The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion
by Marshall McLuhan; edited by Eric Mcluhan and Jacek Szklarek—219 pp. paper $28.00
Those unfamiliar with Marshall McLuhan might be surprised at his continued reach and influence in an age of Twitter, Facebook and internet-driven communication. Together with Harold Innis, Northrop Frye, Eric Havelock, and Edmund Carpenter, he was a member of the school of thought that came to be known as the Toronto School of communication theory (namely characterized by the exploration of Ancient Greek literature and the theory that communications systems create psychological and social states). McLuhan himself coined the expression “the medium is the message” and “global village” as well as predicting the World Wide Web thirty years prior to its invention.
McLuhan made a slow but complete conversion to Catholicism in the 30s while a student at Cambridge studying the Trivium and G.K. Chesterton. As a result, he spent the rest of his life teaching at Roman Catholic institutions. When asked by intellectuals and artists if he was really a Catholic, McLuhan would reply, “Yes, I am a Catholic, the worst kind—a convert,” further baffling their expectations in relationship to his work.
While much has been written about McLuhan’s theories of communication, very little has been discussed concerning his reflections on communications and religion. The Medium and the Light collects essays, interviews, scattered remarks and letters, giving us insight into his thoughts on the nature of conversion, the church’s understanding of media, the relationship between liturgy (especially in terms of the changes made at Vatican II) and the media, and the shape of the future church. Letters to Jacques Maritain and Walter Ong (a student of McLuhan’s at St. Louis University), transcribed conversations with the Catholic communications theorist Fr. Pierre Babin (The New Era in Religious Communications), and topics such as “Liturgy and the Microphone,” “Do Americans Go to Church to Be Alone?,” “Electric Consciousness and the Church,” “G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic,” and “The Christian in the Electronic Age” underline the question of the church’s reality in an ever-shifting electronic age:
You have to remember that electric speed allows us to compress the entire year into an hour or a day. Therefore, in terms of distribution in time, the annual cycle of feasts no longer functions in the way that it should. At the speed of light, it has no more attraction. We want everything to happen at once, all the richness, all the feasts, all the Scriptures together and instantly. It is the same thing as having Christ right here in person.
Marshall McLuhan, in a conversation with Fr. Pierre Babin