Passion and Precision: The Faith of Marshall McLuhan

Kerckhove final

The Catholic Church does not depend on human wisdom or human strategies for survival. All the best intentions in the world can’t destroy the Catholic Church! It is indestructible, even as a human institution. It may once again undergo a terrible persecution and so on. But that’s probably what it needs.

– Marshall McLuhan


This is a rock-hard statement and a rock-hard foundation for Marshall McLuhan’s life and works. Much more than “a fragment shored up against one’s ruin” as T. S. Eliot said of his encounters with truth, McLuhan’s faith was a seamless totality which informed and shaped his thoughts and his life.

When I interviewed American journalist Tom Wolfe for a radio program on McLuhan, I asked him how he had perceived McLuhan on their first meeting in a fashionable New York restaurant full of celebrities. Wolfe paused and reflected for a moment, and in his slow, thoughtful characteristic way, said:

“McLuhan walked straight to our table absolutely unperturbed by the famous faces around us. I immediately sensed an aura of spirituality surrounding him, something that I couldn’t exactly define; later, during our conversation, it appeared clearly: this was a man with a quest.”

“A man with a quest” is the title I gave to the radio program because I had personally experienced time and again in my encounters with McLuhan the presence of certitude.

McLuhan did not convey this impression or feeling of certitude with words. We rarely talked about religion directly. And yet I don’t know of any experience, any reading or any conversation with anyone which had a more determining influence on my own faith than Marshall’s calm assurance as to what really mattered in life. It was so strong that to this day I am convinced that the communication of faith is still a matter of mysterious personal contacts, in spite of the powerful means of communication available to the Church today for mass evangelization.

Marshall, being a private person, did not volunteer information on himself and this is maybe why he did not talk about his faith readily. Nevertheless, he never refused the occasion to affirm it when he was called upon to do so either in public or in private. Many times I heard him answer the question, usually delivered in a bewildered tone, “Are you really a Catholic?” with: “Yes, I am a Catholic, a convert, the worst kind,” leaving the asker more baffled than before. You could sense his pride and his amusement all at once in this standard response which was nevertheless always new because of the renewed contrast between the sophistication of worldly concerns and the simplicity and humor of this statement.

Faith, of course, is not something which can easily be expressed in words in the best of times. I remember that once, pressed by an overload of worries, in the middle of a conversation about the French adaptation of his book From Cliche to Archetype, I asked him one of the few personal direct questions I ever ventured with him, “Marshall, what does faith mean to you?” and he answered right away, as a matter of fact, a simple definition: “Paying attention, faith is paying attention, not to the cliches of religion only, but to the ground of the total man, which is the archetype. You come to the faith by prayer and by paying attention.”

In one of the few published statements on this matter, he explained to Pierre Babin during an interview on “Media and Liturgy” that “… prayer and liturgy are one and the same. They are the only means to become in tune, to hear Christ and to bring the whole man into play.” In the course of this interview he refers to the image of “tuning” oneself to faith, implying that the possibility is always there but that it is the task of the Christian to ready himself for the communication. Later in the interview, he gave his own interpretation of St. John’s cryptic statement: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Since I did not have access to the original transcripts of the interview in English, I am obliged to retranslate McLuhan in his own language, something I have been perversely accused of, by Marshall’s critics:

“It’s all in the Gospel according to St. John: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear;’ that is, let him tune in on the right channel! Yet most people do not have ears to hear, but only to listen. To listen is merely to pay attention with one’s eyes, so to speak, namely to comprehend the way words come to you. But that is not hearing, that is not being ‘in tune’ with the communication. Christ Himself uses this metaphor. He makes a distinction between listening and hearing. The scribes were ‘listeners,’ they were looking at written words: ‘It is written that so and so … and you say so and so.’ But they didn’t have a clue. They used their ears not for hearing, but only for listening. This is what happens today: you may have all the necessary titles and yet remain incapable of tuning in properly.

“Christ also said: ‘My sheep know my voice. I know my sheep and they know my voice. But if you cannot hear me, you do not belong to my fold.’ This kind of thing is said many times in the Gospel: these people do not belong to my fold, they do not hear. If they hear my voice, it is because the Father let them. In other words, the Father has programmed them from within to hear Christ. You find this everywhere in St. John, the notion that the Father has given Christ certain people to hear him, while the others are merely listening; they can’t tune in. They understand nothing. It’s a great mystery!”

