The Meme is the Message

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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)

Say “No” to going to Church

roundstonecross

“I do not go to church”.

That is what I am encouraging my church congregations to say. I think saying this can be a great act of witness in today’s world. And when people say it I would encourage them to say it with great conviction!

Now before you start sending in your messages of complaint let me say the following. I am encouraging church members to say, “I do not go to church.  I am the church.”

If that sounds strange to you it would not have sounded strange to St. Paul or any of the New Testament writers in the Bible.  When Paul wrote his letters to the church in Corinth or Ephesus, he was not addressing a building, he was addressing a group of Christians in that town or city.

In the New Testament the word for ‘church’ always mean’t a group of Christians gathered together, never a building to go to. One of the primary reasons for this was that Christians formed part of a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire until the adoption of the Christian religion by the state under the Emperor Constantine (272-337AD).

“So what?” You may be wondering. Personally I think it makes all the difference in the world for Christians today to see themselves as the church rather than as a building they occasionally visit, just as you would occasionally visit a shop or a club.  Being a Christian is a 24/7 existence but that understanding to some degree was eroded when the message of Christianity became absorbed into the mentality of ‘Christendom’ – the idea that everyone shared the same world view as citizens within a Christian state.

In our age of the global community that world view continues to be deeply challenged within the traditional institutional church denominations, all born of Christendom. The challenge is now so acute that the only reasonable starting point to talk of a Church of the future is to begin by acknowledging its existence within a post-Christendom environment. But what will the Church of the future look like?

When Jesus called his disciples to follow him he called them into a way of life. “Follow me”, Jesus says and the earliest Christians reinforced this message by describing what they did together as “The Way.” (Acts 9:2) This metaphor provides a potent reminder that Christianity is fundamentally about movement and always has been.

Christians should see themselves as disciples of Christ, ‘learners for Life’, rather than as consumers of a pre-packaged religion with various spiritual products available from a static church building near you.

So, please do not go to church, instead be the church wherever you are.

Alone or together, in a church building or not, every day of the year.

For that is the Church that will have a future…

Go with the Flow

cyberdummiessigned

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called ‘flow’During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. Flow is more than happiness, it is a deep connectivity, a oneness – dare I say a ‘communion’. People may experience flow through work or religion, but they may also seek it through the creative arts, sport – or more destructively through alcohol, drugs, or the darker side of the internet.

Flow cannot govern our institutions, including the institutions of the Christian Church founded since the age of the Roman Emperor Constantine, but without the element of flow what are we left with? And is that one of the reasons that people in this country continue to leave the traditional, institutional Christian churches in their droves? Traditional Christianity is failing to ‘go with the flow’ perhaps?

All our traditional Christian denominations were born of the age of Constantine and the Roman Empire, and the institutions which shaped that empire have shaped our collective consciousness which we can call in short, ‘Christendom’. This is a worldview that places every individual and system of governance within a Christian framework. But Christendom is no more. I believe a key challenge for Christian churches in this country is to define what they are in a post-Christendom age. Can we turn back the clock and bring back the unity of Christendom, if indeed it ever was united, or should we be seeking something else?

Thankfully we do have a vision of the Christian Church that existed before the age of Christendom, it’s in the Bible and charts the life of the Early Church centuries before Christendom began. We also have a way of life that was first given to us by Jesus himself, not Christendom but the Kingdom of God. The Christianity I would like to see in the 21st century is one that seeks to live the Kingdom of God inclusive of a generation that yearns to go with the flow.

Where does that leave our institutional practices in all our Christian churches born of Christendom? I do not know but I am willing to find out from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth who still says, “Follow me.” Maybe that is how I choose to go with the flow.

How about you?