To say that Marshall McLuhan was incidentally a Christian, or that his Catholicism was just part of his private life, is like saying that Karl Marx was only incidentally a Marxist. This essay will attempt to reconcile the seeming contradiction between the Marshall McLuhan who had “no theory of communication” and was simply a detached, objective observer and the Marshall McLuhan who was a devout and faithful Catholic who attended mass daily, raised six children in the church, and left a posthumous legacy of some of the most compelling, provocative, and stunning insights into the nature of religion under electronic conditions.
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. For him, “equilibrium is a principle inherited from Newton. No balance is possible at the speed of light, in economics, in physics, in the Church, or wherever …” (Medium and the Light [ML] 46).
Here is how Nicholas Carr puts it in his review of Douglas Coupland’s recent McLuhan biography:
Neither his fans nor his foes saw him clearly. 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. What lay in store, McLuhan believed, was the timelessness of eternity. The earthly conceptions of past, present, and future were, by comparison, of little consequence. His role as a thinker was not to celebrate or denigrate the world but simply to understand it, to recognize the patterns that would unlock history’s secrets and thus provide hints of God’s design. His job was not dissimilar, as he saw it, from that of the artist.
Here is how Douglas Coupland puts it himself:
Marshall, like most converts, quickly became hard core. He went to Mass almost daily every day for the rest of his life. He recited the rosary. He was a firm believer in Hell. He was disgusted that other Catholics weren’t Catholic enough. 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. He came to see that his religion was indeed a sense, a sensory perception that colored his life as much as, if not more so than, sight, taste, touch, hearing, smell, or gravity. He’d found his key to eternity and was now free to turn his full and detached attention to the merely human and societal “future.” The future, compared to Heaven, was downmarket, to be viewed dispassionately, as though prognosticating an ant farm, a kind of acutely observant obliviousness.
Marshall didn’t publicly discuss his religion. His theory was that people who can see don’t walk around saying, “I’m seeing things” all day. They simply see the world. And so, with religion, it was simply there with him. (61-62)
One of his famous aphorisms was equally theological: “If I hadn’t believed it, I wouldn’t have seen it.” Eric McLuhan, in the introduction to the posthumous collection, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, confirms Coupland’s analysis by saying that “faith is a mode of perception” (xv). In that work, McLuhan himself discusses faith in terms of concepts versus percepts:
… there is a great contrast between perceptual and conceptual confrontation; and I think that the “death of Christianity” or the ”death of God” occurs the moment they become concept. As long as they remain percept, directly involving the perceiver, they are alive. (ML 81)
This perception was in fact precisely how McLuhan came into the church, and he said, the only way one could leave it:
I came in on my knees. That is the only way in. When people start praying, they need truths; that’s all. You don’t come into the Church by ideas and concepts, and you cannot leave by mere disagreement. It has to be a loss of faith, a loss of participation. You can tell when people leave the Church: they have quit praying. (ML 64)
Finally, McLuhan also made clear that the academics were the modern Scribes and Pharisees, and that these were unable to perceive anything as a result of their concepts. 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 has too many theories to be able to perceive anything. Concepts are wonderful buffers for preventing people from confronting any form of percept. (ML 82)
So if this is the case, then perhaps a general review of McLuhan’s entire career is worth considering in light of his most deeply held conviction.
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.
McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), was reviewed by his former student Walter Ong with these words:
Professor McLuhan does not treat explicitly of dogmatic or liturgical implications, but he leaves open a hundred doors here into every area of Catholic life. Knowing him as a former member of the English faculty at St. Louis University and as present professor of English at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, we are aware that he does this quite deliberately. (qtd. in Stearn 85)
The official McLuhan narrative tells the story that The Mechanical Bride was the last of McLuhan’s moralizing books; after this he became the detached observer. But it’s not really the case at all: 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.” In this same work McLuhan says, “that is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions” (46), which is the same point that Neil Postman made years later when describing technology as a god that we worship in Technopoly: The Surrender of Technology to Culture. That technology was a false God was Postman’s point. That there is a real God worthy of worship was McLuhan’s point.
We also know that, in addition to being a devout practicing Catholic, McLuhan was profoundly intellectually and spiritually indebted to the Mother of God. He had a direct connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary, an associate recalls:
He alluded to it very briefly once, almost fearfully, in a please-don’t-laugh-at-me tone. He didn’t say, “I know this because the Blessed Virgin Mary told me” but it was clear from what he said that he was interrogating her about his ideas and one of the reasons he was so sure about certain things was that the Virgin had certified his understanding of them. (Marchand 51; older edition)
McLuhan’s last publication was, of course, his tombstone, which reads in LCD font from 1980: “The truth shall make you free.” This is a highly specific reference with highly specific meanings. The “truth” here refers to Christ in the passage from the gospel of John 8:32. It is from the King James Version, the post-Reformation gospel of 1611 that Protestants used, and may thus have been McLuhan’s attempt to speak to “the Greeks” (the conceptualizers, or Protestants, in his view) in a language they could hear. But it is also from the fourth, final, and most anagogical of the gospels. It is in this (and only this) gospel that the equation is made between Christ and the Word or Logos, in John 1. In other words, if the Word is Christ, then the medium is the messiah.
