Our increasingly sophisticated media of communication have stimulated much discussion in theological circles today. Some of the avant-garde believe we are shortly to witness the emergence of the “multi-medium man.” The idea derives in part from the analysis of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose formula, “The medium is the message,” is enlisting the most serious attention.
This interest reflects also an aspect of Frank Kermode’s now-familiar analysis of the three stages in the role of art. Some think man’s artistic activities are entering the third of Kermode’s stages, in which art does not merely imitate an order or reinforce a current mode but rather meets man instrumentally. In so doing, it induces him to create a wholly new form of environment or scene. If Kermode and McLuhan are correct at this point, the implications of this newer understanding of communication need to be faced squarely.
The electronic revolution is being estimated variously in our time. McLuhan feels that electric circuitry (which he regards as an extension of man’s central nervous system) will transform the presentation of data so radically that a “new man” will inevitably emerge. This multimedium man will, so the forecasts read, have a mode of thinking structured upon strictly technological lines. This suggests that a new type of corporate mentality is being built in which sequential or linear thought will be largely lost. In its place will come a new form of perception, based upon disjunctive and juxtaposed presentations of different patterns of data.
The power and the demonic possibilities of multi-medium methodologies need to be considered in more depth than has been done to date. If the medium determines the content of the presentation, then certainly the newer modes will be able to produce a climate of mind that resists or rejects any single integrating pattern for structuring data input. Again, the mind may conceivably be faced in the near future with a pattern of pluralistic options so multiform that the power of choosing any integrative center may be lost.
The possibilities for manipulation of the public mind through the deliberate selection of cultural input are many and frightening. One ought to keep in mind the problems that might ensue if presentational media and modes were to come under the control of decision-making agencies. This will be of vastly more significance if the power of media over the production of the public and private mind proves to be as McLuhan predicts. He and other communications theorists seem singularly unconcerned over the problematical issues involved in the development of a technological man. Nor does he feel any qualms about the trauma that may well seize a culture in which yesterday’s categories are totally incomprehensible today and fantastic tomorrow.
It is significant that the alienated in our society are turning to a specialized form of multi-medium art, pop music. Here a serious or quasi-serious theme is typically parelleled by a form of overmusic whose mood is incongruous with it. What seems to be desired by some current mod-music groups is a form of “art” that reduces the anxieties of the alienated by affording a wild vision of the world akin to that afforded by drugs. This form of presentation, particularly in its more frankly “mind blowing” form, erases one view of reality by crossing it with another.
This raises the question whether “psychedelic” music is really a specialized form of pop music, significantly different in intent and in its effect upon character from other styles. For an answer this writer consulted with two men well informed about music, whose view was as follows: Although one has difficulty in assessing contemporary movements in art, it seems clear that for some years popular music has appealed to the primitive and the primeval in man. However, there is good reason for thinking that the writers of “psychedelic” music are self-conscious at the point of manipulating the public mind. Certainly it is significant that Timothy Leary, commenting upon the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, declared that the Beatles had taken his place, and that this album was a musical republication of LSD moods.
If the secular problems posed by the era of technological communication are great, the theological significance seems greater still. If McLuhan be correct in asserting that “the medium is the message” and that the human mind is the end-product of the modes by which data are presented to it, then perhaps we must accept his technological determinism. Perhaps the Reformation was nothing more than a derivative of the diffusion of printing and the interiorization of linear type.
We venture to say, however, that his view is extreme. Now, perhaps the medium may, to a significant extent, determine the choice of material; but to assert this is something completely other than establishing that medium and message are identical.
The newer view takes it for granted that men of a technological era will no longer be the suitable subjects for a propositional hearing of the Evangel. It assumes that the Bible is meaningful only within a narrowly restricted segment of man’s intellectual history, and that all theological formulations are direct derivatives of the communication media of a given era.
The avant-garde take it for granted that the emerging multi-medium man cannot hope to erect a world outlook or Weltanschauung but must content himself with assembling a collage. The contemporary world, it is assumed, confronts him with such a vast range of data, presented in such a juxtaposed but disparate fashion, that no coherent pattern is possible. His outlook must be a mere unstructured collection of bits and pieces.
Such a view seems to assume that man is an obedient pawn in the hands of presentational media. It fails to take into account the structures of the human person, and is probably quite incorrect in its supposition that modern man will be radically different from his predecessors solely because of electric circuitry.
Events may show that McLuhan is a prisoner of his own enthusiasm for an idea. They may cast doubt upon the anthropological implications of his thesis. Quite probably the application of his theory to religious matters will be called into question. The Christian Evangel is expressed in structured and verbalized form, and may prove to be continuingly viable and powerful in that form.
Does it show maturity when some of the architects of our age, to say nothing of the professed servants of Jesus Christ, rush forward to accept the current mode in communication theory and to conform to it? Our Lord is presented to the world as the eternal Word. As such, he is also the content of the “Word which we preach.” In a sense he embodies in himself medium and message. What is fitting to him, however, may be idolatrous when applied to any finite medium or mode.
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