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propaganda

Words may fall into obscurity for lack of use, even though they refer to realities that still figure prominently in our daily lives. Here’s one that has been little used since the days of the McCarthy hearings: propaganda. We need to blow dust off that word and reacquaint ourselves with what it means, because we are now immersed in it.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” It comes from the name of the Vatican’s Congregatio de propaganda fide (“Congregation for propagating the faith”), established in 1622 to promote Catholic missionary activity. Eventually, propaganda referred to any large-scale effort to inform the public.

However, the term gained a negative connotation in the late 19th century as European political leaders rallied their people by spreading messages of German national pride, English national pride, Russian national pride, etc. As they ratcheted up their rhetoric, they made ever more outlandish claims that depicted themselves as heroes and their neighbors as villains–even more so when war broke out. California Senator Hiram W. Johnson said at the time, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

We find ourselves in a similar situation. Around the globe, national leaders extol their moral superiority to recruit fanatics who will trample upon their neighbors’ basic rights. They use emotionally charged words to promote their causes and dismiss the claims of others.

As a writer, I’m keenly aware of the power of words. They can rescue, counsel, and encourage. They can also incite bigotry, suspicion of foreigners, and insurrection against the state. Simply because a leader says something emphatically and repeatedly, I cannot assume it is “a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance” (see 1 Tim. 4:9). Like the people of Berea when they first heard the astonishing news of Jesus Christ, I need to check today’s propaganda against Scripture to see whether it’s true (see Acts 17:11).

 

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My first paying job was at a county-seat weekly newspaper called the Herald & Tribune in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Founded in 1869, the H&T had survived many competitors across the years and dared to test its survival again by hiring a farm boy like me. After working part-time as cub reporter and delivery boy during my high-school years, I presented myself to the owner right after graduation and asked if he could use me full-time before I went off to college in Indiana that fall.

Bill Breeden exhaled a cloud of blue cigarette smoke and asked what I wanted to do. With dreams of journalistic fame percolating in my brain, I said, “Anything! I want to learn this business from the ground up!”

He led me downstairs to the employees’ rest room, where he pointed to the porcelain sink and commode, stained black by many years of printer’s ink. Bill took another long drag on his cigarette and said, “Make ’em gleam.”

After three days of back-breaking work and several cans of Comet cleanser, I made ’em gleam, so Bill hired me as their full-time printer’s devil. “Printer’s devil” is a term of art meaning the lowest, most servile employee of the press room–a minion who could be summoned to do any grimy, slimy job that no one else wanted to do.

The term “devil” seemed fitting in an old-time printing establishment, where electric pots of lead alloy simmered 24/7 on the Linotype machines and delivery doors swung open so frequently that no one bothered to install air conditioning. It was a purgatory of a place to learn the newspaper business.

Our pressman resigned after a particularly heated exchange with the foreman, so the task of running the newspaper press fell to me. Our press was a 50-year-old Goss Suburban flatbed that printed 8 pages at a time from a continuous stream (“web”) of paper. After putting new pages on press, it inevitably needed some coaxing and fine-tuning to print them with proper margins and cut-offs, so I was fiddling with that when the pressman stuck his head in the door to see how I was doing. “You need to tighten the tension on the web,” he yelled over the press. “Turn that handle clockwise.”

I gasped the control he indicated and gave it a full twist. The press seized up. A heavy steel idler bar flew out the back and slammed into the cinder-block wall. Paper spewed everywhere while I waited for the press to coast to a stop. The pressman grinned, shook his head, and disappeared.

The Herald & Tribune survived more than a century of devils like me, which is quite a tribute to the perseverance of its owners. It’s still there.

 

There’s nothing inherently dishonest about publishing your own work. Some of the most notable Christian authors of all time started that way, including Dennis Rainey, Larry Burkett, and R.T. Kendall. In many cases, publishing was a natural outgrowth of their conference ministries; often, they had to self-publish because commercial publishers just didn’t see the potential of their work. But these authors were willing to sacrifice their time and money to spread the message God had given them.

With the rise of modern printing and ebook technologies, it’s easier and more economical for authors to produce their own books. Nearly four hundred thousand new books are published each year in the United States–many of them self-published. And therein lies the challenge: How can an author get a new book recognized in the clamor of so many new publications every year?

Producing a new book has never been easier, but marketing that book has never been more difficult. Here lies the root of an ethical dilemma that now plagues Christian self-publishing.

