I’m going to try something which I actually think is of the essence in contemporary theology. So bear with me, and you’ll see!
Systems—the way things are put together—control our thinking so much more than individual critical reflection. You are obliged to go to grade school from early childhood, and, in the vast majority of cases, when you emerge in late teens you have learned, implicitly, much more about systems—of authority, of grading, of competition and categorization—than any real knowledge in any actual field.
And that is only the most obvious, clunking instance.
Marshall Mcluhan’s’ book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964, coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message.” A “medium” in Mcluhan’s concept is a means of communication, but much broader and more structural than what we would normally understand in those terms: because it’s not the content, but the delivery system itself that is key.
For example, an electric light is a medium because on its own it radically changes the character of the human environment.
Similarly railways and highways change the meaning of the land, turning it into endless sequence, without beginning or end. And the printed word shifts our thought-world to continuity and linearity, overlaying complexity with seamless “rationality”.
And now there is the internet, the latest and most powerful example of a world-shifting medium. Incorporating in itself several previous media, it creates an explicitly named “cyberspace,” bringing with it a dramatic presence and simultaneity of all parts of the world.
Where is this leading? Without going into a long discussion of the points of convergence of this viewpoint with other contemporary thought (for example, the work of people like Illich and Debord) we can make a swift, radical connection to the thought of Girard.
Girard has conclusively shown that violence is the original human medium, the primary system of human communication.
Girard describes two stages in the work of violence, first disorder, then order. In the first the primary human group is in a chaotic-but-relational state of rivalry, with everyone angry with everyone else. In the second phase it is the group victim or scapegoat who gathers all the violence into herself and so provides order and shape to the universe. You could say, therefore, that the first state is the truly primitive system, the ur-medium so to speak, and then it is the group victim who is the very first true objective medium, organizing violence into order and communication. In this sense you might say violence is to the victim what electricity is to the T.V., structurally contained in the developed medium and making it work.
In turn the group victim is the practical beginning of human culture, so Girard would have absolutely no problem in seeing him or her as the original medium in this light too. All primitive new technology, agriculture, or the arts (including writing) are continually associated with gods. But the gods are original victims, so the cultural meaning of these developments arises from the beaten body of the victim, which provides transcendent definition and order to the transformed material conditions. So, we conclude, all physical media are firmly rooted in the original human medium of the victim.
But, then, if a single man should voluntarily enter the condition of the “original medium” and fill it with love, nonviolence and forgiveness what would be the results? Surely there would be a quickening of the pace of development of new media, because change is freed from the trauma of original/originating violence. And that is exactly what seems to have happened under the cultural impact of Christianity, with the ever increasing tempo of change from the printing press, through mechanical transport, through radio and T.V., and now to the internet. But this is only half the story.
The nonviolence of the new “original medium” must also leak through in the new media, showing the deep effect of their liberating conditions of origin. This is the argument I made in Virtually Christian (without invoking Mcluhan), showing that a “photon of compassion” continues to appear regularly on our electronic screens, our movies and in our audio songs, because of the generative role of the gospel.
But the final impact is still to come. The new “original medium” is an absolutely new level of communication in history, one which reboots humanity as such, together with all its media. There will always be, therefore, a profound human need to return to its primary scene to embrace and integrate the new humanity it brings. This in fact is the meaning of “church,” the situation and experience in which we rehearse Jesus’ cross and resurrection as the new primal human communication. It is the same as the light bulb which changes our world beyond recognition, except a billion times brighter!