📰 The Medium Is the Messiah: McLuhan's Religion and Its Relationship to His Media Theory | Read Mercer Schuchardt
Full Title: The Medium Is the Messiah: McLuhan's Religion and Its Relationship to His Media Theory | Read Mercer Schuchardt
To say that Marshall McLuhan was incidentally a Christian, or that his Catholicism was just part of his private life, is a little like saying that Karl Marx was only incidentally a Marxist.
To put it briefly, the Catholic faith informed McLuhan’s theories in a manner similar to the way Einstein’s C functioned: as the one constant in the universe to which and against which all else could be measured. Everything might be relative, but it is relative only in relation to the one thing that is not relative. For McLuhan, this was not the speed of light, but was the Incarnation of Christ, a fact or “thing” that was not altogether separate from McLuhan’s understanding of what light was.
The central fact of McLuhan’s life, as Coupland makes clear, was his conversion, at the age of twenty-five, to Catholicism, and his subsequent devotion to the religion’s rituals and tenets. Though he never discussed it, his faith forms the moral and intellectual backdrop to all his mature work.
When asked by Hubert Hoskins, “If I were to say that the traditional Christian doctrine of the Incarnation can be expressed by the phrase, ‘Christ is the medium and the message,’ is that a percept or a concept?” McLuhan had this to say:
It is a percept because, as Christ said over and over again, it is visible to babes, but not to sophisticates. The sophisticated, the conceptualizers, the Scribes and the Pharisees–these had too many theories to be able to perceive anything. Concepts are wonderful buffers for preventing people from confronting any form of percept.
To begin, it is helpful to remember that from early to late, from his first publication to his last, McLuhan was a Christian thinker concerned with Christian truth. His first published piece was “G. K. Chesteron: A Practical Mystic” published in the Dalhousie Review in January 1936. Chesterton was instrumental in McLuhan’s conversion in March of the following year, and whetted McLuhan’s appetite for ideas more than any other thinker.
The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) is almost entirely about church history, and the impact of the printing press on medieval Catholic Europe. Even his most canonical work, Understanding Media (1964), is ultimately a warning against the idolatry of technology, in which he invokes both William Blake and Psalm 115 to tell us that “we become what we behold.”
That technology was a false God was Postman’s point. That there is a real God worthy of worship was McLuhan’s point.
In other words, if the Word is Christ, then the medium is the messiah.
I don’t think that Christ would have suffered under Ghengis Khan with the same meaning as under Pontius Pilate. The Greeks had invented a medium, the phonetic alphabet, which.., made it possible for men to have for the first time in history a sense of private identity. A sense of private substantial identity–a self– is to this day utterly unknown to tribal societies.
Now we believe that each of us is endowed with an individual soul since conception, and the concomitant, an individual Conscience. The private individual with a private self is also charged with private responsibility for his or her own actions and quests for private salvation. The alphabet literally paved the way for these matters. These are New Testament times. The Old Testament, for example, had declared the Jews a chosen people: group salvation.
By “the medium is the message” McLuhan also meant that 1) the content of any medium is always another medium; 2) the content is the “juicy piece of meat used to distract the watchdog of the mind” (18); 3) that the message of any medium is really the change in scale, pace, or pattern it created; and 4) that the content is the effect on the individual or culture.
In Understanding Media, we get the one case where it is literal in electric light: “The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message”
The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.
Several chapters later, McLuhan states that “if the student of media will but meditate on the power of this medium of electric light to transform every structure of time and space and work and society that it penetrates or contacts, he will have the key to the form of the power that is in all media to reshape any lives that they touch”
Jesus Christ is, theologically speaking, the light of the world. John 8:12 (the same book and chapter, though different verse, of McLuhan’s tombstone) tells us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
But Satan is also theologically connected to the light. He is described as an “angel of light” in 2 Corinthians 11:14 and as “prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:1-2. The name Lucifer itself means “light bearer.” And Christ seems to be referencing both his “angel of light” and “prince of the power of the air” significance when he says of him in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”
So if Scripture sets up Christ as the true light and Satan (Anti-Christ) as the false light, then it should come as no surprise that McLuhan’s interpretations follow these same lines. Here is McLuhan on Jesus, the true light:
… at the instant of Incarnation, the structure of the universe was changed. All of creation was remade. There was a new physics, a new matter, a new world.
[Other religions] … have all the fascination of any other massive cultural achievement. They were rendered obsolete at the moment of the Incarnation and they remain so.
Electric information environments being utterly ethereal fosters the illusion of the world as spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. After all, the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer.
… the “Prince of this World” is a great P.R. man, a great salesman of new hardware and software, a great electrical engineer, and a great master of the media. It is His master stroke to be not only environmental but invisible, for the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored.
When electricity allows for the simultaneity of all information for every human being, it is Lucifer’s moment. He is the greatest electrical engineer. Technically speaking, the age in which we live is certainly favourable to an Antichrist.
McLuhan said that “… just as the Roman clergy defected in the Gutenberg era on the illusion of the inner light, even greater numbers may be expected to defect under the mystical attractions of the electric light”
In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.
That electricity was a false light was equally clear to Vladimir Lenin, who said in 1918 during a conversation with Leonid Krasin on the electrification of Russia, “Let the peasant pray to electricity. He’s going to feel the power of the central authorities more than that of heaven”