Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reading Memes in an Internet Public: The Buddy Christ

My efforts to observe online discourse about the Buddy Christ meme took me down some unexpected virtual pathways. To my surprise, meaningful discourse about the Buddy Christ meme was not readily present and active on some of the most common forum-based social media sites, including Facebook and Reddit. On microblogging sites such as Twitter and Tumblr, images or hashtags of the Buddy Christ meme are often posted, but overt discussions about meme meanings are not common occurrences or of substantial length. Despite having no vibrant Facebook community for himself, the following Buddy Christ meme was posted on the Facebook page “Christian Memes” in 2012:

The comments section reveals an audience that takes no offense towards the meme or any of its suggestions about Christ as an authoritative religious figure. Instead, the audience either values the meme for its face-value humor (“Just let the funny do it’s thang, don’t fight it”) or interprets the meme as a reification of Christian beliefs (“Its true!! no matter who you are or what you’ve done, He loves you!!”). A second meme utilizing Buddy Christ as its figure was also posted on the “Christian Memes” Facebook page in 2012: 

This meme is a good representation of how meme meanings and usage may change as memes spread online. A non-traditional example of the Buddy Christ meme, the creator of this meme added a third layer of imagery to enhance the humorous impact of their message. Once again, the Facebook audience responded with appreciation for the humor of the meme (“this made me laugh!”) or by making contributions to the humorous message (“Jesus drives a Chrysler. Chrysler will be happy to hear this…”) but not commenting on the religious meanings of the meme.

Perhaps due to the assimilation of the Buddy Christ meme as a taken-for-granted social feature of the Internet by religious audiences, I discovered that a great deal of online discourse about the religious implications of the Buddy Christ meme has found its way onto individual full-length blogs on various blog hosting sites. These blog posts typically open with a variation of the meme at the top of the post and proceed to use the Buddy Christ as a sort of running example throughout the subsequent text of the post. It is on these blogs and in their comment sections that I observed the Buddy Christ meme becoming a reflexive tool for Christians to assert or challenge various theological positions. This is almost certainly a departure from the intended messages of early Buddy Christ meme creators. The rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Connecticut posted the following Buddy Christ meme on his personal blog just last week:

The rector’s post was essentially an expression of reflexive agreement with the critical intent of the meme. He suggested that despite its irreverent depiction of Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddy Christ meme actually carries with it the legitimate Christian meaning that Christians should embrace joy in their religious practice and demonstrate that joy to non-Christians. Members of the rector’s parish offered affirmation of the post in the comments section (“Amen!”). Other blogs and their audiences followed similar formats but came away with different reflexive meanings, including constructions of the Buddy Christ as a representation of both (a) the failure of Christians to appropriately revere the authority of Christ in practice and (b) perceptions of tensions between traditional Christian practice and popular culture.

A potential major takeaway for this case study is that as religious memes become assimilated into Internet culture, they may unintentionally become meaningful resources for reflexive discourse among religious audiences. Furthermore, reflexive meme discourse may move away from larger online forums and into smaller Internet settings that are targeted towards members of religious groups more likely to understand and embrace particularized reflexive meanings.

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