Nearly twelve decades ago Walt Whitman wrote:
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon,
that object he became,
And that object became a part of him.…
Today when the child of God goes forth, one of the first objects he looks upon is likely to be an advertisement, on a billboard or some other medium. And he need not even “go forth”; the flick of a button brings advertising images right into his living room. These objects, cleverly constructed and packaged and transmitted, do become a part of him, whether he realizes it or not—and probably more so in proportion to his not realizing it. What are you and I “becoming”?
Know it or not, admit it or not, each of us is daily “massaged” and manipulated by the subtly persuasive techniques of the adman’s multi-million-dollar industry. You and I are daily being conditioned and conned by the use of subliminal stimuli directed into our subconscious minds by the mass merchandizers. This is the thesis of Wilson Bryan Key’s recent book Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America (Prentice-Hall, 1973). Key, a former student of Marshall McLuhan (who wrote the introduction), concludes that the apparent purpose, the blatant surface appeal, of an ad may simply be a decoy enabling the subtle, powerful motivations to work at a subconscious level: “It’s what you don’t see that sells you.” The book, with thirty ad illustrations, discusses an array of alleged subliminal techniques, from subtly embedded graffiti in ice cubes of liquor ads to sexually symbolic forms and shapes.
Most Christians will probably ignore this book and other similar ones, perhaps dismissing them as products of delusive paranoia and their authors as being “obsexed.” But even if only a mere fraction of what these authors say is true, evangelical Christians, more than anyone else, should be deeply concerned. Some pertinent questions need to be considered: (1) To what extent are we “massaged” and manipulated subliminally, and are Christians more or less vulnerable than unbelievers? (2) What specific implications does subliminal seduction have for Christians? (3) What forms does Satanic subliminal seduction take in our day? (4) Do the Scriptures provide us with defenses?
It has been estimated that the “average” U. S. adult is exposed to more than 500 advertising messages every day. Key estimates that this adult consciously perceives only 75 of the 500, blacking out from consciousness at least 85 per cent of the ad messages and daily acting upon an average of 2.5 per cent. It has been further estimated that the “average” U. S. adult views television 6.5 hours a day and spends thirty-two minutes a day reading a newspaper or magazine. Such data, whether precisely accurate or not, clearly indicate that the Christian’s senses are bombarded during many hours of each day by a pagan world-system. As a recent Saturday Review editorial expressed it, “nothing is more difficult in the modern world than to protect the privacy of the human soul.”
Experiments with the tachistoscope (a film projector with a high-speed shutter that flashes messages every five seconds at 1/3000th of a second) have seemed to confirm subliminal influence. In one six-week test, advertising messages invisible to the conscious mind but planted in the subconscious were superimposed over motion pictures. One such message—“Hungry? Eat Popcorn”—reportedly increased popcorn sales 57.7 per cent.
Studies in subliminal seduction pose a number of problems for Christians. A serious one concerns the formulation and alteration of an individual’s value system. Key writes:
One very critical and disturbing consequence of subliminal manipulation has been demonstrated in dozens of experiments by changing the position (anchor point) from which an individual evaluates the world about him. Anchor points might be described as the position between two opposed concepts from which an individual evaluates … good or bad, moral or immoral, rich or poor, strong or weak, sane or insane, and so on. A subliminal stimulus and a posthypnotic suggestion both have the ability to move the anchor point between virtually any two such concepts in any direction desired [p. 29, 30].
Are your values and those of your family formulated and altered by the pagan philosophy of this worldly system or by the Word of God?
Paul admonished: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-make your minds from within …” (Rom. 12:1, Phillips). The world squeezes us into its mold when advertisements influence us to indulge ourselves without guilt. To quote Key again:
One of the most penetrating jobs advertising does on the human psyche is to manage the individual’s conflicts between pleasure and pain. Products such as cigarettes must first be made to appear fun, exciting, sophisticated, or glamorous. Then the smoker must be given moral permission to have fun without guilt. This is not at all easy, considering North America’s Puritan-Calvinist heritage [p. 180].
But judging from increased tobacco sales despite health warnings, the adman is amazingly successful.
If the ad media are even half as successful in marketing through subliminal manipulation as Key, N. F. Dixon (Subliminal Perception: The Nature of a Controversy) and Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders) have maintained, the prospects for more pervasive mass manipulation are truly Orwellian. 1984 is less than a decade away. The political conditioning, brainwashing, and exploiting possibilities of the media will be ready for the Antichrist’s use.
