Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reading Religious Memes in an Internet Public

In week 6 you are asked to consider the circulation of meaning within religious memes in relation to various Internet publics. Memes can be read in different ways by different audience online as they become what Jenkins describes as “spreadable media”. By exploring online discourse and meme creator intentionality we can consider how framings and messages about religion can change, even when the memes themselves do not.  This week’s analysis will involve looking for public responses to a selection of at least 3 specific memes you are studying. This can be either in the form of the analysis of comments posted in a forum regarding audience response to the memes or conducting an interview with the creator/s of the memes to see their intention and hear back the reactions they have received regarding their creations. Please reflect on the following questions:

-What role to audience and/or creators plays in shaping the meaning of memes, and how much influence do they have in informing the messages about religion transferred online?

-In what ways may religious memes communicate multiple or conflicting messages as they are read by different audiences?

-In what ways are religious internet memes effective and/or problematic forms of communication about religion?


Humor and religion in 2012 presidential election memes

Religious memes about the candidates of the 2012 presidential election invoke humor in provocative (and sometimes problematic) ways. The memes about Obama and Romney both use Shifman’s concepts of playfulness, incongruity, and superiority. As Shifman explains, playfulness occurs when “humor is enjoyed for its own sake,” and the item has clearly been constructed by its creators to be humorous (2011, p. 195-96). Incongruity refers to an instance in which “the comic derives from an unexpected cognitive encounter between two incongruent elements, as in a pun, a man in women’s clothing, or a dancing banana” (Shifman, 2011, p. 196). By contrast, superiority is used in order to “feature people who are unintentionally, or at least not clearly intentionally, funny” (Shifman, 2011, p. 196). As we will see through analysis of a sample meme about each candidate, multiple types of humor can be used in a single meme, although one type is usually foregrounded through the interaction of the image and text.

The Obama meme in this instance purports to show how different groups or people “see” Obama. The primary type of humor operating here is incongruity, because the image of Obama,   person with considerable power and influence, is paired with a number of disparate images, such as Hitler, a unicorn, and the image of Jesus. However, there are other layers of humor occurring here, as the image of Obama on a unicorn could be seen either as playful (it’s funny to think of a man in a suit riding or unicorn). However, when we combine the text of “how Democrats see Obama” with the image of Obama on a unicorn, it becomes clear that superiority is the type of humor being used: someone who is disenchanted with Democrats might very well poke fun at Democrats in a scornful way by putting Obama on a unicorn. In this light, the pairing casts Obama (and, by extension, Democrats) as being unrealistic or living in a fantasy world.

This specific meme seems to transcend party lines, offering a (sometimes) humorous critique of both the way people see Obama, as well as the man himself. Interestingly, all of the Middle Eastern countries’ perceptions of Obama show photographs of Obama being burned in effigy: real photos of real events. By contrast, the purported viewpoints of Republicans, Democrats, and Obama are whimsical and clearly contrived. This juxtaposition of the real with the imagined seem to communicate that the way people of this nation view Obama is incorrect, whereas the view of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran is true.

The meme of Mitt Romney clearly foregrounds superiority, as the meme’s creator pokes fun at Romney for his views regarding gay marriage and government subsidies. This meme requires the reader to perceive opposition to gay marriages and government subsidies as being unconstitutional in order for the humor to make sense.  The reference to “the gays” pokes fun at Romney’s conservative, LDS beliefs, which define marriage as “between a man and a woman” (Romney, 2007). Romney’s views are thus cast as being unenlightened, or inferior. The sympathetic reader of the meme becomes the intellectual superior of Romney by seeing a logical contradiction that Romney does not.

The visual imagery in this meme functions to further contextualize the argument, as it was taken during one of the presidential debates. This is significant because it was during the first presidential debates that Romney stated that he would cut subsidies to PBS (Kessler, 2012). Additionally, the fact that the image shows Romney laughing is significant because it further illustrates the view of Romney as unconcerned with others due to his personal affluence. Interestingly, this meme does not seem to invoke playfulness or incongruity, relying wholly on the reader’s agreement with the argument in order to elicit feelings of superiority.

To conclude, the two memes invoke humor in different ways. While the Obama meme contained multilayered uses of humor (playfulness and superiority, while foregrounding incongruity), the meme of Romney relied wholly on superiority.  The religious components of the Obama meme worked to create an image of Obama as a kind of god, or as co-opting religion, while Romney’s religious beliefs were used to make him seem unintelligent. In both cases, the candidates and their religious beliefs were essentialized. In short, the meme served to create an uncomplicated snapshot of each candidate and his religious beliefs that could be viewed humorously. While in a sense, this creates a fallacious, ad hominem argument against the person rather than the policy, it could also create the potential for further discussion and dialogue.

Based on this and the previous analysis, I propose the following research questions: 
1. Memes necessarily engage in religious reductionism, or essentialism in order to make a point. How is reductionism used strategically in these memes and to what end?
2. In what ways does religion in these memes invoke a specific political identity for the candidates? 


Kessler, G. (2012, October 10). Does mitt romney want to 'kill' big bird?. Retrieved from

Romney, M. (2007). Mitt romney on same-sex marriage. Retrieved from

Shifman, L. (2011). An anatomy of a youtube meme. New Media & Society14(2), 187-203.

