Meme’s are fun, but when we try to theologize through them we usually just end up trivializing or oversimplifying larger, more nuanced theological concepts, ideas and teachings.
Jonathan David Faulkner
I am not a fan of Meme-ology.
What is Meme-ology you ask? Meme-Ology is the practice of summing up large pieces of theology from any theological discipline, biblical, systematic, historical etc. Into a pithy or over simplified meme that only supports one side of a theological argument of which scriptures supports both sides of that argument and which should be taken as a whole without a resolution to the tension with discernment for when a teaching is actually applicable to a situation. Or, the use of a single scripture, ripped from its context, to support a philosophical idea or ideology that may be either obliquely related or completely unrelated to how the text is being used.
We all know what I am talking about, how many of us shared Philippians 4:15? “I can do all things through Christ who Strengthens me” to relate to being able to do anything we desire to do. The full passage, Philippians 4 deals with contentment in the worst situations, for Paul, at the time of writing, it was incarceration and pending trial either leading to his death in Rome. Yet, the passage often gets used when we want to do something. As a kid I can remember trying to learn how to ride a bike and thinking “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Our self-indulgent Americanized Christianity applies this passage to the self, rather than the situation, it becomes a verse about self-empowerment rather than Christ’s power in our suffering. Yet to understand this verse in context we would have to have a much more robust understanding and theology of suffering than we currently have.
Philippians 4:15 is for the farmer who cannot make ends meet and who is feeling the pressure of maintaining his farm, so much so that he is on the verge of burn-out and may even be suicidal. It is for the mother and father who have just lost a child, whether that be to miscarriage, infant loss, suicide, overdose or what not. It is for the Christian in Pakistan who is under house arrest for believing in Jesus or the pastor in China who is also under house arrest for preaching the gospel outside of the Chinese National Church. Christ will strengthen them, give them hope and comfort when they reach out to Him.
It is not meant to be applied to the teenage boy who wants to date the cute girl at Youth Group but cannot get up the nerve to talk to her. It is not for the man who engages in get-rich-quick schemes. For the person sitting in the pew of the health and wealth preacher who believes if he just believes and claims riches, he will receive them. It is not speaking about the student who wants a 4.0 and has to pass a huge test to get it. It is not a passage about Christ helping us achieve self-advancement.
It is about Christ walking with us and strengthening us through the greatest suffering in life. Talking to a girl is hard for a teenage boy, but he is not imprisoned for believing she is cute. The Chinese pastor, who believes Jesus, preaches His word faithfully, loves God and is arrested for all that because his religion is seen as the religion of the colonizer, he is the one Christ will strengthen through helping him find comfort and contentment in the worst possible situation.
Yet, it is often the first scenario, the teenage boy, and not the Chinese pastor who this passage gets applied too. Because we lack a robust theology of suffering we apply this passage to self-enhancement, but Paul is not speaking of that, he is speaking of the suffering caused by imprisonment. We do not preach or posses a scripture of self-enhancement, we preach and poses a scripture that tells us we cannot, on our own, make ourselves better. That it is Christ living in us that makes it possible for Christians to live with contentment whatever the trial we may face. Apart from Christ, the pressures and trials of this world would completely overwhelm and destroy us.
Another example of Meme-Ology is the picture chosen for the cover of this article. It talks about how Christians are actually supposed to judge and lists a number of reasons and scripture passages as to why that is true. The problem is, the same Meme can and has been created by the “Judge Not” camp. Both groups believe they have the corner on scripture and see these ideas as at odds with one another. The problem is, Scripture allows for a healthy dose of tension. Jesus does command us “Judge Not” but he also tells us to make judgements, to discern the spirit. Each text has its specific context and specific instructions. The fact is that some of the passages listed are not describing person to person interaction but spiritual discernment. Many of the judgment passages pulled out are also talking about an eschatological judgment. As Rich Mullins says: “Because one day we are going to judge the nations and I have my favorites picked out.” In relationship to human beings, a fuller understanding of the judge/judge not commands would be that we should never put judgment before Love but we should have discernment about a persons actions based on a mature understanding of scripture and aid from the Holy Spirit who dwells within all who believe. As for spiritual discernment, we are to make judgment of what spirit is speaking, whether it be the Holy Spirit which indwells or spirits of the enemy who destroy. The words judgment and discernment are interchangeable. We should not pass a judgement on a human being, but we should be able to discern the actions and the spirit working in another person and react biblically, always putting love first.
These Meme’s also ignore other teachings of Jesus such as “Removing the log in our own eye before commenting on the speck in our brothers” and so on. They become justifications for saying and doing anything we want because our private judgments are infinitely more important than the consensus of the Body of Christ and certainly more important than the full, Spirit-Breathed council of scripture. At the point of Meme-Ology we are no longer even “Bible-thumping” we are “Private Judgment thumping.” Passing off our own private thoughts for biblical authority.
Not that there is not room of private judgments, but as John Williamson Nevin writes: “Private judgments must be brought into the church to see if they hold water alongside the corporate study of scripture.” That is, private judgments must be brought into the church so we can reason through them in a manner that glorifies God and encourages and strengthens the faith of fellow believers. That also means we may have adjust our private judgments to come in line with what scripture actually teaches us. The biggest disservice American Evangelicalism has done for us is give us the phrase: “This scripture means to me…”
That does not mean there is no room for individual revelation concerning scripture, in fact, Simon Chan in his book “Spiritual Theology” says that the nature end of a deep life in the spirit is what he calls “Private Revelation.” That is, the spirit leading us to do X,Y or Z and giving us the courage to follow through on that. This doesn’t mean you should keep it to yourself, but often we hear “Private Revelation” meant for us and try to apply it to another person, or we just make it up. These interaction with the spirit need to be filtered through a spiritual director or teacher who can help you discern the spirits and who is already praying for you. We are not meant to be isolated, sedentary Christians who act on every thought and who attribute every thought to the Holy Spirit.
The fact is, scripture is much more nuanced in its language then we tend to make it out to be. The fundamentalist and evangelical tendency to interpret scripture based on a “plain reading of the text” has done a lot of damage in the history of the American Church. It has excused us from actually digging deeply, to really examine the text. Down to the very languages in which it was originally written. English is actually problematic when it comes to interpretation because it does not allow for the kind of nuance that both Hebrew and Greek do. The example above serves as a good example of this. Judgement in scripture can mean judicial intent, but it can also mean discernment. In English we have this distinction, but for some reason, when we read scripture we apply one definition or the other to every use of the word. Instead, we should spend an hour or two digging into all the available background data to discover everything we can about the use of the word and how it is used in that particular passage.
We need to beware of Meme-Ology, it often tends towards a misrepresentation of scripture and the truth therein. As Christians, Christ is tells us explicitly no to do that in Rev 22:19. We are meant to consider the fullness of the council of scripture and that requires us to dig a little deeper than the plain English meaning or proof texting by pulling a verse out of context. So stay away from Meme-Ology, for the sake of the truth, so that you may teach the fullness of the word of God as you know Him more fully.
To Him be all glory, honor and praise, forever and ever, Amen.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center Iowa.