What Marshall McLuhan can teach us in the age of digital media

By Renée Darline Roden, 12 January 2023
Image: Rob Hampson/Unsplash


Nick Ripatrazone’s new book on Marshall McLuhan, Digital Communion, opens with a pericope describing the first televised papal Mass in the United States—in Yankee Stadium on Oct. 4, 1965—a story that introduces the dramatic tensions between technology and faith. And perhaps a story that shows the Catholic Church is unprepared, as it was with the advent of the printing press, for the seismic shifts a new medium like television will cause.

We cannot escape our environment—we live in a particular climate zone, in a particular state, in a particular city, in a particular neighborhood. And digital media is part of that environment—the global village crashing into our city street.

But we can choose to engage with questions of how we will engage with our environment: What kind of global villager will we be? What sort of neighbor? How will we care for the world around us? How can we interact with the devices that are our media in our own terms, not in the terms they set, which, as McLuhan says, turn us into “servo-mechanisms.”

Many artists and other malcontents (like myself) who pick up on the poison in our environment see the content or individual technologies as the villains. McLuhan has reminded me, as Ripatrazone does, that the effort of digital communion and liturgy in the digital age is not so much a fault of an iPhone or a Zoom screen or a camera observing Mass, but it is environmental. The digital world creates an environment that forms us into habits of being: inattention, distraction, scrolling. But we can resist those environmental habits and reactions.

In fact, perhaps it is the task of the artist, McLuhan suggests, to draw attention to our environment, to the ground of our being-together, and the habits it forms. “The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly,” wrote McLuhan, “thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day.” The artist, McLuhan suggests, is the member of society who clearly sees the present, not the past.

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Renée Darline Roden holds a B.A. and M.T.S. in theology from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. She lives at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago.

With thanks to America Magazine and Renée Darline Roden, where this article originally appeared.


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