This has huge implications for McLuhan’s media theory, which was a lifelong exploration of the ways in which words (language) were a technology and the ways in which technologies operated analogically as words. We see this concern straight through McLuhan, from his dissertation on The Classical Trivium (really a document on Church history, and only incidentally about Thomas Nashe in its final chapter) all the way through to his posthumously published Laws of Media (1988), in which he makes the purpose and focus of media study explicitly linguistic. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence: “One fundamental discovery upon which this essay rests is that each of man’s artefacts is in fact a kind of word, a metaphor that translates experience from one form into another.” But linguistics is just another term for the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, which the ancients (like his hero Quintilian) saw as indistinguishable from good theology. On page 31 of his dissertation McLuhan says, “I should like to point out how Quintilian’s ideal grammarian is for St. Augustine the ideal theologian.”
And McLuhan was, in many ways still not entirely understood by his critics, a medieval grammarian far more than a modernist English professor or a precursor to postmodern philosophy in his media prophecies. And so the theological underpinning is there but only for those with ears to hear his multilayered meanings: “The space of early Greek cosmology was structured by logos–resonant utterance or word” (McLuhan, Laws 35). This is the same Logos of John 1. Two pages later, we get “Logos is the formal cause of the kosmos and all things, responsible for their nature and configuration” (37). Both of these are the key pull quotes in bold font on their respective pages, but the latter is about as close a rephrasing of John 1 : 1-3 as you can get:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. (KJV)
And for McLuhan, it was
not accidental that Christianity began in the Greco-Roman culture. 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. (ML 81)
Eric McLuhan recently reformulated this in a presentation as follows:
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.
McLuhan also believed that the tetrad analysis revealed in Laws of Media could only be done on man-made objects, not on spider webs or natural processes. This conviction led him to claim that tetrad analyses could not be performed on the Sacraments of the church, but only on its heresies, offering another inverted proof of the Sacrament’s divine origin. So concerned with the Logos or word was Laws of Media that it precedes the tetrad examples chapter with this final reminder:
All human artefacts are human utterances, our outerings, and as such they are linguistic and rhetorical entities. At the same time, the etymology of all human technologies is to be found in the human body itself: they are, as it were, prosthetic devices, mutations, metaphors of the body or its parts. The tetrad is exegesis on four levels, showing not the mythic, but the logos-structure of each artefact, and giving its four “parts” as metaphor, or word.
The laws of media in tetrad form belong properly to rhetoric and grammar, not philosophy. Our concern is etymology and exegesis.
This is to place the modern study of technology and artefacts on a humanistic and linguistic basis for the first time. (128)
Perhaps a closer look at McLuhan’s most famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” will best illuminate the theological underpinnings of all his work. This is the key line and takeaway of Understanding Media, and has several surface interpretations.
The first is that it was derived from Harold Innis’s work, The Bias of Communication (1951), in which Dr. Innis pointed out the relative time- or space-bias of a medium based on whether it was materially composed of stone or papyrus, the former being heavy and non-transportable (and thus lending itself to duration through time but not distribution through space), and the latter being light and portable (and thus lending itself to distribution through space but not duration through time thanks to its fragility). 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. The aphorism was a brilliant soundbite reduction of many related ideas into one pithy zen koan. It implied that form had as much or more meaning as content, or was at the very least a very helpful thing to consider when analyzing content. But in no case was the aphorism to be taken literally, except perhaps one. 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” (23). The use to which it is put is a “matter of indifference … because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (24). The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content.”
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. (25)
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” (60). Finally, he says, “Except for light, all other media come in pairs, with one acting as the content of the other, obscuring the operation of both” (60).
This reads like an oracular pronunciation with spiritual implications. And indeed it is. For McLuhan is in fact setting up a dichotomy between the false light and the true light. 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. (ML 55)
The revealed and divinely constituted fact of religion has nothing to do with human opinion or human adherence. (ML 85)
[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. (ML 87)
And here is McLuhan on Satan, the false light:
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. (ML 72)
… 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. (ML 93)
… this could be the time of the Antichrist. 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. Just think: each person can instantly be tuned to a “new Christ” and mistake him for the real Christ. (ML 209)
Furthermore, 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” (ML 72). This is a particularly insightful bit of media history, and perhaps more insightful than even McLuhan knew: prior to the printing press, metallurgist Johannes Gutenberg was in the business of manufacturing pilgrim’s mirrors for the pilgrimage to Aachen–by virtue of getting the year wrong he was forced to give up his secrets for printing to his business investors, and the rest is history. The pilgrim’s mirrors were handheld religious trinkets made of polished metal whose purpose was to capture a ray of holy light emanating from the icons and images of church processionals–they were a means of taking home with you a token of your religious experience. So the use of a physical medium to capture a “holy light” has a rich and intertwined history in the evolution of media from religious artifact to holy scripture to electronic media.