This passage remains one of the few complete descriptions of what appears to be Marshall’s own access to his faith, and also a ground for his lifelong preoccupation with the acoustic nature of modern media.

Trying to make sense of the puzzling contradictions in the religious and secular opinions of his contemporaries, the 17th century French thinker, Blaise Pascal came to the conclusion that there were two principal and often mutually exclusive forms of access to knowledge and perception. He called one l’esprit de geometrie – the mind of geometry – and the other, l’esprit de finesse the spirit of understanding – which he also called “le coeur,” the knowledge of the heart. Pascal’s definition of faith is also one his most quoted “Pensees”:

It is the heart which feels God and not reason. This is what faith is: God made accessible to the heart, not to reason. (LAFUMA 424)

A long tradition of philosophy has succeeded in guarding us against trusting our emotions for the reliable ordering of our knowledge and perception, but maybe what Pascal means, even though he uses the now sentimental metaphor of the heart, is not an emotion after all, at least not a single emotion, but the very nature of understanding itself. I have never known McLuhan to trust even for a moment the mind of geometry for anything that demanded understanding. What Pascal called l’esprit de finesse, he called by a simple English word: perception. Though I have no reason to think that he did not deeply respect the theological tradition and the Church’s dogmas, he did not relate it with matters of faith without always trying to bring out a perceptual relationship with the practice of daily Christian life. This is what comes across in this application of the medium and the message theme to the understanding of the Bible:

“To say that the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ is a theological concept. It is the figure. But to say that Christ reaches all men, tramps, beggars and failures, that is the ground, namely a host of secondary, hidden effects which we do not perceive easily. In fact it is only when Christianity is a living experience that the medium really becomes the message. At this level figure and ground meet again. This goes also for the reading of the Bible: we often talk about the content of the Scriptures, thinking that this content is the message. But that is not so. The real content of the Bible is the person who is reading the Bible. Some, as they read it ‘hear’ it, others don’t. All are users of the word of God, all are its content, but only a few really perceive the message. That message is not the words, but the effects of those words on you. It is conversion.”


Converts and conversion loom large in McLuhan’s life. His official entry into the Catholic Church at the age of twenty-five took place in Cambridge on Holy Thursday, 1936, but he had begun his conversion long before. As the story goes, it may have all started in a used bookstore in Edmonton, where McLuhan was browsing for books with his lifelong friend, the economist Tom Easterbrook. Easterbrook told me that when both came out of the store, they compared what they had bought. Marshall had a textbook of economics and he had picked up, not exactly knowing why, Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World? Both looked at their books and then at each other, and Easterbrook said to Marshall, handing him the Chesterton: “This feels more like your kind of stuff; why don’t we swap?” They did just that and Marshall proceeded to read the book at once, and everything else he could find by Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and other controversial Catholics.

As befits both McLuhan’s personal leanings and the subject at hand, all the information I have gathered about his conversion belongs to the oral tradition, springing from interviews with Morris McLuhan, his brother, his son Eric, Tom Easterbrook and Father John Kelly.

Morris McLuhan told me about the early years of growing up as Baptists, fearing the Pope and the Catholic Church as the incarnation of the Devil and the sure way to eternal damnation. The McLuhan’s next door neighbours in Edmonton were Catholics and according to Morris, the children were held at a safe distance from personal contact with them. Marshall’s father was “a gentle farmboy from around Owen Sound who had missed his calling for the ministry, but who managed to inspire it in Morris who took a degree in Theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto and became a minister for the United Church for twenty-five years.”

Marshall’s mother, according to many reports, was the driving force behind his energy, his intellectual curiosity and his often rebellious attitude towards established authorities particularly in matters concerning ideologies. Elsa McLuhan, as Easterbrook calls her, had a very strong personality and a keen interest in dramatic arts. She had studied dramatic arts in Winnipeg to become later the “Ruth Draper of Canada,” organizing tours East and West during the Depression, speaking and acting one-woman shows in front of umpteen congregations. Morris claims that when he toured the country in his ministry, “there was not one pulpit from where to speak, where she had not preached before.” She had a beautiful voice and Morris mentioned that she knew how to read the Scriptures in such a meaningful way that it made a lasting impression on the two children. But she also encouraged the reading of English literature, particularly in Marshall because she could sense and foster a growing interest for the power and the beauty of language. Indeed Morris has reasons to believe that the literary influence of the poets and the style of Belloc and Chesterton had a greater impact on Marshall’s conversion than any particular theological consideration.

