“May the Best Meme Win: Social Media’s Impact on Theological Inquiry”

This week has been revealing.  The many goods and ills of social media have been on display, taken to the limit and even pushed beyond their normative boundaries.  As the deeply meaningful topic of marriage has been brought to the forefront of the society’s collective dialogue, arguments from every angle of the issue have been clawing their way to the surface, attempting to win the day.  On whichever side of the issue one finds one’s self, the form and fashion of both personal discernment and civil debate have been fascinating. 

Over the centuries, the Church has sought to identify the source of God’s revelation, particularly as it pertains to the task of theological inquiry.  When faced with various issues, the burning question being asked has been, “How do we discern the truth?”  One of Martin Luther’s key concerns with the Roman Catholic church was its twofold source of theological truth: scripture and apostolic tradition.  Raising the banner of sola scriptura, Luther argued that Scripture alone should be the sole source for theology.  As theologians continued to wrestle with Luther’s premise, however, the impact of one’s context on the theological task began to raise questions.  Within the Methodist tradition, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (practiced by John Wesley, but coined by Albert Outler) seeks to broaden the scope of theological revelation.  While it affirms the legitimacy of scripture and tradition, it also recognizes the importance of reason and experience.
For those within the Wesleyan tradition, this quadrilateral approach is the litmus test for theological truth.  When faced with an issue, one is wise to view it through all four lenses, always remembering to keep Scripture as the primary source.  With the advent of social media, however, the entire task of theological inquiry seems to have taken a back seat.
This week I have read, heard and watched solid arguments on both sides of the marriage issue.  As I continue to strive toward “intensional living” on the via media, I have done so with an open mind, trying to bring as few prejudices and biases to the conversation in order to give my full attention to both sides.  As people have publicly grappled with this issue by sharing articles, videos, references to scripture and stories of personal experience all over Facebook and Twitter, the thing that perhaps makes me most uncomfortable is the viral sharing of memes, and the startlingly serious comments in reply.
For those of you unaware, the phenomenon of “memes” is the pairing of pictures and illustrations with pithy and witty sayings, often shaped by irony and/or humor.  The more clever the meme, the more it gets shared on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter.  In a world where Stephen Colbert and John Stewart are more trusted news sources for young adults than any of the major networks, wittiness wins the day.  If you can relay information in such a way that makes somebody laugh, they are more open to trusting it as the truth.  I won’t lie; many of the memes that I have seen are extremely clever and often elicit a chuckle from me.  However, I cringe when I see someone share one of these pictures or illustrations and say something like, “No further questions,” as if this singular image and saying has made up their mind on such a deeply significant issue.   
Allow me to share a couple examples:
In favor of homosexual marriage:
Opposed to homosexual marriage:
In reference to the trend of those in favor of homosexual marriage changing their profile pictures to the red equal-sign logo as the SCOTUS makes their decision:
Again, witty? Yes. 
Funny? Sometimes.
Authoritative? Absolutely not.
You may think that I’m simply blowing things out of proportion, or making a caricature of the sharing of memes, but I beg to differ.  When a teenager in my youth group shares a meme, I am not surprised.  When they comment on a meme and make obvious the fact that they have not put much time into personal discernment on the issue, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.  However, when I see self-respecting adults sharing these images and sayings and commenting on them as if they actually add credibility to one side of an argument or the other, I have to shake my head in disbelief. 
Has our social dialogue been diminished to this?  Has personal discernment taken a back seat to collective pop-humor? 
As faithful Christians, we are called to be disciples and to create disciples.  We must do everything we can to train and equip thinking and discerning Christians who take the theological task seriously.  With Scripture as our guide, and with tradition, reason and experience each contributing to the conversation, may we not lose sight of the importance of the process of faithful inquiry.

2 thoughts on ““May the Best Meme Win: Social Media’s Impact on Theological Inquiry”

  1. I think the other thing people forget is that the memes a person posts do show what they believe – at least that is the perception.

    Especially as Christians we often too quickly jump on one bandwagon or another with this form of communication. It can draw very firm lines in the sand. It's not my place, but it causes me to pass judgment on people.

    Above all we're called to love one another.


  2. Nice blog, Josh. I admit to sharing a lot of memes on FB. Sometimes, they represent what I believe and sometimes they are just so clever they have to be shared. 🙂 In either instance, though, they almost always start a discussion rather than end one. Maybe that is because my friends list is composed of people who vary in their beliefs and are vocal about them.

    One of the more saddening truths, though (of which I am not immune) is that many of the memes being re-posted are taken as true without any examination whatsoever. This fact that hit home today with a picture of Justice Scalia and a powder keg of a quote attributed to him to the effect that there were no gay Americans in 1776. It was so unbelievable, in fact, that I actually googled the words until I found the source of the quote: a daily satire column by Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker. Researching the source of the posted meme, which my friend (a retired Texas judge, no less!) posted because he believed it true, I discovered the young man that created the meme took Borowitz's column for a legitimate news article. He adamantly stated in a comment to the meme that those words would not have appeared on the website (The New Yorker) if it wasn't an actual true quote! Satire, I fear, is lost on the young. And all I could think of when i read his justification was that TV commecial with the girl and her alleged french model boyfirend that says, “You can't post anything on the internet that isn't true.” Apparently, some people actually believe that! :-0


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