What Marshall McLuhan has to do with Jesus Christ
II Corinthians 4:7-10
to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan theorized that “the medium is the message.” What he meant is that the medium through which one choose to communicate alters, and to an extent even determines, what is ultimately said. In other words, “It is the character of the medium that is its potency or effect” (Federman). According to McLuhan, no medium is essentially message-less on its own; it is impossible to communicate in a way that is so unbiased that the means used will not affect or even control the message being transmitted. This concept is obviously one that should be taken into account when Christians consider our stewardship of the world’s most important message—the Gospel. The Gospel is about redemption of broken human beings, of reconciled relationship and restored rightness with God. Thus, according to McLuhan’s train of thought, the medium capable of most clearly conveying this message is once broken and now redeemed human beings in reconciled relationship and restored rightness with God, themselves. A message of love must be expressed through loving; a message of forgiveness must be expressed through forgiving. It is God’s intention that the Gospel be perpetuated through the lives of Christians, through disciples of Christ, in relationship with each other and with unbelievers.
To fully understand this argument, we first need a definition of a medium. In his book Understanding Media McLuhan describes a medium as “any extension of ourselves” (Federman). “Classically, he suggests that a hammer extends our arm and that the wheel extends our legs and feet. Each enables us to do more than our bodies could do on their own” (Federman). Obviously, a medium is not an improvement on the complete original (neither a hammer nor a bicycle can hardly take the place of a human being in all capacities) but each medium is specifically suited to accomplish a certain task effectively. Humans have created all kinds of mediums, some of which build on each other; language is one that “extends our thoughts from within our mind out to others” (Federman), a pen or microphone enables us to project our words to more listeners than to just a few, the radio and internet extend our reach across the country or around the globe. Adding music incorporates emotion into our messages, adding pictures or colors or drama all affect not only how we communicate, but also what is being said.
Humans were given our capacity to create—to remix the materials at hand and make new things from what already existed—by our Creator, God. Not only are our abilities a gift from Him, but we are inclined to use them for creating because we are like Him. To understand our identity, our capabilities, and our purpose, we need to know from where we have come. In Genesis 1:26 God said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” So God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—self-sustaining, self-satisfying, selfless, pure, and intimate love, extended Himself and made mankind. Adam and Eve were the first extensions of God, the first bearers of God’s image on earth; in a sense, they were “little gods”. Like a gardener makes a shovel suited for work in his garden, God made mankind to tend the paradise He had made. Adam and Eve were given dominion over the environment God placed them in. They were to multiply on the earth and to work and keep the habitat that was their home. They were made to worship and obey their Creator. Because Adam and Eve were formed in God’s image, they knew no sin, no pain, no fear; they were in perfect relationship with Him, and they were immortal like Him. “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
But what God had made, including His image-bearers, did not stay the way He originally intended it to be. Satan (once the highest and most beautiful angel) fell in sin and became the greatest enemy of God and of His good creation. He deceived man to turn against God as well. Through the once perfect man, sin, pain, fear, and death entered the garden and affected everything. Adam and Eve were cut off from life-giving relationship with their Creator. The environment that was once so responsive and submissive to their stewardship began to rebel against them. Where they once loved each other purely and selflessly, they began to be self-centered and they became disposed to manipulate and take advantage of each other, and to misuse the rest of creation as well. Where they once were free to worship and obey their Creator, they were now enslaved by sin and inclined to make gods of themselves, and to answer to their own authority rather than to that of their rightful Ruler. The capacity they once possessed to create more good things out of God’s original creation was corrupted as well; the extensions they could make could now be harmful, grotesque, and depraved like they themselves could be. They could now create with selfish motives rather than for the glory and praise of God. To this day, man still bears God’s image as an extension of him, but it is twisted, tainted, and shattered.
God extended Himself again to reclaim everything that belonged to Him and to put it back the way it was supposed to be. To do this, He sent Jesus who was not only an extension of God as a human being but who, as part of the Trinity, was God Himself. He was “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15-20). By being united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, all God’s image-bearers can be straightened out, purified, and put back together. By being identified with him we can be “born again” and have a second chance to live as we were intended to; following in Jesus’ footsteps we are like “little Christ-s”. Believers are indwell-ed with the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who convicts and guides us, empowering us to live the lives God calls us to, comforting and strengthening us along the way (John 14:26). We are extensions of God the Father, our Maker; we are extensions of God the Son, our Savior, and we have God the Holy Spirit living inside each of us. We are at once weak, vulnerable, and mortal, but also immortal, pure, and complete.
