A while ago I spoke at church about the importance of letting the bible shape your identity. It felt like an important message about how we need to find our identity in the biblical story.
On Tuesday, from the comfort of the Lake Louise Chateau Hotel, I watched Donald Trump become President-Elect of the United States because he had learned to tell a different kind of story.
Leeanne and I were in the mountains for the annual Prayer Retreat for the Western Canadian District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
Donald Trump was elected President, thanks largely to winning the votes of 81% of White Evangelical Christians.
In the weeks leading up to the election many Christian leaders had spoken out in favour of Trump, and some even prophesied that God had chosen Trump. I was a little bewildered by that. I understood all the arguments about the supreme court but that wasn’t enough to explain such strong Christian support for someone who the facts indicated was immoral and unprepared for national leadership.
I actually thought the facts were the issue. They weren’t.
As I reflect now, I see that part of the problem was that I had basic assumptions about how I interpret reality that were wrong.
On Sunday I taught that we needed to align our stories with the biblical story if we want to know truth.
On Tuesday I was reminded that discovering what it is true is much more than facts and information.
I grew up in a world that was shaped by the unwritten assumption that people are rational.
I was taught that if you lay out evidence in a logical way, you can discover and communicate truth. Most other people from my generation also believe that this is how knowing works.
The Media got it’s name from its job: to “mediate” reality. The reality it was to “mediate” was the logical, evidenced-based “truth” that I had grown up assuming to be the basis of all knowledge.
I only just realized (I’m a bit slow) that the the basis of how we know what is true has fundamentally changed… or more correctly, how we know what is true has become more obviously what it always has been… .
Donald Trump was much smarter than me. Trump realized that logical argument is nowhere near as powerful as emotional response. He also realized that there is a new world of social media that means that complicated ideas need to trigger emotion and be hash-taggable… which means that they can be no more than three words long.
It was like Trump and Hillary were talking different languages… and Trump connected in a way that she simply didn’t. Can you remember Hillary’s policies? No? How about Trump’s? Phrases like “Drain the Swamp”, “Build the Wall,” and “Lock her up” were not only hash-taggable, they were chant-able and they shaped how people felt and how people thought. Labelling Hillary as “Crooked” and Ted Cruz as “Lying” had the same affect, as did the central idea at the heart of his campaign: “Make America Great Again” (which became #MAGA on Social media).
Donald Trump spent half as much on traditional advertising that Hillary Clinton and it worked because he communicated in Memes rather than ideas.
Richard Dawkins coined the term Meme for an idea that gets passed on from person to person in a way that shapes peoples’ worldview. The term meme evolved to mean words over the top of graphics that could be shared on the internet… but the real meaning of meme helps to explain how Trump was able to communicate so much more effectively than Clinton.
Fact checking sites were set up to try to counter the three word catchphrases, however facts were never the issue. As astronomer Clifford Still pointed out:
Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.
The power of meme is that it jumps past data, information and knowledge and just communicates an “understanding”.
Apparently Memes are most effective when they relate to other memes. Richard Dawkins believes that:
A meme may improve its prospects for survival if it becomes part of what Dawkins termed a “memeplex”. This is a situation where a number of compatible memes join together in a manner that is mutually supportive…. Political and religious beliefs and also the combined knowledge of experts such as blacksmiths or builders can be seem as memeplexes and they clearly help to secure the longevity of the memes of which they are composed.
Another way of talking about a Memeplex is a “paradigm” or worldview.
Social media is a very effective way of communicating the different “memes” that make up a worldview… but so is word of mouth.
I was just talking to someone who told me authoritatively that Hillary Clinton has just filed for divorce from Bill Clinton. They had heard it on Facebook from somebody they trusted, and then they told me as though it was fact. The only problem was… it wasn’t a fact, it was a hoax. The problem was that this meme fitted nicely with all the other ones people believed about the Clintons, so it took off on the internet. The Huffington Post debunked it here.
Memes are powerful because they shape the way we see the world, and as a result they shape the way we act.
We probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see children yesterday chanting at other latin american children… “Build the Wall, Build the Wall”.
While Richard Dawkins made a big deal about his discovery of the power of small thoughts that trigger emotion and a worldview… the bible was on to the same thing centuries earlier:
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to the inmost parts. (Proverbs 26:22)
Memes are so powerful because “the go down to the inmost parts”. They shape the way we think and act, bypassing facts and rational thought.
The bible talks a great deal about the importance and power of words. For instance the book of James says the tongue “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire” (James 3:6) and that “no human being can tame the tongue.” (James 3:8).
In the 20th Century we thought that if we could get the right ideas then everything would work. In the 21st century, we were reminded by a New York Billionaire that it is words and not ideas that change us.
It is precisely because the way we see the world is so easily changed that we need the truth of the bible.
We need a plumb line that shows where we are out of alignment with what reality actually is. Without it we are left to flounder around like a cork bobbing on the ocean. In engaging the scripture this way, however, we need to ensure we are not simply looking for more “memes” to re-enforce what we already believe.
As we process what has happened and how things have changed, we need to hear the words of Søren Kierkegaard:
“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.
Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship.
Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.
Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”