Marshall McLuhan is sometimes called the “John the Baptist” of media studies. Like the Prophet, this Canadian convert to Catholicism certainly bewildered many with his ‘preaching’ on media, their nature, their effects, etc. Some might say he was “a voice crying out in the wilderness” and a “forerunner.”
McLuhan is often credited for the following aphorism, actually coined by John Culkin. McLuhan did, however, regularly quote him:
We become what we behold.
When I think of John the Baptist, I think of that single word: “Behold,” as in “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). What does it mean to “behold”? What does this have to do with media?
The handy-dandy Online Etymology Dictionary‘s entry for this word:
Old English bihaldan (West Saxon behealdan) “give regard to, hold in view,” also “to keep hold of, to belong to,” from be- + haldan, healdan. Related:Beheld; beholding. A common West Germanic compound, cf. Old Saxon bihaldan “hold, keep,” Old Frisian bihalda, Old High German bihaltan, German behalten, but “[t]he application to watching, looking, is confined to English”.
All this compels me to ask: What do I watch? For what do I watch? For whom do I watch? To whom — or to what — do I belong? What has a hold on me? What ‘keeps’ my watch?
Often, I think too often, I’m not watching enough for the Lord. I’m too busy “beholding” others’ blogs, Instagrams, comments, mistakes — on a screen of whatever size — too busy to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
If we truly “become what we behold,” we need to behold what we behold. In other words, watch what holds your attention. McLuhan said that what we hear, we become ‘in tune with.’
Am I arguing that we should “shelter” ourselves from possibly-objectionable content, disturbing content, etc.? Not necessarily. But I am making the case, along with McLuhan, that media deeply affect us.
What will we become?