While doing his undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, McLuhan took interest in the Moral Rearmament Movement which was gathering momentum during the thirties. However he was not attracted by its more sensational elements of dramatic conversions and allegiances, but as source material for university debates against the upholders of socialism and Marxist theories. He was a fierce debater and Morris recalls that he was often accused of adopting a Roman Catholic position by his adversaries. This made little impression at the time because he was not even considering then the question of faith, let alone the idea of converting. This came later, mainly while he was in Cambridge and came into closer contact with the writings of Chesterton and with Thomas Aquinas through the early works of Etienne Gilson.

The conversion was prepared by two years of prayer but it came about quite suddenly. Eric says that sometime before the Holy week in 1936, his father was among friends in Trinity Hall and he was talking, again, about religion. At that point, one of the attendants said to him: Marshall, since you can’t stop talking about these things, why don’t you convert?” Marshall looked at him and said: “Why not?” and a few weeks later became a Catholic. He then wrote to his father that he had become deeply troubled by the fact that he did not have a faith during his undergraduate years in Canada, and that he had prayed for two years, on his knees before he made the decision to become a Catholic. He hoped that this decision would not hurt his father’s strong Baptist feelings. Herbert McLuhan’s reaction was moderate but Marshall’s mother burst into tears and said that he would never become a university president. Morris’s assessment of the long process was that beside the literary influences, it was the continuity of the Catholic Church and the sacraments which had determined the conversion rather than the theological arguments. McLuhan’s own words to Edward Wakin confirm this intuition:

“I never came into the church as a person who was being taught Catholic doctrines. 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 through 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. The active relating to the Church’s prayer and sacraments is not through ideas. Any Catholic who today has an intellectual disagreement with the Church has an illusion. You cannot have an intellectual disagreement with the Church. That’s meaningless. The Church is not an intellectual institution. It is a superhuman institution.” (Wakin 11)

It should not come as a surprise that McLuhan’s first publication was an article on “G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic”, which appeared in the Dalhousie Review in 1936. In it he quotes a line from one of the writer’s novels, a line which he applies to Chesterton, but which could just as well apply to himself in retrospect:

“He had somehow made a giant stride from babyhood to manhood, and missed that crisis in youth when most of us grow old.”

And McLuhan comments:

“Mr. Chesterton himself is full of that child-like surprise and enjoyment which a sophisticated age supposes to be able to exist only in children. And it is to this more than ordinary awareness and freshness of perception that we may attribute his extraordinarily strong sense of fact.” (15: 456)

This comment in turn brings to my mind a friendly conversation with Father Kelly during the lunch hour at St. Michael’s College when, after Marshall, who was not present at the time, had made some rather enigmatic comment about some matter concerning religion of which I was trying to make sense. Father Kelly smiled broadly and said: “Oh well, Marshall has the faith of a child!” This remark, with its tone and the full colour of the voice, rang in my mind for many years afterward, and now I can finally understand how great a compliment it really was.

The Alphabet and the Church

McLuhan once told me that what had attracted him most in Chesterton was his perfect familiarity with and proper handling of important paradoxes. He explained to Pierre Babin that paradoxes are normal in religious matters. Pascal also cultivated paradoxical notions about man, religion and the faith. He saw in paradoxes the only way to relax the stifling demands of rationality so as to open the way for a deeper understanding of simultaneous complex issues. By opposition, McLuhan said, “Orthodoxy, in the etymological sense of the word, is to corner oneself into a single point of view” (Babin 37). Pascal was aware as any serious reader of the Scriptures of the countless apparent contradictions which they contain, but it is in these contradictions that he saw the strength of the Scriptures, not their weaknesses. In a fairly McLuhan-like fashion, he wrote:

“Thus to understand the Scriptures, one must reach a meaning which brings together all the contradictory passages; it is not enough to reach one that resolves some contradictions and not others, but one which resolves them all. (Lafuma 257 – my translation)

