Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

McLuhan’s still current media theory ‘deeply rooted in Catholicism’

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 24, 2013

In one of my favorite movie moments, in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” Allen and Diane Keaton are stuck in line in a movie theater where they are subjected to the incessant drone of a self-inflated academic. When the professor begins to lecture his date on Marshall McLuhan, Allen reaches the end of his patience. Turning to the intellectual, Allen says “Aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that?  And, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan!” The chastised professor defends himself. He teaches a course on television and popular culture. His insights on McLuhan, he claims, “have a great deal of validity.” “Oh yeah,” says Allen, in a moment all of us would love to experience, “it just so happens that I have Marshall McLuhan right here.” And then, Allen steps over to a movie poster from behind which emerges Marshall McLuhan himself. “I heard what you were saying,” says McLuhan. “You know nothing of my work.” Allen turns and directly faces the camera. “Boy,” he says, “don’t you wish life were really like this?”

Woody Allen was a fan and supporter of Marshall McLuhan, but then so were lots of people in the 1950s through the 1970s. And a lot of people, truly, knew nothing of McLuhan’s work, but they were influenced by his theory and were living in many ways, whether they knew it or not, the truth of his theory. Following his death in 1980, McLuhan’s reputation faded a bit. Yet now, with the omniscience of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone, McLuhan has come back into vogue.

Marshall McLuhan’s media theory, which today reads like prophecy, was deeply rooted in his devout Catholicism, a fact that many members of the counter-culture either overlooked or didn’t realize. McLuhan can be difficult to understand. He was odd, quirky and even a bit mischievous. He was also a genius and a man of deep faith, and an understanding of his Catholic faith makes much of his theory and philosophy easier to understand from a Catholic perspective.

McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Canada, and grew up in Winnipeg. While taking graduate course work at Cambridge in the 1930s, he came—like so many have—under the influence of G.K. Chesterton and began a steady movement into the Catholic Church. By 1937, he was fully converted and in full communion with the Church, a total commitment which he maintained throughout his life in both his personal and professional affairs. In fact, McLuhan taught almost exclusively at Catholic institutions throughout his long and influential academic career.

The highlights of McLuhan’s work are known to most people, even if they don’t know the source, because so much of McLuhan’s buzz words has entered the colloquial language. Who hasn’t heard the term “The Global Village?”  Who doesn’t know the adage “The Medium is the Message?” And even now, we remember the catch phrase “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out,” which McLuhan coined for Timothy Leary.

What do these terms mean, however?  And what should they mean for the Catholic? Any Catholic can appreciate the truth of the Global Village; we worship, after all, in the universal Church, a Church that like everything else in the world is now connected to everyone through the Internet, which McLuhan anticipated long before it ever came into being.

To be Catholic means—especially in the spirit of the New Evangelism—turning on to the Gospel, tuning in to its essential message, and dropping out of the twisted values of secularism.

As for “The Medium is the Message,” what could be more Catholic than that?  “We shape our tools and afterward our tools shape us,” said McLuhan. We become what we make because we ourselves are made in the image of a master creator. Our efforts in creativity are reflective of God’s own creativity. Being human, however, we often fail in our creative efforts. McLuhan knew, for example, that “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”  Sometimes, McLuhan means, we miss the essence of the message because we focus solely on the means by which the message is delivered.

The great exception, McLuhan explained, is in Jesus Christ. “In Jesus Christ,” McLuhan argued, “there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message. It’s the one case where we can say the medium and the message are in complete unison.”  It shouldn’t take a Catholic long to figure out, using McLuhan’s reasoning, how that statement completely affirms the presence of sacramental grace.

The influence of Catholic theology and influential Catholic philosophers runs deep in McLuhan’s work. He often cited the Virgin Mary as his muse, the kindle for his imagination. He was influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, particularly his theory of the Omega Point, the idea that God calls the entire human race to a place of complete spiritual fulfillment. He knew well the work of Jacques Maritain and valued Maritain’s holistic understanding of religious art.

McLuhan has come back into favor with secularists because the accuracy of his ideas is obvious. Yes, we are all truly “connected” through digital media, and yes, we have changed as people because of that media. We send and receive information differently. We work differently. We live differently. We are aware, even as we text, tweet, email and post that this new media is transforming us. Yet few of us stop to think about how this media is changing us, because, as McLuhan said of the great paradox of the information age, “the more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

The Catholic Church, to use one of McLuhan’s favorite phrases, is “thinking about it,” and in many ways the Church is acting in the spirit of McLuhan. Consider the new emphasis upon media as a means of evangelization. The Eternal Word Television Network and Word on Fire Ministries, which have become Catholic cultural phenomena, have the potential to transform us in profound ways, if we couple our emotional response to these new media with an equally fervent intellectual curiosity.

Pope Francis is insistent upon an understanding and transmission of the Gospel that is fresh, creative and imaginative. Repeatedly, he has urged us to be open to new approaches, and his candor and playfulness are reminiscent of McLuhan’s own personality. Yet more importantly, and even more like McLuhan, is the pope’s Jesuit obsession with careful and informed thought. The pope wants us to think!  Hasty judgments, indictments about morality, and arguments founded purely upon subjective opinions are no substitute for thoughtful observation, close scrutiny and intellectual reasoning.

McLuhan valued the role of the artist and the importance of the imagination. Yet he was also, like the pope, adamant that feeling is not enough. We have to use our God-given reason if we hope to ever fully understand the ways the new media can become an extension of ourselves and our God. “One of the advantages of being a Catholic,” said McLuhan “is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena.”

All of us should know as Catholics, as Pope Francis has reminded us, that our Catholicism is not just a list of dos and don’ts. The prescribed regulations and requirements, the doctrine and the dogma, are all important and beautiful. But the real beauty and wisdom of the Church is that the Church gives us the ability to consider her tenets with the reason God gave us. This is freedom. Again, McLuhan knew that we so often miss the message because we focus solely upon the medium; if we do this we lose a sense of our deepest relationship with God.

McLuhan wrote a lot, and he said a lot through the mass media. It can be overwhelming at first to come to terms with the full scope of his theory and philosophy. An ideal starting point is his classic best-selling book from 1964, “Understanding Media.” It makes a good beginning for the Catholic who wants to better appreciate the influence of the man who said, famously, “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.”

Think about it.

David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.