Marshall McLuhan’s Christianity

The late Marshall McLuhan was the pioneering scholar of media and the information environment, recognizing how technology was changing the culture and predicting what is now happening before our eyes.  He was controversial and cutting-edged with some hailing him as being a seminal thinker on the level of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein.  Did you know he was a conservative Catholic?  Jeet Heer tells about how McLuhan came to Catholicism–G. K. Chesterton was a big influence–and how the neo-Thomism of Jacques Maritain influenced his thought.  You need to read the whole piece, but here is a sample:

McLuhan’s pioneering studies of popular culture were part of a sea change in Catholic intellectualism, as the Church gave up the siege mentality of earlier decades and tried to offer a more nuanced and positive account of modern life. As well, the Church began to move away from its defence of authoritarianism to support pro-democracy political movements around the world. McLuhan underwent his own political evolution: the young man who admired Franco became the academic who engaged in a long correspondence with Pierre Trudeau. And while The Mechanical Bride condemns the comic strip Blondie for undermining the patriarchal ideal of the man as the natural head of the household, in later writings, such as Understanding Media, McLuhan deliberately eschewed traditionalist strictures, because he thought it was more important to understand the world than to condemn it. As he told an interviewer in 1967, “The mere moralistic expression of approval or disapproval, preference or detestation, is currently being used in our world as a substitute for observation and a substitute for study.”

On moral matters, he remained very conservative. He was adamantly anti-abortion, for example. But part of his achievement as a mature thinker was his ability to bracket off whatever moral objections to the modern world he might have had and to concentrate on exploring new developments — to be a probe. Indeed, although he joined the Church as a refuge, his faith gave him a framework for becoming more hopeful and engaged with modernity. This paradox might be explained by the simple fact that as he deepened in his faith he acquired an irenic confidence in God’s unfolding plan for humanity. In a 1971 letter to an admirer, McLuhan observed, “One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.”

Indeed, his faith made him a more ambitious and far-reaching thinker. Belonging to a Church that gloried in cathedrals and stained glass windows made him responsive to the visual environment, and liberated him from the textual prison inhabited by most intellectuals of his era. The global reach and ancient lineage of the Church encouraged him to frame his theories as broadly as possible, to encompass the whole of human history and the fate of the planet. The Church had suffered a grievous blow in the Gutenberg era, with the rise of printed Bibles leading to the Protestant Reformation. This perhaps explains McLuhan’s interest in technology as a shaper of history. More deeply, the security he felt in the promise of redemption allowed him to look unflinchingly at trends others were too timid to notice.

via “Divine Inspiration” by Jeet Heer | The Walrus | July 2011.

I’m not sure of the exact connection between St. Thomas Aquinas as media theory, though McLuhan was not alone in working out the connections.  (Could anyone explain?)  Another major scholar in this vein was Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit.  Nor are Roman Catholics the only theologians who explore the implications of media and technology.  There was the French Reformed thinker Jacques Ellul.  And the Jewish Neil Postman.  And the American evangelical Arthur Hunt.

I would just add my own discovery:  McLuhan was also interested in classical education.  His doctoral dissertation was on the media implications of the Trivium.   I have a copy that I intend to read one of these days.

Anyway, I suggest that McLuhan may be a good role model for other Christians in their intellectual pursuits and cultural influence.

FURTHER THOUGHTS:  If you read Marshall McLuhan today, you will be amazed at how well he analyzes the new information technology and its impact on the culture and how we think.  And then you will be even more amazed that at the time the medium he was analyzing was not the internet but television!  But what he says not only holds true but predicts what happened as electronic media progressed.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Really, really interesting. Makes me want to investigate more.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Really, really interesting. Makes me want to investigate more.

  • EGK

    As I read this, I sit in my office in Edmonton, just a few blocks from the home in which he spent his early years.

  • EGK

    As I read this, I sit in my office in Edmonton, just a few blocks from the home in which he spent his early years.

  • Jonathan

    Thanks for posting and recommending this article, Dr. Veith.
    I think your assessment of McLuhan is right on.

  • Jonathan

    Thanks for posting and recommending this article, Dr. Veith.
    I think your assessment of McLuhan is right on.

  • J Voss

    Interesting chapter on McLuhan in Robert Inchausti’s “Subversive Orthodoxy” (Brazos Press, 2005)

  • J Voss

    Interesting chapter on McLuhan in Robert Inchausti’s “Subversive Orthodoxy” (Brazos Press, 2005)

  • Stormfield

    Having just graduated from a Lutheran college, I took a course in Media Ecology (the study McLuhan is credited with founding and in which Ong, Postman and Ellul all wrote) in my final semester, and found it absolutely fascinating in its implications for our world in all aspects. One of McLuhan’s later studies, the Four Laws of Media (a book his son completed and published after his death), has incredible bearing on, among many other things, the church. McLuhan’s idea was that each and every form of media–from glasses, to the automobile, to wine, to various musical instruments–had four Laws which always operated upon it: each form of media enhanced some function of man (as the car enhanced the foot), obsolesced some previous enhancement (as the car largely obsolesced the blacksmith), retrieved something previously obsolesced (as the car, to paraphrase McLuhan, retrieved the knight in shining armor), and reversed or flipped into an opposite and unintended function when pushed to the limits of its potential (as the car flipped into congested highways and traffic jams).

