Novel Thoughts blog

Propaganda is Someone Else’s Job

December 17, 2013 1:11 pm | 8 Comments


The word “propaganda” now has a pejorative connotation, but once upon a time the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples was known as the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, or Sacro Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. I have seen its beautiful headquarters in Rome–designed by Bernini–and been shooed out by a stern security guard. In the context of Christian missionary activity, propaganda-meaning-propagation is a good thing.

Faithful Catholics know that we are supposed always to preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words, as Saint Francis is reputed to have said. The implication of this quote is that it is better to live the Gospel than to chat about Our Lord with our colleagues at work. I must say that the former sounds more comfortable than the latter. And being Canadian, of mixed Scottish, Irish and German descent, with a dollop of English blood, the idea of standing on a tub at a city corner reading the Gospel through a megaphone does not appeal to me. Perhaps it should, though. And it would be better to shout the Gospel from the tub than in my fiction.

I heard once that Saint Augustine’s works were permeated through and through with the Latin of the Scriptures. I am not sure if this is true, for Saint Augustine and the Vulgate are roughly contemporary. Still, I believe Saint Augustine’s works, like the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, do ring with echoes of the Scriptures he must have read again and again until they were inextricable from his thoughts. My husband was once a Scottish Episcopalian choir boy, and he will sing or quote from Coverdale’s Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer at the drop of a hat. They are a natural part of his day-to-day noise.

This reminds me that some of the most famous convert novelists–Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Gilbert Keith Chesterton–all had Anglican public [i.e. private] school boyhoods and were therefore steeped in the language and theology of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Fellow convert Muriel Spark used the BCP to great effect in her brilliant The Girls of Slender Means. These devotional and liturgical works not only taught these authors Anglican Christianity, they taught them the magnificence of the English language. They didn’t need to shout the Gospel in their work; its echoes were simply there, in their wonderful stories.

It is a terrible pity that there are so few English-language liturgical works of which English-speaking Roman Catholics are uniformly fond, although I imagine we have some favourite hymns, to say nothing of our wonderful Christmas carols. Perhaps this is why we are so interested in Catholic fiction and hammer out theories to prove that The Lord of the Rings was not only written by a Roman Catholic, it is Roman Catholic. Thank heavens for Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., for his “God’s Grandeur” is not only obviously and thoroughly Catholic, it is also a critically-acclaimed, widely beloved, brilliant example of our native tongue.

“God’s Grandeur” praises God through His creation, where sharp-eyed Father Hopkins could so clearly see his Maker’s mark. And I think that is part of the Catholic novelist’s, or Catholic poet’s, job: to show, not God necessarily, but the glimmer of God, God’s fingerprints, in His creation. We have to approach the subject of God sideways, as it were, allowing our readers to see for themselves what we are getting at, so that when the light dawns on them, it is His light, His dawn.

We also have to tell the truth about God’s creation, which is that it is both fallen and redeemed. The priest still walks past the half-dead man on the route to Jericho. The heterodox Samaritan still picks him up and binds his wounds. The good man still congratulates himself on his goodness, and the bad man still can barely raise his eyes to heaven as he acknowledges his sins. The great patron still bestows his large gifts with a flourish, and in secret the poor widow still gives all she has.

Above all, we writers of fiction have to tell a story. And this is where we as Catholics really have to set aside our romantic notions that we will win souls for Christ with our heartwarming, tear-jerking stories about a happy homeschooling community in Catholicburg, Illinois, etc. Personally, I would LOVE to read stories about homeschoolers, and I bet the homeschooled would, too. But the story would have to have a plot, and a plot usually means that Bad Things happen.

Sure, the Bad Thing could be that the Bad State has decided to make homeschooling illegal, but it would be much more interesting if the Bad Thing was something to do with the homeschooling itself–some way in which homeschooling was not helping the children, or was turning the parents into shadows of their former selves, or created a scandal when a teacher ordered Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit online, thinking it was a children’s cookbook. Naturally, this could be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on the ideas of the author.

Of course we want souls to be saved. But as fiction writers our job is to tell stories that illustrate the truth found in God’s creation. If we can do that, we can stop worrying about apologetics, and leave that task to Professor Kreeft.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

Tags: Catholic literature Evelyn Waugh


  1. December 17, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    It is a terrible pity that there are so few English-language liturgical works of which English-speaking Roman Catholics are uniformly fond, although I imagine we have some favourite hymns,

    Perhaps that’ll just take time?–as the switch to Mass in the vernacular happened so recently. I’d worry about our preservation of the English language if we drew from some of the hymns I’ve sung as an R.C. chorister, though. There are handful with lyrics so bad that I just can’t sing them with a straight face. ‘Course, if you attend a traditional parish, you presumably have better examples. ;)

    I loved reading Presbyterian author L.M. Montgomery growing up, and her constant off-the-cuff allusions to the Bible and poetry are a delight. Maybe I’ll have to go look up Muriel Spark’s book.

    As a graduate of homeschooling, I dream of writing a story focused on homeschoolers. The right plot hasn’t hit me yet. But there are certainly plenty of fascinating juxtapositions of light and darkness right inside that community, without reference to the Bad State.

  2. December 18, 2013 at 4:35 am

    “to show, not God necessarily, but the glimmer of God, God’s fingerprints, in His creation.” These words have touched me, I don’t know why; but I find them beautiful. Thanks!

  3. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 18, 2013 at 7:31 am

    Thank you, Martin! If I were to guess, i would suggest that it is because your Christian soul is moved by the truth that God is so great, our mental eyes are capable of glimpsing Him only from a holy distance, and yet so loving that He allows us those glimpses.

    Jeanna, do not dream. Take a pen and paper this very minute and write “Once upon a time in a town in Indiana” and then keep going. Do not stop until you have written 500 words and have an idea what will happen in the next 500 words tomorrow.

    Yes, LMM is a good example of a Christian author who knew the everyday rhythms of Christian Scripture in her community and reproduced them in her writing. Anne and Gilbert were Presbyterians, but LMM took this so much for granted, she never really needed to spell that out. And thus we can all love Anne and Gilbert, Marilla et alia, without feeling excluded from this “Presbyterian literature.” LMM wrote stories about Canadian Protestants, not tracts about Canadian Protestantism. indeed, she could even write about spooky stuff like Emily’s “second sight” without feeling like she was betraying God.

  4. John Herreid

    December 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Great post! It’s not only religious authors who do this—it crops up a lot in other agenda-driven literature as well, where the author is worried that you might not get the point unless they hammer it home multiple times. I recently read a novel by a socialist author who couldn’t trust that the reader would understand that he was trying to portray the injustice of social inequality and forced a great deal of hamfisted dialogue upon his otherwise likeable characters.

  5. December 18, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    I want to take your advice, but first, I should probably finish the two manuscripts I’ve already committed to doing. ;)

  6. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 19, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Oh, yes! Finish, finish!

  7. December 29, 2013 at 8:20 am

    The King James Bible translation is beautiful but I suspect its place in popular history is as much to do with propagandists since the reformation which perhaps suited an agenda that was subtly, if not overtly anti Catholic. Almost a worship of the English language as opposed to the universal truth it was conveying.
    I don’t think that if say the Russians had an anniversary celebrating the great translators of Shakespeare and not the playwright himself that it would be treated with such an uncritical view.

  8. January 1, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    great post!

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