The word "meme" (pronounced meem) denotes a concept that contemporary Christians need to fully grasp. Just as the word blog is short for weblog, so meme is short for mimeme, reflecting something that undergoes imitation (mimesis). The term was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins nearly forty years ago and was theorized to be the cultural counterpart or analogue of a gene. And just as genes replicate and mutate, so do memes: they are vehicles by which ideas (philosophical, political, social, visual, even architectural) are passed on. Ironically, the modern concept of a meme differs from the original Dawkins version, but given his view that memes mutate, it's hard to understand his frustration with the subverted meaning of the term.
The study of memes, memetics, has become one of the more popular methods for classifying ideas, predicting their social trajectory, and tracing their impact on a culture. From what I observe, there is no such thing as a Christian memetics ... yet. We only find a humanistic, secular, rationalistic, evolutionary memetics that seeks to explain how certain undesirable cultural constructs (e.g., Biblical Christianity) somehow seem to thrive. In this enterprise, the theorists have set out to psychoanalyze Christians and pinpoint exactly how to cut the nerve cord of this irrational, self-perpetuating delusion. Naturalistic presuppositions therefore guide this entire field of study.
Christians need to understand the purpose of memes respecting the ongoing war of the memes raging in our society. In a secular society widely governed by prevailing memes hostile to any memes of Christian heritage, we would find ourselves in a most perilous situation if there weren't something extraordinary on the horizon: the ultimate meme.
Controlling the Narrative
Many memes in the socio-political and socio-economic arenas are specifically crafted to control the narrative. The memes that social architects wish to see replicating unchallenged throughout the populace are the ones that secure the architects' designs. Memes don't have to represent true ideas: lies can be effective memes. A false meme can control the narrative as easily (perhaps even more easily) than a true one. Such memes have social utility and lend themselves quite readily to agenda-driven purposes in the hands of elitist thinkers. Public opinion is important, even in totalitarian countries. This makes the shaping of public opinion an important function, and memes are an integral part of the toolkit required to do so.
Let us consider one such meme of recent vintage: "Only social lepers send their kids to private school." Let's unpack this heavily loaded meme to see what this strand of cultural DNA tells us about the men who knowingly released it into the public marketplace of ideas.
The key to this meme is the term "social lepers," and the force of the meme is in leveraging our expected revulsion to social leprosy to score political and social points favoring the public school system. The message boils down to this: don't be a leper. The imagination provides the rest: lepers belong on the outskirts of society because they're lepers, and they might infect others with this socially disfiguring condition. They're marginalized because nobody wants to catch what they have, and by implication the quarantine should be compulsory for the social health of society. The imagination embraces this vivid, fearful imagery before the mind ever dissects the faulty ad hominem logic at its root. These factors therefore make this a potent meme to wield against homeschoolers and Christian schooling in general: we certainly aren't going to listen to lepers when it comes to setting policy for healthy people.
But why do our social architects direct their zeal against homeschooling? One possible reason was alluded to by Dr. R. J. Rushdoony when discussing an event that occurred a third of a century ago. The then-head of California's public schools, Bill Honig, had reportedly visited the major homeschooling convention held in the state (CHEA). He supposedly uttered words to the effect that he was "keeping an eye on this movement; once it grows into something significant (read: threatening to our fiefdom), we will intervene." In other words, once the homeschooling meme becomes too successful in replicating itself and spreading further across his state, he would move to resist it. The homeschooling meme challenges the elitists' control of the narrative with a counter-narrative, a competing meme. The elitists have no interest in seeing any true competition between memes: they covet control over the narrative.
The opposition to the symbols of Christianity (such as crosses being displayed in public places) is due to resistance against seeing such visual memes replicate through a culture. Perhaps the secularists are aware of something that Christians are missing: that although these symbols have become watered-down and their meaning diluted, the risk remains that they might one day reacquire their full, culture-challenging force. Consider the fictional dialogue in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, between Pharaoh and his advisors as they assess the risk of demoralized Hebrew slaves rising up in rebellion against all-powerful Egypt:
Pharaoh: "I number my enemies by their swords, not their chains."
Advisor: "Chains have been forged into swords before, Great One."
