This is part one in a 3 part series on how we educate the next generation in matters of faith.
Faith as Meme
I am currently reading a book about memes. Everyone I mention this to asks me the same immediate question. “What in the heck is a meme?” Then I begin the inordinately long process of explaining what this is.
Basically, a meme is a unit of cultural understanding that is passed on through a culture by repetition. The easiest way to understand a meme is to think of it as the same as DNA, except for culture. It is passed on from one person to another. Old-Wives-Tales are memes, and so are the words to traditional songs. Auld Land Syne is a perfect example of this. It goes deeper than that, though. You wear dark colors at funerals and you wear lighter colors at weddings. A woman going to a wedding wearing all black would be offensive. Famous ad slogans are also memes. If I said, “The best part of waking up…” You would most likely immediately think, “…is Folgers in your cup.” That is a meme!
The reason that I bring this up is not because I have a particular interest in information science, although I do. Reading and thinking about this has brought up other ideas in my head, ideas about culture, ideas about faith—both my individual faith and the faith of the Church. It might seem at first heretical to say that the message of Jesus, the stories in the Bible, and both the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of Christianity are all memes, but I believe that they are. I believe that God intended them to be.
When that thought first occurred in my head, my immediate reaction was, “Whoa, Ryan—hold the phone. Lightening may soon strike.” But no lightening struck, and as I thought about it, all of it seemed to fit. It is scary at first to think of Christianity as anything other than an immediately apparent truth that is written somewhere in the sky, accessible to anyone who bothers to simply look up. And I am not saying that the truth of Christ is something that is just a cultural way of thinking and doing. It is the Truth. It can be found by anyone. So I am not demeaning the things of God in any way. All this just means that Natural Theology can only get us to understand that there must be a creator-God, but it can’t tell us anything more, really. To really get to know God, we need to acquire these bits of faith memes.
But this is not something that someone simply looks into the air to find. God didn’t intend it to be this way at all. Yes, it is true that Romans chapter 1:18-20 says,
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
This passage makes Christians in the West quite happy. Although we don’t think this consciously, we understand it to mean that the job of communicating the basics of God, sin, and redemption have already been done automatically and genetically by God. And certainly that is true, to a point. It does mean that everyone has no excuse for rejecting God. But it does not in any way get Christians off the hook for communicating this news, for no one can look up at the stars and deduce that a loving God must have become man and died on a cross during Roman times for our forgiveness. This must be taught to them.
The Bible makes this perfectly clear. In God’s economy, we are one hundred percent accountable for transmitting the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of our faith memetically (this is not mimetically, although that word would be appropriate as well). This is to happen in two distinct ways.
The first of these is the more obvious. We are to affect the world around us by spreading the good news of Jesus through the world. There are myriad verses that address this point, and it forms the basis of much of New Testament Christianity.
The second way that Christians are to spread the ortho-’s of our faith is through our own people, particularly the next generation as we raise our children. This point is spread throughout the whole Bible, but the Old Testament covers this repeatedly. It is clear in the Old Testament that it was very important to Yahweh that the next generation hear all about what He has done and how He related throughout history with His people. Look at what God had them do when they finally entered into the land that He had promised to give them in Joshua, chapter 4.
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
We see this also in Exodus, chapter 12, God tells His people to commemorate their freedom from slavery in Egypt through God’s miraculous hand with a special celebration and ceremony. This was to be done for generations to come as a reminder, so that the people would never forget.
In fact, most of Israel’s holy days were commemorations of what God had done. This was not for means of celebrating the past. It was for the express purpose of reminding those in the present of God’s faithfulness, and their shared history with God. They were also use this to speak into the future generations to ensure that the faith of Israel would not be lost.
One of the most striking glimpses of this in action can be seen in the 22nd and 23rd chapters of 2 Kings. After numerous kings that did not honor God, Israel had become quite a mess. Instead of following Yahweh, the people had mixed a bunch of religions all together. It was anything-goes spirituality. After generations of doing this, people had no spiritual compass whatsoever. Their worship of these gods included burning their children to death in fires, having sex with prostitutes in temples, taking hallucinatory drugs for spiritual purposes, and a whole host of other nasty and amoral practices.
But more than that, they had completely forgotten much of their history (especially the aspects dealing with God) in many cases, and corrupted it with complete myth in many others.
God was angry.
But Josiah, who really wanted to do what was right, discovered the Law and was powerfully rocked to learn that God’s word had been completely forsaken. It wasn’t like Josiah had known what God wanted all along, and was just the first in a while to actually follow it. Josiah finding God’s word reads like a scene straight out of Indiana Jones. Suddenly this revelation of God is found that people didn’t even have any clue about. Josiah reads this and tears his robes, weeping at finding out all this new stuff about who God really is, their history with Him, and what He expects from them.
Following that is a full list of draconian measures that Josiah went to in order to fix things. One set of verses gives a window on how this fall from morality and spiritual faithfulness could have happened.
Then the king commanded all the people saying, “Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God as it is written in this book of the covenant.” Surely such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was observed to the LORD in Jerusalem.
God’s command to remember and teach about what He had miraculously done for His people, as mentioned in Exodus 12, had been completely neglected for hundreds of years! The people now had no concept of it at all. Their history with God had been completely forsaken, and now forgotten.
The importance of passing on history, faith, and cultural values is not something that is contained only in the Old Testament. Jesus tells His followers in the New Testament to commemorate His death through Communion. As the early Church interpreted this, it was not to be done as a ceremony once in a while at a service, but the kind of thing that was followed as people ate together. Communion was to be celebrated at the dinner table with the family.
The Epistles in the latter New Testament talk about this idea as well. Both Titus and First Peter talk about younger men and women learning from older men and women. The early church clearly invested in the ideas of mentoring younger Christians in the faith, and educating those who were spiritually younger using creedal statements and liturgical prayers, as well as hymns.