I never actually read any of his work, writes Rev Sydney Maitland, but the tenet of one of Marshall McLuhan’s works was summarized in the slogan “The medium is the message”.
I believe that in saying this, McLuhan was pointing to the effects of the mass media in informing us. In so doing, they not only gave us the news, but they presented it to us and indeed framed it for us. There were lots of assumptions on how the news was to be presented, and with what visual effects, which stories would be presented, what was to be stressed; which would be given prominence and which indeed would be effectively suppressed.
In short, the media would end up forming our opinions for us, and would establish what was normal, what was fashionable, what was “progressive” what was absurd or indeed abhorrent.
In short, the media would control the way we think and so how we vote: not so much on a party basis, for that would be too crude, but on the basis of the hidden assumptions which still underlie our values and hence our choices and priorities. It is a fearsome power, and if electable and accountable would be the arena for fierce debate – if such a debate were ever allowed to take place.
But the story has now moved on for the cliché is now that “The image is the reality”. That is to say, it does not matter what is true, for what is critical is how it is presented, who is doing the presenting and how our views of issues are directed. In short, Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus – “What is truth?” is as relevant now as ever before.
Truth does not however depend on the number of journalists in any one place, or on how many Tweeters are able to take pictures or pass comment, for this modern development has indeed opened up the process of news-gathering and its propagation. But it is still done into a setting of given values and assumptions. Ultimately this process leads to a highly personalized and indeed subjective approach to reality, and indeed to values and to morality. It is unstable and highly open to manipulation.
But the gospels show us something else and John is very particular about it. Pilate had asked “What is truth?” (John 18:38) and Jesus had said, in the context of His Farewell Discourses: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6). In contention with the Pharisees, He had said “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)
Here the image and character of truth are far more reliable than unbiased witnesses and presenters, or reliable and honestly collected and presented statistics, or indeed balanced and reflective commentary on current affairs. It is far more personal and far more incisive. It points to us and into us directly but it also points to Jesus in all aspects of His life and being. Truth becomes a matter of communion with God in the most intimate areas of our lives in which we are confronted not only with our sins and rebellions but also with the mercy of God who longs to pour Himself into us with such abundance and extravagance that we can do no less than burst forth with His fullness in our lives. This is a dimension of truth that is greater and deeper and wider than anything that any politician or scientist or statistician can ever comprehend, never mind express.
In this, therefore, truth begins with God and not with our own limited and indeed manipulable perceptions. The development of instruments to measure and statistics to count and present the observations can only be a human response to what we see and observe, and that is in a relatively rarified and indeed value-free setting. Ultimately truth starts with its author, and that author is the Word who was with God from the beginning – and indeed who was God. Here indeed is the truth – and here is the freedom.