Dialogue Sketches 4 Ideas from Communication Theory

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Chapter 4 Ideas from Communication Theory

Marshall McLuhan

Herbert Marshall McLuhan became famous during the 1960s and 70s for his studies of the effects of mass media on thought and social behaviour. This dissertation is not the place to examine the detail of his thought, or the changes since his death in 1980, but I should like to raise three points.

One of McLuhan’s most famous – and controversial – sayings was that “the medium is the message”. While others might agree with General David Sarnoff [1], “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value,” McLuhan disagreed. His contention was that all media, in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate, exert a compelling influence on people and on society. The fact of television, for example, irrespective of the type and quality of programmes broadcast, changes social structure and the individuals in it.

If there is any truth in McLuhan’s assertion, and I feel there must be some, then Christians must look at worship in general and the sermon in particular in terms of the medium or media of communication, as well as the quality of presentation. The most brilliant sermon about the equality of forgiven sinners, or the church as the body of Christ, if delivered as a monologue, will speak of hierarchy by its delivery as well as equality in its content – a mixed message.

The second point is linked. McLuhan’s analysis of history begins with Plato’s view of writing as a mainly destructive revolution, overthrowing the oral tradition. There followed some two thousand years of manuscript culture, still close to oral discourse because of the slow speed of handwriting, and the reading aloud of text. The printing press changed that, and its influence on the timing, form and content of the Reformation, as well as other political and social effects, was considerable. Text was more widely available, silent reading developed, and with it, McLuhan claims, specialism, nationalism and industrialism. Electronic media, beginning with the telegraph, would supplant the mechanical media, and cause further change.

Whether McLuhan is right about the cause of change, it is clear that we now live in a world where the rate of change (technical, social, cultural, – in fact, general) is high and seems to be increasing. How are Christians to react? Liturgy and spirituality are most often studied historically [2], with far less attention being paid to the cultural context. This may be less true in churches placing less emphasis on liturgy, yet they are often (still) heavily dependant on “book culture”, both in what is given to worshippers, and in their tracts, booklets and devotional material. Even when computer-linked projectors do away with song sheets and service books, the projector seems to use words more than pictures. Most styles of churches seem to preserve the monologue sermon, often as the main medium of communicating faith. As I shall suggest, this is not the pattern of communication in contemporary culture.

If society has changed, and the churches have not, the medium in which they present worship in general and instruction in particular may become an embarrassment, even an impediment, to the message. We may enjoy a Classic Car Show, and rightly point out that it will continue to draw support and interest, but let us not imagine it has any relevance to Transport policy! In the same way we cannot justify worship in an archaic form by saying that people still come and enjoy it, if we wish it to have any impact on contemporary lives or the life of our culture. Could it be that people will continue to worship, using more or less traditional forms, but that the medium of that worship will be such as to totally disconnect it from the decisions and realities of daily life? This is a devastating possibility, beyond the range of my work to fully investigate [3]. The sermon would then be judged not by its truth, relevance or effective communication, but on its conformity to traditional pattern, or perhaps its emotional impact. It would never threaten to change behaviour or belief structures encountered in the contemporary world, because of its medium of communication. Even the theoretical possibility of such a happening is a powerful motivation to examine alternatives which might communicate with cultural sensitivity.

A third point from the writings of Marshall McLuhan is his distinction between “hot” and “cool” media. A hot medium is one that extends a single sense with high definition, resulting, he claims, in low audience participation. A cool medium has low definition, that is less information, requiring the audience to be actively involved, – we might say, use their imagination. We can see that a theatrical performance offers less chance of escape, or daydreaming, than a novel. Yet McLuhan’s point is made when the novel is transformed into a play which we dislike because we had visualised it differently. The novel has invited our participation; we have added in our imagination the visual (tactile, sometimes olfactory!) details. A good preacher will sometimes encourage imagination in a similar way, but a dialogue sketch almost requires it, helping a congregation participate. If McLuhan is right (and his ideas remain controversial) the dialogue sketch is more likely to provoke ideas and involvement because it lacks the elaboration of a fully costumed and staged production. If McLuhan is wrong, and the communal activity of watching a play, or dialogue sketch, leads to greater concentration, then again a dialogue sketch has an advantage over a monologue sermon (though less impact than a theatrical production).

Communication and the Gospel

John Holdsworth [4] writes with the experience both of a Parish priest and a television presenter, and is well aware that the churches communicate in many ways other than their words and publications. He begins with the suggestion that the gospel, unlike the racing results, is not simply a defined and agreed package of information, and that “Communicating the gospel on this understanding is as much about the ‘what’ as the ‘how’” [5]. “What we see in practice is that gospel changes and adapts as context changes.” [6] I feel this is an overstatement, and that not only Evangelicals, but Catholics, Charismatics and Orthodox would allow varieties of presentation, but not the absence of common content. The gospel is not infinitely variable, although the first approach to it, and the critical issues when it comes into contact with different individuals or cultures, may vary widely. Nevertheless the varieties of presentation, in the New Testament and since, are important. Holdsworth is agreeing with McLuhan that the packaging of Christian worship and proclamation affects the understanding, not just the attractiveness, of the message.

