U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Message Seeks Medium: Babin, McLuhan, and Franciscans

I spent part of this past week working on a new book project in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara (not bad, I know).  I am writing on how a various orders of Franciscans (both men and women) used various forms of media to spread a somewhat common message.  My pithy way of describing this project is to say that I am studying the way a message searched for a medium.  Obviously a play on Marshall McLuhan’s famous way of describing the new age of electronic communication, I adopted my description fully ignorant of how apt it actually is to describe by topic.

When I speak to people about Franciscan media, I usually get either a vacant nod or a question about what a Franciscan is.  In the photo above, the Franciscan in this instance is Karl Holsteidner, who at the time of the photo was a Franciscan priest who helped found and run Franciscan Communications in Los Angeles for almost 30 years.  Karl was not trained in the field he became an expert in, but he was and remains a committed Franciscan theologically.  The poster he holds in the photo hints at the role he played in media–he used television and the episodes he produced from the ground up to bring the message of St. Francis of Assisi to millions of viewers.  In this way, Karl and his associates in Franciscan Communications hoped to carry out the charge of their founder to preach the gospel and when necessary use words.

Now, the folks at Franciscan Communications did not make silent films, they used words, but they found new media–visual media–especially intriguing because it had the potential to generate an emotional experience for millions of viewers at the same time.  Of course, that had been the power of visual mass media from the start–the movies were dangerous not because they showed nudity or crime or scandalous ideas but because they generated an immediate connection to millions of people watching them.  While movies and their makers have never been found legally culpable for instigating a crime, their power to come very close to that line is a big part of their magic.

When I spoke to Karl and other people involved in Franciscan media–such as Fr. Anthony Scannell (of the now defunct Franciscan Communications) and Greg Friedman (of Franciscan Media)–they all mentioned one name as being particular influential in their understanding of the power of media to evangelize–Pierre Babin.  Babin was a religious member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a frankly brave order of Catholic men and women who pledge to serve dangerous and damaged communities in the name of Jesus Christ and, in the spirit of the Gospels, to care for those in need.  As such, Babin evidently spent the latter half of his life pioneering a way to render the immediate emotional impact of the Gospels through new media.  As Angela Ann Zukowski explains: “Babin understood that audiovisual media in general was an extension and modification of the body.  He wrote, ‘When we say Christ’s Body, we only give a Christian name to there term of medium.  Evangelizing in the media age is embodying Christ.  Through the media, through ourselves, we make Christ a medium.'”

Zukowski points to perhaps the most influential book written by Babin, ‘The New Era in Religious Communication,’ as a watershed moment, not merely because of Babin’s own innovations, but because his thinking had found unity with the other giant of mass media theory, Marshall McLuhan.  While I have read some of McLuhan’s work, I was about as ignorant of the significance he assigned to his own Catholic faith as I was of the significance of Babin’s media theory.  Throughout the 1970s, Babin and McLuhan entered into a fruitful conversation about faith, culture, and the evolution of electronic communication.  It is a conversation that I have just begun to discover and mull over. And it raises a historiographical question for me: in all my reading about the rise of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists, I have come to understand thoroughly their achievement–both financial and technological–to use and then dominant new media as a way to expand their missions and their power.  What I have utterly missed was the McLuhan connection to a part of the Catholic Church that has traditionally been cast as the brown-rob wearing friars taking care of the poor.  My pithy way of describing a project I thought was destined to be quite straight-forward has become considerably more complex.  While the Franciscans I am studying always lagged well behind their Protestant counterparts in fundraising through new media, I now wonder if these devotees to the poor actually understood and exemplified McLuhan’s media as culture theory better than almost any other group.

I am at the beginning of my research and have gained a great deal from my initial discussions with the Franciscans who have generously helped me thus far.  I wonder if any of our readers has experience with the media-religion axis that they might share.