This amounted to the discarding of formal logic and strict rationality for the understanding of Scriptures, and it required the infinitely more demanding perception of the heart. McLuhan’s faith possibly resembled that of Pascal in that both were too exacting to accept approximate truths or to slough off contradictions to achieve a systematic vision. Both shared passion and precision. For Pascal the greatest paradox was the fact of his contemporaries’ growing indifference to their personal salvation despite their greater than ever access to the most important information concerning them. That paradox was resolved partly by McLuhan as we shall see shortly, but McLuhan’s own great paradox was to sort out the historical relationship of the Church to the phonetic alphabet and to print technologies. He revealed to Pierre Babin that he had become a Catholic while he was studying the Renaissance as an almost exclusive preoccupation:

“I soon realized that the Church had been shattered and fragmented during this period by a stupid historical accident, by technology. The medieval culture based on manuscripts allowed for a community lifestyle which was very different from the mass community which was fostered by print. The Gutenberg revolution made readers out of listeners.

“The printed world is a visual world. But the perceptions dominated by vision are not a unifying force. They lead to fragmentation. They allow each individual to hold on to a private point of view.

“With a book, you can retire within, in the egocentric and the psychological sense, certainly not in the spiritual sense; that is, indeed, a fragmentation.” (Babin 35)

This and related insights of McLuhan have the greatest relevance to the history of the Catholic Church and even more relevance to our personal faith today. The central problem can be stated in simple terms: if faith, as McLuhan described it, is indeed a question of deep hearing, then the specialization of communication in visual forms, and especially in the careful articulation of meaning in verbal and visual terms, such as the printed word, can represent a real threat to faith, if it is allowed to dominate understanding to the exclusion of hearing. I am not saying that every man became a reader overnight after the first Bible came off Gutenberg’s press, but I am saying that the printed word soon changed the forms of teaching and learning at the nerve centers of the propagation of faith, and that the effects of these changes trickled down to the most illiterate members of the population over the three centuries which preceded Nietzsche’s casual realization that “God was dead.”

I do not think that I am betraying McLuhan’s thought by giving such an emphasis to the effects of the printed word to affect the perceptions involved in faith. Among twenty questions which precede a major article published in June, 1972, in The Critic is this one which goes to the heart of the matter:

Why has Western man, and why has the Catholic Church no theory of communication of secular psychic change? (Do Americans Go to Church to be Alone?)

McLuhan felt that as western man was learning to read and write, not only was he gradually depriving himself of the benefits of traditional and oral forms of community living, he was also screening himself from his own senses and reprocessing all his information patterns in abstract propositions devoid of sensory content. This development deeply affected doctrinal knowledge and, according to McLuhan, gave rise to profound schisms as he explains here to Pierre Babin:

“It is obvious that the possibility for each reader to have exactly the same words in front of him for any length of time had a deep effect on doctrine. Anybody could now think about it alone, go back to it and invent a private point of view on the matter. This was not the way of the former manuscript tradition, because the whole process was much more acoustic than visual and the communication was predominantly oral.

“Take the scholastic method of discussion, for instance, the quaestiones disputate. It was oral. But Luther and the first Protestants were schoolmen who could read. They adapted the older method of scholastic discussion to the new visual order: thus they used the recent discovery of print to dig the trench which separated them from the Roman Church.” (Babin 36)

One of the constant preoccupations of McLuhan was to understand the relationship of the Church not only to the print technologies, but to the invention of the alphabet itself. He was certain that there had been a determining factor in the beginning of Christianity at the onset of Greco-Roman literacy, but I am not sure that he ever came to a satisfying conclusion regarding this matter because the last time we talked about it, he said that it was still a great mystery to him. Again, he said to Babin:

“Allow me to point out that the Church began when Greek phonetic writing was in its infancy. The Greco-Roman culture was still in its cradle when the Church began to settle. This is not a mere accident of history, but a providential decree. However no one has attempted to study this question in the history of religions. It is taken for granted. It is not even suggested that it might have an exceptional significance for the Church. I have looked for information on this matter, but there is hardly anything, a few short papers here and there. (Babin 36-37)

McLuhan adds a little further that “the pre-Platonic culture … was grounded in the magical use of speech.” Of course other forms of script existed then elsewhere in the world and had existed long before. McLuhan has always insisted that it is the phonetic, not just any alphabet, that brought about the psychological revolution which created western man. I have pursued this point relentlessly for the last six years and here are some of the conclusions I have tentatively drawn: the invention of letters for vowel sounds in the consonantic scripts borrowed by the Greek from the semitic tribes brought about a completely new access to language. It seems that whereas the forms of writing preceding the truly phonetic alphabet were committed to support memory, the new phonetic variety introduced the possibility of changing the nature of the information, thus enabling writers and readers to invent new information rather than being satisfied with assimilating established knowledge.

