After scrolling mindlessly down the Instagram explore page and “liking” a few The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) posts this summer, my feed is naturally now flooded with LOTR memes. There’s no going back.
A meme can be defined as “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media.” The meme subculture is strange and often terrifying. Pepe the Frog started out as an innocent cartoon character that eventually morphed into a symbol of white supremacy. Any stock photo can be edited to communicate just about anything. One original image or video can be fodder for thousands of messages.
It’s not only movies and shows that are meme material. Google “Calvinism memes,” or “Baptist memes” or . . . you see the point. Even the Bible and Jesus can be rendered kitsch through memes.
For most of us, memes are innocent and fun. But a meme-heavy diet also has downsides. Nefarious examples like Pepe the Frog are obvious examples. But I’m more interested here in the subtle posture cultivated by the meme-ification of life. What happens when we’re so addicted to irony and humor that we can’t see the world as anything other than a joke?
Lord of the Memes
The LOTR meme-verse became my daily humor diet for a while. I even started my own LOTR meme account on Instagram called “The Meme Havens.” Fortunately, my following hasn’t yet surpassed a dozen followers. I thought it was innocent enough. But something strange happened when I rewatched the movies. Every scene of The Lord of the Rings now evoked memories of the memes on my Instagram feed. I couldn’t go 10 minutes without thinking of some clever remark I’d seen online. Frodo’s boyish, innocent look when he sees Gandalf for the first time in Fellowship, if you know the scene, is meme-rich material, maybe rivaling Obi-Wan Kenobi’s iconic remark to General Grievous: “Hello there!” Once you see an oft-memed scene like that, you can’t see it sincerely again.
LOTR is a remarkable cinematic achievement. The movies never fail to make me cry. But now, my usual response of awe, joy, and enjoyment had become colored by memes. The masterful movies were on the verge of becoming one big joke, worthy of a thousand memes.
Making memes of our favorite stories is innocent so far as it goes. But coating everything in irony mutes the effect a work of beauty and goodness might have on us.
Meme-ification of Everything
There’s a reason TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation strike a chord with so many people (in addition to just being hilarious). Viewers return to these shows for the relationships. Jim and Pam. Leslie and Ben. Andy and April. Michael and Toby (kidding). These shows balance humor and humanity. Sincere relationships and earnest moments connect us with characters in ways constant jokes cannot. “Everything is always a joke” humor may entertain, but it fails to nourish.
Coating everything in irony mutes the effect a work of beauty and goodness might have on us.
My dad always compares reading LOTR to taking a hot bath after spending hours in the cold. It’s an act of rest, restoration, even healing. My experience has long been similar with both the books and the films. Translating the story and its characters into memes, however, can make the water tepid, lukewarm. Layers of irony can lead me to forget that I need beauty more than pleasure, truth more than parody, goodness more than gratification. C. S. Lewis said of his friend’s masterpiece, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”
Without beauty, the heart becomes hard—perhaps entertained, but no longer “breakable,” no longer open to Tolkien’s piercing words. Or to God’s.
Perhaps underlying the meme-ification of everything is a general loss of meaning. We doubt objective meaning exists, or maybe we don’t want to deal with the weight imposed by meaning or the plodding complexity of unraveling truth. So we reduce everything to mindless entertainment. To put it in biblical terms (Jer. 2:13), we hew cisterns that hold no water and refuse to water our own souls.
I need beauty more than pleasure, truth more than parody, goodness more than gratification.
The late British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote something to this effect in his book on beauty: “Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter; and we live that way because we have lost the habit of sacrifice and are striving always to avoid it. The false art of our time, mired in kitsch and desecration, is one sign of this.”
Perhaps you’ve met people who turn everything into a joke. I’ve been that person. The first time I visited home after going off to college, I was depressed, and yet I couldn’t stop cracking jokes in front of family and friends. I was boisterous, obnoxious. I relied on the inside sense of humor with my two older brothers to communicate that everything was fine.
It was my way of coping with loss, heartbreak, and homesickness. It was my way of trying to make up for meaninglessness. For three of my four years in college, I never truly laughed, because I was neglecting what I needed to do—weep, mourn, and sacrifice. I know from first-hand experience that humor can become a buffer between us and the truth of things.
Yet after profound encounters with some of the world’s finest literature and works of art, I was reminded that human beings need meaning, not memes, to flourish. We need a transcendent telos to strive after, not just disposable jokes to giggle at on our feeds. We need a Gondor to defend and a Mordor to fight, not just GIFs to scroll through and memes to retweet.
Don’t Let Irony Dull Awe
I’m not saying you should stop looking at memes. In their place, memes can represent the best of satire and provide an outlet for real creativity. One of my best friends runs a successful Star Wars meme account called Obi-Wan Memobi. Let’s be honest: Angry Anakin deserves a lot of the ridicule.
We need a Gondor to defend and a Mordor to fight, not just GIFs to scroll through and memes to retweet.
You should, however, consider how the meme-verse can start to color your perceptions of the world, dulling your encounter with God’s vibrant creation. G. K. Chesterton, who like Tolkien was a Catholic Christian, wrote, “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Wonder and gratitude are appropriate responses after reading LOTR, just as they should increase in us as we read Scripture and meditate on Christ.
Too much irony can distance us from the gravitas of living in God’s redemptive drama. Sarcasm can blind us to the sacred. With clearer, less cynical eyes to see God’s creation, we might even start to see, along with Frodo at the end of The Return of the King, the heavenly end for which we were created: “The grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”