Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Humor & Religion Online: The Buddy Christ

Considered at a superficial level, the Buddy Christ meme appears to playfully communicate the message that traditional Christian institutions should perhaps take themselves less seriously. However, I argue that the collection of Buddy Christ memes under examination for my case study uses humor to question the assumed authority of the church by poking fun at traditional religious practice commonly associated with followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

Each of the three attributes of humor in memes (Shifman, 2011) is present in the Buddy Christ meme collection. First, the Buddy Christ meme draws humor from an inherent playfulness about Christian themes and behaviors that do not involve play. Creators of the meme invite users to playfully communicate about religious practice; this is particularly alluring for users who understand the traditionally serious social context within which these practices are performed. The meme is attractive because playfulness seems out of place for the religious subject matter, and we are often drawn to the weird.

While Buddy Christ meme creators certainly intend to be playful, they execute their brand of humor most clearly by setting users up for “an unexpected cognitive encounter between two incongruent elements” (Shifman, 196). The incongruence of the Buddy Christ meme is presented in a multilayered visual. Users first encounter incongruence with the non-traditional depiction of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of utilizing common Christian imagery associated with Jesus, such as more solemn elements like a “crown of thorns” or a crucifix, the Buddy Christ is grinning, winking, and giving the viewer a thumbs up sign. This not-so-subtle visual incongruity immediately tips many users off to the religious humor that the meme will attempt. The second layer of incongruent humor found in the Buddy Christ meme is textual. Through the usage of large white block text at the top and bottom of the meme, creators complete their jabs at religion by juxtaposing a traditional religious phrase, usually denoting a traditional practice, with a non-traditional (and sometimes offensive) response phrase. The meme pictured above represents an example of this textual incongruence. At the top of the meme are the words “Living Water?”, a phrase which connotes the Christian practice of baptism; below these words is the phrase “Drink Responsibly”, a theme commonly associated with alcoholic beverage advertisements. There are multiple incongruent messages here that attempt to be humorous; on one hand, Christians do not drink baptismal water and thus may find the message a mockery of practice; on another, the consumption of alcohol is frowned upon by many conservative Christian groups who would find the mixed messages offensive; on yet another, “Drink Responsibly” may be a subtle warning about the consumption or promotion of Christian ideologies. Regardless of interpretation, Buddy Christ memes strongly engage with the comic through visual and textual incongruity.

Finally, I argue that the Buddy Christ meme utilizes superiority to access humor, but in an unconventional way. It appears that, rather than attempting to demonstrate their own superiority, Buddy Christ meme creators make efforts to communicate the idea that Christianity and its socially dominant proponents are not or should not be superior. In their mockery of Christianity’s central figure as well as practices derived from his teaching, Buddy Christ memes do not claim superiority for any ideology as much as they reject it for traditional Christianity.

From this perspective on superiority (or the denial of it) in Buddy Christ memes, it can also be argued that these memes approach religion from the ‘biting social commentary’ category described by Knobel and Lankshear (2007). The movie Dogma, from which the Buddy Christ meme derives, is itself a critical commentary on the effects of traditional religion on society. Thus, it stands to reason that a meme serving as an ideologically similar but smaller unit of cultural transmission would take a similar approach to framing religion. With this frame in place, the criticisms of the Buddy Christ meme can be extended beyond Christian figures and practices to the Christian worshippers who perform them. In other words, the ‘biting social commentary’ of the Buddy Christ meme is that reifying Christian authority in practice is silly – and even sillier are the people doing it.

As I conducted online observation of the Buddy Christ meme, I noticed online participants referencing the meme when discussing religious practice, often in the form of a categorical tag (or, in Twitter terminology, a hashtag). Interestingly, not all of these participants actually posted a new Buddy Christ meme, and were not required to do so to engage with the meme. This suggests that the meme has become assimilated into internet culture to the point that repetition of the visual meme is unnecessary to generate new memetic meanings about Christian practice and authority. Thus, I propose two research questions that will allow me to observe and describe communicative participation with the Buddy Christ meme since its inception:

How do online participants use the Buddy Christ meme to communicatively affirm or question the authority of traditional Christian beliefs and practices? How has the communicative usage of the Buddy Christ meme changed or stayed the same over time?


Shifman, L. (2011). An anatomy of a YouTube meme. New Media Society, 14(2), 187-203.

Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2007). Online memes, affinities, and cultural production. In Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (Eds.). A New Literacies Sampler. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

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