Technically speaking, the phonetic alphabet was much more than an information storage system, it was an information-processing system. How was it different from the older semitic forms? It was different because the use of fixed letters for the sound of vowels made it possible to read any Greek manuscript without any previous knowledge of its content, a thing which is impossible, even to this day, when you read the Koran or the Talmud in their original script forms. This is much more important than it sounds at first hearing, because it means that writing could now be detached from the process of communicating meaning. In other words, with the Greek alphabet and all its derivatives, you could begin to manipulate meaning, not only by manipulating the listener as you could have in any oral communication, but at a distance, so to speak, from your study or your cell, simply by manipulating the system of signs which you were using to create the meaning.

The most devastating consequence of this development is that communication would one day become secondary to the production of a well-ordered meaning. Even as it gradually displaced the center of gravity of all communications from human interactions to textual production, the phonetic alphabet turned oral speech into an art form which was called rhetoric. Throwing a net on speaking and analyzing its various components to select only those which could produce desensorialized meaning, the alphabet’s fundamental drive was to reduce live speech to silence. But the silencing of communication was not possible until script-form had reached sufficient uniformity to be read conveniently in silence. It is print which fostered silent reading. Reading became a private experience inviting retreat and solitude instead of community oriented activities; and ultimately silent reading began to change the very shape of thinking from an activity still tied to the senses to an experience abstracted from environmental contact and based almost exclusively on representations.

The relationship of all this to the Church can be found in the changing of attitudes to the Bible and the Scriptures. The paradox is that while the new script, which was highly congenial to translations (because it depended on sounds alone and not on meanings) fostered the diffusion of the Scriptures in the whole Greco-Roman world, it was also destined to silence the Word of God and turn it into thought alone unsupported by the participation of the whole being of man. The separations between the body and the soul, the head and the body, and the person from the community all come from the single shift of meaning from live communication to mental cogitation.

I think that what began to happen gradually is that, after the invention of print, the Scriptures, which for most people might have been only the support of a daily religious practice, became the center of all religious preoccupation for those who could read. Hypnotized by the sacred textual evidence, the commentators gradually lost touch with the living presence of communication. The Letter soon dominated the Spirit in all but the most inspired theologians and clerics.

One of the most revealing comments about the Bible was made to me by a great Jewish French poet, Henri Meschonnic, who is also the first writer to have attempted to translate the Bible directly from the Hebrew to the French without the biases of the Greek Koine. He said that the Christian tradition was laboring under the illusion that it was in possession of the whole Bible, but that in fact, in all our translations, we had only been able to convey fifty percent of the meaning because we had consistently disregarded the rhythms and the specific prosody of the original Hebrew text. He explained to me that, in the Hebrew original, the full meaning of the Scriptures cannot be conveyed by the text alone, but that it must be read aloud because it contains prosodic indications which guide the delivery in such a way as also to have a direct effect on the whole body of the listener. He concluded by reminding me that the word used by the Hebrew to designate the Bible, micrah, does not mean scripture, but live speech. I believe that the implications of such an important observation should inspire a truly ecumenical interaction between Judaic and Christian scholars.

I think it is in order to let McLuhan himself give his conclusion to this preliminary investigation as he gave it to Pierre Babin:

“It is thus that, paradoxically, the Church found itself incarnated from its beginning in the only culture which was elaborating stable and fixed positions. The Church, which gives and demands from man a constant change of heart, took over a visual culture which values permanence over everything else. This Greco-Roman culture, which seems to have been superimposed on the Church as the shell of a turtle, does not provide for the possibility of a flexible and realistic theory of communication and change. It is this hard shell which stands between the Church and the other cultures of the world which have flexible, adaptable and evolutive forms.”

