100 Years of McLuhan, Medium and Message
In a letter to his mother written on September 5, 1931, McLuhan explained why he was converted to Catholicism and why Chesterton was a decisive factor:
The Catholic religion is the only religion - all sects are derivative. Buddhism and similar oriental philosophies and mythologies are not religions in any sense. They have no covenants and no sacraments and no theology...The Catholic Church does not despise or wantonly mortify those members and faculties which Christ deigned to assume. They are henceforth holy and blessed. Catholic culture produced Chaucer and his merry story-telling pilgrims. Licentious enthusiasm produced the lonely despair of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress - what a different sort of pilgrim! Catholic culture produced Don Quixote and St. Francis and Rabelais.
What I wish to emphasize about them is their various and rich-hearted humanity. I need scarcely indicate that everything that is especially hateful and devilish and inhuman about the conditions and strains of modern industrial society is not only Protestant in origin, but it is their boast(!) to have originated it. You may know a thing by its fruits if you are silly enough or ignorant enough to wait that long. I find the fruits and the theory of our sects very bitter. Had I not encountered Chesterton I would have remained agnostic for many years at least. Chesterton did not convince me of religious faith, but he prevented my despair from becoming a habit or hardening into misanthropy. He opened my eyes to European culture and encouraged me to know it more closely. He taught me the reasons for all that in me was simply blind anger and misery.”
McLuhan’s criticism of Protestantism and endorsement of Catholicism sounds overly extreme. But it might be more understandable if one takes into account McLuhan’s personal experience, especially the long tradition of Protestantism where he grew up. In the same letter, he said his “religion-hunting” began with “culture-hunting”:
“I simply couldn’t believe that men had to live in the mean mechanical rootless joyless fashion that I saw in Winnipeg. And when I began to read English literature I knew that it was quite unnecessary for them so to live. You will remember my deep personal enjoyment of Tom Brown’s Schooldays in grade 8. It brought me in contact with things for which I was starved - things which have since disappeared from England. All my Anglo-mania was really a recognition of things missing from our lives which I felt to be indispensable. It was a long time before I finally perceived that the character of every society, its food, clothing, arts, and amusements, are ultimately determined by its religion. It was longer still before I could believe that religion was as great and joyful as these things which it creates - or destroys.”
In this sense, the religion of McLuhan determined the character of his thinking about media. He found that people would be prone to focus on the things the media carry but ignore the media themselves. He suggested the world be seen in a holistic way. He was led to see not only the richness in English literature but also what had produced such richness.