The Material Is Not Immaterial

T. David Gordon
Saturday, July 1st 2023
Jul/Aug 2023

If there were a silver lining to the dark cloud of the recent COVID-19 restrictions, it would be that we were compelled to think about our bodies: what to put on them, what to put in them, how proximate to other bodies to place them. COVID forced us to come to terms with our embodiment and to manage our physical exile and segregation from others by using (settling for?) various digital media to preserve some sense of communion and communication with others when embodied communion was either unsafe or unlawful.

We’ve been wrestling with deep theological and philosophical questions about human communion, and mediated communion, long before COVID. God prohibited entirely the making or using of visual media in worshiping him.[1] Socrates famously expressed concerns about oral cultures becoming manuscript cultures (ironically preserved for us in the manuscripts of his disciple, Plato).[2] Medieval popes and cardinals were concerned that the printing press might provide a standard by which the deliverances of the church could be critically assessed. Marshall McLuhan (and his disciples) regarded the visual and electronic media of the twentieth century to have placed humans in a new, virtual universe, referring to the previous four-plus centuries as “The Gutenberg Galaxy.”

McLuhan’s protégé Neil Postman credited McLuhan with inventing and naming the discipline now known as Media Ecology. Media ecologists look at cultures similarly to the way cultural anthropologists and archaeologists do: analyzing a culture, in large part, by its tools. The tacit assumption of all three disciplines has been to ask not merely what a tool does for us but what it does to us.[3] Put differently, we make our tools and then our tools make us. Three decades ago, we added a room to our house and I decided to build a deck next to it. When my wife looked out into the backyard, saw me digging away, and asked me what I was making, I replied, “Calluses.” What the shovel did for me was make a hole for a foundation; what the shovel did to me was give my hands calluses. This isn’t a value judgment about rough hands; handball players, for example, develop calluses intentionally, because the ball comes off of a harder surface faster than off of a softer surface. A callused hand is a type of tool. Every material tool affects the material human who uses it, since humans are material beings.

This material reality is not in itself negative; to the contrary, it can be quite positive (as handball players realize). At each stage in the Creation account, God describes the various material realities he has made as “good” (tov): light, water, a heavenly expanse, dry land, vegetation, plants bearing seeds, trees, sun, moon, planets, fish, birds, livestock, beasts, even “creeping things.” Then God made human beings in his image, expressly distinguished in two kinds materially as “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). After so doing, he looked at all that he had made and affirmed that it was, by his own divine standard, “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

The goodness of our material nature was affirmed even more emphatically in Genesis 2, in which we discover that Adam was created “of dust from the ground” (v. 7). Indeed, Genesis 2 contains twenty references to stuff of the earth in some form or another: land/eretz (5), ground/adamah (5), garden/gan (5), field/sadeh (4), and dust/afar (1).

If we add the fifteen references to “Adam,” an obvious derivative of ground/adamah, that makes thirty-five references. We can safely say that Genesis 2 is the dirtiest passage in the Bible! It’s no wonder Paul refers to Adam as the “man of dust,” whose image we have as truly borne as that of the “man from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47–49). From its first two chapters until Christ’s apostles wrote their letters, the Bible embraces human materiality.

One of McLuhan’s books is titled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.[4] McLuhan regarded various media as “extensions” of some aspect of being human. The telephone extended the human voice a far greater distance; the manuscript or book extended one’s communications into the future. Fallen humans, however, have always attempted not merely to extend but to transcend our human nature—especially in our desire to be more “like God” than we already are as his image. The serpent cultivated this yearning to transcend our created order by saying to Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). We human beings, already dignified by being the only creature made in the image or likeness of God, were not content to remain so; we desired to transcend human creatureliness, to be “like God.” The Bible suggests, therefore, that obedient, grateful humans may very well extend their human capacities to serve God or others (by wearing glasses or using an X-ray machine, for example), while disobedient, ungrateful humans will be enticed to use the same capacities to transcend our created human nature and its God-given constraints.

Time-Biased versus Space-Biased Media

Harold Innis, a political economist at the University of Toronto, argued that all human media (technologies of whatever sort) have biases, or emphases inherent in their form, that permit us to extend ourselves in either time or space.