And in that paradoxical identity—broken extensions of God and redeemed extensions of Christ, bearers of the Holy Spirit at once saved and being saved— we find our purpose and our power to accomplish it. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19&20). We are to “be [his] witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He called us the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13&14). The Apostle Paul says Christians are “a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (II Corinthians 3:3). He also says “We are [God’s] workmanship (or “masterpiece” or “poem”), created in Christ Jesus for good works…” (Ephesians 2:10). We are not only recipients of God’s redemption, we are representatives of it. We are “ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us” (II Corinthians 5:20). “It is no longer [we] who live, but Christ who lives in [us]…” (Galations 2:20). We not only carry the message of the Gospel, we are manifestations of it.
The prototype of a person bearing the message of the Gospel in his/her own being was Jesus Christ in his life on the earth. When God wanted to bring mankind, His beloved image-bearers, back into fellowship with Himself, He sent His only begotten Son to the earth so they could know Him (John 3:16). Jesus wasn’t just the first “light of the world” and “salt of the earth,” but he was “the Word”. John says that, in the beginning, Jesus “was with God, and…was God,” and that he “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 2, & 14). Jesus was God’s Word to man; he was the incarnation of everything God wished to communicate to human beings, and to be that he needed to become a human being.
Many people, when they think of the message of God, think of the Bible. When Christians want our unsaved friends to learn who Jesus is and to believe in what he did, we want them to read the Bible so they can get the whole story. There is nothing wrong with that. The Bible is God’s Word, the story of God’s redemption of mankind through the sacrifice of His Son and of the growth of Jesus’ bride, the Church, in the power of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus was the incarnation of this story. He lived out the message of the Bible. Christianity isn’t a religion—a list of written down rules to follow; it is a relationship. God didn’t just want to explain His plan of redemption to mankind; He wanted to fully introduce Himself to mankind so that He could be in relationship with us. The best way to introduce Himself was to step down and “shake our hand.” That’s what Jesus did. The writer of Hebrews explains this, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son…He [Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature…” (Hebrews 1:1-3). Up until Jesus arrived on the earth, the Scriptures were God’s partial revelation of Himself, but Jesus was the whole picture.
Today, the Bible is preserved with incredible accuracy; it is still “breathed out by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), but in many cases it needs interpreters, people whose eyes have been opened to the truth of God by the Holy Spirit, to explain it to those who are still blinded by sin. This system was no different in Jesus’ day. Jesus came to a people who had had God’s laws since they had become a nation, but many who knew the Scriptures the best (the Scribes and Pharisees) rejected the Messiah who those Scriptures predicted. After Pentecost, when Jesus’ disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, they became Christ’s witnesses, not only to the outside world who knew nothing of God, but to the Jews who had been reading His word for generations and who still did not really know Him (Acts 1:8). Our omnipotent God can reach out to a person through the Biblical text alone, but that doesn’t decrease any of the seriousness of His call to Christians to live out its message before others and to point them to the Truth.
Tainted Medium—Tainted Message
As “little gods” and “little Christ-s,” we must be careful to preserve the priceless message we embody. Since the Gospel is a message of relationship, it must be communicated through relationship, as God, Himself showed us, by sending us His Son. If the Gospel is represented by people and it is intended for people, it must be communicated person-to-person. The truth will come across jumbled and/or with less power if we modify its medium, that is, if we are unfaithful to our identity as extensions of God and of Christ in the context of relationships.
This idea brings us back to McLuhan’s theories. When Neil Postman got hold of the “medium is the message” concept, he wrote the book Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he explains what happens when a message’s medium is changed. His uses language translation as an especially illustrative example, saying, “Much prose translates fairly well from one language to another, but we know that poetry does not; we may get a rough idea of the sense of a translated poem but usually everything else is lost, especially that which makes it an object of beauty. The translation makes it into something it was not” (Postman 117). Postman’s point is that changing the medium alters the message; “If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same” (Postman 118). If the Gospel is intended to go from point A (God) to point B (man) through the medium of human beings, then tampering with that equation is the equivalent of introducing “noise” that doesn’t need to be there. The result of altering the medium is that the message comes through as either unclear or different altogether.