Interestingly, when Holdsworth comes to consider “Speaking to One Another” [7], he lists as the contemporary media of dialogue and debate the national Christian press, community newspapers, religious broadcasting, and ecumenical work. Although he has commented on sermons [8], and the need for a constant debate about what the Church is for and what it communicates to the world9, he doesn’t seem to find a way in which a local church can promote its own learning and growth by dialogue.

Educational Theory

If the sermon, or a dialogue sketch as a sermon replacement, is an attempt to teach the faith, or to educate the congregation, then we might find some guidance in educational theory. (Thompson and Bennett had noted [10] that justification of dialogue preaching as a supplement to monologue would be easy through learning theory, group dynamics, communication theory . .) “Throughout history, the commonest way for knowledge to be communicated has been through what can be loosely called apprenticeship. [11]” A practical way of learning a skill (including a social skill), but “not an effective method for stimulating the growth of new knowledge.” [12] Many people have learnt church membership by apprenticeship. Brought, by family or friends, they have watched, imitated, and learnt. Sadly, they have not always distinguished things of primary importance (eg belief and morality) from secondary habits (eg wearing the right clothes, appearing compliant). Equally, congregations formed in this way are poorly equipped to deal with the challenge of social change, for all change is suspect, a variation on what has been learnt, and the skills of evaluating new ways may be absent.

A second method of communicating knowledge is telling. “This method is a much less effective way of communicating knowledge than would be guessed from its prevalence as an educational practice.” [13] Even when the student is examined, as the congregational member is not, telling is less effective than seeing or doing.

A third method is dialogue. Unlike apprenticeship and telling, dialogue does not imply superiority-inferiority relationships. The learner is dignified by the assumption that all have something to give, and something to learn.

A quick glance at the New Testament gospels shows that Jesus used all three methods in his ministry. There is no doubt that the disciples were called to a form of apprenticeship – to watch, listen, and learn by imitation and practice. Jesus taught large numbers, using parables by choice, though explaining later to his disciples [14]. His use of dialogue has been commented on above [15], but extended not only to the debates with organised religious groups that Mark records in the last week in Jerusalem (Mark 11:28, 12:13, 12:18, 12:28), but also to his disciples (eg Mark 8:27 “Who do people say that I am?”), and to matters that arise from conversation (eg Mark 6:2-4, 9:33, 9:38). This contrasts with the practice of the churches today. There is some “apprenticeship”, though it is not often thought through (the Alpha Course might be an exception). There is teaching, though the use of narrative has come to preaching relatively recently, especially through the work of Eugene Lowry [16], and is by no means the only pulpit technique in use. What is lacking in many places is dialogue, or even a form by which dialogue could be encouraged – and that is the need I hope to address.

Christians seeking spiritual growth – a learning process – would surely agree enthusiastically that, “Human learning concerns the whole person. The intellect is not the only agent of learning. This activity is shared by the body, the emotions, and the will. Moreover, the process cannot be limited to any one of these domains without affecting the others. Educators are most conscious of intellectual learnings, which tend to play the largest part in their plans and intentions. But there is increasing evidence that makes clear the folly of attempting to confine education to the training of intellects.” [17] We might wonder whether Christian leaders have been concerned so exclusively with the intellectual effects of education through Church worship and preaching through the ages – no doubt there have been variations in intention – but today there is a need for a holistic approach. We need believers who can think, and present their belief in simple reasoned argument, but equally we need them to be emotionally mature to resist temptation, and motivated to persist in the Christian Way in moments of doubt and difficulty. This is very relevant to the way we structure our worship: “. . the learner’s powers are vastly enhanced when not only is his intellect stimulated but also his feelings are respected, his body is nurtured, and his will to learn is strengthened. Effective education, therefore, is found when the learner is regarded as a person to be respected, nurtured, strengthened, and stimulated, rather than as an intellect to be trained.” [18]

The person attending a church service, whether they are a casual visitor with no commitment or background knowledge, or a lifelong member, needs to learn a way of life which is increasingly that of a deviant minority in the western world. Part of that education will come from what is intentionally said and done in worship – from the readings and preaching in particular, and part will come from the wider setting: the building, the people involved, their dress, attitudes, relationships etc. Can these be improved? and would such improvements be acceptable in practice as well as in theory?

References cited above:
1 McLuhan and Zingrone, Essential McLuhan, p154
2 so the SPCK book, The Study of Spirituality, ed C Jones, G Wainwright and E Yarnold, devotes p 45-561 to part 2, the History of Spirituality, in a book of 605pages.
3 But see my analysis of the Congregational questionnaire, below p37-8.
4 J Holdsworth, Communication and the Gospel. He is Archdeacon of St David’s.
5 ibid p2
6 ibid p9
7 ibid, chapter 6, p60ff
8 ibid, chapter 4, Speaking to a Congregation, p37ff
9 ibid, chapter 5, p48ff
10 Thompson and Bennett, Dialogue Preaching, Preface p7ff
11 Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Education, philosophy of: Conceptions of how knowledge should be communicated.”
12 ibid
13 ibid
14 Mark 4:34
15 p2 of this dissertation, on Mark 11:27 and Mt 21:23
16 Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot
17 Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Education, philosophy of: Intellectual-emotional-physical-volitional integrity of learning.”
18 ibid.