Quite disturbing, particularly from the Christian point of view, is Key’s assertion that “no significant belief or attitude held by any individual is apparently made on the basis of consciously perceived data.” This idea reflects the widespread impulse to bypass the rational faculties, evidenced by the current popularity of such things as occultism, mysticism, and Transcendental Meditation. If Satan cannot overtly corrupt our minds (2 Cor. 11:3) or defile them (Titus 1:15) or blind them (2 Cor. 4:4) or confuse them (2 Thess. 2:2) or unsettle them (Luke 12:29) or divert them (James 1:8, 4:8) or discourage them (Heb. 12:3), he seeks to bypass our conscious minds, subtly appealing instead to the intuitive, the irrational, the merely emotional. Adept at all of these stratagems, Satan now seems to be making extensive use of the merely emotional as his special ploy. Satan, the author of imbalance and disharmony, is responsible for the current pendulum-swing away from God-ordained reason toward a mindless emotionalism, from thought to touchy-feely sensation, from the reasonableness of sound doctrine to the intuition of visionary experience.
In such an atmosphere, subliminal seduction flourishes. Our ancient foe, by subjecting the Christian to a constant barrage of unwholesome and unholy stimuli directed at the subconscious mind, is able to influence and eventually even to control the whole being. The conscious mind of a committed Christian evaluates, criticizes, and discerns, but subliminal stimuli implant themselves within the subconscious, where they remain unevaluated, uncriticized, and undiscerned until stimulated to rise to the surface as powerful predispositions.
Many Christians have a simplistic concept of temptation that goes something like this: Satan, at a particular moment, flits to our side and whispers “Do it,” and we either do or do not, depending upon our spiritual strength at that moment. We might be more consistently victorious in not “doing it” if we realized that there is much more to temptation than the overt, momentary solicitation to evil and that our strength or weakness at that moment is based upon attitudes that have been forming for weeks, months, even years prior.
We do not fall in a moment; the predisposition to yield to sin has been forming, building, germinating—but not necessarily consciously so. Sin has both a cumulative and a domino effect. Satan plants subtle stimuli, often subliminal ones; he influences an attitude; he wins a “minor” victory—always in preparation for the “big” fall, the iron-bound habit. The words of James support such a view: “Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin …” (James 1:14, 15). It is this time between “conceiving” and “bringing forth,” that shadowy interim between stimulus and response, that may be largely subliminal.
Several Old Testament writers make use of the word conceive, denoting, as the contexts suggest, not rational thought alone but sub-rational predispositioning, analogous to biological conception. For example, Job wrote: “They conceive mischief, and bring forth vanity, and their belly [not the mind, but the very center of their being] prepareth deceit” (Job 15:35). Similarly, Isaiah wrote: “They conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity. They hatch adder’s eggs, weave the spider’s web” (Isa. 59:4, 5). David uses similar language: “He travaileth with iniquity, and hath conceived mischief, and brought forth falsehood” (Ps. 7:14).
David knew whereof he spoke, for, as a study of the account (in Second Samuel 11) of his great sin suggests, he had fallen long before that evening when he arose from his bed, walked upon the roof of the king’s house, and saw Bathsheba bathing. His fall was seeded when he “tarried still at Jerusalem” “at the time when kings go forth to battle,” and quite likely prior to that. Why did he tarry and why did he walk restively upon the roof? Certainly this “man after God’s own heart” did not consciously plan beforehand to commit adultery and murder. But when the stimulus presented itself, powerful predispositions surfaced, and the great man fell.
Similarly, the fall of Samson perhaps began even prior to the time when he “went down to Timnah, and saw a woman in Timnah, of the daughters of the Philistines” (Judg. 14:1). Before he “went down,” and in the process of “going down,” there apparently “went down” into him very powerful predispositions that led ultimately to his “going down” in defeat. In like manner, the tragedy of Lot and his family began even before he “pitched his tent toward Sodom,” even before he “lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan” (Gen. 13:12, 10). You and I, by what we see and hear and read and do today, are unwittingly establishing predispositions that will influence our decisions and behavior far in the future.
Do the Scriptures offer any promise of divine provision for victory over subliminal seduction? God has assured us that we shall not want for anything (Ps. 23:2), that he has made ample provision for our every need (Phil. 4:19), that “our sufficiency is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5). If subliminal seduction is a threat—and there is convincing evidence that it is—we may be assured that God has made ample provision for victory.