The Microphone and the Church

Assuming that most of what precedes is plausible, it is all well and good for the past, for a time when the only means of communication were the spoken and the written word, but what about the present, with its extraordinary potential for renewed oral communication? There again McLuhan publicly deplored the fact that the Church was not paying sufficient attention to the consequences of the electrification of the word:

“The 19th century bureaucrats who assembled at the Second Vatican Council in 1962 were naturally as unaware of the causes of their problems and reforms as the representatives of the Church at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. There was not a single individual at the Council of Trent who understood the effects of print on the spiritual schism and psychic distress of the religious and political life of that time. At the Second Vatican Council, the participants paid no attention to the causes of their problems in their new policies and prescriptions.” (Wakin 6)

McLuhan addressed himself more often to the questions regarding modern liturgy and its changes than even to the effects of the alphabet and print on the Church of the past. Predictably, the direction of his investigation went straight to the medium, namely the electrification of the modern church. In his understanding, the developments following this technological transformation are of dubious benefits as he explains here to Babin that the first victim of the microphone was the Latin mass:

“The Latin mass is not a victim of Vatican II, but of the introduction of microphones in the churches. A host of people, including the Church official are bemoaning the fact that Latin disappeared from the Catholic Church without knowing that it was the immediate consequence of a technical innovation which they greeted with enthusiasm. Latin is a very “cool” verbal form which gives precedence to murmurs and whispering. The use of a P. A. system, however, makes indistinct muttering simply unbearable. It accentuates and intensifies the sounds of Latin without providing any more bearing to its significance.” (Babin 155-156)

As I understand this, McLuhan implies that as long as we were governed by a print culture, the use of Latin was perfectly justified because it was the language associated naturally with the forms and rituals of a unified cultural ground. In other words, when the whole emphasis of the Church’s attitude was on the textual significance of the Christian message, Latin was more than a dead language, it was a sacred language. But when the emphasis shifts to communication proper, that is the actual transfer of total information from the celebrant to the congregation, not only must he now adopt the vernacular languages which are accessible to his public, but he must also turn around and face it. It is literally a turn away from the text and towards the addressee. But there is more to this.

Being grounded in a strong literary formation, McLuhan was extremely sensitive to the values of language generally and of his own vernacular in particular:

“Language is infinitely more than a conventional way to convey ideas; I am speaking here of spoken language, of the oral tradition. His kind of language is the coded expression of collective wisdom and perceptions of countless people. Thus poetry and song are the best ways to purify and fortify language. What people have failed to understand, in my opinion, is that any technical innovation changes the human environment and thereby disturbs all the levels of perception; consequently, new solutions must be found in language. Language is, so to speak, the greatest collective and organic medium which assimilates and organizes the chaos of daily life. Language is the conscious organ of the auditory imagination which harbors the daily adjustments and changes, just as night harbors the purification of dreams. Such was the role of the oral tradition in the cultures which did not know writing. After the invention of writing, whatever remained of oral form still played an important role in that way. But the piling up of printed material tended to smother little by little and to silence this tradition: whatever escapes this smothering is still enough to foster a living popular culture.

“In my opinion, it is at this level that the communication of faith can occur, not by the transmission of concepts and theories, but by the interior transformation of persons, not by the expression of the highlighted figures of the faith, but by the ground of secondary effects which transform life. If the vernacular, which is now utilized in liturgy, is to play this transforming role, it should first be allowed to be truly ‘popular.’ But this need brings to light one of the most traumatizing developments of the recent liturgical reform: I am referring here to the intrusion of bureaucratic processes in the Catholic communities. The liturgy of the Eucharist is indeed in the vernacular today, but it is regulated by special committees whose contact with language is limited to the dryness of computer languages! Without its oral dimension of familiar usages and rhythms, the vernacular is in great danger of becoming a wasteland and a spiritual desert.” (Babin 157-158)

There are many other important insights that have come out of the absolutely serious attention McLuhan has paid to the problem of today’s church, but I will limit myself to one more observation before concluding on a more personal note about McLuhan’s own attitude to these matters. 

McLuhan was very concerned with the details of spontaneous as well as bureaucratic reforms of the Liturgy. The case in point is the matter of costumes and role-playing. He said to Edward Wakin that: ” … costumes were never so important in the history of the Church as now. The Church is going to private dress at a time when all the kids want to get into costume. They don’t want private dress. They want costumes” (Wakin 10).