McLuhan did, once, in 1967, speak in a way that made it seem possible that electric media would be the means through which scripture might be fulfilled:
Here perhaps my own religious faith has some bearing. I think of human charity as a total responsibility of all, for all. Therefore, my energies are directed at far more than mere political or democratic intent. Democracy as a by-product of certain technologies, like literacy and mechanical industry, is not something that I would take very seriously. But democracy as it belongs very profoundly with Christianity is something I take very seriously indeed.
There have been many more religious men than I who have not made even the most faltering steps in this direction. Once I began to move in this direction, I began to see that it had profound religious meaning. I do not think it my job to point this out. For example, the Christian concept of the mystical body–all men as members of the body of Christ–this becomes technologically a fact under electronic conditions. However, I would not try to theologize on the basis of my understanding of technology. I don’t have a background in scholastic thought, never having been raised in any Catholic institution. Indeed, I have been bitterly reproached by my Catholic confreres for my lack of scholastic terminology and concepts. (qtd. in Stearn 98)
But that was 1967, when McLuhan was still enjoying his glory days as a pop culture superstar, being heralded as the oracle of the electric age, and knowing full well that stepping into religious territory would get him in hot water fast with both his colleagues and, as he says, his Catholic confreres. The other clue that this is a false start is that he speaks of the concept of the mystical body, having not yet had his realization, ten years later, that faith was entirely about percept. So the true McLuhan, who seems to recognize the full spiritual significance of his media theory by 1977, is the one to whom we should listen. For him, the electric light was the false light, and Christ was the true light, and his most famous aphorism was literally true in one and only one case:
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. (ML 103)
All other media were ultimately not just false lights, but false messiahs. 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” (Volkogonov 372).
Perhaps the best way of understanding McLuhan has already been said by the Canadian Tina Edan in her graduate thesis:
The key to understanding McLuhan’s Catholicism, his media theory, or McLuhan himself is not to simply read what he is saying but to participate in understanding how he is saying it; for, the user is the content. (5)
Thus, whether one subscribes to his religious philosophy or not, one must acknowledge that McLuhan’s “objectivity” was both a function of his religiosity and that without this religious framework undergirding his entire life and media theory, McLuhan could not have been McLuhan. His detached neutrality was a function of his complete attachment to a world that Jacques Ellul described as “utterly unverifiable” (1) and yet, without it, McLuhan could not have inspired countless secular scholars to this day. In the merely secular world, “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values” (Book of Probes 176). True perception, for McLuhan, was only possible for the true medium, which was the incarnate Christ. This may explain McLuhan’s otherwise utterly enigmatic statement, “And the process of perception is that of incarnation” (ML 173).
Though he never coined the phrase, the medium is the messiah may have been McLuhan’s ultimate perceptual insight. The medium is the message may have been merely its conceptual phrasing.
Carr, Nicholas. “The Medium Is McLuhan.” Book Review of You Know Nothing of My Work/by Douglas Coupland. The New Republic 12 January 2011 <http://www.newrepublic.com/book/review/the-medium-mcluhan>.
Coupland, Douglas. Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! New York: Atlas, 2010.
Edan, Tina. “St. Marshall, Mass and the Media: Catholicism, Media Theory, and Marshall McLuhan.” Master’s thesis. Concordia University, 2003. <http://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/1977/1/MQ77929.pdf> accessed on 9/7/2011.
Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Trans. Joyce Main Hanks. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985.
Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Messenger: A Biography. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.
McLuhan, Eric. Wheaton College Presentation, Thursday, September 2, 2010, 7:00 pm, Edman Chapel, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, USA (available online at: http://www.wheaton.edu/WETN/All-Media/Lectures-and-Conferences/CACE/100902Penner1?lightbox=true - see specifically 23:30 – 37:18 for McLuhan’s presentation).
McLuhan, Marshall. The Book of Probes. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003.
–. The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time. Ed. W. Terrence Gordon. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2006.
–. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999.
–. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
–and Eric McLuhan. Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.
Sanderson, George, and Frank Macdonald, eds. Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Inc., 1989.
Stearn, Gerard Emanuel, ed. McLuhan: Hot & Cool. New York: Signet Books, 1967.
Volkogonov, Dimitri. Lenin: A New Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
First published in Renascence, Vol. LXIV, No.1, Fall 2011. © 2011 Marquette University Press. Reprinted with permission.