The Meme is the Message

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Meme – a noun

  1. an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
  2. an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase,”The medium is the message”, meaning that the form of a communication medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. I believe digital media is shaping our consciousness in a way as revolutionary as the printing press half a millennia ago. That particular medium changed the world in a way that the mindset of handwritten manuscripts and oral wisdom could not foresee. Now as printed newspapers and books continue to decline in circulation are we experiencing another symbiotic revolution?

In its simplest terms we can say that books, radio, television, and film medium, are a collection of communication devices in which the reader, listener, or viewer, are normally assumed to be passive recipients. The internet however, often encourages the recipients to be active participants, interacting via the medium of the internet with the message.

The medium of print changed the world and inevitably changed the Christian Church. What are the implications of the current transition from print to digital medium for the Christian Church in the 21st century? In 1996 Mark Dery wrote a prophetic book called “Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the end of the Century.” At the beginning of the book Dery says this:

“Escape velocity is the speed at which a body – a spacecraft, for instance – overcomes the gravitational pull of another body, such as the Earth.” More and more, computer culture, or cyberculture, seems as if it is on the verge of attaining escape velocity. Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 pronouncement that electronic media have spun us into a blurred, breathless “world of allatonceness” where information “pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously,” sometimes overwhelming us, is truer than ever.”

Digital media is not merely replacing books but shaping our pedagogies, our world views, and possibly our consciousness. We live in the age of the ‘meme’, a phrase first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe small pieces of culture that spread from person to person by imitation but with the possibility heightened in the digital age for more rapid distribution and adaptation. The digital meme defines our post-modern condition filled with irony, interaction, and anxiety. Thanks to the explosion in social media the meme is now becoming the message communicating our current existential condition – but is it enough? I would say, “Virtually…”

What is required is nothing less than a new theology, even a ‘cybertheology’. Encouraging signs of such a Christian theological framework in the digital age can be seen in research centres such as CODEC at Durham University. Biblical literacy and discipleship are two key areas of exploration there. I would also argue that national ministerial training to provide a basic understanding on the subject of evolving social media and the world wide web should be as integral as preaching and pastoral care in the Church of the future. To neglect this would be to neglect the context of the ‘marketplace’ we are now in as Christians.

If we are tempted to berate such ideas then we would do well to remember the language that the Christian Gospels were originally composed in, Koine Greek, ‘ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος’, or “the common dialect.” They was the everyday language of the ordinary citizens of the Roman Empire.

  • If ‘the medium is the message’ then we have to ask ourselves what is the common dialect in the context of evolving social media in the 21st century?
  • How can it convey the Good News told by a 1st century itinerant preacher from Nazareth who first used the medium of parables, or stories, to proclaim the Kingdom of God?

However Jesus of Nazareth is understood it is clear that he was an effective, popular teacher and preacher who communicated in the way he did at least in part because the ordinary people felt alienated from the religious institutions of their own day. Reflecting on this I am reminded of the words to a hymn, “There’s a Spirit in the air…”, and I believe it is time to leave the ‘house’ once more, as happened on the day that is sometimes described as the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Church – Pentecost. (Acts 2: 1-11)

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