Even though this sounds like a puny detail which, in terms of today’s youth might even be construed as obsolete, it points to a much more significant issue which is that of role-playing. Again he explains to Wakin what has happened to the church in this regard:

“The Roman hierarchy after Gutenberg, had acquired a great deal of the organizational chart patterns of specialism and rigidity. Improved written communication made possible the development of a huge Roman bureaucracy, transforming the Roman pontiff into a chief executive. Further improvement in travel and communication brought the pontiff into more immediate personal relation to his subjects. … [But] when things speed up, hierarchy disappears and the global theater sets in. [Today] the Pope is obsolete as a bureaucratic figure. But the Pope as a role-player is more important than ever. The Pope has authority. After all, if there were only three Catholics in the world, one would have to be pope. Otherwise there would be no church. There has to be a teaching authority or else no church at all.” (Wakin 8-9)

This new dimension of role-playing meant for McLuhan that today’s religious preachers and teachers must become mystics and live in the community rather than retire behind the authority of the sacred text and the walls of the institutions.


To complete this hardly adequate survey of McLuhan’s perceptions about the Church past and present, you might want to know what was his personal opinion about all these changes. This he very rarely expressed in public, but he did so to Edward Wakin and I feel that it is only fitting that I let him speak for himself on the concluding note of this paper which I present as a humble homage to his memory:

“I don’t expect to be comfortable. The Church has never told anybody that it is a place of comfort or security in any ordinary psychological sense. Anyone who comes to the Church for that purpose is wrong. There is nothing of that sort available in the Church. There never has been. No, it isn’t that kind of institution. At the speed of light there is nothing but violence possible, and violence kills every boundary. Even territory is violated at the speed of light. There is no place left to hide. It becomes a church of the soul. Christ said: ‘I do not bring you peace but the sword.’ The church as the custodian of civilized values and so on – that church is all over, I’d say. We are on a life raft. That sort of survival operation.

“I have never been an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m an apocalyptic only. Our only hope is apocalypse.

“Apocalypse is not gloom. It’s salvation. No Christian could ever be an optimist or pessimist; that is a purely secular state of mind. I have no interest whatever in secular institutions as places to have a nice or a bad tine. I don’t understand that kind of mentality. I guess it has taken me quite a long time to get to this state; it didn’t happen overnight.” (Wakin 11, 7)

Note: Adapted from a presentation given by Derrick de Kerckhove June 4th, 1982. Reprinted with permission. Full text available from the Media Ecology Association.

(Photo Credit: John Reeves)

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About the Contributor

Derrick de Kerckhove

Derrick de Kerckhove
Derrick de Kerckhove is the former Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology at the University of Toronto, and is presently full Professor at the Faculty of Sociology of the University Federico II in Naples, the Scientific Director of the Rome based monthly Media Duemila, and Research Director at the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute (IN3) at l’Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona. He is the author of a dozen books edited in over ten languages including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian, Slovenian, Polish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. His fields of research include Technopsychology, Psychotechnology, Neuro-cultural research, Art and communication technologies, Media Theory, Collaborative Educative Software, and Connected Intelligence. 


  1. Joseph McDonald says:

    Yes, I know, this material is more than 30 years old, but I am happy McLuhan’s Christianity/ Catholicism is getting the full regard it is due. Out of curiosity, I wondered what Flannery O;Connor might have thought of McLuhan. The only reference I can find is in a 1956 letter to “A”. She admits it takes some slogging to get through him, but it is well worth the effort. She generally “likes” him.

    As to his (and her) Catholicism, perhaps the following O’Connor quotation can begin to get at their affinity:

    “When you leave a man alone with his Bible and the Holy Ghost inspires him, he’s going to be a Catholic one way or another, even though he knows nothing about the visible church. His kind of Christianity may not be socially desirable, but it will be real in the sight of God.”

    • Benjamin Robertson says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this, Joseph. I think it’s very important to have people like McLuhan who can set an example on how to think about media and technology as a Christian.

      That’s an interesting O’Connor / McLuhan link. Is she referencing “The Mechanical Bride,” or his literary essays?

      • Joseph McDonald says:

        She was witing specifically about The Mechanical Bride. The quotation is one of my favorites out of hundreds of her aphorisms and memorable and quotable passages. So, was O’Connor arguing sola scriptura? In a way, I think yes, but not sola scriptura solus, because once a Catholic, the same Holy Ghost that “made” you a Catholic, goes on to bring you into the “visible” Church and shape your affections toward salvation and holiness through the graces of the sacraments, tradition, sufferering, perseverance, etc, on which O’Connor, of course, had much to say.

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