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Editor’s Note: I commissioned this essay by Andrew McLuhan, a poet and the head of the McLuhan Institute, after seeing him speak at a conference in Washington, DC, where he discussed the astonishingly prescient ideas of his grandfather, Marshall McLuhan. Interest in McLuhan, who died in 1980, has surged recently, as the advent of artificial intelligence and the effects of social media have driven attention back to his concept that the most important effect of technology is not its content, but its form. What’s less known about McLuhan was his deep engagement with religious ideas. Andrew’s essay beautifully explores this history, and how spiritual and technological concepts are increasingly at play in our world. 

‘Reversed thunder.’ That’s how George Herbert characterized prayer in his poem four centuries ago. Prayer is, I think, among our most potent technologies. Words, our way of connecting with each other; prayer, our way of connecting with the divine.

I’ve been stewing for weeks about religion and technology, having been assigned the topic for this essay. The deadline has come and gone and come again and still I stew, though I’m a few steps further down the path.

The better part of a century ago, my grandfather Marshall McLuhan was a pioneer in the emerging field of media studies, which grew out of Communications and English Literature. My father Eric worked with his father Marshall, and kept it going after Marshall’s death in 1980. A tradition was born. In my family’s media studies tradition, I’ve come to view technologies as ‘extensions of man.’ In my family’s religious tradition, I’ve come to view humans as ‘extensions of God.’ 

I’m not a theologian or an academic. In my twin inherited traditions of Christianity and Media Ecology, I am equally qualified. I pretty much dropped out of both school and church as a teenager. I basically stopped going to church not long after my Confirmation, and I only stuck around high school long enough to get my diploma. I’ve come back to both education and the Church in my own way. Maybe more on that in a bit, I just wanted to state up front my qualifications or lack thereof—I’m not so much backed by paper as curiosity and application. An inheritance only gets you so far, and is easily squandered.

I’ve been considering prayer as a technology, as a means of communication, of transformation. My grandfather’s Catholic conversion was a result of prayer. A hands-on kind of guy, he always believed in testing a thing on its own terms. He had arrived at a place where he felt he had to figure out whether there was something to Catholicism, or whether it was a massive hoax. To “test that on its own terms” meant, for him, to pray. So he prayed. He prayed to God to give him a sign. And while I don’t know if he ever shared exactly what those signs he received were, they were plentiful and impossible to ignore. 

Prayer, a dangerous technology.

“Courage.” I travelled with my father to Colombia in May 2018. He had been invited to give a speech to the newly-minted doctorate program in communications at the Universidad de la Sabana. At the end of his speech, ‘Media Ecology in the 21st Century,’ he told the assembled crowd that they are starting something new, and so they have a chance to do it differently, to find their own unique way from their position somewhat south of the convention. He urged them to have the courage to do so. My father died the next day, in our hotel room in Bogota. In the years since, I’ve come to hold onto those words as his last, and as a great gift. 

It’s a pretty rock star way to go out, really, and the funny thing is that my dad was maybe the furthest thing from a rock star. He was a truly humble person, devout to his God and his work: in his office is the desk where he worked, and nearby the prie-dieu where he prayed.

Remarkably, he died on a Friday, we had a funeral and he was cremated on the Saturday, and I flew home with his remains Sunday night.

The flight was delayed. When it was finally called a few hours later, I was sitting with a small group of people, and we were sharing our stories. 

A young couple shared that they had been back-packing around Colombia, on their way home at last.

The lady beside me was exasperated. She had been in town for a cannabis convention. On the way to the airport, her taxi had been stopped by police and she has to pay, let’s say, an unplanned tax. To make things worse, with this flight delay, she was going to miss her connection in Toronto and not get her flight home to Vancouver (or was it Victoria?). She was really upset about it. I was in a fairly deep state of calm and shock after the events of the last few days, and I let her vent.

That afternoon, I had gone through a lovely market with the dean, Manuel, and his family. They were kind enough to invite me out so I wasn’t sitting in my hotel room alone. I picked out a beautiful hand-woven shoulder bag to put dad in. The style, the artisan told me, was the design and colours of the bags carried by wise men. Perfect.

It was my turn to talk. I patted the bag over my shoulder reassuringly. “I am so sorry for what you’ve had to go through,” I said to the lady beside me. “That’s awful. But it could be worse… I was supposed to fly home with my father on Friday, but he died in our hotel room that day. Now, I’m flying home with his ashes, in a beautiful box, in this beautiful bag.”

“So I’m sorry that you won’t make your flight, but you will make it home. I don’t know whether it’s any comfort in me saying it, but things could be a lot worse.”

There really wasn’t much anyone could say to that.