Media that emphasize time are those that are durable in character, such as parchment, clay, and stone. The heavy materials are suited to the development of architecture and sculpture. Media that emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character, such as papyrus and paper.[5]

Grave markers, carved in stone, are time-extenders and last for many centuries; tweets and emails are space-extenders, permitting us to communicate with people anywhere on earth. But these space-extenders also tend to be ephemeral (though the NSA probably has copies of them all), merely a hard-drive crash or a cloud-hack away from disappearing altogether. Interestingly, the media of ancient religions (including Christianity) have an inherent bias toward time-extending media. We regard some truths and realities as being timeless; we regard the ancient God of Abraham as our God still today, and the content of our beliefs derives from ancient documents that are at least two millennia old. Space-biased media serve us as instrumental goods—for example, by permitting us to disseminate the gospel more broadly than ever before—but our time-extending media roots run deep.

In contrast, electronic media, from the telegraph to Instagram, are inherently space-biased, and usage of such media has tended to shape us in ways that do not merely extend but also attempt to transcend our material nature. With the telegraph, the cultural impact on the typical individual or family was somewhat inconsequential. Telegrams were expensive, and one had to travel to a Western Union office in order to send or receive a message.[6] Then with each new development in electronic media (radio, telephone, television), the process of transcending our material nature accelerated. Via television, for instance, noncombatant Americans saw televised news of the war in Vietnam on the evening news—something that only military personnel had previously witnessed. By 1969, we could sit in our living rooms and watch the Apollo 11 team walk on the moon. With social media, we can not only communicate with those who are physically distant, but we can reach hundreds or even thousands with a single tweet. It seems a little like God, who can hear a million prayers simultaneously or be adored and worshiped by millions simultaneously. But does the quest to capture the attention of hundreds (or more) followers at a time seem a properly modest expectation for a mere creature, or is it an effort to transcend our material nature? Rereading Cicero’s essay on friendship recently, I was struck by his observation that few individuals had more than a single friend, perhaps two.[7] Contemporary users of Facebook, Instagram, or other platforms may have thousands of connections—though, too often, no real friends in Cicero’s sense of the term.

Of course, people corresponded through letters before the electronic age, and these are a form of space-extending media. But when I write a letter, I do not feel in any sense as though I myself am present when and where the letter arrives. When speaking on the phone, I sense that I am actually, in some sense, with the other person on the line. Analog media like letters remind us of the material distance from our correspondent; electronic media tend to disguise the material distance. Yet this material human nature is part of our humanity, part of the humanity that God described as “very good,” and perhaps for good reason.

The Effects of Space-Biased Media

What space-biased media do for us is permit us to influence and be influenced by those who are physically distant from us; what they do to us is harder to assess. According to media ecologists, media probably alter our sense of self, particularly our sense of our embeddedness in a particular physical environment. Some observers regard the matter as even more severe: Space-extending media cultivate a degree of contempt for place, enabling us to evade and avoid those who are present while attending to those who are absent, relativizing and obscuring the very definitions of “present” and “absent.” McLuhan noticed this long before the digital era and referred to such space-ignoring consciousness as “discarnate.”

The discarnate user of electronic media bypasses all former spatial restrictions and is present in many places simultaneously as a disembodied intelligence. This puts him one step above angels, who can only be in one place at a time. Since, however, discarnate man has no relation to natural law (or to Western linearity), his impulse is towards anarchy and lawlessness.[8]

McLuhan’s Christian faith informed his vocabulary, and I believe he coined the term “discarnate” as an intentional (and sarcastic?) inversion of “incarnate.” If the Christian doctrine of Creation honors the material human body as very good, then surely the doctrine of the incarnation does so!

McLuhan was not the first Christian to wrestle with issues of media, nor the first to be suspicious of space-biased, “discarnate” media. The apostle Paul was very aware of his material location, perhaps especially when he wrote his prison epistles. He was also aware, not merely of his physical captivity, but also of his painful absence from the congregations he had founded and served:

For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. (Rom. 1:9–13)
I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (Gal. 4:20)
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you . . . as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith. (1 Thess. 3:6,10)
As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. (2 Tim. 1:4)
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. (1 Thess. 2:17–18)

This Pauline preference for face-to-face communication is both ironic and remarkable. It is remarkable because Paul not only strongly preferred in-person communication but, at least in the case of the Thessalonians, he also attributed his absence from them—an absence that necessitated the second-best available substitute medium, a written letter—to diabolical interference.

