Marshall McLuhan and Liturgical Change

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Working on a manuscript I’m writing (On Praise), I’m reading for the first time, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The book is an at times rambling analysis of how media (in the broadest sense) has shaped the world. He writes, about the introduction of phonetic writing:

The full-blown city coincides with the development of writing–especially of phonetic writing, the specialist form of writing that makes a division between sight and sound. It was with this instrument that Rome was able to reduce the tribal areas to some visual order. The effects of phonetic literacy do not depend upon persuasion or cajolery for their acceptance. This technology for translating the resonating tribal world into Euclidean lineality and visuality is automatic. Roman roads and Roman streets were uniform and repeatable wherever they occurred (138).

MarshallMcLuhanThe advent of uniform writing, the capacity to move words across space and time, led to the development of roads, which were as uniform as text itself. While McLuhan may be over-estimating the uniformity of Latin in the ancient world, his broader point that written texts create uniformity that extends to the rest of society is intriguing (and seems true). For McLuhan, developments in media are not simply about the production of new content but have an effect upon the rest of social life (and ultimately what it means to be human).

Drawing on McLuhan’s insight, one may need to look anew at liturgical change in the Church. Liturgical evolution, one might say, is always the result of the introduction of new forms of media. When the liturgy is “translated” into the fourth century Basilica, liturgical prayer will necessarily change. When the monastery becomes the center of civilization in medieval Catholicism, liturgical prayer will take on a distinct approach related to monastic approaches to reading. When the book of Common Prayer is introduced in England, the nature of liturgy itself changes (such uniformity of text, perhaps, leading to the early iconoclasm of this period).

This raises the possibility that the Second Vatican Council was not simply a response to the results of liturgical research into the development of rites. McLuhan himself argues this in The Medium and the Light: Reflection on Religion:

Latin wasn’t the victim of Vatican II; it was done in by introducing the microphone. A lot of people, the Church hierarchy included, have been lamenting the disappearance of Latin without understanding that it was the result of introducing a piece of technology that they accepted so enthusiastically. Latin is a very ‘cool’ language, in which whispers and murmurs play an important role. A microphone, however, makes an indistinct mumble intolerable; it accentuates and intensifies the sounds of Latin to the point where it loses all of its power. But Latin wasn’t the mike’s only victim. It also made vehement preaching unbearable. For a public that finds itself immersed in a completely acoustic situation thanks to electric amplification, hi-fi speakers bring the preacher’s voice from several directions at once. So the structure of our churches were obsolesced by multi-directional amplification. The multiple speakers simply bypassed the traditional distance between preacher and audience. The two were suddenly in immediate relation with each other, which compelled the priest to face the congregation (143-44).

The introduction of new media, whether we are aware of it or not, fundamentally changes the liturgy. We can’t throw up screens in our churches, without changing what the liturgy is about (the medium is the message). We can’t use Twitter in homilies, without changing the function of liturgical preaching. We can’t introduce the folk hymn into liturgical prayer, without shaping what liturgical singing consists of.

Although not entirely conscious of it, perhaps the desire for “more AdOrientemtraditional” liturgical rites is in fact a response to the rise of the internet, social media, and the IPhone alike. In a world that involves constant engagement with media, perpetual encounter with image, the use of Latin in the liturgy is a return to a kind of “coolness” where whispers rather than total clarity of speech are available. Ironically, in this age, the priest turning away from the assembly, toward the cross, may be an invitation toward deeper participation by the assembly rather than exclusion.

Liturgical change, therefore, must be understood not simply through theological categories. But, the evolution of liturgical rites (and the arguments about these rites in the present) must attend to the introduction of new forms of media that fundamentally change what it means for us to worship God. The struggles that we have in maintaining ecclesial membership today, of Mass attendance, may have a lot to do (perhaps) with the way that the “new media” has formed us for a type of liturgical participation that is not available in the rites that we celebrate.

Liturgical celebration where full, conscious, and active participation is understood as listening to the words, speaking and singing your part, and doing your gestures may demand a kind of participation that only the really engaged can perform. Yet, the internet forms us in a kind of participation where we click upon hyperlink, that leads to hyperlink, that leads to hyperlink. We move from thought to thought, image to image, not like reading across a page but more like in a spiral of reflection. Perhaps, this is why something like Eucharistic adoration has seen new interest in the Church because its free-form approach to participation is more attuned to the way that we engage media in the postmodern world.

Such questions must be attended to by liturgical theologians and pastoral liturgists alike. Liturgical prayer will always exist, until the beatific vision, in a world of changing media. If we focus only the message, and not the media, then we can’t understand the developments that are happening among those in our churches today.

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2 thoughts on “Marshall McLuhan and Liturgical Change”

  1. Thanks! This is very welcome, speaking as someone who has done my best to help McLuhan become more widely recognized in Catholic circles . . . !!

    I was wondering if you or any of your colleagues might have drawn any connections between the Novus Ordo and television?

    Mark Stahlman

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