In his latest “From the Chapel” post, OSV publisher Scott Richert writes: “Life, we have…
From the Chapel — May 3: The medium is the message
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
The Canadian philosopher and cultural critic Marshall McLuhan famously declared that “The medium is the message.” Over the years, the message of this deeply faithful convert to the Catholic Church has, sadly, been reduced to that single line, which is endlessly misinterpreted.
Like his fellow convert, the novelist Walker Percy, and the last three popes, McLuhan was concerned with the way in which we experience the truth and express that experience to others. He recognized that every time we try to explain our experience of the truth to others, we’re engaged in a creative process — one that reflects God’s own creative nature — but one which inevitably obscures as well as enlightens, because our human nature has been corrupted by the fall.
Percy was grappling with the same phenomenon when he talked of abstraction, while John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have spoken of truth becoming ossified, in need of renewed experiences and new expressions to allow us to encounter the truth once again in its fullness.
In other words, “the medium” was never simply about poetry versus prose, or print versus radio versus TV. Our attempts to express the truth that we have experienced affect our ongoing experience of the truth. The words we use are as much a medium as the media through which we use them. We have a moral duty to try to conform our message as closely to the truth as possible, but to do so requires us always to return to the experience of the truth. When we get caught up in our own words and mistake them for the truth they were meant to convey, we stray from the truth rather than stay true to it.
There’s a lesson here for us as we try to talk to others, especially on social media, in an era where truth itself is valued less than ideology, but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, I’ll let Marshall McLuhan himself have the final word — in two sentences, a profound meditation on the Word, who is himself the fullness of the Truth, as well as the Way and the Life: “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message. It’s the one case where we can say the medium and the message are in complete unison.”
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.