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What Does the Bible Actually Meme?

From "biblical angel" memes to slogans like "you're not David," memes carry a shallow snob appeal that can create a dangerous illusion of knowledge.

The opening vision of Ezekiel. Artist unknown.

I love memes - and honestly, who doesn’t? Memes have an amazing ability to pack a lot of humor into a short, easy to consume package. However, I fear that as memes become increasingly popular we’re reaching a point where we’re trusting memes in areas we shouldn’t be. This is especially true where biblical interpretation and theology are involved.

The crux of the problem is that sound biblical interpretation takes a lot of hard work, and memes are designed to be quick and easy to consume. In many cases, memes that sound “smart” about important theological topics are oversimplifications that don’t do justice to what the Bible actually says.

Theology is hard work and shouldn't be oversimplified

To begin with, let’s practice a bit of biblical interpretation just to demonstrate the amount of work that is sometimes involved. For simplicity, we’ll start with a story that most Christians should be very familiar with: The Good Samaritan. Nearly all of us have heard the story, which is found in Luke 10:25-37; but I’ll briefly summarize the details.

A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers and left half-dead by the side of the road. A priest followed by a Levite both pass the man by, deliberately walking on the other side of the road, without helping him! Finally, a Samaritan comes by and chooses to help the man, not only caring for him but going to considerable expense to see to it that he receives ongoing care. Jesus uses the parable in response to a question about who our neighbor is, particularly in relation to loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Francesco Bassano, 1575

So what’s going on here? Is this just a generic story about being nice to people in need, or do the details of the story carry important details about what it really means to love our neighbors? This story carries a lot of background information, though - fortunately -- in this case, most of it can be found within the broader biblical text. Who are the priests? Who are the Levites? Who are the Samaritans? Does it even matter? In this case, answering these questions is incredibly important, as it really helps highlight what Jesus was teaching.

The first thing we’ve got to recognize is the audience. Jesus is being questioned by a lawyer, and from the broader context, there are good reasons to believe this man was a Pharisee. Now, we know from both history and examples in the Bible, like Acts 22, that the Pharisees didn’t get along very well with Sadducees, whose primary membership would have been the priests and Levites who ministered in the temple. So, while in the story these are people who should be holy ministers of God, their decision not to help the man won’t exactly come as surprise to their more holy Pharisaical opponents. After the Levite passes by you can almost hear the audience thinking “Yes: those other guys aren’t really keeping the law like we are. Now our guy is going to come on the scene and do the right thing”. Instead, Jesus brings in a Samaritan.

Now, we know from passages like John 4 and the historical record that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day really, really hated the Samaritans. There is a lot of historical background on why, but the most important present reality is that the Samaritan was about as far from being “one of our own” as was reasonably possible. Yet it’s the Samaritan, and not a more righteous Pharisee, who shows up and demonstrates actual love towards the man who is in need.

This significantly redefines the term neighbor away from being “my group” or “my community” and pretty clearly shifts the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” to include everyone around us. Jesus isn’t letting his audience squirm out from under having to walk in love by carefully choosing who they have obligations to. Instead, he’s making it clear that being a “neighbor” is about demonstrating love - even towards those who blatantly hate you.

Notice how much work went into providing even a basic summary of a story with which we’re all familiar. This isn’t even a particularly challenging story to interpret, as most of the important meaning is found within either the immediate context of the story or the broader biblical context. We didn’t even have to get into biblical languages or historical context much for this one, and yet I’ve just spent several paragraphs outlining the basic background knowledge needed for understanding.

Memes shouldn't be asked to carry this much weight

There is nothing inherently wrong with memes, and I think they even have value in making biblical Truth socially acceptable. However, we can’t expect an image with a very small amount of writing on it to carry this kind of theological weight. There simply isn’t space in the average meme to carry even the most basic biblical interpretations faithfully. As such, we need to be extremely cautious not to get our theology from “edgy” internet memes that claim to be correcting misconceptions. To really see how the oversimplification of memes causes problems, let’s discuss a few recent examples.

The common "biblical angel" meme grossly oversimplifies biblical angelology while conveying an illusion of superior knowledge.

While it wasn’t the first time I’ve had these thoughts, the recent popularity of the biblical angel meme played a large role in helping my thoughts on the topic coalesce. Indeed, this meme really highlights the potential for error when we lean too heavily on an overly simplified medium. The meme is cast as a “biblical” response to the prevalence of angelic images, especially Christmas tree toppers, that aren’t consistent with the Bible. For example, most Christmas tree toppers feature women, whereas angels don’t necessarily have a sex at all, and the descriptions we do have - such as names - invoke male imagery. The problem with the “response” in this meme is that it takes imagery found in only one passage of Scripture - Ezekiel 1 - and attempts to force it onto the rest of Scripture.

If we actually take this meme’s claim of biblical “accuracy” seriously, then we have to conclude that it is engaged in a serious case of proof-texting, since all through the Bible, and especially in the four Gospel accounts, angels appear in basically human form. In at least one case, an angel appears so human that those receiving his message don’t realize they’re talking to an angel until he ascends into heaven (Judges 13:16). Luke’s gospel account even describes them as “two men”, though the remaining context makes it clear that they are actually angels.

Now, in this case, the theological issues at play are relatively minor. The physical appearance of angels, while interesting, isn’t a significant topic for Christian living. In our next two examples, we’ll see how memes can actually bring in theological errors that have serious consequences on how we apply Scripture to our daily lives.

