The Medium is the Message

Marshal McLuhen was a student of the ways in which information is disseminated. He is famous for saying, “The medium is the message.” I am not sure I understand all he had in mind, but supposing I have an inkling of an idea, let me suppose a few things.

First of all, there are more ways to communicate something than through words. Think of how the deaf communicate through hand gestures and facial expressions. Think back to the last time your wife quit talking and began giving you that “look.” Psalm 1 declares of the heavens—meaning the sun, the moon and the stars— that they “declare the glory of God.” They “proclaim his handiwork.” “Day to day pours out speech, and night to night knowledge.” “There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.” And, “their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Joseph Addison wrote a song that sums up these verses well, “The Spacious Firmament on High:”

“What tho’ no real voice nor sound
“Amid their radiant orbs be found?

“In reason’s ear they all rejoice,

“And utter forth a glorious voice,

“For ever singing as they shine,

“The hand that made us is divine.”

The point being, no words are explicitly uttered, but there is nevertheless a message to be apprehended, and the message is not apprehended apart from the medium, in this case, the heavens.

Let’s take this one step further. I want to argue here, that the message and meaning of God’s word cannot be separated from the literary means or the medium by which God uses to make His will known. The reason this is so important is that I have attempted to “extract” the meaning from stories and poetry in the Bible by trying to “boil down” texts to their propositional meaning. If that were possible, or even advisable, why didn’t the Lord just give us a book only filled with propositional revelation: rules, regulations, or statements of fact? Why, instead, did He gives a book filled with narrative, poetry, proverbs, parables, etc.—literature— as well?

In attempting to extract propositional statements or ethical principles from the texts (or the message from the medium), I am, in essence, divorcing it from the form. One writer argues, for example, that “parables are not a delivery system for an idea.” They are not a “shell casing” that can be discarded after the bullet has been shot. “Instead it is a house in which the reader is invited to take up residence,” and out of which to look at the world.

Because this is not a field I have any expertise in, I wrote to Dr. Leland Ryken, a professor of literature whose writings I have benefited from for decades. He writes,

If we were to ask evangelical Christians whether God inspired the forms of the Bible or only the content, most of them would say ‘only the content.’ But that is a frivolous answer because there IS no content apart from the form—no content for Psalm 23 apart from the poetry in which it is embodied, no content for the story of Ruth apart from the story in which it is embodied.

Later in the letter, he writes,

The problem arises when people make the embedded ideas a substitute for the text. If the ideas were all that matters, authors (and God in the Bible) could have given us a list of ideas rather than works of literature.

Perhaps we could look at it in the same way we look at learning a foreign language. When most of us begin learning another language, we have vocabulary lists to memorize. “Bonjour,” means “good day. “Bon soiree,” means good evening. When our children learn their native tongue, they learn to speak first. Then they go to school to learn what written words correspond to the words or ideas they already know. They, too, have their vocabulary lists and vocabulary tests every week. But in their language books, words do not have any other words to identify them. They are just lists of words.

When learning a foreign language, I am told that you really do not learn the language until you can think in that language, meaning you are not always saying to yourself, “Okay, ‘that’ means ‘this’ in English.”

May I suggest that, in a similar way, we should learn to read the Bible’s more literary portions—like narrative, poetry, parables, apocalyptic. I am not saying that the narrative portions of the Bible, or its poetry do not embody themes and ideas. They do. After living with its narration or poetry, it is important to state its themes, pondering them, and using them as a lens through which we look at the text again.

Quoting Professor Ryken again, “The problem arises when people make the embedded ideas a substitute for the text. If the ideas were all that matters, authors (and God in the Bible) could have given us a list of ideas rather than works of literature.” The Bible would have read more like Pascal’s Penses. Remember, the medium is the message.

Think about the implications. The debate over whether the words or the mere thoughts are inspired is settled. God inspired the words, all the words of Scripture. He did not merely inspire men with ideas to be expressed however they chose to express them. When Paul wrote, “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable…” do you suppose he meant the medium as well as the message? If Dr. Ryken is correct when he says “there IS no content apart from the form” then the “means” as well as the “message” are meant by Paul in 2 Tim 3:16.

Finally, consider the value of learning to memorize texts of Scripture, or at least  learning to grapple with entire texts. You cannot come to terms with the message without first coming to terms with the medium. And coming to terms with the medium we need to learn how narrative gets its message across; how poetry teaches; the dynamics of apocalyptic literature.

The best way to see the point I am attempting to make is to take a text like Psalm 1 or Psalm 23, and memorize it. Take notes as you do. Learn the definition of words with which you are not familiar. Look for inter-connections, for the images. Learn to appreciate its artistry, its beauty. See if you can verbalize what makes the poem so beautiful, Then, take a look at the whole text again…and again…and again. There is no substitute for reading the text. 

Vigen Guroian wrote a book titled, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. He makes a general statement about “good stories” that relates, in particular to “fairy tales.” I want you to consider what he writes as it relates to reading the Bible:

The deep truths of a good story, especially fairy tales, cannot be revealed through discursive analysis—otherwise, why tell the story? Rather, these truths must be experienced throughout the story itself and savored in the immediacy of the moment that unfolds with the impending danger of the quest or the joy of reunion with the beloved. (Gurioan, Vigen. 1998, p. 15, 16)

Then, he quotes a brief portion from George MacDonald’s haunting tale, The Golden Key. The young heroine of the story encounters the Old Man or the Earth:

“Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.

“That is the way,” he said,

“But there are no stairs.”

“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”

To understand the Bible, you must throw yourself in. There is no other way.

Some things cannot be told in any other way. Flannery O’connor said, “a story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way…You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” If men spake being carried along by the Holy Spirit, it is God who moved them to write stories—as well as poetry, parables, proverbs, etc. I can only assume that God decided it could not be said any other way.

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