Humor and Religion Online: Christian Memes

This particular collection of memes seems to communicate religious messages in different ways. For instance, there are several memes that focus on a play of words. The meme below “Wok by Faith” uses the equivocality of the words “wok” and “walk” for use in a common Christian phrase, “walk by faith.” Some may argue that this enforce an old phrase for Christians to make decisions in their everyday life based on their faith alone. I see this meme as fitting into the “playfulness” category outlined by Shifman (2011). The humor seems to be “enjoyed for its own sake,” (p. 196). Another example of a meme that fits into this category is “1 John.” Here we have a picture of the first “john,” which is a slang term for toilet, overlaid with the caption “1 John." It is a play on words. It is a game the meme creator is inviting the reader of the meme to engage. “Figure it out if you can,” seems to be the challenge. One could also suggest that it also fits into Shifman’s (2011) “incongruity” attribute. The image and the text are puns, two incongruous meanings juxtaposed in the same artifact.

Other memes in the collection make statements about how religious meaning is contextualized in today’s culture and about how that meaning should be played out in everyday life.  For instance, the Scumbag Steve meme is used to point out behaviors, or lack of behaviors, that are problematic for a Christian. The text on this meme reads, “Lights a candle. Puts it under a Bushel.” There are several layers to this meme. Scumbag Steve is the image that implies the meaning of wrong behavior. The text refers to a song probably all Christian children learn in Sunday School, “This Little Light of Mine.” The song is a call to evangelization. Good Christians take their light – their knowledge of the Gospel and relationship with Jesus Christ – and let it shine – share that knowledge with other. They do not hide it under a bushel – keep it to them selves. Therefore the meme is a call to action for Christians to share their faith with others and avoid acting like Scumbag Steve. These examples seem to fall into Shifman’s (2011) “superiority” category of meme humor. The “good Christians” can laugh at these memes because their inclusion or exclusion from the group being lauded or reprimanded underpins their sense of belonging, which reinforces their superiority.

Taken as a whole, these memes seem to frame religion as everyday lived experience. They mix religious references with cultural references as a way to contextualize their religious belief within the secular world. Memes could also be seen as a way to negotiate and/or solidify group identity. Good Christians act in certain ways and not in others. This collection of memes seem to communicate norms as a way to (re)create religious meaning and practice.

Based on the past two blog analyses, I propose the following research questions:

RQ1: How do memes from Christian Memes juxtapose religious and cultural images and texts in order to communicate about everyday lived religion?

RQ2: How do these memes use humor to (re)create the religious community's identity?

Muslim Memes Blogpost 2: Humor

Many of the dozen selected memes for this cast study use humor. An example of this is a picture of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise looking incredulous layered with the text “Oh guuurl, that amount of makeup with your abaya?” Abaya is a cloak worn by some Muslim women. The layered text is meant to offer humor through the juxtaposition of the cloak, which is conventionally seen as modest, to the heavy amount of makeup, which probably implies immodesty. The viewer of the meme may find pleasure in identifying the juxtaposition and removing him or herself as a target of the meme. This may be an example of what Shifman (2012) calls superiority humor in her study of YouTube memes. Superiority humor is based on a one-uppance or scorning others and elevating one's own status.

Other memes selected are more playful in their humor. Shifman's playfulness attribute appears to be about innocuousness. The one direction meme that was mentioned last week may be a good example of this, as it does not scorn anyone. It also contains the incongruity attribute in that 'one direction' has multiple meanings to a Muslim: praying in the direction of Mecca and the pop music group. These two meanings are put in the same text to create a humorous mixture to those literate in both meanings.

An additional layer of meaning is inherent in the religious memes that Shifman did not touch upon is the idea of parochial humor. The reason that the Captain Picard-Imaam meme (below) is humorous is because the Imaam is considered an authority figure in Islam, and to correct the imaam may be a rare pleasure. Though ideas of superiority are present here, the meme is also humorous because Muslims may have experienced this pleasure themselves or wish to experience it. Similarly, a photo of Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson is layered with the text “You don't like me, but it's Eid so you have to hug me”. Eid is a term meaning festival or holiday. Once more, the humor may be in the experience members of the Muslim community have with performing certain interpersonal rituals with people they don't like.

The Muslim Memes Facebook page appears primarily geared towards Muslims. The messages about Islam are particularly innocuous and are usually observations about experiences Muslims may have or may be jokes using incongruous humor. One meme shows Buzz Lightyear speaking into the communication device on his arm with the caption, “I’ve crashlanded in a mosque the day after Ramadan and no Muslims to be sighted anywhere.” This meme’s intention, judging from the caption that the original poster (OP) wrote, is a gentle reminder to Muslims to continue attending masjid (mosque) once Ramadan is over. The content of the memes and their humorous intent frame Islam in a different way than is framed in larger media contexts such as news media: provisional findings are that Muslims who participate in this page are well versed in broader culture and engage with those cultural elements.

Given the conversation thus far about the combination of parochial and pop culture knowledge and the messages presented in the memes, the following questions seem appropriate to explore:

How do Facebook users whom like the Muslim Memes page interpret the memes? Do they see them as lighthearted humor, offensive, critical?

What role does sharing the memes on individual Facebook pages play in identity management for Muslims Facebook users?

What does this mixture of popular culture and parochial religious knowledge say about Muslim use of social networking sites? What can we know about the use of memes in the Muslim context?

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.