The medium is the message—who said that?

Marshall McLuhan has been called ‘the high priest of pop culture’.[i] He is considered to be the first father and leading prophet of the electronic age. He was a philosopher of communication theory at the University of Toronto. He is also coined the phrase ‘global village’ and predicted the development of the worldwide web.

A Canadian born in 1911, McLuhan became a Christian through the influence of G.K. Chesterton in 1937. He wrote his monumental work, one of twelve books and hundreds of articles, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964. The subject that would occupy most of McLuhan's career was the task of understanding the effects of technology as it related to popular culture, and how this in turn affected human beings and their relations with one another in communities. [ii]

He passed away in 1980. In a 1976 interview with an Anglo-French journalist Nina Sutton, Marshall McLuhan described his journey to faith.

Marshall McLuhan: By the way, converts come in through the back door of the church. Coming in through the back door is coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school…
I had no religious yearnings or needs of any sort but I was quite aware of the claims of the church and I wanted to know what the claims were about. I became aware that the church had had an enormous effect in shaping Western man. I became aware of what the church claimed to be.
Now I had no religious belief at that time at all. I was an agnostic. But I finally decided that if the church is what it says it is, you are also told how to test that hypothesis and you are told to knock and knock and knock and demand to be shown.
…that, if it is what it says it is, it also says that you will be given the means of knowing.
Nina Sutton: So for about an hour, without admitting to it, he tried to convince me to knock on God’s door… all you have to do Nina is knock and he will answer. And I was absolutely moved because it was so uncharacteristic and it came from such a deep place in him.[iii]

In his journey to conversion, he talked about converts coming in through the back door of the church. The effect of the church gives convincing reasons to enter.

We are often focused on the ‘front door’ of correct teaching and appropriate protocols for entry. But it’s the back door, the beauty of the church living out the gospel of liberation that attracts people. For Marshall McLuhan the effect of the church led him eventually to the message of the church.

We would do well to realize that the church serving community needs becomes a medium for the message. It’s when the church recognizes its role as servant, when God’s words of grace and mercy become flesh in the urban core, in the neighbourhoods, in the schools, and community centres that church becomes God with skin on.

What would Marshall McLuhan think about the weary world’s cry for justice, and the church’s response? Are we opening a large enough back door in the 21st century that people can find find Jesus through the “effects” of our churches?

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, ‘The medium is the message’. We will explore this idea in light of the tension between declaration and demonstration. In the context of God’s work in the world, there are those who insist that good news is primarily words and those who say that good news is primarily action, such as feeding the poor or other justice concerns. Let’s explore the idea that the actions and the words work in tandem, that the medium is the message.

i   pp. 53-74, in The Essential McLuhan, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (ed.), (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp.233-69.