If there is one thing that secularists have come to realize, it is that memes propagating through culture with Christian content have proven difficult to exterminate, even when using false memes to counter them. Isaac Asimov's depiction of fundamentalist "armies of the night" overthrowing the sciences with a supposedly mythical Biblical account of creation failed to turn the perceived juggernaut aside. Despite tight control of the scientific narrative, the contrary Biblical views continue to gain cultural ground.
Enter here the science of memetics to "explain" how Christian memes "inoculate" their proponents against the rational results of scientific research. (This inoculation is supposedly bad, but the rationalists' attempts to inoculate citizens against the Bible are supposedly good. It all depends whose ox is gored. The need to control the narrative supersedes matters of academic freedom and scientific inquiry.)
On the day this was written, the United States government was nearly two weeks into a shutdown. The major protagonists acted as their own spin-doctors, weaving conflicting memes: it was a Republican shutdown, it was a Democratic shutdown, it was caused by the Cruz-led Republicans, by a veritable American Taliban. You can't properly demonize the other side without attributing extremism to them (as moderate demons have fallen out of fashion).
For memes to be effective in controlling the narrative (and in turn controlling public opinion and thereby the populace itself), it is necessary to render a nation's citizens pliable enough to be manipulated by memes. The dumbing down of the American populace has made memes much easier to accept. Memes can serve as a cogent substitute or shorthand for careful deliberation and actual thinking. It is easier to rattle off a slur like "only social lepers send their children to private schools" than to engage in a serious discussion of the matter with all the ugly details on the table. (One can't help but wonder whether modern church leaders have gained some similar advantage by effectively dumbing down their flocks over the last century.)
How then do secularists fight Christian memes? If they can't attack them head-on, it is in their best interest to co-opt a meme and then dilute its meaning. Meaning can be diluted several different ways: something can be commercialized (think Christmas or Easter), it can be ridiculed, or it can be omitted from discourse except under controlled circumstances (e.g., courses teaching the Bible "as literature" in public schools). Whatever weakens a meme will block it from replicating either extensively (to other people), protensively (down through time to the next generation) or intensively (by compromising fidelity to the original meme).
Many secular memes are self-serving and agenda-driven. They're valued by the central planners because they replicate quickly, spreading through the culture and possessing the will of the people, further validating the ideologies steering the ship of state. Such memes influence the electorate.
Memes come in all flavors and truth values: some vilify, some extol, some entertain, some instruct. Old wives' tales, bromides, stereotypes, clever graphics, and dance moves are included. All cultural expressions can turn into memes under the proper conditions.
In 1984, John Willinsky noted with surprise how rapidly the term "wilding" had been adopted by the populace in the wake of a brutal Central Park attack. He considered this a "rare instance" of a "cultural shortcutting of the normal channels of lexicographical legitimation." The newly-coined word "wilding" became a meme in itself because the mass media accelerated its public acceptance.1
But with the Internet, such cultural shortcutting of normal channels has become commonplace because the cultural shortcuts have now become the normal channels. Social media easily competes with the mass media in propagating memes (perhaps one more reason why pretexts are being sought to slap controls on the Internet).
Consider an example of a "conventional narrative" (string of false memes) concerning America's Great Depression as disclosed by Steve Horwitz on his blog:
What we want to avoid, I would argue, is a repeat of what is now the conventional narrative of the Great Depression: It was capitalism that caused the crash, it was Hoover's inaction that turned it into a Great Depression, and it was FDR's interventions that saved us. As we now know, that's wrong on all three counts, particularly on the issue of Hoover's inaction. He was quite the interventionist and those programs, picked up later by FDR, made matters much worse. The analogy to the current situation is pretty striking.2
Note the problem: an eighty-year-old meme that by rights should have long ago been thoroughly discredited still lives, thanks to faithful replication in self-serving academic and political channels. This meme threatens to shape the discourse about our current economic crisis. It's unclear that the countervailing truths will ever be more than a voice crying in the wilderness by the time the economic day of reckoning is at hand. In other words, false memes can have considerable longevity, even in the face of facts. A meme's success does not depend on being accurate (while for some theorists a successful meme is by definition true-socially true, which is the only truth worth pursuing).