    A perspective like this is useful, for one of a plethora of possible examples, when talking about switching from traditional to contemporary worship in a Lutheran church. If we introduce electric guitars, what do we enhance? Many things, it’s true, but what do we obsolesce? What do we retrieve? And, perhaps most importantly and least considered, what does this new thing flip into when pushed to its limits?

    To say that McLuhan was interested in classical education is a bit of an understatement; McLuhan was thoroughly schooled in the Western classical tradition, and saw himself as squarely in the line of that tradition.

    One more interesting thing about McLuhan is his obvious admiration for James Joyce. McLuhan was one of perhaps five people in history who have had any idea what “Finnegans Wake” was about, and McLuhan quotes it and uses it as an illustration extensively, throughout his work. Yet Joyce was famously an atheist, rejecting the very scholastic tradition McLuhan embraced. I don’t know if McLuhan ever resolved or even addressed this tension, but it is an interesting one to note, and is one more thing that Christians in intellectual pursuits might do well to examine.

    An interesting bit of research, especially in light of classical education and classical tradition, might be to look into McLuhan’s study of the schoolmen of the middle ages. Personally, I know enough to say that much, but not much more.

  • Stormfield

    Having just graduated from a Lutheran college, I took a course in Media Ecology (the study McLuhan is credited with founding and in which Ong, Postman and Ellul all wrote) in my final semester, and found it absolutely fascinating in its implications for our world in all aspects. One of McLuhan’s later studies, the Four Laws of Media (a book his son completed and published after his death), has incredible bearing on, among many other things, the church. McLuhan’s idea was that each and every form of media–from glasses, to the automobile, to wine, to various musical instruments–had four Laws which always operated upon it: each form of media enhanced some function of man (as the car enhanced the foot), obsolesced some previous enhancement (as the car largely obsolesced the blacksmith), retrieved something previously obsolesced (as the car, to paraphrase McLuhan, retrieved the knight in shining armor), and reversed or flipped into an opposite and unintended function when pushed to the limits of its potential (as the car flipped into congested highways and traffic jams).

    A perspective like this is useful, for one of a plethora of possible examples, when talking about switching from traditional to contemporary worship in a Lutheran church. If we introduce electric guitars, what do we enhance? Many things, it’s true, but what do we obsolesce? What do we retrieve? And, perhaps most importantly and least considered, what does this new thing flip into when pushed to its limits?

    To say that McLuhan was interested in classical education is a bit of an understatement; McLuhan was thoroughly schooled in the Western classical tradition, and saw himself as squarely in the line of that tradition.

    One more interesting thing about McLuhan is his obvious admiration for James Joyce. McLuhan was one of perhaps five people in history who have had any idea what “Finnegans Wake” was about, and McLuhan quotes it and uses it as an illustration extensively, throughout his work. Yet Joyce was famously an atheist, rejecting the very scholastic tradition McLuhan embraced. I don’t know if McLuhan ever resolved or even addressed this tension, but it is an interesting one to note, and is one more thing that Christians in intellectual pursuits might do well to examine.

    An interesting bit of research, especially in light of classical education and classical tradition, might be to look into McLuhan’s study of the schoolmen of the middle ages. Personally, I know enough to say that much, but not much more.

  • Phillip

    I think the key is Maritain, not Thomas. It’s not that either of them promoted media theory, but Maritain came out of the Thomist tradition and said democracy is not contrary to God’s will. He showed how democracy is compatible with Thomistic natural law theory. I think the key point Heed is making is that Maritain’s work showing that modern political systems are compatible with historic orthodoxy enabled McLuhan to see that modern media is also compatible with historic orthodoxy.

  • Phillip

    I think the key is Maritain, not Thomas. It’s not that either of them promoted media theory, but Maritain came out of the Thomist tradition and said democracy is not contrary to God’s will. He showed how democracy is compatible with Thomistic natural law theory. I think the key point Heed is making is that Maritain’s work showing that modern political systems are compatible with historic orthodoxy enabled McLuhan to see that modern media is also compatible with historic orthodoxy.

  • Pingback: How Catholicism Made Marshall McLuhan One of the Twentieth Century’s Freest and Finest Thinkers » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  • Pingback: How Catholicism Made Marshall McLuhan One of the Twentieth Century’s Freest and Finest Thinkers » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog


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