Memetics and Persuasion

Memetics in the broad sense of the term is integral to persuasion.  Aristotle identified three modes or components of persuasion: ethos, pathos, logos. Ethos is the character of the person doing the persuading. Pathos is an emotional appeal. Logos is a logical appeal.

We tend to emphasize persuasion as being about logical appeal. But human beings aren’t very logical and don’t make decisions using facts and logic. Instead, we are heavily influenced by emotion and other factors.

Memetics operates at the level of ether pathos or ethos. In a narrow sense, memes like those above can have an emotional influence, even if just by making us laugh or raising the morale of supporters of a particular candidate. But in a broader sense, memetics operates at the level of ethos. Ethos is more than just personal character. Ethos is also our “brand,” our reputation, or how others perceive us. A celebrity might be a person of low character, yet have a status or aesthetic appeal that makes him very persuasive. Hence celebrities are often sought out for product endorsements.

When we post things about ourselves on Facebook or Instagram, we are engaging in memetic persuasion, trying to put forth a particular image about ourselves.  This is often seen as a false front, but the fact is every person and organization is always sending off memetic signals. The only question is whether we are as intentional about these memetics as we are about our words and logical arguments. This is true for the church as well as individuals.

The Church and Memetics

In Masc #13 I laid out the three cultural worlds Christianity has faced in America over the last few decades:

  1. Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
  2. Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute.  It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
  3. Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

Today’s church is divided between a legacy positive world contingent (typically religious right types) and a neutral world contingent of mostly urban based cultural engagement types. Each as their own characteristic memetic styles.

Positive World Memetics – Televangelists

I drew a parallel between some of the positive worlders and Alex Jones/InfoWars. Jones is a showman and pitchman who has a niche, low-status follower base interested in his conspiracy theories and rants calling for listeners to take back America. This sounds like a knock on Jones, but in fact, he is a skilled, shrewd, and sophisticated operator. His “niche” has a few million people in it and is very lucrative for him. There’s an obvious similarity between Jones and the televangelists and prosperity gospel purveyors.

To be clear, there are other, non-televangelistic positive worlders out there. But given that I doubt I have many readers in this category and that they serve a legacy (though sizeable) market, I will not say much more about them.

Neutral World Memetics – Hillsong

Regarding the neutral worlders, I said, “[The neutral world church] tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading ‘cultural engagement.’

They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square.”

The neutral worlders resultantly have a very low conflict and highly assimilationist memetic. I’ll give a couple of examples. One of them is Hillsong Church. Hillsong positions itself as the “cool Jesus” hipster church. Justin Bieber and other celebrities attend. The pastoral staff is known for wearing designer clothing. The attendee base skews very young (at least in NYC, which is the source of my first-hand knowledge).

Hillsong is known for its music, which is ubiquitous in Christian churches. The original Australian church was called “Hills Christian Life Centre”, but rebranded as Hillsong after their music arm went superstar. Today they have expanded worldwide, mostly into the coolest global cities: New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, etc. I’ve been to a number of their services in NYC.

Hillsong services have high production values and a rock concert vibe. Their ushers are shiny happy people. Their musicians are excellent. One interesting thing that Hillsong did, intentionally or not, is own the cheesy Evangelical optic of people lifting their hands during the music portion of the service. But they shifted it into a rock concert register where it seems natural. Even secular people pump their firsts in the air during a high-energy set. They encourage tweeting and instagramming during the service. The preaching, which frequently seems to feature guest speakers, tends towards a high-energy, motivational speaker style. It reminds me of Tony Robbins.

There’s a documentary about the making of a Hillsong United live album that you can watch on Amazon. Here’s a shot from it that gives you a feel for them.

Carl Lenz

Carl Lentz, the main NYC pastor, is frequently in the mainstream media, mostly in pop culture focused publications like GQ and TV shows like the View. He’s very media savvy and generally does a good job of dodging difficult questions. If you want to see him in action, watch his segment on the View from last October.

In short, Hillsong presents the church as a hip, cool, urban thing to do.

Neutral World Memetics – Redeemer

The second style I’ll highlight is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Redeemer’s memetics are much more high end than Hillsong’s. Redeemer also has excellent production values and musicians, but you’re more likely to hear a classical quartet or jazz ensemble than Christian pop. Its aura is much more intellectual and fine arts oriented. Keller is more likely to be featured in the New Yorker or the Atlantic than pop culture outlets.

Redeemer almost exudes a self-consciously anti-hip vibe. Keller himself has a professorial demeanor. Not the memetics of the picture pastor Tim Keller uses on his own personal page:

Tim Keller

This is much stronger body language that it might appear at first glance, but is also very nonthreatening. Keller is known for his preaching and apologetics rather than personal style, yet he’s charismatic in his own low-key way. His approach is explicitly irenic rather than confrontational. Redeemer’s appeal is to a refined, professional demographic that operates at relatively elite levels of American business and culture. Someone from that secular demographic can walk into Redeemer and find a comfortable, non-threatening environment.

Both Hillsong and Redeemer are very successful, well-patronized churches. Both of them use a memetic strategy based on communicating that “we are just like you [neutral world]” and which delivers aesthetic and programmatic excellence in markets where that’s expected. It’s a memetic strategy, blending both new and other media, that has delivered results in the neutral world.

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