‘What do you think Marshall McLuhan ought to do if he wants to be taken more seriously in the world today?” asked a television interviewer of the man himself.
“Marshall McLuhan is taken far too seriously,” he replied.
The centenary of his birth is July 21, and we take him seriously still. In the Internet age, his ideas appear more relevant than ever. The mark of a great idea is that it is obvious once stated. That how we think and act is shaped by the mode of communication itself is now obvious to all.
“Printing, radio, movies, TV – they actually alter our organs of perception without our knowing,” McLuhan wrote, observing and also anticipating how patterns of thought, friendships and philosophies would change in the electronic age. When McLuhan was raising his six children, being sent to one’s bedroom was a punishment of deprivation; today, parents try to get their kids out of their bedrooms, away from the laptop, video games and mobile phones.
McLuhan is rightly celebrated as a scholar of communications and mass culture, but his ideas about communication and religion, which is at the heart of culture, are generally neglected. As a devout convert to Catholicism, a man who went to Mass daily, prayed the rosary with family every night, and rose early to read the scriptures, McLuhan’s religious thinking is essential to understanding his entire work.
“Above all, he believed that because God made the world, it must, in the end be comprehensible, and that a sense of the divine could lead to an understanding of the mundane,” writes Douglas Coupland in his quirky biography of McLuhan, published as part of Penguin’s “Extraordinary Canadians” series. “He came to feel that his religion was indeed a sense, a sensory perception that coloured his life as much as, if not more so than, sight, taste, touch, hearing, smell or gravity. He’d found his key to eternity.”
Yet that same biography by the perceptive Coupland does not examine in depth McLuhan’s Catholicism.
“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message,” McLuhan would write. “It’s the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”
McLuhan’s famous dictum noted how something is communicated – the medium – has its own effect on the message, independent of what is communicated. A text message may contain words of lapidary import, but the medium empties them of the significance they would assume if they were literally lapidary, carved in stone.
In the person of Jesus Christ, a divine person with a human nature, McLuhan saw that God reveals that He is personal, and that He freely implicates Himself in the full breadth and depth of the human experience. The incarnate God chose a medium – our human nature – that contains its own message, namely that God loves His creation, enters it, suffers for it and redeems it.
Coupland is right that McLuhan considered his faith like another sense. McLuhan knew that faith is a means of knowing reality, even as we use our senses to tell us about reality. The Christian faith added something deeper though for McLuhan. God came into this world of time and space in Jesus Christ; therefore, this world of time and space was infused with indications, intuitions and icons of the divine.
“It seems incongruent that the man could be ahead of the world in some ways and yet be retrograde in others,” writes Coupland, who considers Catholicism rather retro. “And I don’t think it’s even about being ahead of the times or behind the times. Marshall didn’t really believe in time. He believed in eternity. Being alive on earth was but one phase of a larger process.”
That larger process is what Christians call sanctification, becoming holy. McLuhan’s Catholic faith is that God makes us holy through the sacraments – baptism and holy communion above all. The Catholic sacramental imagination, the conviction that God uses the tangible things of this world – water, oil, bread, wine – as means of grace, is arguably the key to McLuhan broader analysis of communication and culture.
Sacraments communicate the presence of an intangible person – God – through tangible things. In the same way, our body makes presence an intangible reality greater than our body, namely our full personhood. The encounter of persons seeking not only communication but true communion – that deeper friendship rooted in a shared identity and mission – requires at some level an encounter of bodies, whether it is a smile, a handshake, a conversation or an embrace.
But our bodies are limited, and to overcome the distance that separates us we move to other forms of communication, each less corporeal than its predecessor – books, letters, phone calls, emails.
“When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body,” McLuhan said, speaking about modern communications creating “discarnate bodies.”
The electronic age is thus fundamentally anti-sacramental. It does not make the intangible present through tangible matter, but rather takes tangible bodies and discarnates them, converting a person to a series of digital impulses that are present everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Here we glimpse McLuhan’s importance as a religious thinker for the 21st century. The human spirit is uneasy with ever more powerful communications that leave the desire for communion unfulfilled. That is an opportunity for a renewed proclamation of the incarnate, personal God. Yet at the same time the means of making present that incarnate God – the sacraments – are radically undermined by very same media culture.
Addressing this phenomenon is to take up McLuhan’s ideas 30 years after his death. He died in his sleep. The evening before a priest offered Mass in his home. McLuhan received Holy Communion, and then enjoyed a glass of champagne and a cigar. All three were media with a message: God is here, present in the good things He gives us, the greatest of which is communion with God Himself in Jesus Christ.
CORRECTION: In my column on Marshall McLuhan, published July 19, I neglected to attribute the source of the McLuhan quotations to a 2006 documentary film by Deiren Masterson: “McLuhan Way: In Search of Truth”. I doubly regret the oversight, in the first instance because I did not properly credit Masterson’s research, and second, because I would happily recommend this excellent film to readers interested in McLuhan.
Sorry for the mistake on my part.