Memes have other things in common with their biological counterparts. Replication being the defining feature of a meme, it is no surprise that memes can act as a virus. It is for good reason that we speak of a meme that goes viral. To foster the milieu of scientism, the pollsters of yesteryear have been forced to compete with Internet metrics, which measure success by how many hits a web page gets (regardless whether it features sensational topics, funny videos, or simply cute animals). It must be distressing for people who make their living doing search engine optimization (SEO) to realize that their clients might get better results just by lacing their websites with the well-known power phrases ("use this one weird trick," "shocking video," "electric companies and dermatologists hate this," "watch this video before FEMA bans it," etc.).
But there is one apparent difference between a meme and a gene, and the example that illustrates this difference is Ludwig van Beethoven's old warhorse, his Fifth Symphony. Scholars have declared that not only is the opening four-note motif a meme, but the symphony in its entirety is also a meme. In other words, the notion of a meme being a discrete unit that is transmitted through a culture can involve both the opening two bars of the symphony (as a discrete unit) and the entire symphony (also conceived as a discrete unit, albeit a much larger one). We will return to this important idea when we discuss how memes relate to worldviews (which are inherently totalistic in scope) and the Word of God itself.
Memetics as a Tool in the Evolutionists' Arsenal
Were you to read through the Wikipedia entry for the word "meme," you will quickly discern that the argumentation concerning religious thought presupposes the falsehood of religion. Memetics, the science of memes, purports to account for cultural manifestations and their transmission, of which religion is regarded as but one of many. Therefore, a purely naturalistic perspective governs the discussion (which the Wikipedia editors3 are certain to enforce).
This is, of course, the weak underbelly of science in general: the problem of inferring a specific cause from an effect. This form of logical argument, called affirming the consequent, is a logical fallacy because it forms an invalid argument. Here is an example of such an invalid argument: "If it rains, the grass will be wet. The grass is wet, therefore it rained." This is not valid because the sprinklers may have come on, causing the grass to be wet. This kind of statement is only valid if we adjust the original argument in this way: "If and only if it rains will the grass be wet. The grass is wet, therefore it rained." This is now a valid argument, and if the premises are true, it is also considered to be what logicians call a sound argument.
The problem with all the purported tracing of the origins and propagation (replication) of the Christian faith is that memetics rests on the logical fallacy described above. The naturalistic conclusions don't follow from the stated premises: they follow because of another premise (whether suppressed or not is irrelevant here): namely, that the Bible is a collection of myths, and is itself a cultural construct built out of generally false, self-serving memes.
The shaping of discourse concerning memes is ideologically driven. The sooner you recognize this, the sooner you'll be able to equip yourself to confront the winds of change blowing through our culture today.
Central planners, power brokers, and social engineers have a basic message for Christians: our memes are good, yours are bad. Remember our friend, the social leper? Apparently, social leprosy can metastasize into thought contagion (which, incidentally, is the name of a book by Aaron Lynch further subtitled How Belief Spreads Through Society).
The term thought contagion, while technically neutral in orientation, nonetheless carries a pejorative connotation: we tend to conceive more readily of a spreading sickness than a multitude of people "paying it forward." When F. F. Bruce entitled one of his books The Spreading Flame, he saw the advance of the gospel as a blessing described quite beautifully by the chosen symbolic imagery. But James H. Billington's examination of revolutionary thought, Fire in the Minds of Men, takes an obviously different tack with the same symbol.
So we have here the question of whether the symbol of fire connotes a good or a bad sense, whether the referenced contagion is a good or a bad one, and whether inoculation is a good or bad thing (is a given worldview inoculating against dangerous heresies or rallying its adherents to irrationally oppose scientific truth?).
One thing is certain: worldviews inoculate against opposing worldviews because they are totalistic in scope and govern all things within their respective matrix. We have here, then, a battle of the worldviews. Humanism and Christianity each regard the other as toxic, and each seeks to inoculate as many as possible against the other, starting with the children (who belong to the state in the humanist worldview, but who belong to God and their parents in the Christian worldview).
