Art and Propaganda

by Philip Yancey

Mr. Yancey is a free-lance writer and an editor at large of Christianity Today.

This article appeared in the Christian Century March 31, 1982, p. 371. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There are three guidelines in dealing with art and propaganda. 1. An artful propagandist takes into account the ability of the audience to perceive. 2. Artful propaganda works like a deduction rather than a rationalization. 3. Artful propaganda must be “sincere.”

If someone were to tell me that it lay in my power to write a novel explaining every social question from a particular viewpoint that I believed to be the correct one, I still wouldn’t spend two hours on it. But if I were told that what I am writing will be read in twenty years time by the children of today, and that those children will laugh, weep, and learn to love life as they read, why then I would devote the whole of my life and energy to it.

The man who wrote those words, Leo Tolstoy, vacillated continually between art and propaganda. People are still laughing, weeping and learning to love life as they read his books, but others are also reflecting on, arguing with and reacting to his particular viewpoint on social, moral and religious questions. Although in this statement Tolstoy claims to come down firmly on the side of art, veins of “propaganda” run throughout his novels, inspiring some readers and infuriating others. In nonfiction works like What Is Art? the great novelist leans toward propaganda  -- even, as some conclude, at the expense of true art.

Like a bipolar magnet, the Christian author today feels the pull of both forces: a fervent desire to communicate what gives life meaning counteracted by an artistic inclination toward self-expression, form and structure that any “message” might interrupt. The result: a constant, dichotomous pull toward both propaganda and art. Propaganda is a word currently out of favor, connoting unfair manipulation or distortion of means to an end. I use it in a more acceptable sense, the original sense of the word as coined by Pope Urban VIII. He formed the College of Propaganda in the 17th century in order to propagate the Christian faith. As a Christian writer, I must readily admit that I do strive for propaganda in this sense. Much of what I write is designed to convert or to lead others to consider a viewpoint I hold to be true.

Counterbalancing the literary tug away from propaganda, many evangelicals exert, an insidious tug away from art. They would react to Tolstoy’s statement with disbelief -- to choose a novel that entertains and fosters a love for life over a treatise that solves every social (or, better, religious) question of humankind! How can a person “waste” time with mere aesthetics -- soothing music, pleasing art, entertaining literature -- when injustice rules the nations and the decadent world marches ineluctably to destruction? Is this not fiddling while Rome burns? Currently, novels written by evangelicals tend toward the propagandistic (even to the extent of fictionalizing Bible stories and foretelling the Second Coming) and away from the artful.

Somewhere in this magnetic field between art and propaganda the Christian author (or painter or musician) works. One force tempts us to lower artistic standards and preach an unadorned message; another tempts us to submerge or even alter the message for the sake of artistic sensibilities. Having lived in the midst of this tension for over a decade, I have come to recognize it as a healthy synthesizing tension that should be affirmed. Success often lies within the extremes: an author may succeed in the evangelical world by erring on the side of propaganda. But ever so slowly, the fissure between the Christian and secular worlds will yawn wider. If we continue tilting toward propaganda, we will soon find ourselves writing and selling books to ourselves alone. On the other hand, the Christian author cannot simply absorb the literary standards of the larger world. Our ultimate goal cannot be a self-expression, but rather a God-expression.

C. S. Lewis explored the polarity in the address “Learning in Wartime,” delivered to Oxford students who were trying to concentrate on academics while their friends fought in the trenches of Europe and staved off the German aerial assault on London. How, asked Lewis, can creatures who are advancing every moment either to heaven or hell spend any fraction of time on such comparative trivialities as literature, art, math or biology (let alone Lewis’s field of medieval literature)? With great perception, Lewis noted that the condition of wartime did not change the underlying question, but merely accelerated the timing by making it more likely that any one person would advance soon to heaven or hell.

The most obvious answer to the dilemma is that God himself invested great energy in the natural world. In the Old Testament he created a distinct culture and experimented with a variety of literary forms which endure as masterpieces. As for biology and physics, everything we know about them derives from painstakingly tracing God’s creative activity. For a Christian, the natural world provides a medium to express and even discover the image of God. Nevertheless, while Lewis affirms the need for good art and good science, he readily admits that Christianity knocks culture off its pedestal. The salvation of a single soul, he says, is worth more than all the poetry, drama and tragedy ever written. (A committed Christian must acknowledge that intrinsic worth, and yet how many of us react with dismay when reading of such terrible tragedies as the burning of the library in Alexandria, the destruction of the Parthenon during the Crusades and the bombing of cathedrals in World War II while scarcely giving a thought to the thousands of nameless civilians buried in the rubble of those edifices?)

