be tested. Whenever the Church hides them she enfeebles herself. For a time, manipulative techniques may compensate for this decline. Not forever, however. The Church that does not live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God must soon starve herself and her hearers on the prattle that flows from the grist mill of the hucksters.
Albright’S Influence In The Study Of The Bible
We live in an exciting era of theological activity. Among scholars that have contributed to a fresh outlook in biblical studies is William F. Albright who has stripped away many bulwarks of the older critical views of the Bible. When Albright contends, for example, that the New Testament books could all have been compiled by contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth (since a great deal of what has been considered to be Greek or Gnostic in the New Testament may now be traced presumably to the Essenes or similar Jewish groups of the last century B.C., thereby destroying the supposed foundations for late dating), conservative scholars understandably find in Dr. Albright a champion of positions significant for their point of view.
This issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY carries the first of two essays by another prominent Old Testament scholar, Oswald T. Allis, of the “old Princeton school” of Warfield and Machen days. Dr. Allis warns that Albright’s contributions, important as they are, give the conservative camp reason for caution and anxiety as much as for gratitude. Allis asks whether, despite their contribution to a more conservative evaluation of the Bible, Albright’s views really sustain the reliability of Old Testament history and the uniqueness of biblical revelation. It will be well to examine his arguments.
Albright is currently Visiting Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary of America, across the street from Union Theological Seminary. He is at work on the first volume of Finkelstein’s multivolumed history of Judaism. Under his teaching at Johns Hopkins University the “Albright school of thought” forged a significant alternative to many Wellhausen positions, reflected today on the Continent, and in some degree in England as well as in America, both in Catholic and Protestant circles. Many able evangelical Old Testament scholars have come within this orbit of training.
Albright’s great weapon in biblical studies is archaeology. Although archaeological research goes back a century in Palestine and Syria, the really decisive discoveries have been made in our lifetime. These findings contradict the Wellhausen theory at crucial points. Albright’s mastery in Palestinian archaeology, Near East history, comparative religion, and Semitic languages shaped his rise as a mighty antagonist of the Wellhausen view. Albright prefers designation as a conservative Protestant, and indeed exemplifies a rationalistic conservatism of sorts. He is an avowed trinitarian. As a biblical scholar he holds a constructive rather than destructive view of the Bible as a source of history, at least of comparatively reliable history. Reconstructing the past by scientific methodology, acknowledging the unbiased voice of archaeology, and guided by the good (if distant) star of theistic faith, he is a positive influence in a theological world that now stands mostly to his left. Against negative critics who tend to disparage the Bible as a mere conglomerate mass of historically worthless myths and traditions, Albright has proved by scientific methods that it contains authentic history.
Yet Albright supports a documentary view of the Old Testament, holding even to the J and E documents of Genesis, and assigning them much the same date as did Wellhausen, although for different reasons. Pre-patriarchal records are evaluated as primitive myths. While he holds that monotheistic religion is found in very remote times and that it is quite possibly the original religion, he retains the critical view that it did not rise to self-consciousness until later. Instead of postponing its emergence as self-conscious until the time of Amos, however, he dates this as early as Moses. He insists that “the saga of the Patriarchs is essentially historical” (Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible, p. 145), and contends that the findings of archaeology have discredited the old critical theory that patriarchal accounts are mainly throwbacks to an earlier period from the ninth-eighth centuries B.C.
Albright readily agrees, moreover, that historical continuities alone cannot explain the emergence of great religions like the faith of Moses and Christianity. What we have, in his opinion, are “rearrangement and revaluation” of continuous strands in such a way that the historical continuities are there, while yet an over-all discontinuity breaks abruptly into history.
While there is a clash between Albright and Wellhausen, it should be clear also that Albright halts short of a return to the traditional evangelical view of the Old Testament. Indeed, Albright’s revolt against Wellhausen is today combined with a wide diversity of theological perspectives. Albright’s own Christian theism mediates between neo-Thomism and neo-Calvinism or neo-orthodoxy, although he differs from both in essentials. While Albright views the biblical records as sources of history—contrary to the Wellhausen dismissal of them—he pursues a naturalistic scientific methodology in the reconstruction of history that tends to push the supernatural or miraculous outside and above the historical sphere into the (to him) incomprehensible realm of super-history.
Many evangelical scholars now active in the Old Testament field owe a firm debt to Albright, from whom they learned the disciplines of graduate study, the need for academic precision, and an awareness of the instability of critical biases dominating modern biblical studies. But they also learned what some magazine enthusiasts seem not to recognize, that Albright is no champion of evangelical views of revelation and inspiration. He deplores the evangelical approach to Scripture as involving an “excessive attachment to the letter as against the spirit of the Bible”; over against the conservative identification of Scripture with the Word of God, he repudiates literalism as “one of the great enemies of the Christian faith today.” It is curious then to find some evangelicals ascribing to Albright an orthodoxy which embarrasses the Old Testament scholar. The issues of reliability and uniqueness reach even deeper, however, and these are the questions raised by Professor Allis. One gains the clear impression that, having already nudged significantly to the right, Dr. Albright must move still further if he would share the benefits of a genuinely biblical theism.
Rome’S Church Unity Plea Stirs Multiple Reactions
Rome’s openness to ecumenical talks with Eastern Orthodox leaders has ready echoes. World Council-affiliated, Greek Orthodoxy now countersuggests conversations with WCC. Jesuits had noted that (contrary to Protestantism) the Greek Church accepts church tradition alongside the Bible, and also the immaculate conception of the Virgin; moreover, that in exchange for recognition of the Pope, the Vatican sometimes allows much liberty in internal church affairs. The filioque controversy, they say, had old political and theological facets now reconcilable.
Meanwhile, some Protestant leaders are also encouraging talks with Rome—not simply in quest of merger, but to test Rome’s readiness to honor the Bible. In this issue’s “Review of Current Religious Thought,” Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer appraises Oscar Cullmann’s call for the solidarity of Christendom.
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