This is precisely what happens when Christians’ attempts at evangelism are actually self-extensions—the medium is contaminated and the Gospel is distorted or concealed. It isn’t inherently wrong for us to create; creativity is a mark of being made in the image of God. It isn’t bad for Christians to sing songs, paint pictures, take photographs, etc. The works we create are indeed pieces of our very selves, offerings to our Creator in praise and adoration of who He is. The art Christians produce, whether it is original and unique or kitsch and cliché, can (and probably most often does) spring from regenerated hearts, overflowing with gratitude and affection for our heavenly Father, and it is the heart of His worshipers that He accepts, not what they can do or make (I Samuel 16:7).
Art can and should be used in evangelism, but by itself it is incomplete. As extensions of ourselves, what we create points to us, not to God. Consequently, our art usually ends up in the hands of other Christians whose thoughts and feelings echo our own. “Little Christ-s” are the intended medium for the Gospel; we are the extensions of God. Our commission is to go to all the nations and baptize and make disciples and our art cannot do that for us. We need to go and reach out to people, get to know them and let them know us. In the context of real relationship, others will see Christ in us.
Making ourselves vulnerable enough to engage in authentic relationships is difficult and dangerous. Some Christians prefer to hide behind their art, but by removing themselves from the context and trying to let their extensions speak for themselves, they compromise the clarity and potency of the message they mean to communicate. When Jesus called us the “light of the world” he stressed that a light is not lit and hid under a bowl, but put on a stand where it benefits those in the darkness. Other Christians might gladly accept recognition and commendation for their art, but in extending their own personality and image they often attract their audiences’ attention away from the God they mean to proclaim. When Jesus called us the “salt of the earth” he emphasized that if the salt has lost its saltiness it is good for nothing and no one.
We must guard ourselves against forgetting or forgoing our submission to God and our reliance on Christ; we are extensions, not Gods ourselves. It is hard to live a selfless and moral life of true devotion to Christ without sticking out in a world of selfishness, lust, and greed. It is difficult to maintain an honest and humble life of real dependence on God in a world obsessed with self-promotion, and air-brushing. We all tend toward some form of image-management. But Paul said it is through boasting (not hiding) in our faults, failures, and weaknesses (not our strengths) that we display God’s power (II Corinthians 12:9&10). It takes a genuine, redeemed, and vulnerable human beings to communicate the Gospel (II Corinthians 4:7-10).
When Christians aren’t true to our identity as extensions—when we extend ourselves and expect the creations or the persona-s we’ve invented to perpetuate God’s message for us, we undermine the effectiveness of our evangelism. McLuhan called this phenomenon “unintended consequences.” Mark Federman says “McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time… we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset.” We can become so satisfied in the fact that the content of our extensions is Biblical, that we fail to realize that the way we are communicating completely confuses what we are saying.
For an article published in GQ Magazine, Walter Kirn spent “seven strange days” absorbed in Christian sub-culture; his observations revealed numerous “unintended consequences” of de-contextualized extensions. Kirn described American Christian sub-culture as a “self-contained parallel universe,” to that of secular American pop culture, detailing his perceptions that the Family Christian Store in his area sells “sanctified equivalents” of mainstream bands; he calls them “systematic rip-off[s]” not “genuine surge[s] of inspired energy.” Kirn says, similarly, the Christian film industry “neuters” actors and actresses by censoring and rebranding them. His conclusion is that Christian sub-culture is “a bad Xerox of the mainstream, not a truly distinctive or separate achievement. Without the courage to lead, it numbly follows, picking up the major media’s scraps and gluing them back together with a cross on top.” Maybe Kirn would have had a different opinion of our faith if he had actually met a true Christian. Many Christians would reject his assessment of our culture; others would agree with his indictment and lament that things aren’t as they should be. Regardless, his interpretation proves that our extensions are not enough to communicate the Gospel on their own. The message we are commissioned to communicate to the world is not one of knock-offs and fearful naivety, but when our extensions are left to speak for themselves into a world craving forgiveness, grace, and love (which only we ourselves can offer), our audiences are disillusioned. The Gospel doesn’t make it through those mediums intact.