Of course, when we speak of a thought contagion in the pejorative sense, there can be no question that the true thought contagion is described in Genesis 3:5-the tempter's claim that man can realize himself by acting autonomously and defining his own morality and ethics outside of God. This moral infection inverts right and wrong, so that men call good evil and evil good, and like a snelled fishing hook this affectation digs its way deeper into its victims to ensnare them even further. The contagion that began in Genesis 3:5 is still with us today. It is a contagion that can only be cured supernaturally by the Christ of the Scriptures.
Are You Governed by Memes?
Are you governed by memes or by the law-word of God? You can't serve two masters.
Most Christians today are blown about by every wind of doctrine and every meme of culture. Fearfulness, especially when driven by perceived "conspiracies" and thus loaded with sensationalism, drives today's cultural memes. We accept memes with a knowing nod (after all, we don't want to be social lepers), so we arrive at a point where every fear is finally realized. "Everything you eat or drink is toxic. And, by the way, there is a Bolshevik under every bed."
What are the factors that lead Christians to be so unduly influenced by cultural memes (which surely pleases the architects of those memes no end)? Let's consider a few.
Anxiousness about tomorrow is a primary driving force that compels us to rely upon memes because they represent the current state of affairs. If you buy into the idea that man's problem is inadequate, inaccurate information, then you will seek out a source for intravenous injection of the latest news on all things worrisome. At the root of this is distrust of God, which becomes manifest in our refusal to obey our Lord's injunction about being anxious for tomorrow.
As a consequence, you might attempt to throw yourself into the maelstrom of rapidly-changing cultural forces. Because things seem to change so quickly, you will end up avoiding such time-wasters as deliberation and contemplation, turning instead to sound bites and Twitter-length, short-attention-span thinking just to avoid falling behind the power curve of our "Future Shock"-style culture. It then becomes tempting to adopt the mental shortcut of leveraging memes in lieu of thinking.
As William James pointed out, "People think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." But today, James's aphorism actually gives modern man too much credit: he isn't even rearranging his prejudices, he's rolling with the latest memes, memes tailored from without to maximize their impact upon him (and render him even more susceptible to memes). Thus, man truly becomes driven by every meme of doctrine. If man won't be governed by God, he will be tyrannized by the deluge of memes blasting at him from all corners. The memes of humanism invariably enslave while pretending to liberate man.
The Biblical Truth about Memes
The first thing we must all recognize is that there IS a controlled narrative: it's God's providential governing of His world that has been spanning the millennia. Because the entire universe down to the last atom situated at its farthest reaches is governed by a single overarching decree, that divine decree constitutes a discrete unit in itself-just like a meme.
There also is a standard by which memes are judged: God's law. Losing sight of this divine ethical arraignment of all human utterance and thoughts (which are all to be brought captive to the obedience of Christ, 2 Cor. 10:4-5) is no benign blindness: it is invariably harmful to those who won't frame reality using the Lawgiver's lens. We live in a world where we must account for every idle word; how much more will we give account for memes that we float into this world? And how much more will we be judged for following a multitude to do evil? (Exod. 23:2)
Moreover, all memes "not planted by God will be uprooted" (Matt. 15:13), which is true with any other thing satisfying that Biblical criterion that marks it for destruction. All such memes will be shaken "so that only the unshakeable things will remain" (Heb. 12:27).
Memes broadcast light or darkness based on Isaiah 8:20. Don't follow a multitude to accept or propagate an evil meme: our calling is to reprove the works of darkness.
We can start to appreciate the Biblical emphasis by loosely paraphrasing Zechariah 4:6: "Not by might nor by power nor by popular acceptance, but by My Spirit. Who art thou, O great mountain of opposing memes? Before God's people thou shalt be leveled into a plain!"
The Problem with Christian Memes
If memes are so effective, why shouldn't we use them like the other side does? This is a complex question. There are times when this is proper, and times when it is not. One area where this approach is problematic is in the field of Christian apologetics.
The first rule of apologetics is this: we do not defend Christianity piecemeal. The Christian faith comprises a totalistic worldview. We are totalists. Worldviews cannot be discretized into smaller units. The truths of Scripture mutually support one another, and they cannot be taken (or properly understood) in isolation. The old maxim that "a text out of context becomes a pretext" assuredly holds. (That maxim is a meme that is worth sharing with others: it embodies an important truth!)
