The word meme is relatively new as words go. It was first used, invented, by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 when Dawkins was still best known as an evolutionary biologist. Dawkins is now best known as one of the most rabid of the “new atheists.” As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins wanted to describe ideas, styles and behaviors that spread through a culture by non-genetic means. He borrowed an old Greek word and made up a new word, meme, to describe the phenomenon.
More recently the word has come to be used mostly in relationship to ideas spread via social media – Facebook or You Tube posts that “go viral.” In particular, users of Facebook and other social media platforms recognize memes as those images with a message that get “liked” and “shared” thousands of times. If you don’t use social media, think of a poster or a billboard. That’s a meme.
Each week Google+, a Facebook wannabe, lists the top memes of the week. Last week’s most popular post was a video of a cat whacking its owners face. Cats are really important in the world of social media, and I don’t know why. They just are. The second most popular meme is the one up at the top of this post. “It’s important to make someone happy, and it’s important to start with yourself,” we are told. The graphics are really nice – light shining through water from the surface to the depths.
Okay, I know, as harmless as it is inane. It’s all surface and no depth. But maybe not.
We are half way through Lent, this season of self-denial in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection. On Ash Wednesday our text that began the Lenten journey to the cross and then the empty tomb was from the Mark 8: And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?”
Fifty years into the project to de-legitimize Christian faith, those who would sanitize the public square of all its Christian influences have an impressive list of victories, legislative and cultural. Those of us who hold that a faithless world is not just cold and uncaring, but dangerous to human thriving, should worry deeply about the social, economic and moral libertarianism of both the left and the right.
But isn’t the inane thought of making myself happy, when it’s gone viral, also a threat to human thriving? The quest to make myself happy, an impossibility, leads to a dead-end street; not a pleasant cul-de-sac. At the end of the dead-end street is death; a toxic dump.
Jesus doesn’t tell us to deny self and take up a cross because he is a sadist. He says so because he loves us. He knows that once we set out to make ourselves happy we will never get around to making anyone else happy. Once we set our happiness as our first aim, we will lose touch with the God who alone knows what makes for joy. Once we set out to make ourselves happy we will forget what happiness looks like. “But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other things will be added unto you,” Jesus said. Joy is found in putting the right things first. Self happiness is not the right thing to put first.
C.S. Lewis ends his magnificent little book Mere Christianity with these words. “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
I think that will make for a good meme.