Reputable Christian publishers have now started subsidiaries to provide editorial, design, and marketing services to authors who want to publish their own books. An author can buy a package of these services for a few thousand dollars. There’s an implied promise that big-name publishers’ professional staffers who produce commercially successful books will do the same for the self-published author. (Seldom true.) There’s also a promise–sometimes explicitly stated–that self-published authors’ work will be touted by the same sales team and placed in the same highly visible locations that made best-selling authors’ books so successful. (Almost never true.)

Subsidy publishing (or, in the brutal phrase of publishing veterans, “vanity publishing”) panders to the naivete of new authors. It sells hope at a handsome price. The enterprise is profitable for grand old houses sponsoring it, but rarely delivers the kind of results aspiring authors expect.

And there’s more. Some publicists have launched so-called “publishing houses” that are simply packages of trade advertising, planted reviews, and massive giveaways designed to inflate sales figures and secure a spot on well-known best-seller lists. Now and then, the strategy works. It creates the “buzz” that generates genuine sales. More often, it taps the author’s bank account, enriches the publicist, and does little to put the book into hands of interested readers.

Merriam-Webster defines integrity as “the quality of being honest and fair.” No one can deny that today’s self-publishing promoters are profitable, but few of them ply their trade with integrity. Authors, beware.

Philip Gulley spoke at last week’s Indiana Faith and Writing Conference at Anderson University, where he told how he first gained a national readership. It began when he was pastor of a Quaker church in central Indiana that consisted of 12 elderly people. When he asked for ideas about how to draw more people into the life of the congregation, one of his parishioners said, “Seems like all the big churches have newsletters. Why don’t you put out a newsletter–and write a column in it every week?”

“What would I write about?”

“Just write about Jesus.”

A footnote to this conversation: Ten years earlier, Philip had pulled an “F” in his English composition class at Marian College. He’d persuaded the instructor (a Catholic nun) to nudge it up to a “D” so he wouldn’t lose his scholarship by making a solemn promise that he would never write for publication. But time had passed and times were hard, so he decided to renege on his promise…at least for the church newsletter.

He wrote about simple, everyday subjects with spiritual insight and whimsical humor. Eventually, someone sent a copy of his newsletter to ABC radio host Paul Harvey, who read one of Philip’s columns on his national broadcast. The next day, a call came from the publisher of Multnomah Press in Oregon, who wanted to know if he had other articles like that.

Not long after, Multnomah published Philip’s first book. Soon, his work began appearing on the New York Times best-seller list.

“Do your best with every piece that you write,” he told us. “You never know who will read it or where it will go. That 500-word newsletter column took me two days to write, but how was I to know that millions of people would hear it?”

Another footnote: As Philip Gulley’s reputation grew, he returned for an alumni function Marian College and was confronted by a stern-faced nun who said, “You just couldn’t resist, could you?”

That’s right, Sister. It’s the writer’s curse!

Today, I start a new blog on life in the Southern Mountains.  I grew up there (East Tennessee), still visit family there, and often go there in my fiction writing.

You may find you have some things in common with my Appalachian heritage, so take a look — and invite your friends to do the same. Here’s a link to it:

Southern Mountains

A chipmunk brought down our air conditioner a few weeks ago. Where the A/C line runs underground, there was just enough space (about an inch) for the little bugger to burrow in and chew the insulation off the thermostat wire.

A repair tech advised me to fill the void with some spray foam insulation. Otherwise my wee rodent friend will come back to munch, and I’ll need to call the repair service again.

Amazing to think how much sabotage can be wrought by varmints that crawl in through little gaps in our lives. Makes me wonder what other “voids” in my life are leaving me vulnerable–and how I need to secure them.

Most people avoid criticism, but writers (at least those who are serious about improving their craft) go looking for it. Someone else who writes in the same genre can read a work in progress and point out flaws that others don’t see. This critique partner (or “critter”) can be a writer’s best ally in the battle against mediocrity.

I’m privileged to have a couple of highly skilled yet compassionate “critters” in my corner. They understand the hard work that goes into every scene and sequence of dialogue, so they don’t dismiss my latest submission out of hand. At the same time, they are uniquely qualified to identify my shortcomings. Like a team of surgeons peering into my abdomen, they pull back skin and fat to expose a malfunctioning organ and deftly decide whether it should be repaired or removed altogether.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” an ancient writer observed (Prov. 27:6). Family will give a writer facile praise with the very best intentions; but the result is not nearly as helpful as the “faithful wounds” he receives at the hands of his critters.

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