Theopoetics and McLuhan

 

What is the Film's Academic Impetus?
 
There are a number of reasons behind the “what” of the film, and two for the “how,” with the latter part being much more thought out than the former. In fact, this piece was so process driven that it was of equal (if not more) importance to the content. So what were these two things that informed how Made as Makers was created? Theopoetics and Marshall McLuhan.
 
Theopoetics
 
The term "theopoetics" is a loose descriptor for a type of writing and a hermeneutic stance which affirms (broadly) Amos Wilder’s claims that (a) “religious communication generally must overcome a long addiction to the discursive, the rationalistic, and the prosaic,” and that (b) “the Christian imagination must go halfway to meet the new dreams, mystiques, and mythologies that are gestating in our time.”
 
In my work with theopoetics I have identified a number of characteristics which seem to contribute to something being labeled with the adjective “theopoetic.” What follows is an incomplete list, drawn from a variety of sources, all available through my site theopoetics.net:
 
  • A distinct lack of emphasis on abstracted theory and ultimate proof(s) of God
  • Affirmation that religious language is more art and less science
  • A simultaneous attention to precision of language while maintaining a hermeneutics of humility
  • A balancing and honoring of the deep traditions of Christianity and individual experience of the divine in the present 
  • A turn towards the particular and the embodied rather than what Wilder called “wan and bloodless abstraction”
  • An understanding of the difference between the denial of facts and Paul Ricoeur’s “Second Naïveté"
  • The drive towards a culminating proof and understanding is replaced with movement toward a theopoetic climax that causes recognition and resonance
 
Marshall McLuhan
McLuhan was a media theorist who reached his most significant fame in the 1960’s and 70’s. If you were born in the 80s or after you probably have never heard of him, and there are at least three reasons why that is the case, the third of which is particularly useful to understanding how his thinking is relevant to the film.
 
Reason 1: His thinking – which was so innovative and pioneering in the 60s – is fairly passé in contemporary settings. I mean, this is a guy that predicted that the internet would happen before personal computers were even invented, but unless you know that the phrases “the global village,” and “the medium is the message,” were his, you could easily never run across his name. The rise of mass consumerism and television and the end of the radio era brought about some anxiety regarding how people interact with the world. Add to that the social tensions of the 60s and 70s and McLuhan’s willingness to talk about it all, well… he got to be popular. But absent all that tension and anxiety and the manifestation of some of his predictions and explanations, he just isn’t “cutting edge” any more.
 
Reason 2: He oversaturated himself. That is, he was ridiculously present and part of pop culture, which is an unusual thing for an academic. He was on Time magazine’s cover, on Sunday morning news shows, was interviewed in Playboy, was the subject of a number of New Yorker cartoons, and had a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Combine this amount of exposure with a fairly egotistical (even if he was brilliant – and I think he was – he was still way into himself) man and it isn’t really a surprise that people got tired of him.
 
Reason 3: Among academics he is generally belittled: partly because he is (falsely I think) accused of advocating for something that is called “technological determinism” by media theorists, and partly because of his methodological stance which meant that even in his most important work he never wrote a strong conclusion. He didn’t want to create things that favored linear, step-wise thinking that ended at a point which could be argued and defended. Instead, he worked to explore topics of interest, consider new ways of thinking about them, and put forth a number of questions and thoughts about an issue, not solve problems or propose solutions. He didn’t deny that solutions and defensible positions were valid things to produce, it just wasn’t the thing for him. That’s a funny position to take as a University faculty member and life-long academic. His son, Eric McLuhan – himself a media studies academic and  the Director of Media Studies at The Harris Institute for the Arts in Toronto – captures his father’s perspective well:
 
It is a matter of how you begin: if you begin with theory, then one way or another your research winds up geared to making the case for or against the truth of the theory. Begin with theory, you begin with the answer; begin with observation, you begin with questions. A theory always turns into a scientist’s point of view and a way of seeing the job at hand. Begin with observation and your task is to look at things and to look at what happens. To see.
 
From McLuhan I not only take his “probing not proving” approach, but also his understanding that by privileging certain forms of media communication we also (unintentionally) privilege certain forms of thought. In this context what I am thinking about is Modern Western dualism, its philosophical predisposition to affirm ultimate and graspable answers, and the way that that philosophical predisposition is reflected in an insistence that our media have clear and graspable take-aways. Novel, movie, lecture, course, etc. we are most comfortable when we know what “we are getting,” that it has a clear ending, and/or how we can use it. To some degree I associate this idea with mind-body dualism in the sense that we think about information as a commodity that our intellect can acquire rather than something that can potentially reconfigure our identity and worldview.
 

 

I have written about theopoetics quite a bit, and all that material is on theopoetics.net, so I didn't feel the need to go into great detail about that here, however I will note that while I have written about theopoetics a fairly large amount, I hadn’t really attempted to craft something that was itself theopoetic. Made as Makers is my attempt to craft something that speaks to present experiences of God and the Church in rich ways that lift up the insights of individuals and may lead the way to further reflection. My hope is that by my attempt to fuse McLuhan’s methodology with the Christian vision of sharing the Gospel I have crafted something which serves to enact one of the primary functions of theopoetic work: a simultaneous movement in opposing directions, pulling the “reader” further into the poetic narrative and pushing the “reader” into a reconsideration of, and reconnection with life in the world beyond the “text.”
 
My hope is that Made as Makers captivates you itself and also engenders a conversation in your own context.