The medium is the message: Unity, schism and The UMC

October 26th, 2016

Here’s the problem with splitting up the United Methodist Church: the medium is the message.

Those who are familiar with Marshall McLuhan will recognize his famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” It means that we cannot separate a message from the medium that is used to deliver that message. Whenever we choose a medium, there will be an implicit message in it, whether we acknowledge this or not. The media that we use to communicate have embedded in them biases or messages that are all their own, regardless of what we might be trying to communicate through them.

If we choose Twitter for example, to convey our message, we have also limited what our message can be: it can only be 140 characters. Therefore, the message cannot be of much deep substance if it is only 140 characters. If we use Twitter for a medium, we have automatically chosen as our audience those who feel comfortable navigating the world of social media. Therefore, no matter what we actually tweet, we have already sent a certain message. In some ways, the message is irrelevant; the main thing we have communicated is in the medium we have chosen. Marshal McLuhan actually said that the content of any medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the case of an atomic bomb. Let the reader understand: I say this as someone who regularly uses social media, but I do try to recognize its limitations.

McLuhan’s insight has enormous implications for the church. For example, if we think we can celebrate the Eucharist online, we have already sent a message about our Eucharistic theology through the medium we have chosen to use. I would suggest that in choosing the medium of the internet to celebrate the Eucharist, we have sent a message of an impoverished sacramental theology that is not sufficiently incarnational or communal. I would suggest in fact that the message in this case cannot help but be gnostic and individualistic, based on the medium that has been chosen. I am aware that some will disagree with me. Some might say that the medium of the internet actually sends a message that we want to make the Eucharist more accessible and therefore more of a means of grace.  I could carry on that discussion in another forum, but for now, what I want to emphasize is that whatever medium we choose, we cannot avoid the fact that the medium already carries with it a message.  (We can dispute what that message is later.)

In the wake of significant disagreements over human sexuality that threaten the unity of the church, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church meeting in May of 2016 asked its bishops to form a commission on  a way forward. There is much speculation about the possibility and even the probability of the United Methodist Church splitting into two or three or more denominations based on differing views of human sexuality. The purpose of this essay is not to speculate on how the commission might suggest various ways forward for the people of the United Methodist Church, but to underline the theological problems that would attend any schism in the UMC. It is not the case that we could simply divide the church according to different understandings of homosexuality and then keep proclaiming the same message with respect to everything else. It is rather the case that if we engage in a schism, we are already changing our message by embodying the very sorts of divisions that Christ came to heal.

In his essay, “A People in the World,” John Howard Yoder asserted that:

The work of God is the calling of a people, whether in the Old Covenant or the New. The church is then not simply the bearer of the message of reconciliation, in the way the newspaper or a telephone company can bear any message with which it is entrusted. Nor is the church simply the result of a message, as an alumni association is the product of a school or the crowd in the theater is the product of the reputation of the film. That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history.

In this assertion, Yoder is essentially taking McLuhan’s insight and applying it to the church. For the church, the medium is the message. It is not so much that we have a message and then we later as a separate act proclaim that message. Rather, the church is itself the message of God. I am aware that this assertion reflects a very high ecclesiology, but keep in mind that although it might sound Roman Catholic, it actually comes from an Anabaptist, so it could find a home among Methodists.

Some may think that the argument over homosexuality is so cumbersome and so tedious and so distracting that we would all be better off if we would just divide the church up into two or three separate denominations. Then each one would be free to proclaim its own message unhindered. I want to suggest that it would not be that simple. To think along these lines would be to violate the warning that McLuhan and Yoder have issued. 

For in dividing up the church into two or three denominations, we would not only be changing the medium of who is proclaiming the gospel, we would also be changing the message. The message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord, and He therefore relativizes all differences among his followers. So if we split up the church we are essentially saying that we are not united, we would be embodying the very things that Christ’s death was supposed to have destroyed. We would be saying that differences over homosexuality are more determinative than our common allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. We would be not only changing the medium (that is the form that the church takes), but we would also be changing the very message of the gospel. The church is called not simply to proclaim a message about reconciliation, but to BE a message, God’s message of reconciliation to the world. If we change our medium by splitting the church up into two, three, or more denominations, we have already thereby sent a message to the world, and it’s not a good one.

Jesus himself came not simply to deliver a message from God, but to BE himself the very presence of God. His message was his medium, and his medium was his message. So the calling of the people called Methodists is not simply to proclaim the message of reconciliation, but to embody the message of reconciliation, and we cannot do that if our very form betrays what we are trying to proclaim. Our form and our content, our medium and our message must be consistent. This is what I have learned from McLuhan and Yoder.

I am not sure what this might mean for the work of the bishops’ Commission or for the future of the United Methodist Church. I would hope we can find a way forward without splitting up from each other and thereby reflecting the brokenness of our world. I would hope we can find a way forward that would reflect and embody the Lordship of Christ who has broken down the dividing walls and made reconciliation possible. I myself am a traditionalist when it comes to matters of human sexuality, but I can live together with those who disagree with me, if we share a common commitment to the Lordship of Christ and our Wesleyan theological heritage (which of course includes a robust commitment to the great gospel essentials of Incarnation, Resurrection, and Trinity). 

For now, I want to emphasize that if we break up the UMC according to different sexuality camps, we are not only changing our medium, we are also changing (and significantly weakening) our message.

This piece originally appeared as a guest post on the blog of Allan R. Bevere. Reprinted with permission.

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