Signs, Notifications by any other name

At some point I turned to the page for May 17 2017, my father’s last entry in his journal. He was in the habit of writing up notes of the previous day on the morning that followed. The main thing he reflected on were the roses. Our breakfast table, as with all the tables in the hotel restaurant, had a lovely little bouquet of roses on it. The rose is the national flower of Colombia. It is also the symbol of St. Theresa de Liscieux, “the little flower,” to whom my father was devoted. A sighting of a rose, to him, was a wink from her. A friendly hello. Comfort. It’s comforting to me to know that though I wasn’t in the room when the embolism entered his heart, he maybe did not feel completely alone.

The signs Marshall received were like read receipts on his text messages to God. Roses, for my father, were the same. Not necessarily prayers answered, but prayers acknowledged.

Even today, interviewed on a podcast out of Hungary, I was asked about the relation of my grandfather’s religion to his work. There are those who dismiss Marshall McLuhan’s work as tainted by his Catholicism, as if he was furthering some Catholic agenda. As it happens, Catholics dismissed him as eagerly as the rest, reluctant to heed his warnings or take his advice. He was no more popular with Catholics than anyone else.

Curiously, Marshall ended up teaching at Catholic institutions (St. Louis University, Assumption College, St. Michael’s College) and often seemed to have a priest around. But these institutions were also English, and Marshall is never accused of or dismissed for being an agent of the English language. People are funny.

As for my father Eric, Catholicism was for Marshall a deep part of himself. But he was not trying to convert the world, even if he was trying to save it. And this is where we can consider Marshall McLuhan an evangelist. 

“I am an intellectual thug,” he wrote to Ezra Pound in 1951, “who has been slowly accumulating a private arsenal with every intention of using it.” 

“I am in the position of Louis Pasteur,” he wrote in Understanding Media’ in 1964, “telling doctors that their greatest enemy was quite invisible, and quite unrecognized by them.”

In a letter to Jacques Maritain dated May 6, 1969, he wrote:

“Since our reason has been given us to understand natural processes, why have men never considered the consequences of their own artefacts upon their modes of self-awareness? I have devoted several books to this subject. There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding involves far too much responsibility for our actions.”

That amounts to a sort of willful ignorance. Or, maybe, it’s like our instinctive fear of fire. Maybe we’re as afraid, deep down, of the power we would wield if we had control over our technologies.

It’s funny. We know the futility of censorship, and yet we still think that controlling the content means controlling the medium.

Technology as Religion, Technologies of Religion

My father always told me that God spoke things into existence. That he didn’t humbly request, “Let there be light,’ that he commanded “Light!” Thunder beget the light. 

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
Genesis 1:3

 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”
John 1:1

I have been a poet as long as I can remember, if not longer. Consequently, or maybe I have the order backwards, I have long been fascinated by the beauty and power of words, and their expression. New technologies are cool but don’t impress me that much. That I can have a conversation with my friend as I am walking my dog in a back field in Southern Ontario, and as he is driving to work in San Francisco, is pretty amazing. But that I can have some ideas in my head, that I can find words to express them, that I can force them out of my body by my breath and vocal chords, that those sonic waves can reach his ears and vibrate against his eardrums, translate against his experience and turn into ideas he can relate to… this to me is miraculous. The fact that our conversation is electronically aided to cross the continent is pretty cool also but somewhat less so.

At this point, we still need words. There may come a time when we don’t. It would seem some people are working pretty hard to get us there and I question the wisdom of that. I’m far from the first to ask: just because we can, should we?

Prayer doesn’t require great skill with language. Prayer doesn’t even require words. At the depths of our despair, or the heights of our joy, words are often conspicuously absent. Inaccessible. Words can fail us, betray us. Sometimes, words can save us. But always, actions speak louder than words.

Questions of the worst kind

I want to stop there, but I have more questions. This area is lousy with questions. Questions of the worst kinds, for there are rarely answers, only more questions.

Are technology and religion hopelessly entangled?

Does more (technology, religion) carry us closer to or further from (ourselves, each other, God)?

Does technology separate or bring us closer to God? Which technology? In the beginning was the word, and a word is technology as much (and as complex) as this computer or smartphone or tablet is. A metaphor. The only people who are ‘against technology’ don’t understand that we cannot exist without technology. Maybe one in a million of us can, and the uncomfortable truth is that an existence completely devoid of any technology, not so much as a knife or a flint and steel, is a fairly miserable existence.

And the thing about this is that it’s less the answers I am afraid of than the questions and the asking. I think, in the end, the answers aren’t really answers at all but the absence of more questions. Silence. Peace.

“Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.”

George Herbert (1593-1633)
‘Prayer (1)’
John 1:1