A. Does anyone still remember Marshall McLuhan? A very important thinker to this day even though he died over 40 years ago. He was a Canadian professor of literature who analyzed what we call “media” and the ways communication takes place. He made a big splash in the ‘50s and ‘60s with some ground-breaking and revolutionary ideas. The two main books he wrote were Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage, the latter being a play on the word “message,” which was the central thesis of his point: the medium of the communication, the way we communicate, is more important than the content of our communication. This was and still is a bit shocking to take in. A lot of critics popped up to denounce and misinterpret what he was saying.
Through several decades of writings he abundantly demonstrated how his central thesis worked: human beings make and shape the tools they use, and then the tools shape them. It is the latter point which is the least understood and appreciated and has enormous implications. I won’t go into the details of his analysis, but just consider one special moment and one special example in history: the invention of the radio and the loudspeaker, the electrical amplification of the human voice at the beginning of the 20th century. This allowed not just the enhancement of the voice, but more like an amplification and projection of the person. McLuhan says that Hitler was only possible because of this new technology. His mesmerizing madness was projected out to thousands upon thousands all at once, not just a small crowd that one voice could reach. And somehow it amplified its forcefulness.
McLuhan died before the era of the personal computer and the internet, but his analysis holds here even more. Would the “Trump phenomenon” be possible if not for the environment created by social media, where anyone and every one can live within their own world of “facts”? Only that is “true” and accepted which feeds my own prejudices and is coherent with my own fears, anxieties, hatreds, etc. We have created social media, and now they are forming us into something very scary where rational discourse, objective facts, science, and reasonable persuasion are becoming endangered.
And just think of that key icon of contemporary social life: the smart cell phone. You see people sitting around a table or walking down the street and each one is “into” his/her own reality. I have seen young people out on a trail in the wilds either constantly checking their phones for messages or listening to music. Obviously something is changing in our self-awareness, in our sense of relatedness and our connections to what is real.
So McLuhan’s point is that a new“tool” is never simply some additional part in our tool chest or an extraneous entity in our collection of tools, but it becomes an integral part of our environment and this then “ massages” our very consciousness. McLuhan says that the one thing a fish has absolutely no knowledge of is water….it is it’s environment and you never can have a true grasp of your environment because you can never step outside it. Every new “tool” really becomes part of our total environment and we can no longer grasp it’s effects on us. Decades before McLuhan, Heidegger pointed out that technology now is the “frame” of the window we have on reality, whether it be religious, social, natural, or even personal. He called it the “enframing” of technology. We are unaware that what we “see through the window” has been already “framed” for us. Something to ponder.
A few McLuhan quotes:
“First we build the tools, then they build us.”
“The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted”, he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists between antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power is manifest in the famous story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.” [Comment: Think also what Merton said about the monk in his writings in the ‘60s]
“It is just when people are all engaged in snooping on themselves and one another that they become anesthetized to the whole process. Tranquilizers and anesthetics, private and corporate, become the largest business in the world just as the world is attempting to maximize every form of alert. Sound-light shows, as new cliché, are in effect mergers, retrievers of the tribal condition. It is a state that has already overtaken private enterprise, as individual businesses form into massive conglomerates. As information itself becomes the largest business in the world, data banks know more about individual people than the people do themselves. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”
“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.”
“Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.”
“In the Phaedrus, Plato argued that the new arrival of writing would revolutionize culture for the worst. He suggested that it would substitute reminiscence for thought and mechanical learning for the true dialect of the living quest for truth by disc”
“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.”
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”
B. And now for something different. I read recently that the Pope now officially allows women to be lectors and altar girls at Mass. Women everywhere must be celebrating this “leap” forward! Excuse the sarcasm, but this stuff is just amazing. In past years there were some dioceses where females were allowed as lectors and altar servers, but these were exceptional and depended on the “liberalism” of the local bishop. Conservative Catholics really frowned on this practice, but the Vatican “looked” the other way for a while hoping that would mollify women who were calling for the priesthood. One feels like it’s still the same old thing: a theologically based misogyny ….just like there was a religiously justified slavery in past centuries. One wonders how long all this will last.
Misogyny, this peculiar demeaning of women while speaking a lofty and sublime language while seemingly “elevating” them, is an age-old dynamic within all of Christianity. And I am not just picking on Christianity or my own tradition of Catholicism; this unfortunate distortion exists in plenty in all religious traditions. When you begin to examine this phenomenon across all borders, you begin to get a sense that this is a human, cultural distortion that is imposed and imprinted on the religious matrix of religious symbols, rituals, notions, relationships, concepts, etc. What is astonishing is how ineffectual each and every religious tradition is in dealing with these distortions. You would think they would be the most empowered to overcome these distortions. Here you begin to sense why so many, young and old, begin to shun the religious traditions they were born in.
C. And this brings up another remarkable “wrinkle” in the fabric of Christianity, all of it, which also alienates many these days: the bizarre and sick adherence of so many Christians of all denominations to Trump and Trumpism. White Evangelicals seem to be especially guilty here. Recently there was this article in the New York Times about an evangelical pastor who really got scorched by believers for not sticking with Trump. Here is a quote from that piece:
“’Over the last 72 hours, I have received multiple death threats and thousands upon thousands of emails from Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things I have ever heard toward my family and ministry. I have been labeled a coward, sellout, a traitor to the Holy Spirit, and cussed out at least 500 times.’
This is the beginning of a Facebook post from Sunday by the conservative preacher Jeremiah Johnson. On Jan. 7, the day after the storming of the Capitol, Johnson had issued a public apology asserting that God removed Donald Trump from office because of his pride and arrogance, and to humble those, like Johnson, who had fervently supported him.
The response was swift and vicious. As he put it in that later Facebook post, ‘I have been flabbergasted at the barrage of continued conspiracy theories being sent every minute our way and the pure hatred being unleashed. To my great heartache, I’m convinced parts of the prophetic/charismatic movement are far SICKER than I could have ever dreamed of.’
This is what is happening inside evangelical Christianity and within conservatism right now. As a conservative Christian friend of mine put it, there is strife within every family, within every congregation, and it may take generations to recover.”
And some wonder why all the Churches are losing support and membership in so many segments of society!