“The Church and the Influences of Media”
A Review of
The Medium and the Light:
Reflections on Religion.
By Marshall McLuhan.
Reviewed by Adam Newton.
The Medium and the Light:
Reflections on Religion.
Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I would assert that more people are generally familiar with the phrase, “The medium is the message,” than they are with the name of the man who originally coined the concept. Marshall McLuhan, the late University Of Toronto professor and thinker, renowned in his time for his ground-breaking insights into media and communications theory, has developed since his passing a rather feverish cult following, mostly due to the writings of his protégés, most notably those of Neil Postman – especially his seminal Amusing Ourselves To Death. What most people, including myself until recently, never understood about McLuhan was how he was able to reconcile his theoretical musings on how humanity absorbs media with his Roman Catholicism.
Enter The Medium And The Light, a collection of articles, letters, essays, and speeches from McLuhan’s archives that have been brought together and edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek. This cross-section of correspondence and conversations readily and aptly illuminates how McLuhan was able to balance his theology with his educational training and scholarly work. In fact, we learn early on in that he converted to Roman Catholicism as a result of reading and dissecting key medieval tomes while studying for and writing his doctoral thesis on the history of the trivium (rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar). Split into four distinct parts – “Conversion,” “The Church’s Understanding Of Media,” “Vatican II, Liturgy, And The Media,” and “Tomorrow’s Church” – the book makes the case for how McLuhan unapologetically allowed his spiritual beliefs to infiltrate his media studies and vice versa.
For those familiar with the professor’s corpus (The Medium Is The Message, Understanding Media, et al), many of the intellectual themes discussed in these pages are quite recognizable, specifically those relating to how humans are affected by the influences of media. The twist here is that McLuhan speaks directly to how the radio, television, and even microphones affect how people interact in church. He also discusses what the church has done in response to the world shifting from being dominated by print to being an oral, acoustic, global-tribal culture again. In short, he stood against many of the changes to the Mass initiated by Vatican II (remember that he was in his prime during the ‘60s and ‘70s), since removing the Latin and installing microphones allows people to draw within themselves as individuals and encourages them to not participate in communal church life.
His rather pointed barbs launched at the Church regarding how it merely reacts to changes in culture without actually comprehending what is happening are as strikingly relevant as ever in the 21st century. When McLuhan talked about “electric man” and how intrinsically connected each of us are to everyone around the globe, he is speaking about a world that had yet to discover e-mail, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones, Blackberries, and the incessant 24-hour news cycle. Yet, even in the mid-‘70s, he was wary of churches adopting and co-opting new technologies wholesale without figuring out exactly what they do.
Most importantly, he wasn’t sure that the new tools of his day were able to really build the community as they intended. Church leaders today know how it’s nearly impossible to ignore the potential impact of social media devices, but I’m sure they wonder if such implements truly build an active community of believers. In what I found to be curiously amusing, he spoke fondly of how jazz and rock concerts are able to bring together people in an unabashed display of communal life, but he worried that the church would merely adopt the trappings of such gatherings without trying to understand what’s actually happening.
Each section of The Medium And The Light contains a key portion that stands out as most revelatory in terms of discerning McLuhan’s system of belief and school of thought. “G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic” is an excellent read that finds the author defending one of his guides in the faith. With “Communication Media: Makers of the Modern World,” McLuhan talked in great detail about how radio, television, and nearly instantaneous communication impacts how humans relate to words, thoughts, and ideas (insights which should be of great importance to the Church). My favorite essay was “Liturgy and Media: Do Americans Go To Church To Be Alone?” in which he spoke to how “Americans tend to be job-holders and private goal-seekers rather than role-players” (121), a lifestyle habit that has great bearing on how people relate to others when they do gather for worship on Sundays.
In “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” he gives suggestions to the Church (to him, the Roman Catholic church specifically, as he constantly critiques Protestantism throughout) regarding how it can make itself heard in the greater world without kowtowing to mere pop cultural relevancy. He compared and contrasted the writing and weight of folks like James Joyce, Edgar Allen Poe, St. Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, and modern ad men to conclude, “I think it relevant to observe here that it is especially the job of the Catholic humanist to build bridges between the arts and society today. Because the Catholic humanist can see the Incarnation which informs all of the arts and traditions of mankind.” (174) And possibly, most useful of all, a chat McLuhan had with Pierre Babin in 1977 (originally in Lyon: Editions du Chalet) appears here, the first time it’s ever been translated into English. Broken into four parts itself, this conversation anchors the flow of book and reveals McLuhan at his most candid, with gloves totally removed. The Medium And The Light effectively displays one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century as an intensely spiritual (yet private) Christian who refused to separate his theology from his work.