The dilemma of art and propaganda is essentially a tremor of the seismic human dilemma of living in a divinely created but fallen world. Beauty abounds, and we are right to seek it and to seek to reproduce it. And yet tragedy and despair and meaninglessness also abound, and we must not neglect addressing Ourselves to the human condition. That is why I affirm both art and propaganda. As an author, I experiment with different forms; I hope to express my propaganda (if the word offends you, read “message”) as artfully as possible, and to imbue my art with a worthwhile message. I embrace both art and propaganda, rejecting the pressures to conform to one or the other.

In dealing with the tensions of art and propaganda, I have learned a few guidelines that allow for a more natural wedding of the two. Whenever I have broken one of these guidelines, I have usually awakened to the abrupt and painful realization that I have tilted too far toward one or the other. In either case my message gets lost, whether through pedantic communication or through a muddle of empty verbiage. Because Christian Writers are mainly erring on the side of propaganda, not art, my guidelines speak primarily to that error.

1. An artful propagandist takes into account the ability of the audience to perceive.

For the Christian writer (or speaker) who wants to communicate to a secular audience, this caution cannot be emphasized too strongly. In effect, one must consider two different sets of vocabulary. Words which have a certain meaning to you as a Christian may have an entirely different, sometimes even antithetical, meaning to a secular listener. Consider a few examples of fine words which have had their meanings spoiled over time. “Pity” once derived from “piety”: a person dispensed pity in a godlike, compassionate sense. By responding to the poor and the needy, one was mimicking God and therefore was pietous, or full of pity. Similarly, as any reader of the King James Version knows, “charity” was an example of God’s grace, a synonym for love (as In the famous I Corinthians 13 passage). Over the centuries, both those words lost their meaning until they ultimately became negatively charged. “I don’t want pity!” or “Don’t give me charity!” a needy person protests today. The theological significance has been drained away.

Similarly, many words we now use to express personal faith may miscommunicate rather than communicate. The word “God” may summon up all sorts of inappropriate images, unless the Christian goes on to explain what he or she means by God. “Love,” a vital theological word, has lost its meaning; for common conceptions of it, merely flip a radio dial and listen to popular music stations. The word “redemption” most often relates to trading stamps, and few cultural analogies can adequately express that concept. Blood is as easily associated with death as with life.

As words change in meaning, Christian communicators must adapt accordingly, selecting words and metaphors which precisely fit the culture. Concepts, too, depend on the audience’s ability to absorb them, and often we must adapt downward to a more basic level. If I see a three-year-old girl endangering herself, I must warn her in terms she can understand. For example, what if the child decides to stick her finger first into her mouth and then into an electrical outlet? I would not respond by searching out my Reader’s Digest Home Handyman Encyclopedia and launching into an elaborate monologue on amps, volts, ohms and electrical resistance. Rather, I would more likely slap her hand and say something like “There’s fire in there! You’ll be burned!” Although, strictly speaking, the outlet box contains no literal fire, I will choose concepts that communicate to the comprehension level of a three-year-old.

Andrew Young reports that he learned an essential principle of survival during the civil rights struggle. “Don’t judge the adversary by how you think,” he says. “Learn to think like the adversary” he voiced that principle in the days of the Iran hostage crisis when news accounts were using such adjectives as “insane, crazed, demonic” to describe Iranian leaders. Those labels, said Young, do nothing to facilitate communication. To understand Iran, we must first consider its people’s viewpoint. To the militants, the shah was as brutal and vicious as Adolf Hitler; they were reacting to the US. as we would respond to a country that deliberately sheltered a mass murderer like Hitler.

In a parallel way, when Christians attempt to communicate to non-Christians, we must first think through their assumptions and imagine how they will likely receive the message we are conveying. That process will affect the words we choose, the form and, most important, the content we can get across. If we err on the side of too much content, as Christians often do, the net effect is the same as if we had included no content.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who has walked a tightrope between art and propaganda all his life, learned this principle after being released from the concentration camps when his writing finally began to find acceptance in Soviet literary journals. In The Oak and the Calf  he recalls: “Later, when I popped up from the underground and began lightening my works for the outside world, lightening them of all that my fellow countrymen could hardly be expected to accept at once, I discovered to my surprise that a piece only gained, that its effect was heightened, as the harsher tones were softened.”