It is ironic because the only Paul we know is the Paul who wrote thirteen epistles and who appears in Luke’s account in Acts. The apostle, whom we know primarily by his letters, routinely expressed that he would have preferred to have been personally and physically present with his addressees rather than writing to them. We are forever grateful to have Paul’s letters, which are richly edifying to us; but it seems that Paul would have preferred if we as his brothers and sisters in Christ knew him only in person. This ancient lament from Paul should give Christians pause as we consider our relationship with space-biased electronic and digital media today.

Managing Discarnation

The rapidity of media changes in the third millennium has made it difficult to assess what these media do to us, as well as what they do for us. I am not prepared to offer normative counsel on such matters, but I believe we should at least be wary of how our circumstances amplify the concerns Paul expressed. As limited beings, we should beware the trade-off between quality and quantity of communication and its consumption—only for God is this not an issue.

Our new media are called, even by their most avid proponents, “information technologies.” Implicit in “information technology” is the value judgment that what we need is more information. But the Bible—alongside other sage guides, ancient and modern—suggests that few human problems are due to a lack of information.

Too much in formal education has to do with quick response, with coughing up information quickly, and not enough leeway is allowed for reflection and brooding in the thoughtful way that serious subjects require.[9]

In an address he gave in Germany a decade before the third millennium, Neil Postman noticed the same reality when he said:

If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information? [10]

We are not brains on sticks, whose primary way of loving and serving others is to dispel information. Our most important human concerns are not informational; we attempt to make sense of our own internal conflicts and of our conflicts with those around us. These important issues in life do not, in the first place, require information. They require understanding and wisdom: understanding of the human condition, of the internal conflict we all experience, and understanding of others, whose conflicts, fears, and aspirations differ from our own.

In prolific author Mortimer Adler’s book A Guidebook to Learning: For a Lifelong Pursuit of Learning, he observed that all educational systems from the ancient world through the early part of the twentieth century conceived of education as having four progressive steps: information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Information, for Adler, is merely an observation about some specific thing (e.g., a frog); when that thing has properties similar to other things (e.g., salamanders), he calls this “knowledge.” When we understand the properties common to reptiles, amphibians, mammals, marsupials, and so on, we call this “understanding.” But the goal of all learning is wisdom: What do you do with a frog? What is it for? How does it fit in an ecosystem where it plays a significant role? Should we study it? Should we fry its legs and eat them? Should we protect it?

At the turn of the millennium, the digital world was largely well received, and many of its early boosters spoke almost messianically of the potential of digital devices and the “information superhighway” (which quickly became the commercial cul-de-sac). Such fervor has largely waned now, and much of the cultural conversation revolves around how best to manage the disruptive, distracting, discarnating, dehumanizing nature of our beloved digital devices.

The material order that God made is “good,” and when God completed that order by making the human in his image, he declared that this entire material order, and the material human, was “very good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). In the economy of redemption, God’s holy Son entered this material world in a material body, and he lived and died sinlessly in that material body. We who are benefactors of the incarnate work of Christ should be wary of the discarnate nature of electronic and digital media, and we should celebrate both his and our material humanity whenever circumstances permit.

1. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exod. 20:3–5).
2. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Benjamin Jowett, The Project Gutenberg Ebook Phaedrus, 274–77,
3. “In The Second Self, I traced the subjective side of personal computers—not what computers do for us but what they do to us, to our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationships, our sense of being human.” Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2011), 2. She followed this book with Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin, 2015).
4. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).
5. Harold Innis, Empire and Communications (1950; repr., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), 7.
6. While the cultural impact of the telegraph was minimal, astute observers were wary about it. Henry David Thoreau famously said, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Riverside, 1957), 36. Mark Twain was even less desirous of electronic media: “The Bermudians are hoping soon to have telegraphic communication with the world. But even after they shall have acquired this curse it will still be a good country to go to for a vacation, for there are charming little islets scattered about the enclosed sea where one could live secure from interruption. The telegraph boy would have to come in a boat, and one could easily kill him while he was making his landing.”
7. Cicero, Treatises on Old Age, on Friendship and on Divination, trans. W. A. Falconer, Loeb Classical Library No. 154 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923).
8. “Laws of Media,” in Essential McLuhan, ed. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 1995), 370.
9. Joseph Epstein, A Literary Education and Other Essays (Edinburg, VA: Axios Press, 2014), 9.
10. Neil Postman address given at Gesellschaft für Informatik in Stuttgart, Germany, on October 11, 1990.
Photo of T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon (PhD) is a retired professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles, published scholarly reviews and articles in various journals and periodicals, and his books include Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019).
Saturday, July 1st 2023

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church