Memes that convey an illusion of knowledge can have detrimental effects on your sanctification

Slogans can have a similar illusion-of-knowledge effect to visual memes.

Consider the "you're not David" meme. A whole host of memes like this one were going around a while back, and - like the previous meme - they’re attempting to correct a genuine theological error. It has become far, far too common for the story of David and Goliath to become nothing more than a theological metaphor for facing various kinds of difficulties and trials in our lives. Even the very details of the story get allegorized so that we get inspirational messages about our “five stones” for slaying the giants in our lives. This is dangerous in a number of ways since it both misses the major theological truth of the passage and treats David as an ahistorical, mythical figure and not a real saint of God from real history.

However, the lack of nuance in the memes leads to an overcorrection that is just as dangerous. The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t see David in ourselves, but that we have to recognize how David came to kill Goliath in the first place. We are all sinners in need of salvation. However, in terms of how many people his actions directly hurt, a strong case can be made that David had flaws that were more significant than those of most Christians. After all, how many people on your church’s leadership team have committed adultery and killed the woman's husband in order to cover it up? David was just another sinner operating under God’s grace like we are, and there is nothing wrong with looking to him as a historical example of courageous Christian living.

When we lead with “you aren’t David”, we are deliberately discouraging Christians from seeing themselves within the biblical narrative and robbing them of much-needed encouragement in confronting a world that is openly hostile to God. That’s the real story.

By David’s own words, he isn't the one who took Goliath down in the first place. David reacted in righteous indignation to Goliath’s blasphemous attack on God’s character, and he fully expected God to aid him in his response to that attack. This isn’t something unique to David: it is a story that has continued throughout church history and still plays out in our own day. The post-modern world is full of attacks on Christianity and on Christ, and we are not compelled to see ourselves as the cowering armies of Saul hoping a challenger will rise up. We can, and indeed should, recognize that we have access to the same divine help David had if we choose to boldly confront those challenges.

Should we be surprised that Christians are afraid to engage courageously on Christ’s behalf when we’ve told them it’s only appropriate to compare themselves to biblical characters' sins but not to the valiant ways God used them to accomplish His purposes?

Yes, we get it, you're smarter than the Christians who quote Jeremiah 29:11.

No doubt you’ve detected the trend with each of the memes I’ve addressed so far. They set out to address a genuine theological issue, only too overcorrect into equal amounts of error. As I said at the outset, the real issue is that theology is hard, and memes are just too simplistic a medium to carry the weight we’ve asked them to. The "Jeremiah 29:11" meme is no exception.

We've never lived in Ephesus either, but Ephesians still has relevance to our lives. It's not that we should apply Ephesians to ourselves and not Jeremiah: it's that we must apply both books appropriately and with an understanding of their unique context.

We’ve all seen Jeremiah 29:11, Philippians 4:13, and a whole host of passages taken wildly out of context and used to push a narrative closer to prosperity teaching than the actual Gospel. That’s a serious problem, and we shouldn’t treat it lightly. The problem is that we also need a more theologically nuanced understanding of how Scripture applies to us. While I’m sure it’s unintentional, this meme suggests that Jeremiah 29:11 can’t apply to us at all since we didn’t survive the Babylonian Exile. What’s particularly odd about this emphasis, is that I’m quite sure the meme wouldn’t apply this same standard only a few chapters later in Jeremiah 32:39, which is pretty obviously referring to Salvation through Christ.

Context is critical to understanding Scripture and applying it well, but - as we discussed in our brief look at the Good Samaritan - laying out the full context of a passage and then applying it appropriately to our setting is time-consuming work and takes a good bit of serious study. The promises of God in Scripture are every bit as relevant for us today as the rebukes and descriptions of man’s sinful nature, perhaps more so since in Christ Jesus, we already possess the ultimate fulfillment of God’s greatest promise! Yes, we should be cautious to thoroughly examine how a passage most accurately applies now; but there is no need to toss out promises entirely just because they were made to a different people. By this logic, most of the Bible is no longer of any use to Christians today.

How shall we then meme?

If, as I’ve argued, memes are simply not an effective medium for carrying serious biblical truths, how should we’ve move forward? First of all, I don’t think we should stop using memes. Particularly as illustrations for broader points, memes can still be utilized effectively. What’s more, they do provide an avenue of valuable cultural engagement.

However, we need to be extremely cautious that we not allow our attention spans to shrink to the size of a meme. If we want to know what the Bible really says, to be able to engage rigorously with serious theological truths, and to be able to apply God’s Word rightly to our lives, then we’re going to have to be willing to do the hard work that entails. The problem isn’t the Christian memes trying to engage the culture, though sometimes their work may miss the mark. The problem is that we are in grave danger of becoming too lazy to study the Scriptures rightly.

If we’ve lost the ability to understand and communicate the Bible and its message outside of the extremely shallow world of memes, we are in need of serious repentance. At the end of the day, even biblically-accurate theology memes are just human attempts at communicating God’s Word. If we are wise, at some point we will put down our phones and pick up the amazing treasure we have been given in the revealed, divinely inspired Word of God.

Men and women through the centuries have literally died to preserve this message. Are we spending our time getting Truth from memes while our Bible’s collect dust on the bookshelf?



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