(We must use caution here, as Solzhenitsyn learned. A new danger may seep in: the subtle tendency to lighten too much and thus change the message. Just drop this one offensive word, the Soviet censors coaxed Solzhenitsyn. There’s really no need to capitalize God that’s archaic. If you want us to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, merely cross out this one problem line. Solzhenitsyn resisted these last two requests; he capitalized God and left the controversial passage: I crossed myself, and said to God: “Thou art there in heaven after all, O creator. Thy patience is long, but thy blows are heavy.” Acceding to such pressure would obliterate his whole message, he decided.)

Whenever a Christian addresses a secular audience, he or she must maintain a balance between leaving the message intact and adapting it to that audience. We who are Christians stumble across God everywhere. We ascribe daily events to his activity. We see his hand in nature and the Bible. He seems fully evident to us. But to the secular mind, the question is how is it even possible to find God in the maze of cults, religions and TV mountebanks, all clamoring for attention against the background of a starving, war-torn planet. Unless we truly understand that viewpoint, and speak in terms the secular mind can understand, our words will have the quaint and useless ring of a foreign language.

2. Artful propaganda works like a deduction rather than a rationalization.

Since 1957 psychologists have begun to define an instinctual process of rationalization in the human mind, sometimes labeled the theory of cognitive dissonance. Basically, it means that the human mind, intolerant of a state of tension and disharmony, works to patch up inconsistencies with a self-affirming process of rationalization.

I am late to a meeting. Obviously, according to this theory, it cannot be my fault -- I start with that assumption. It must be the traffic. Or my wife. Or the others at the meeting, who showed up on time.

Or an article I have written is rejected. Instantly I start consoling myself with the knowledge that hundreds of manuscripts were rejected that day. The editor could have had a bad breakfast. Perhaps no one even read my manuscript. Any number o factors arise to explain my rejection. My mind tries to quiet the jarring cacophony caused by this bit of news.

I define the process of rationalization very simply: it occurs when a person knows the end result first, and reasons backwards. The conclusion is a given; I merely need to find a way to support that conclusion. I ran headlong into an example process of rationalization while doing research on a book chapter about the Wycliffe Bible Translators. Since rumors of Wycliffe’s CIA involvement proliferate, I felt it essential to try to track them down. I telephoned outspoken critics of Wycliffe all over the country. One, a professor in a New York university, insisted that Wycliffe was definitely subsidized by that government agency. I asked for proof. “It’s quite obvious,” he replied. “They claim to raise their $30 million annual budget from fundamentalist churches. You and I both know there’s not $30 million available from that source. Obviously, they’re getting it from somewhere else.” Had that professor done a little research, he would have discovered that each of the top five TV evangelists pulls in over $50 million annually from religious sympathizers. Certainly the pool of resources in the U.S. is large enough to account for Wycliffe’s contributions. But he started from a foregone conclusion and reasoned backwards.

Solzhenitsyn encountered a startling case of rationalization when the Soviet editor Lebedev said to him, “If Tolstoy were alive now and wrote as he did then [meaning against the government] he wouldn’t be Tolstoy.” Obviously, Lebedev’s opinion about his government was so firmly set that he could not allow a plausible threat to it, and so he rationalized that Tolstoy would be a different man under a new regime.

Sadly, much of what I read in Christian literature has an echo of rationalization. I get the sense that the author starts with an unshakable conclusion and merely sets out to discover whatever logical course could support that conclusion. Much of what I read on depression, on suicide, on homosexuality, seems written by people who begin with a Christian conclusion and who, in fact, have never been through the anguished steps that are the familiar path to a person struggling with depression, suicide or homosexuality. No wonder the “how-to” articles and books do not ring true. No conclusions could be so flip and matter-of-fact to a person who has actually endured such a journey.

A conclusion has impact only if the reader has been primed for it by moving along the steps that lead to it before being confronted with the conclusion. The conclusion must be the logical outgrowth, the consummation of what went before, not the starting place.

C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien struggled with these issues intensely as they worked on fiction that reveals an underlying layer of Christianity. Lewis and Tolkien particularly reacted with fire against well-meaning Christians who would slavishly point to all the symbolism in their books by, for instance, labeling the characters of Aslan and Gandalf as Christ-figures. Even though the parallels were obvious, both authors vigorously resisted admitting that had been their intent. Those characters may indeed point to Christ, but by shadowing forth a deeper, underlying cosmic truth. One cannot argue backwards and describe the characters as mere symbolic representations -- that would shatter their individuality and literary impact. (I often wonder if Lewis erred on the side of propaganda with Aslan and thus limited his non-Christian audience, whereas Tolkien’s greater subtlety may last for centuries.)