The other problem with at least some use of Christian memes and slogans is the substitution of shortcuts for comprehension. Our calling in Christ does not commend the use of shortcuts: "in understanding be men" (1 Cor. 14:20). This means we cannot be "slothful in hearing" (Heb. 5:11) because slothfulness is the reason our understanding is compromised. The term the author of Hebrews4 uses here is dyshermeneuto, roughly a dysfunctional hermeneutic (faulty understanding or interpretation), and he pins the cause of it on slothfulness, which Holy Writ treats as a moral sin (e.g., "thou wicked and slothful servant," Matt. 25:26).
Another problem with memes, even supposedly Christian memes, is the issue of confirmation bias. We adopt memes that validate our existing opinions-especially theological opinions. In the matter of religion we know that there are those who "accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own liking" (2 Tim. 4:3). Why then would we think this doesn't hold true across the cultural board for man, Christian man no less than man unmoored from God?
In his 1965 book, The Mythology of Science, Dr. Rushdoony was able to illustrate how scientists suffer from confirmation bias, a bias belying their alleged intellectual neutrality. Rushdoony cites multiple cases where scientists were "disappointed" by experimental results that failed to validate their metaphysical and ideological hopes (e.g., of extraterrestrial life). One can only imagine how Rushdoony would react to today's conflict over global warming (I mean, climate change- the current meme of choice until its proponents are forced to cook up another one).
In Hebrews 5:11-6:3 we read about the rudiments or first principles, the building blocks, of the faith. Rudiments is the English term used to translate the Greek word stoichiea. We should consider that memes are, in themselves, cultural stoichiea. At best, they are the milk, not the meat, of a culture. By becoming skilled in the meat of the Word, in grasping things systematically and presuppositionally, you become immune to manipulation by memes, by controlled narratives, and by the fashion of this world (which passeth away) as expressed by all such memes.
So we again return to our initial question: is it appropriate for Christians to use memes? We'll address this more directly in the next section. Let us say for now that memes that embody Biblical truth, and lead to the whole counsel of God, that can serve as a gateway from the world of sound bites and Tweets and emoticons to the depths of the riches of God, may be the tool of choice for our present condition. Anything short of this probably would lead the serious Christian to conclude that the end doesn't justify the memes.
The propagation of memes from parents to children is among the strongest mechanisms by which a cultural idea extends across time and grows. The secularists see this, and have fully documented this truth, but Christians by and large do not grasp its importance. Far too many Christians tragically put their children under the power of our secular culture's meme machine to reshape their minds to build the kingdom of man. Although the secularists concede the power of the family to replicate and propel a religious meme into future generations with inexorable force, Christians can't be bothered.
But secularists don't mind bothering with the future of your children on their terms.
And if you think you can just wait until the media has been reformed and is once again safe, consider Dr. Paul Jehle's clever twist on St. Paul's assertion that the last enemy to be destroyed is death: "The last thing to be reconstructed is the media." If this is true (and Dr. Jehle is a shrewd observer of the conflict between light and darkness), we Christians need to get out in front of this problem and take ownership of our generational obligations now. Don't let your children drink poison in the dubious hope that the antidote might arrive at any moment.
Of a truth, the Kingdom of God in this world has suffered self-inflicted decay that, from what I can see, is only being remedied through the Christian homeschool movement. For that movement to have a truly multi-generational impact (as opposed to sprouting quickly and again wilting away), we will need to more firmly ground this work than we have hitherto done. The 2009 DVD film by the Botkin siblings, Homeschool Dropouts, pinpoints the problem and the underlying weaknesses that need to be addressed to properly resolve it.
The Ultimate Meme
The texts of Isaiah 59:19 and 59:21 are not in themselves a meme, but they perfectly describe a supernaturally propagated unit of culture-transforming power that fully immerses the entire world. In verse 19, we can infer that the meme described in verse 21 that fully covers the world is driven like a flood throughout a culture by nothing less than the Spirit of God Himself. Here is the text of these two verses in Isaiah as adapted from the Complete Jewish Bible:
In the West they will fear the Name of the Lord, and likewise, in the East, His glory. For He will come like a pent-up stream, impelled by the Spirit of the Lord.