Even if a Christian author, actor, or musician is a truly talented and humble individual seeking to point people to God through his/her work, by the time the final product comes out in stores, however, it quite possibly looks just like the merchandise that comes out of the “celebrity system” the world worships. It may even sound the same too. God isn’t in the picture because somewhere along the line, one or more extensions (either on the producing or the consuming end) have interfered and blurred or buried His message. Though the Gospel we intend to convey is pure and good and true, it falls flat when we force it through a medium in which it was never meant to be contained—“the personal and social consequences of any medium…result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves” (Federman).
If, by extending ourselves, we are diluting God’s message of redemption or drowning it out entirely, we must pull back and examine ourselves. The extensions aren’t the problem—they can be excellent resources in evangelism, encouragement, and in relationship-building in general. Our creations are often beautiful acts of true worship. Creating something that is a “part of oneself” and then sharing it with others can be an act of love; it is an artist’s becoming vulnerable and sacrificing a part of him/herself for those who may receive or reject it. It is when we remove ourselves from our extensions that the Gospel isn’t coming through clearly.
At its most basic level, the Gospel is the message of God’s Love which must be mediated through love, that is, through relationship. It takes beings who are both bearers of a broken image (“little gods”) and of a restored image (“little Christ-s”), who know God personally and intimately, in order adequately present that message in the power of the Holy Spirit, to truly love as God has loved us. It takes those image-bearers being intentional about submitting ourselves to Christ to accomplish God’s agenda, rather than our own, in order to consistently represent Him and not ourselves. The ideal example of living the Gospel was God’s Son. Jesus lived his entire life in submission to God’s will, exemplifying meekness and humility, although he was God, himself (Matthew 26:39). Jesus became vulnerable to reach out to broken humanity; he got close enough to be spit on, mocked, beaten, and crucified (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus was authentic and open with those he knew, even his opposition, and he reached out in compassion to those who were not as pure or as holy as him (John 18:20, John 13:3-5). He was patient with those who were slow to learn and with those whose faith was weak (Matthew 8:26). He lamented for those who did not know the truth that would set them free (Matthew 23:37), and even as he died he pleaded with His Father to forgive those who had unjustly condemned him to death (Luke 23:34).
Of course, Jesus set the ideal example for us to follow, but because we live in a broken world and are broken ourselves, we will never be able to communicate the Gospel as clearly as he did. We aren’t perfect, our creations aren’t perfect, and the system we have to work with isn’t perfect. None of us is completely selfless in our closest relationships, and besides that, our extensions are still often beyond our control. For example, a public speaker can’t maintain an authentic relationship with every single audience member he speaks to. Similarly, an artist can’t stand next to her painting in a museum and explain the introspective journey from which it was produced to every single person who walks by. And even if a musician performs a concert explaining the meaning being certain lyrics in his songs or the process through which he wrote each track, he can’t expect everyone who has ever heard his music to be there to hear it. Every time we create something, we inevitably lose some level of control over it. So what do we do?
Andy Crouch addresses this scenario in his book Culture Making. He says, “So can we change the world? Yes and no. On a small enough scale, yes, of course we can. But the world is sufficiently complex, not to mention sufficiently broken, that the small scale of our own cultural capacity is never sufficient.” (Crouch 197). In other words, we might be able to interpret our extensions and effectively convey the Gospel through them to a few people, but certainly not to all of them. Crouch says this arrangement isn’t a bad thing; we were actually designed to operate in this way. He continues, “Anthropologists speculate, in fact, that we are hardwired for small groups—that human beings are simply designed to operate in a village, even if that village exists somewhere in the midst of a vast metropolis or on computer servers that host a million other villages simultaneously” (Crouch 242). Appropriately, the key to harnessing the power of our extensions is relationships.