Several novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky begin with poignant quotations from Scripture. Their authors selected those verses because they summarize a central message. Yet are the novels Anna Karenina, Resurrection, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov propaganda? Only a hardened cynic would say so. The novels, rather, incarnate the concept behind the Bible references so compellingly and convincingly that the reader must acknowledge the truth of what he or she reads. To be effective, a Christian communicator must make the point inside the reader before the reader consciously acknowledges it.

3. Artful propaganda must be “sincere.”

I put the word sincere in quotes because I refer to its original meaning only. Like so many words, sincere has been pre-empted by modern advertising and twisted so badly that it ends up meaning its opposite.

Consider, for example, a shy, timid salesman, who doesn’t mix well at parties and cannot be assertive on sales calls. He is sent by his manager to a Dale Carnegie course to improve his self-confidence. “You must be sincere to be a successful salesman,” he is told, and he practices various techniques for sincerity. Start with the handshake  -- it must be firm, confident, steady. Here, try it a few times. Now that you have that down, let’s work on eye contact. See, when you shake my hand, you should be staring me right in the eye. Don’t look away or even waver. Stare straight into me -- that’s a mark of sincerity. Your customer must feel you really care about him.

For a fee of several hundred dollars, our insecure salesman learns techniques of sincerity. His next customers are impressed by his conscientiousness, his confidence in his product, and his concern for them, all because he has learned a body language. Actually, an acquired technique to communicate something not already present is the opposite of the true meaning of sincere. The word, a sculptor’s term, derives from two Latin words, sin cere, “without Wax.” Even the best of sculptors makes an occasional slip of the chisel, causing an unsightly gouge. Sculptors who work with marble know that wax mixed to the proper color can fill in that gouge so perfectly that few observers could ever spot the flaw. But a truly perfect piece, one that needs no artificial touch-up, is sin cere, without wax. What you see is what you get -- there are no embellishments or cover-ups.

Propaganda becomes bad propaganda because of the touch-up wax authors apply to their work. If we can truly write in a sincere way, reflecting reality, then our work will reflect truth and reinforce our central message. If not, readers will spot the flaws and judge our work accordingly.

When I read The Oak and the Calf, I laughed aloud as I read the Soviet censors’ advice to Solzhenitsyn, because their script could have been written by an evangelical magazine editor. Three things must not appear in Russian literature, they solemnly warned Solzhenitsyn: pessimism, denigration add surreptitious sniping. Cover up your tendencies to realism with a layer that might soften the overall effect, they seemed to be saying.

Biography and fiction written by evangelicals too often show wax badly gaumed over obvious flaws. We leave out details of struggle and realism that do not fit neatly into our propaganda. Or we include scenes that have no realism just to reinforce our point. Even the untrained observer can spot the flaws, and slight bulges here and there can ruin a work of art.

All three of these temptations to propagandize in the bad sense increase with a captive, supportive audience. When we no longer have to win people over to our point of view, for example, realism can become an impediment. The Christian public will applaud books in which every prayer is answered and every disease is healed, but to the degree those books do not reflect reality, they will become meaningless to a skeptical audience. Too often evangelical literature appears to the larger world as strange and unconvincing as a Moonie tract or Daily World newspaper.

For models of these three guidelines of artful communication, we can look to the Creator himself. He took into account the audience’s ability to perceive in the ultimate sense -- by flinging aside his deity and becoming the Word, one of us, living in our cramped planet within the limitations of a human body. In his communication through creation, his Son and the Bible, he gave only enough evidence for those with faith to follow the deductions to truth about him, but yet without defying human freedom. And as for being sincere, has a more earthy, realistic book ever been written than the Bible?

A friend of mine, a hand surgeon, was awakened from a deep sleep by a 3 A.M. telephone call and summoned to an emergency surgery. He specializes in microsurgery, reconnecting nerves and blood vessels finer than human hairs, performing meticulous 12-hour procedures with no breaks. As he tried to overcome his grogginess, he realized he needed a little extra motivation to endure this one marathon surgery. On impulse he called a close friend, also awakening him. “I have a very arduous surgery ahead of me, and I need something extra to concentrate on this time,” he said “I’d like to dedicate this surgery to you. If I think about you while I’m performing it, that will help me get through.”

Should not that be the Christian author’s response to God -- an offering of our work in dedication to him? If so, how dare we possibly produce propaganda without art, or art without meaning?

To those few who succeed and become models of artistic excellence, the Christian message takes on a new glow. Looking back on T. S. Eliot’s life, Russell Kirk said, “He made the poet’s voice heard again, and thereby triumphed; knowing the community of souls, he freed others from captivity to time and the lonely ego; in the teeth of winds of doctrine, he attested the permanent things. And his communication is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”