"And as for me," says the Lord, "this is my covenant with them: My Spirit, who rests on you, and My words which I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth or from the mouth of your children, or from the mouth of your children's children, now or ever," says the Lord.
Do you see the meme, the unit that replicates from one generation to the other? It is My words which I have put in your mouth. The ultimate meme is a large one, comprising sixty-six books, but because God Himself supervises the preservation of the meme, it remains intact among the faithful covenant community, to whom that preservation alone is vouchsafed.
The architects of modern secular memetics did get one thing right: the family has a major part to play in the propagation of memes, for Isaiah 59:21 clearly sees a multi-generational promise of God concerning the preservation of the ultimate meme. The Word of God is carried from generation to generation with supernatural accuracy. The same Spirit that rests upon those in whose mouth His Word is found is said to impel the process of the pent-up stream bursting through the dam to cover the world both eastward and westward. Benjamin B. Warfield and the Douay-Rheims translation render the last part of verse 19, "which the Spirit of the Lord driveth on." The ultimate meme is being propelled by nothing less than the Spirit of God and is not subject to government control of the Internet, Wikipedia editors, or opinion-makers in the media.
Of course, the meme being supernaturally replicated generation-to-generation by the power of God as Isaiah describes is ultimate in more than one way. That meme, the Word of God, is ultimate not only because there is no more perfectly replicated cultural unit (without distortion or mutation or barriers to propagation), it is ultimate because that Word is the engine of Christian self-government.
God says that He magnifies His Word above His Own Name (Psalm 138:2), so this is a fairly important meme5 that the memetics experts have given short shrift. Consequently, the concept of Christian self-government is alien to them (no surprise given how alien it has become among the last two centuries of Christians). But what meme could be more ultimate than one that is God's chosen way to implement His promise to His Son that "the government shall be upon His shoulders, and of the increase of that government and of peace there shall be no end" (Isa. 9:6b-7a)?
And what force could possibly drive this world-conquering meme, the only meme that frames Christian self-government under God's law, to complete and total victory? Isaiah 9:7 rings out with complacency-shattering power: "The zeal of the Lord of Hosts shall perform this."
1. John Willinsky, "Cutting English on the Bias: Five Lexicographers in Pursuit of the New." American Speech 63.1 (1984), 54.
3. Consider the partial citation from page 159 of R. J. Rushdoony's Foundations of Social Order used on Wikipedia to put the N-word into Dr. Rushdoony's mouth. Every time I've added the entire citation to show that Rushdoony was criticizing a quotation from elsewhere (the circle of Erich Fromm's associates), the editors yanked out the correction and reverted back to the version that demonized Rushdoony by hiding the quote marks and context. This vilification is willful. If Wikipedia is willing to remove the exonerating sentences around the cited material, they're not likely to tolerate exposure of other false witnesses. Talk of a Christian alternative to Wikipedia needs to grow into actual resolve to undertake that task.
4. Every few years I have occasion to reassert the view I first published in the early 1980s, that Jude composed the book of Hebrews. This follows from the analogy of scripture: Jude asserts in the third verse of his epistle that he was working on a larger treatise "concerning our common salvation" which he felt obligated to lay aside temporarily to write a brief letter of exhortation to the people. In Hebrews 13:22, the writer says he had also written a brief letter of exhortation to the recipients. The two epistles are essentially pointing at each other. Ironically, scholars assert that nobody knows where Jude's big doctrinal letter went, and nobody knows what became of the Hebrews' writer's short exhortation: they've both gone missing. Or have they? Not surprisingly, the examples of Old Testament events alluded to by Jude follow the ones mentioned in Hebrews. On this hypothesis, the reason for that is because these examples were fresh in Jude's mind when he set aside writing Hebrews to take up the brief 25-verse epistle bearing his name. Then he went back to work to complete the book of Hebrews. The view that the "brief word of exhortation" mentioned in Hebrews is the book of Hebrews itself strains credulity: it contains 13 chapters of the most complex theology this side of Romans. The 25-verse epistle of Jude is a far better candidate. Unfortunately, some translations have attempted to distort these texts to conform to modern notions of authorship (or lack thereof).
6. This is, of course, a huge understatement deployed solely for its ironic effect. There is no more important meme than the Word of God.
- Martin G. Selbrede
Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.