THE THEOLOGY OF MEMES

TThe most revolutionary invention which has impacted the way humanity communicates to one another, is undoubtedly the Internet. Every single person can share their opinion and talk with anyone, at any time, in any place of the world, instantly. It is the ultimate tool of liberty and free speech, but its main language of communication is unique: a dialogue through, and exchange of memes.

MEME CULTURE

Memes have become an integral part of online communication, and often accurately represent the largely pessimistic and cynical side of the internet. Edgy humour and dank memes in fact are so important to dialogue, that many have considered the European Union’s ‘Article 13’, a violation of free speech, as it effectively makes memes illegal within the EU.1 But how exactly did the internet become so dominated by memes to the point where it appears to be a fundamental human right to create them?

By their very definition, memes are an essential component of the public consciousness. The Oxford Dictionary provides two definitions of memes, both of which are applicable to this discussion:

“An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.”

“An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” 2

Internet memes were initially incredibly simplistic and easy to define: a simple JPEG Image with a humorous text written over the top in ‘Impact’ font. But as the Oxford Dictionary reveals, this definition has broadened to include almost anything funny, from people (e.g. Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg), to dance moves (e.g. flossing or dabbing), to songs (e.g. Bongo Cat or Crab Rave). To most, the words Uganda Knuckles and Ben Swolo are completely meaningless. But to connoisseurs of memes, both of these have an inherent meaning, thereby influencing the public consciousness.

MEMES V SINCERITY

However, as much as myself and millions of other people love memes, they can also have surprising negative consequences, and regularly reflect the dog-eat-dog world savagery online, in which anonymity is often used as a justification for bullying and harassment.

The internet is a place in which nothing is sacred or taken seriously, and sincerity (the ability to be open and honest as opposed to lie and deceive) cannot survive. Those who express any genuine opinions, emotions or concern, or display any vulnerability are frequently ridiculed and mocked, colloquially called being ‘memed on’ in certain situations.

Consequently, it is rare that any meaningful conversation about genuine issues ever takes place online, as the very language in which people communicate is not open to sincerity, but rather comedy. If nothing is ever taken seriously, then nothing serious is ever discussed or resolved.

Another contributing factor to this lack of meaningful dialogue, is that by nature, memes spread into the public consciousness because they are relatable to a large amount of people. But in everyone relating to problems or pessimistic humour, no one is ever truly challenged to self-improve, but instead remain content with the status quo, knowing that everyone else is relating in the same way.

For example, during my HSC year, myself and most New South Wales Year 12 Students, were part of a Facebook group, were memes were posted everyday about how stressful exams were, the pressures of having to learn all the material, and for some how close to anxiety and depression they were. In my personal experience, the relatability of knowing that I wasn’t the only one going through many of these shared experiences, made for an enjoyable Year 12. But I also recognise, that nothing truly meaningful or productive came from the group.

One news reporter found this Facebook group so disturbing, that she wrote a news article on her findings, appalled that these students seemingly encouraged depression and failing one’s studies.3 She had obviously misunderstood the groups purpose, but she suffered the consequences by being bullied online for the months to come.

It is an important to distinction to make though. Though most memes do not actively encourage poor behaviour as this reporter suggested, in an effort to create relatable comedy, they do stifle self-improvement through encouraging the status quo, justifying no effort to change one’s circumstances. Furthermore, they perpetuate a culture characterised by pessimism, causing individuals to be reluctant in sharing anything genuine online.

REAL WORLD APPLICATIONS

Unsurprisingly, this lack of open and honest communication doesn’t just affect people online, but also in real life. Unfortunately, there are too many times where my friends and I have spontaneously started singing ‘All Star’ together, or I’ve attempted to unironically do the Orange Justice dance. The memes I interact with online have filtered into my real-life human interactions.

But aside from harmless songs and dances, it has also affected the sincerity in which I engage in conversation. I can think of numerous occasions in which I have refused to attempt something new, or contribute my opinion, in fear of being judged and scrutinized. Not only that, but I can recognise in my own friendships, where I have essentially turned a person into a living meme, or trolled them in real life for comedy’s sake. The end consequence of it all? A clear lack of meaningful conversation and honest dialogue. A world in which no one can be genuine.

A BIBLICAL APPROACH TO SINCERITY

The Bible actually has quite a lot to say regarding sincerity and its importance. 2 Corinthians 8:8 and 1:12 describes showing sincerity in love towards fellow church members. 1 Timothy 1:5 outlines the significance of a sincere faith, which correlates to the command in Joshua 24:14 to worship God in full sincerity.

Ultimately, if sincerity is the ability to communicate without deceit or lies, then one could describe it as a facet of love. In order for someone to demonstrate love, they will not lie to those around them, but show honesty and sincerity. In this way, God can be described as sincere, and seeing as though humanity was created in His image with the capacity to love and to be loved, he has also created humans to be sincere.

THE SOLUTION

Paul describes one way in which this sincerity can be demonstrated in Galatians 6:1-5. Paul outlines that each Christian should carry their own load (sometimes translated as knapsack), and that the Christian community should help others with their burdens (or boulders). The notion here is that there are things which each person is individually responsible for, but when difficulties in life come upon us, often outside our own control, we should be able to seek out the help of others to support us. This however can only take place in a relationship of openness and sincerity.

So, what is the solution? Well first of all, it’s not necessary to completely recant memes. Most memes are innocuous, give a good laugh, and as noted are an important and integral part of online communication. But perhaps it is advisable to take them in moderation.

Make sure to intentionally look out for whether memes are dominating your real-life interactions with other people, and avoid it if possible. Make sure that you are an approachable person that people know they can confide in and turn to for help.

Ensure that your church is a place free of judgment and one in which people can freely express themselves, and look for support when carrying life’s boulders.

Finally, if your friend group right now does not have an open form of dialogue, it may be up to you to make that change. I know personally, that with perhaps my closest friends, Mitchell and Michael (fellow writers and hosts at MWM), our friendship was largely dominated by memes for quite some time. But gradually, we all made an effort to be more open with one another, and now feel comfortable talking about our spirituality, sharing both the triumphs and trials of life, and we have grown together as friends. I believe this same sincerity can be achieved in any friendship, relationship or family, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the one meme that spread through the whole public consciousness, was openness, vulnerability, support, and sincerity? You alone can make that happen. Will you accept the challenge?

By Christopher Petersen

  1. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/what-is-article-13-article-11-european-directive-on-copyright-explained-meme-ban
  2. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/meme
  3. https://www.nowtolove.com.au/parenting/family/news-corp-writer-trolls-year-12-students-and-then-cant-handle-the-heat-16946

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