Concentric Circles in Community
So in order to introduce the Gospel through mediated communication (the use of our extensions) we must do so in the context of community. This concept reintroduces relationships into the equation. Crouch proposes a “concentric circles” idea of community; he says that, “to create a new cultural good, a small group is essential. And yet the almost uncanny thing…is that a small group is enough” (Crouch 243). Jesus couldn’t meet every single human being who lived on the earth while he was here; he, himself, worked within this system of community while he was on earth: “The synoptic Gospels stress the pivotal role of the three disciples closest to Jesus—Peter, James, and John—whom Jesus invites most deeply into the disclosure of his extraordinary mission…Jesus chooses twelve men to be close to him at the key moments of his teaching and demonstration of the kingdom…[and] just after the resurrection, in the days leading up to Pentecost, there are 120 believers gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15)…God’s own culture making…flows through absolutely and relatively small groups of people—perhaps because the original creative initiative that is the pre-requisite for any human creativity came from an eternal society of there divine persons, united in their loving purpose [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit]” (Crouch 245). Maybe the necessity of small-scale community is, like our tendency to create, a reflection of the image of God in us.
If we cannot interpret our extensions for absolutely everyone, we can in-part rely on others to spread the word, and we can certainly rely on the Holy Spirit as well. Each person in an artist’s concentric circle of 120 is also in his/her own circle of three; each person who is a member of an artist’s “three” shares a circle of 120 with 199 other people who are also arranged in “three’s”…Circles overlap and a message multiplies as it moves from person-to-person, circle-to-circle. Beyond even that, every member of the Body of Christ, is united with all other believers through affection for Jesus and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Even if a believer doesn’t know a certain Christian artist personally, she may share the experience of the love of God that artist expresses in his painting, and even if a Christ-follower has never actually met a particular Christian musician, he still may discern the grace of God that musician expresses in her song. It is then the responsibility of those listeners to interpret the messages they understand for other people in their circles who don’t get the chance to hear them explained by the work’s originator and who don’t have the Spirit to enlighten them. In perpetuating the message of the Gospel, especially in a world where brokenness invades every sphere, where sin and deception abound, and where the enemy of everything good rules (I Peter 5:8), no Christian (creator or consumer) is ever “off the hook” when it comes to imaging Christ in relationships. Even when mediating the Gospel message through extensions, our own or those created by others, we are to be consistent in our devotion to God and our commitment to love those around us by pointing them to Him in the context of relationship.
As “little gods,” Christ is our Gospel, our message of hope. As broken “little gods” who have become resurrected “little Christ-s” who live and walk by the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:25), our lives are the Gospel for those who don’t know it yet. We are meant to live the Gospel the same way Jesus modeled it so that others can see through us to him. The message gets lost in our extensions because we can’t love through our songs; we can only sing about compassion. We can’t forgive through our books; we can only write about grace. We can’t sacrifice through our films; we can only script redemptive storylines. There must be interpreters, even for the best human extensions. When God wanted us to know Him, he sent His Son, who fulfilled the Scriptures, to live with us so we could experience Him. Now we are charged to live and love like he did so the world can touch, smell, feel, hear, and see Him too. Our lives, our stories, our relationships, our love are the medium—we are the message.
“We are not saved to be ‘channels only,’ but to be sons and daughters of God…the message must be part of ourselves. The Son of God was His own message, His words were spirit and life; and as His disciples our lives must be the sacrament of our message. The natural heart will do any amount of serving, but it takes the heart broken by conviction of sin, and baptized by the Holy Ghost, and crumpled into the purpose of God before the life becomes the sacrament of its message. There is a difference between giving a testimony and preaching. A preacher is one who has realized the call of God and is determined to use his every power to proclaim God’s truth. God takes us out of our own ideas for our lives and we are ‘batter’d to shape and use,’ as the disciples were after Pentecost. Pentecost did not teach the disciples anything; it made them the incarnation of what they preached—
The Bible. English Standard Version.
http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm. Federman, Mark. What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message? July 23, 2004, April 27, 2011.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness. Penguin Books, 2006.
“What Would Jesus Do?” Taken from GQ Magazine—September, 2002. Walter Kirn.
Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Chambers, Oswald. My Utmost For His Highest, March 10th entry. Oswald Chambers Publications Association, Ltd. 1963.