Churches and Tech

Churches and Tech February 24, 2023

The Working Catholic: Church and Technology by Bill Droel

Covid-19 has accelerated our churches’ use of streaming and other audio-visual tools.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was a pioneer in media studies. Yet he is largely ignored in our day of omnipresent media. Digital Communion by Nick Ripatrazone (Fortress Press, 2022) sets out to revive McLuhan through a focus on his Catholic faith.

McLuhan died before our universal use of mobile devices and laptops, before social media and before niche TV channels. Thus, some might say, he is irrelevant today. McLuhan is a fun writer, but—at least to some—he feels frivolous. He offers zingers, “probes,” and “explorations” without sustaining an argument. Readers might prefer “polished sentences and learned syntaxes,” Ripatrazone explains. A long, logical presentation, however, “can trick us into thinking that stylistic writing equals intellectual certainty, but McLuhan felt such an approach stymied inquiry.” Instead, McLuhan’s books are peppered with cartoons, reproductions of advertisements, provocative one-liners, allusions to literature and more. “I don’t explain, I explore,” McLuhan said.

Perhaps McLuhan is neglected because his central idea was never well-understood. For example, parents and teachers are wary about content on social media or on various websites. Others are concerned about how information is presented by TV commentators. McLuhan’s interest in media was different. His tag line was “The medium is the message.” The primary concern, he believed, is not content. It is the technology itself. Simply having a mobile device in one’s pocket, changes the environment. A lap top or a TV in the house, no matter what website is accessed or what channel is tuned-in, changes its user and the environment. A mounted screen inside a church changes worship, regardless of what is projected.

McLuhan, contrary to an assumption during his time, was not a cheerleader for each new invention. He wanted his audience to be aware that the use of a technology conforms them to that technology and that, especially with screens, media has the power to anesthetize.

Yet, McLuhan decidedly was not a prophet of doom. He had a Catholic sensibility, Ripatrazone writes. Our experience of the world comes to us “in disparate images, experiences and ideas,” Ripatrazone continues. And to McLuhan and others who share a sacramental imagination, it is all unified by God. Our world is full of grace, though flawed by sinful people and their wayward institutions. McLuhan’s challenge is to look not only for the message but at the nature of the medium (positive and negative) in each of our encounters. Media effect a change, Ripatrazone says, not only through the content we receive but in the way we think and act.

Well then, what about churches that increasingly install big screens on both sides of the altar? Isn’t that in keeping with the so-called new evangelization? What about putting the parish bulletin online? After all, isn’t that where the young adults are? And what about live-streaming the Mass for months to come?

Ripatrazone concludes with an observation from Fr. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, who blogs about the liturgy at Covid-19 necessitated limitations on worship and led to regular broadcasts of the Mass. Those productions varied in sophistication and ease of access. From March 2020 to today there is ambivalence about it all. Lusvardi is disturbed about fitting the Mass “within the parameters of the broadcast.” Something is lost, Lusvardi feels.

Ripatrazone asks: Is a Mass mediated through technology really participation in a sacrament? Doesn’t a “digital communion” turn the Eucharist into pictures of bread and wine and thereby turn worship into a passive show watched by one or four people in their den? If technology individuates, what happens to community during a broadcast Mass?

McLuhan did not denounce the latest. His advice was to delve deeper into how each technology changes us culturally, personally and theologically. What are the longer term consequences for a sacramental, for a communitarian faith when its churches lean-into cyber-technology?

Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

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