We should realize, first, that it is impossible for the Christian to escape the assault of subliminal seduction and, further, that it is not the Father’s will that we should escape it. Christ asked the Father not that we be taken out of this evil world but that we be kept from its evil. No cloistered recluses, committed Christians are in this present evil world—and that includes being subjected daily to a vast array of unholy stimuli—but the evil of this world need not be in the Christian, for God has made provision for triumphant victory.
Early in his dealing with the Israelites, the Lord God commanded that his words should be in their hearts, should be diligently taught to their children, should be spoken of when they sat in their houses, when they walked by the way, when they lay down, when they arose. Then the Almighty gave an interesting and significant command: “Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes” (Deut. 6:8; cf. Prov. 6:20–22). The Jewish phylacteries (phylax, “watchman”; phylokterion, “a safeguard”), two small leather cases holding slips inscribed with Scripture, were fastened on the left arm, signifying the safeguarding of actions, deeds, creative activity, and on the forehead between the eyes, signifying the safeguarding of thoughts and subconscious impressions. This gesture of placing God’s Word between the eyes (a position very significant to ancient mystics and modern occultists alike) effectively symbolizes God’s Word as a safeguard for the subconscious mind.
God’s further command that his words should be written “upon the posts of the house, and on thy gates” signifies the safeguarding of one’s dwelling and place of business, and parallels the divine protection of our very being. Just as the blood sprinkled on the two sideposts and over the lintel signified divine provision for sin and protection from its consequent death, God’s Word so placed signifies his divine provision and protection. The word subliminal is derived from the Latin sub, “below,” plus limen, “threshold” or “lintel”—below the threshold of consciousness or apprehension. The Christian must daily sprinkle his “lintel” and “doorposts” with the powerful Word of God to guard against unholy stimuli that would enter unnoticed below the threshold.
Neither the sprinkling of blood nor the placing of the words was a magic talisman; the acts were rather significant signs of God’s protection. The words were first of all to be in their hearts (Deut. 6:6). “Thy word have I hid in mine heart [suggesting both the conscious and the subconscious?], that I might not sin against thee,” David said (Ps. 119:11). Immersing ourselves in the Word of God, hiding it in the very depths of our beings, letting Christ the Word (Col. 1:27) and the Word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16), is God’s safeguard against subliminal seduction.
God’s very peace and presence, Paul tells us, “shall garrison our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Without this provision, the Christian is vulnerable: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
The Scripture also speaks of the role of the third Person of the Trinity in making provision for us subliminally, especially below or beyond the level of language. “The Spirit too helps us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words [‘pleads for us in sighs that can find no utterance,’ TCNT; ‘his Spirit within us is actually praying for us in those agonizing longings which never find words,’ Phillips], and God who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly well what he means [‘he who searches our inmost being knows what the Spirit means,’ NEB]” (Rom. 8:26, Jerusalem Bible). Such a relationship with God, at levels transcending but not bypassing the strictly rational and linguistic, is communication become communion.
The Christian’s victory over subliminal seduction lies, therefore, in the indwelling Word and the indwelling Spirit. The powerful, living Word of God hidden daily in our innermost being will offset the unholy stimuli and will reinforce our “anchor points.” The Holy Spirit, using the Word, intercedes subliminally for our needs. The Spirit and the Word defeat subliminal stimuli at any of several points: safeguarding against their entrance, preventing their surfacing to the conscious mind as predispositions, effacing the stimuli entirely, or giving grace for victory if they do reach the surface. At any of these points, the Christian is invulnerable to the extent that he continuously, by faith, reckons himself dead to the unholy stimuli (Rom. 8:11–13; Gal. 2:20).
At times it seems almost as if the Adamic nature is headquartered in the subconscious mind, with many of the predispositions simply being part of our natural proclivity toward evil. But when we are continuously, daily filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), there will be little opportunity for subliminal stimuli to cause us to fall. When we yield our subconscious minds to God, they become instruments of righteousness unto God (Rom. 6:13). When we allow the Spirit to implant holy stimuli from the Word, what could be a seething caldron of evil impressions can be instead a sanctified depository of grace-full predispositions.
Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians that Satan can get an advantage over us when we are “ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11). Ignorance or unawareness is Satan’s tool in subliminal seduction. “Once the subliminal information becomes apparent to the conscious mind,” Key states, “the persuasive or manipulative potential in the data [is] destroyed. Insidiously …, the more subliminal or deeply buried a stimulus, the greater the probable affect” (p. 27, 28).
We dare not remain oblivious to that shadowy interim between stimulus and response; we dare not abandon the subliminal to the enemy. In another context T. S. Eliot wrote:
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow …
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow.
When that shadow falls, let the Light shine upon and below the lintel.
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