From Sea to Sea
Marshall McLuhan and a New Magazine
The centenary of Marshall McLuhan's birth was celebrated this year, and the focus was understandably on how the great communications theorist anticipated the culture of the digital age. The mark of a great idea is that it is obvious once stated. That how we think and act is shaped by the mode of communication itself is now obvious to all.
The great professor was a serious Christian, a devout convert to Catholicism, a man who went to Mass daily, prayed the rosary with his family every night and rose early to read the Bible. McLuhan's religious thinking is essential to understanding his entire work, and the best introduction to his life as a Catholic thinker is a marvellous documentary made a few years back by Canadian filmmaker Deiren Masterson—McLuhan Way: In Search of Truth.
"Printing, radio, movies, TV—they actually alter our organs of perception without our knowing," the film quotes McLuhan, observing and also anticipating how patterns of thought, friendships and philosophies would change in the electronic age. When McLuhan was raising his six children, being sent to one's bedroom was a punishment of deprivation; today, parents try to get their kids out of their bedrooms, away from the laptop, video games and mobile phones. "In Jesus Christ there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message," McLuhan would say. "It's the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same."
McLuhan's famous dictum noted that how something is communicated—the medium—has its own effect on the message, independent of what is communicated. A text message may contain words of lapidary import, but the medium empties them of the significance they would assume if they were literally lapidary, carved in stone.
In the person of Jesus Christ, a divine person with a human nature, McLuhan saw that God reveals that He is personal and that He freely implicates Himself in the full breadth and depth of the human experience. The incarnate God chose a medium—our human nature – that contains its own message, namely that God loves His creation, enters it, suffers for it and redeems it. The Christian faith is that God came into this world of time and space in Jesus Christ, therefore this world of time and space was infused with indications, intuitions, and icons of the divine.
McLuhan's Catholic faith teaches that God makes us holy through the sacraments—baptism and Holy Communion above all. The Catholic sacramental imagination, the conviction that God uses the tangible things of this world—water, oil, bread, wine—as a means of grace is arguably the key to McLuhan's broader analysis of communication and culture.
Sacraments communicate the presence of an intangible person—God—through tangible things. In the same way, our body makes present an intangible reality greater than our body, namely our full personhood. The encounter of persons seeking not only communication but true communion—that deeper friendship rooted in a shared identity and mission—requires at some level an encounter of bodies, whether it is a smile, a handshake, a conversation or an embrace.
But our bodies are limited, and to overcome the distance that separates us we move to other forms of communication, each less corporeal than its predecessor—books, letters, phone calls, emails.
"When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body," McLuhan said, speaking about modern communications creating "discarnate bodies."
The electronic age is thus fundamentally antisacramental. It does not make the intangible present through tangible matter, but rather takes tangible bodies and discarnates them, converting a person to a series of digital impulses which are present everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Here we glimpse McLuhan's importance as a religious thinker for the 21st century. The human spirit is uneasy with ever more powerful communications that leave the desire for communion unfulfilled. That felt desire is an opportunity for a renewed proclamation of the incarnate, personal God. Yet at the same time the means of making present that incarnate God—the sacraments—are radically undermined by the very same media culture.
All of which is rather sobering for those launching the venture of a new magazine dedicated to and animated by faith in our common life. We have been asked frequently: Why bother printing a magazine? Why not just do the whole thing online? We'll have a web presence to be sure, but we are convinced that magazines do something more than just convey information, which the internet does much faster and for far less cost. Magazines retain something of that tangible contact between readers and writers. The magazine enters one's home and remains, signifying a community to which the reader belongs, or at least takes an interest in. We are aiming here not just at conveying ideas, but building a community of those who take the role of faith seriously. Our common life can benefit from electronic communications but cannot be conducted entirely through it. A magazine does not replace an actual conversation, but it encourages participation in it and, at its best, is a tangible meeting between persons. Hundreds of thousands of words can flitter across our laptops and smartphones in day. Our hope is the words published in this new magazine might hang around a while. And for that, it is useful to employ a medium that might just do that, namely hang around your home or office, inviting you to join a conversation that may build up something of that communion that we all seek.
Marshall McLuhan died in his sleep. Masterson's film reveals the details of the final hours. In the evening a priest offered Mass in his home. McLuhan received Holy Communion and then enjoyed a glass of champagne and a cigar. All three were media with a message: God is here, present in the good things He gives us, the greatest of which is communion with God Himself in Jesus Christ. McLuhan died having participated in what St. Thomas Aquinas called the sacrum convivium—Holy Communion. His final evening was marked, too, by authentic human convivium, for which champagne and cigars are not necessary, but highly advantageous. We would like to think he would look kindly on a magazine, Convivium, dedicated to just that.
Jack Layton, RIP
Convivium is not going to offer the same consensus you get elsewhere. While Jack Layton's death occasioned more-than-extensive coverage this summer, we think there was rather more to the story. We are pleased to have in this issue a relevant article by Bill Blaikie on the tradition that Layton did much to vanquish: the social gospel. The receding of the Christian left from prominence in Canadian politics is part of a larger story in which Jack Layton was a key figure.
In 2003, Layton was not expected to win the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. The favourite, at last initially, was Blaikie, the long-serving and highly respected MP from Winnipeg. But Layton won out in the end and led the NDP for eight years, until his death, having achieved the greatest electoral success in the party's history—103 seats as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.
The contest between Layton and Blaikie was symbolic of a broader trend on the political left. Blaikie's roots were in the prairie social gospel tradition, the same tradition that produced the NDP's most revered figure; Tommy Douglas. Layton was from downtown Toronto, immersed in the hard left politics of the urban core, a secular libertinism whose symbol might well be two men on a tandem bicycle, riding to city hall for their wedding. The victory of Layton over Blaikie was both a sign and a cause of secular libertinism occupying the centre of gravity on the Canadian left. Michael Valpy, who has long chronicled that shift in both politics and the Anglican Church, recalled attending that 2003 NDP leadership convention.
