mccluhan and the message of mediums

McCluhan and the Message of Mediums

When I was ten, they took me to my first art museum.

By “they” I don’t mean the inevitable ethereal “they” like “they say cell phones cause cancer now.” I mean my teachers spent one of the many field trips sprinkled throughout my elementary school career driving us all to an art museum thirty minutes away. I remember little about the experience save that there in the front yard, Trojan-like, stood a metallic horse wrought and welded out of hunks of cold iron. Whatever else, I felt the power of the thing, galvanizing my legs to the very spot.

Years later, I discovered another another artist. San Diego, and specifically a church plant within her, summoned me west and whether through the internet or another art museum, I found this sculptor that collected drift wood. Each piece, smoothed and seasoned by sea salt, formed an organic whole—a horse, magical, like it washed up overnight on the shores of the Styx.

Whatever else the message, the metal horse involved power. Whatever else the second artist meant with the drift wood, she meant something like the grace of the earth. Two otherwise indistinct horses, and two messages. Metal meant dominion where the other implied driftwood elegance. Messages are like that—often the packaging itself is enough context to interpret meaning out of a given work. Certainly the same’s true of writers. Screenwriters focus on the visual, the sociological, because film deals with the big events we witness in life. Playwrights hone in on the interpersonal, the drama of relationships, because plays naturally default to dialog. Novels pivot on inner conflict (our doubts, fears, successes, beliefs) since we read in silence, and in reading practice the meditative act. If you went to a movie, bought an $8.00 cardboard bathtub of popcorn only to watch some guy go through life, voicing his deepest thoughts over the film, you’d want your money back. The same’s true of the scriptures.

I’ve heard preachers teach the psalms without a basic faithfulness to poetry. Even if a man leans toward calculus, he can still have enough respect of the poetic genre to learn something. Psalms should resonate with our congregation’s poets and songwriters, not bore them to tears. I’ve heard others teach law as if they were reading prophetic manifestos for a revolution. Law doesn’t work that way—if you need help, interview a lawyer or a judge or a Jew. Still others read narrative as if The Bible (the book) were rules interrupted by stories, not the other way around. If it doesn’t make sense, talk to a storyteller—any old teller will do, and most of them hang out in the Elks or Moose or Country clubs of your city. Ask them—how do stories work? How do your stories work? Why do we tell stories so often?

A few days ago, I line edited a short story by a young man who was attempting to write literary fiction. The further I read, the more I realized that he cared little for the form, language and minutiae of day-to-day life. Rather, the story read like a sermon. “Brother, sorry to bust your bubble but this might work better as a sermon.”  He agreed—“You’re right, whatever this is, it’s not a literary short story.” Why? Because first and foremost, the medium is the message.

Sermons hand people a word from the Lord. Short films trend toward short, sincere stories about what it means to experience life. Nonfiction books should (I hope) tell less advice and record more of what has happened—that’s true of all the great textbooks, memoirs, autobiographies and even leadership books.


“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”

— Karl Lagerfeld


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When we want raw pigment to show us our true colors, we go to paintings. If we want someone to lie to us, to tell us everything our itching want to hear, we sit through political speeches. If we’d rather be scared all the time, we forage for horror films or mass media.

To be medium-conscious, that’s my current prayer for our preachers, elders, staff, artists. Medium-consciousness goes three ways. First, I pray when we study, we study knowing full well the implications of genre and sub-genre, the difference between a dirge and a Deuteronomy. Second, I pray when we speak—and we’re seldom not communicating—we begin to pay attention to the mediums we use, that we think through what our medium tells people long before we open our mouths or reports or portfolios.

Last, I pray when we ask help from someone who has spent their life in a given medium, we trust them with their craft. Two things kill the transcendence of art and the message of our mediums: apathy and ambivalence especially in regard to other people. Two things kill the artistic worship and message of the church: pressure and tension. Tension comes when we micro-manage our communicators, when we cram our messages into their medium rather than offering them prayer, “devoting them to the Lord.” Pressure comes when we, like ignorant fools, refuse to pause and ask how long a given task takes. I, for one, knew nothing about painting so I asked one of my favorite painters how much time he spent planning, preparing and executing a given work of art. He pointed. “This one took me well over a hundred hours.”

We don’t give them enough time because we don’t know how much time their mediums—mediums outside our own—take. We don’t know because we do not ask. We do not ask because, at the end of the day, we don’t respect the mediums of others, foreign mediums. And we honestly don’t care and don’t feel as the other feels — the other master of the other medium.

It’s the Marshall McLuhan quote:

“The medium is the message.”


Do we listen — truly listen and feel and care — about other mediums long enough to earn a voice in our own? Long enough to know, deeply, what our own communicates?

But even McLuhan tinkered with the meaning, enjoying The medium is the massage and The medium is the mess age and even The medium is the mass age. He riffed on it, so I think he would find the following fitting:

The message is the medium.

Messages choose their mediums and often the best realization of your idea comes not through your own medium but either through a collaboration, delegation, or deference to some other medium. The things — already — that have grown beyond me have done so because I chose first the message, got the story right, and internalized it. There inside me, it bloomed and spoke for itself, often choosing some sort of multisensory medium for tale tellers like me. Almost every time, I had to hire or partner with some other person who outranked and outstripped me and in listening to them and their work, in caring about their craft, in sitting at their feet and feeling as they feel — doing my time in gripwork carrying the lights or feeling the clay between my fingers — suddenly I understood why the story in me chose to make itself manifest in a song or a stone. And the truth of the phrase is this: that the Trojan horse was neither a driftwood horse nor an iron horse, but a driftwood horse full of iron.

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