I recently taught my students a series of lessons about propaganda.
We examined ads from England, America, and Germany from World War II, as well as ads from America and the USSR during the Cold War. The heavy-handed rhetoric of both eras helped me explain different propaganda techniques.
“information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular point of view.”
Ever since our lesson, I’ve been seeing more examples of propaganda everywhere. But the type of propaganda I see the most is called transfer.
I’m seeing transfer everywhere I look — from billboards to restaurant ads to news anchors. But the most common place I’m finding it is in conversations regarding biblical womanhood.
What Is Transfer?
“a technique of projecting positive or negative qualities (praise or blame) of a person, entity, object, or value (an individual, group, organization, nation, patriotism, etc.) to another in order to make the second more acceptable or discredit it.”
I describe it to my students as taking the qualities of something good and ascribing them to something questionable. That way, when we reject the questionable thing, we’re seen as rejecting the good thing. Transfer relies heavily on definitions that have not been mutually agreed upon.
For instance, during World War II, the positive quality that many Americans agreed upon was that Americans and their values were superior to their opponents. So any time an American flag loomed in the background of an ad, the unconscious message was: “You must agree with this text because it is the American way.”
We still see “the American way” used as a catch-all for “the value system that I want you to submit to.” During WWII, an ad might imply that if you didn’t want to spend ten percent of your income on war bonds, perhaps you hated America. Or your children. Or puppies. In this scenario, the merit of buying war bonds goes from being something that we can discuss as rational human beings to an unquestionable test of your devotion to the American value system.
Transfer and Biblical Womanhood
So how can we use this method in a conversation about womanhood?
It might go like this:
Sarah-Jane: “Biblical submission is doing whatever your husband asks, whenever he asks it, as long as he’s not asking you to sin. If you guys are in a deadlock, even about something inconsequential, he has veto power.”
Mary-Beth: “I think submission is a wife recognizing her husband as the spiritual leader of the household and having a humble, open position towards his spiritual leadership. I think assigning veto power for inconsequential things or describing every act of service as submission misses the mark.”
Sarah-Jane: “Rejecting God’s Word is a good way to end up in hell, Mary-Beth.”
Obviously, this is a huge exaggeration (hopefully). But in this scenario, Sarah-Jane has taken something good (biblical submission) and used it to mask something that might be questionable (her theological interpretation) so that when Mary-Beth rejects the questionable thing (SJ’s theological interpretation), she is seen as rejecting the good thing (biblical submission).
Sarah-Jane also used transfer in a negative way when she told Mary-Beth she was rejecting God’s natural order. (SJ could have also used a fave transfer standby label and called MB a feminist).
She took something bad (rejection of God’s natural order) and used it to mask something good (questioning a theological interpretation) so that when Mary-Beth upheld the good (questioning a theological interpretation) she was seen as endorsing the bad (rejection of God’s natural order).
Transfer is powerful because it traps us into thinking that we can’t reject the bad while still upholding the good.
We kill nuance and thoughtfulness. We’ve transferred our devotion to God’s word to our devotion for our interpretation of it.
And when someone questions our interpretation, it’s like they’re rejecting the Word.
This happened the time I tweeted about biblical womanhood:
“Someday, we’ll stop getting our definition of ‘biblical womanhood’ from worn out Victorian and 1950’s stereotypes.
Right? Please say yes.”
One person wrote that if I hated 1950’s stereotypes, I probably hated what Paul had to say about womanhood, too.
Because you know those 1950’s. So close to Paul’s intent.
Transfer It Back
The Gospel isn’t the call to a particular era in U.S. history. That shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say. But it is when we’ve transferred our allegiance from God’s Word to a stereotype. Often, we defend the stereotype as intensely as we would defend the truth of the Gospel.
And we leave the Gospel itself unproclaimed.
We will never be able to have fruitful conversations about femininity or identity until we stop manipulating people into silence. That goes for conversations about stay-at-home moms, to debates about women in leadership, to any number of issues regarding women in the church.
We get so caught up in being counter-cultural that we begin to do it for counter-culture’s sake. Maybe we hold on to long-held beliefs, not because they’ve been carefully tested, but because they’re the sacred cows we’ve made idols of. Perhaps we shut down conversations that challenge us because we are scared to death of falling away from our own ideas of “biblical womanhood.” Things are not true just because we have always believed them. Things are not biblical just because we have always done them.
If your understanding of God’s Word is correct, you have nothing to fear. It is “sharper than a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). It can stand up to endless questions and wrestling.
If your understanding is incorrect, then praise God that you can continue to grow (Romans 8:29). It’s okay to learn something new.
We have a choice. We can rely on the sword of Truth, or on the sword of an old-school propaganda technique.
I’m not making these proclamations as a voice from on high. My social media forays bring out just as much pettiness in me as I see in others. If we’re talking logs and specks, I’m walking around with a California redwood lodged in my eye. Here are three things I would love to see less of (and more of) on social media.