The iconoclastic Canadian thinker of the last century, Marshall McLuhan, coined an aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Some critics disparaged his ideas—calling him more a poet than a philosopher—while others found him intriguing.
I find him insightful. Jesus, I realized, said something similar centuries earlier and it bears repeating.
McLuhan’s thesis in a nutshell is that the way we receive content will in some measure always shape that content. If, for instance, we read a novel and later watch a movie based on that novel, the substance of the story will be reshaped by the transition from print to moving images. As just one example of a host of possibilities, descriptions of the protagonist’s inner thoughts in a novel need to be displayed in a new way—perhaps by a smile that suggests the person’s delight.
Here’s the main point: visual media can offer captivating images—and impact—while print media build different sorts of impressions and responses, often with many more complex features involved.
Think of a university student asked to read Aristotle’s Metaphysics. It would be a dynamic exercise for her; and no movie could capture what she learns from the reading. A film about Aristotle, on the other hand, could offer strong portrayals of the philosopher engaging his teacher, Plato, or his student, Alexander the Great; but the substance of his Metaphysics would never make the cut. The one exercise might supplement the other—with the movie about the man motivating her to read his book—but the separate media will always carry different content.
Now let’s turn to Jesus. He came as light into a dark world but not everyone was ready to receive him. Most preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil.
So let’s ask a question: what was his preferred medium for communicating what he offered? Did he write books? No. Did he build a university? No. Did he overthrow the ruling Roman regime and establish his own earthly rule? No. Did he delay his coming until he could use the technology of movies or the Internet to communicate his purposes or to tweet his ideas? No.
What did he do?
He mainly gave his heart away to a few select followers. They ate together, had lively conversations with each other, did some miracles, fed some crowds, cast out some demons, and he preached some sermons. There was more, of course, but whatever the particulars we get the picture of a man who was regularly walking, talking, and caring for others. The ethos of his work was compassion—even to the point of dying for others.
But, though he was God’s Son and had created the world, the world didn’t respond to him. Why not? There are a host of particulars in answering that question but the ultimate point is that he always operated within the medium of love for God and for others. But his listeners were mainly oriented towards their own glory, power, security, and wealth. Call it the medium of self-love.
I think, for instance, of the theologians of his day whose work was to search the Scriptures to establish truth. But when he—the very source of all truth—talked with them they hated him. What did Jesus say in response?
“But I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:42).
So I finally got the point. Jesus is telling us to avoid a glory-based medium of life rather than a response-to-God’s-love based medium of faith: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
So now I’m no longer teaching in the academy. And I no longer have students fussing about their GPA—a glory-point-average. Instead I get to be part of a small community of spiritually hungry participants who want to talk about Jesus for months at a time. We read his words. We talk about what they mean to us. We go out to minister. And we grow as responders to Christ’s love as we find him to be profoundly attractive.
With this simple approach in mind let’s reflect back on a humble Bible college founded in Boston in the 1630’s to celebrate God’s glory and teach his word. It’s now called Harvard, a school that prospers in the medium of human glory. Yale, another Bible college, soon became Yale, a prestigious center of human wisdom. Princeton became Princeton. And on it goes as we continue to see Bible colleges move from one medium to another: to greater and greater human glory.
So the competing media of faith-working-through-love versus the media of education-for-the-sake-of-glory doesn’t oppose a preference for ignorance over learning, but it represents a contrast of proper learning in the context of God’s love over against learning how to walk away from his love.
McLuhan was right.