"I went because I'm a journalist, of course," he wrote after Layton died. "But primarily I went because I am attached to my country's history and a Westerner steeped in the West's historical tradition of social gospel—the tradition of Baptist pastor Tommy Douglas and Edward "Red Ted" Scott, the former Anglican primate of Canada. Thus, I had a romantic attachment to the candidacy of Winnipeg MP and social gospel clergyman Bill Blaikie, who had the support of virtually all of the party's parliamentary caucus as well as Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton, Manitoba NDP Premier Gary Doer and Shirley Douglas, daughter of Tommy. In that contest, Jack Layton was the pushy outsider, too brash and slick by half, a Toronto city councillor from the cosmopolitan downtown."
Valpy's romantic ideas didn't survive the vote and had little place in Layton's NDP. Once religion is jettisoned as a shared expression of our common life, politics expands to fill the vacuum. So Layton himself cast his death and funeral as a last political act, as boasted of by his friends, including Anne McGrath, his chief of staff. Ed Broadbent, acknowledging that his deathbed letter and partisan funeral were rather novel, said, "The letter reflects Jack. He was thinking about his party. Few other people would have dreamed of doing something like this."
And so it came to pass that Layton's death and funeral were a public manifestation of the exaltation of politics over all other spheres of common life. That was why Stephen Lewis insisted in his eulogy that Layton's letter had to be read as a political manifesto, and not read through the biblical echoes found in the claim that hope is better than fear. Hence, Layton chose the Rev. Brent Hawkes, the most political clergyperson in Canada, to lead the rally in Roy Thomson Hall. Indeed, Reverend Hawkes is very specific in his political preferences, and capaciously vague in his theological statements. He concluded his sermon by summing up the lesson of Layton's life: "We can do it, we can do it—make the world a better place."
That's preaching entirely trapped in the horizon of this world, and when the horizon is drawn that narrowly, salvation becomes understood only in terms of making the world a better place. For that, politics is not only useful but necessary. The good news of Jesus Christ is not that salvation comes through politics.
"Our preaching is really one-sided, in that it is largely directed toward the creation of a better world, while hardly anyone talks any more about the other, truly better world," Pope Benedict last year said about this approach in his book, Light of the World. "Of course, one has to meet one's listeners halfway, one has to speak to them in terms of their own horizon. But at the same time our task is to open up this horizon, to broaden it and to turn our gaze toward the ultimate. These things are hard to accept for people today and seem unreal to them. Instead, they want concrete answers for now, for the tribulations of everyday life. But these answers are incomplete so long as they don't convey the sense and the interior realization that I am more than this material life, that there is a judgment, and that grace and eternity exist."
Jack Layton has gone to eternity now. One prays for his soul and his salvation, the gift of which is beyond politics to grant.
A Sad Choice
Juxtaposition. Sometime I find that juxtaposition illuminates much more than intended. Such was the case in the Globe and Mail's Focus section one Saturday in late August. On the front page was a touching essay by Ian Brown about his severely disabled son Walker. Brown had written a series in 2007 on the blessings and burdens, many burdens, of raising Walker—now 15, but who "looks 10 and has the mind of a two-yearold. He always will." The news over the summer that more accurate pre-natal DNA tests are now ready for the mass market raises the question: Would it have been better never to have let Walker see the light of day? Brown is happy that the choice was not available 15 years ago. Things would have been different.
"If there had been a test when I was pregnant that revealed what Walker's life would have been like, I would have had the abortion," Brown's wife says. But she concedes that a world where there were no Walkers would be an unkind and cruel place. The conversation makes her weep. In Walker's case, there are tears aplenty. In the future the tears will not be for Walker's suffering, real and heart-rending. The tears will be for those who had no future, suffering or otherwise.
In between the pages of Ian Brown's stark tale, the Globe ran a story about Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, looking back at his long public career. Mayor Koch reflects on his entry into politics in the 1960s. "My program was to eliminate the sodomy laws, which were still on the books in New York, to eliminate the abortion laws so abortion would be legal and, third, change the divorce laws. My program ultimately became known as SAD—for sodomy, abortion and divorce. I am very proud of having been in the lead."
And where was the program of the future mayor leading? The animating principle of SAD is that the autonomous self alone must prevail, unhindered by the moral law, the civil law or natural law. It leads to a world where there is little room for those who are less than autonomous selves—the Walker Browns at various stages of life. The situation Ian Brown describes is sad, even heartbreaking. The triumph of SAD ensures a future that is sadder still.
Reclaiming a Name
The NHL is back in Winnipeg, and the team will be called the Jets. It wasn't a sure thing. The original Jets name was given not because of any local tradition, but because the owner was a fan of the New York Jets football team, which at the time was still basking in the glow of Joe Namath's Super Bowl victory. The New York Jets, in turn, took their name from their proximity to New York's airports. When the Winnipeg Jets signed Bobby Hull to that famous million-dollar contract, his nickname—the Golden Jet—gave the team's name added meaning. But Joe Namath and Bobby Hull were a long time ago. So something new was needed if the old name was to remain. The Jets kept the old name but chose a new logo, celebrating the Royal Canadian Air Force's long presence in the city. It was a brilliant act of cultural renewal, fusing the fans' favourite name with a noble part of Canadian life. It's not easy to pour new wine into old wineskins. The Jets have pulled it off, and many will be wearing their logo even if they remain indifferent to the team. The fighter jet and maple leaf logo is clearly one of the league's best. For that reason alone, at least for this season, the Jets are Canada's team.