The New Christian Memetic Moment

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of the Word. The gospel is Good News, not Good Aesthetics. So the logos aspect must be right. That’s a precondition to anything more.

Where memetics comes in is creating the ethos and pathos that attract people who are willing to sign up for a status lowering religion.  I posit that this requires showing that the church has something you can’t get from the world, and which has the self-confidence to be different.

In the negative world, the church has to be distinct, not assimilationist, in the manner (if not the exact way) of the early church. The early church had many distinctives from the surrounding culture: they refused to worship the culture’s gods, they avoided many of the practices approved of by the culture, and they established their own practices like refusing to abandon the sick. They had a community that was difficult to be part of, but which generated immense value as well (in addition to possessing metaphysical truth).  They did this by and large without attacking anyone else (though they did have what was essentially an intragroup feud with Jews who did not buy into Jesus as the Messiah).

I’m going to give one idea for a possible negative world move for the church: a reinvigorated and unapologetic memetic around healthy traditional families.

I noted in Masc #9 that the church elite, like the secular elite, no longer preaches what it practices (to borrow Charles Murray’s phrase) when it comes to marriage and family. The secular elite by and large practices traditional marriage themselves, while promoting everything put for the rest of society.

It’s a free country and people can do whatever they want. If people want to practice polyamory, that’s their right. I’m not going to stop them. I’m just saying that the church should be out promoting the traditional marriage that they practice just as much as the poly folks are out repping their lifestyle.

It’s true that the church too often has plenty of divorces, etc. That’s a problem and it needs to be addressed. But it is the case that you do often see a different family-style in the church than outside of it, such as happy homeschooling families with large numbers of children.

The church, however, appears to be downplaying family these days. I notice far more articles in the Christian press complaining about how the church makes an idol of marriage than I do ones that actually idolizing it. I also read frequent complaints from various single or childless people that the church should change to better serve them. To the extent I see family extolled, it’s often in the form of some story about adoption, or about how someone with a dysfunctional family history found family in the church.

There’s nothing per se wrong about singleness, childlessness, or adoption. But these are not, or at least should not be, be the norm. Lifelong marriage and your own children is the normative path for human beings going back to the Garden of Eden.

The pastors I know mostly married young and have several children. My impression is that it used to be that if you’d visit a church website and click on the pastor’s page, you’d commonly see a picture of his family. Matt Chandler’s Village Church still does this:

That’s a great looking family.

Today I see this less and less. Instead, I commonly encounter corporate style head shots.  To test this, I recently made a list of every Evangelical congregation in Manhattan below 96th St. that I could think of. I came up with 30. Then I visited their websites and looked at the pastor page to check out the pictures. Only two of the churches (<7%) had pictures of the pastor’s family. Five others showed the pastor’s wife but not children – but three of those were churches where the husband and wife were co-pastors.

New York is a city full of lonely people (America as a whole is lonely too), many of them singles and longing to find marriage. This was a big part of the premise behind the show Sex and the City, which obviously tapped into those desires. Yet the churches here aren’t showing people a picture of what that looks like, or doing much to help people find it.

In 2009, New York magazine did a profile of Redeemer that used this picture of its members.

To be clear, this was the magazine’s photo montage, not Redeemer’s. But I was really struck that it didn’t include a single picture of a traditional family (mom, dad, and children).

As I pointed out in Masc #9, the traditional family is something that is attractive to a lot of people. I talked about how many women were incredibly positive, even envious, towards my wife when they found out she did not move in with me before marriage and that we did not engage in pre-marital sex. Even if you apply a discount to affirmatory comments, which I do, these went well beyond politeness. My wife was taken aback by it.  It was clear to her that, despite being liberated big city women who would probably never declare is publicly, these women at some level still really longed for the fairy tale of a traditional relationship, even if they weren’t making choices in that direction. People continue to notice that’s there’s something different about her – something they want. For example, not that long ago a woman in our church reached out to her and said, “You’re the kind of person I want be. Can we get together and talk?”

So a small step towards negative world contexualization might be stronger memetic presentation of the families you already have in your church. Folks like Brad Wilcox at the Institute for Family Studies can make logos based appeals for marriage (e.g., demonstrating through studies that if you are single you are statistically more likely to die young), but as a scholar he’s not in a position to go beyond that. But as I pointed out before, people don’t make decisions based on facts and logic. So there’s a need for ethos and pathos as well. That’s where better memetic messaging by the church on marriage can play an important role in shaping how Christians live and drawing people in.

Rod Dreher once linked to a tweetstorm by someone who was lamenting the social collapse of his hometown that ended like this:

Tweeting, writing, podcasting has all been a part of it. I’m done just writing because we need to build, curate, cultivate. We do not have a single institution on our side. So build them. There are millions of confused and worried people out there. Reach them. There are so many people in private hungry for competent, strong leadership. Be the lighthouse. The storm is here and it will only get worse.

“Be the lighthouse.” That’s a philosophy for the negative world. Find a way to build a healthy Christian family despite the legal and social encouragement of divorce. Then make sure others can see that it’s possible, that there’s a different way to live their lives. Be the lighthouse that guides others into the same harbor. Help them find it for themselves instead of just affirming them in what they are doing when that’s taking them further from where they want to go. We’re all about helping people pick up the pieces when things go wrong. That’s a right and proper thing to do. I’ve personally benefited from that kind of help. But we far less enthusiastic about putting forth as normative paths that might lead a different direction.  Being the lighthouse means more than just writing and tweeting. But I don’t think it means less than that.

This won’t be popular. Christianity certainly won’t get the same treatment as Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Look at what happened to Mike Pence when he took basic steps to protect his marriage. Chip and Joanna Gaines were attacked when they announced they would be having their fifth child.  The United Kingdom is banning advertisements that feature traditional motherhood. Advocates in Australia want to ban stay at home moms.  It likely won’t be popular in many quarters inside the church either.

Maybe that’s not the battle you want to fight. If not, then what is? Now that the world has changed, what are you doing to recontexualize yourself and church for it? As Tim Keller put it, “Everyone contextualizes – but few think about how they are doing it.” Be one of the new who considers it – and explicitly how you are establishing your memetic strategy as part of that for the negative world. If other minority religions are any guide, it will have to be something self-confidently distinct and comfortable being low status.

By the way, you who is fighting this battle about family ? The Mormons. Their memetics around family are spectacular.

Romney Family

live just down the street from the Mormon temple in NYC.  I can see the Mormon families coming down Columbus Ave. from many blocks away, the husband in a suit, the wife in a skirt, and several well-behaved children, and often a stroller in tow.  Sometimes you can see waves of them coming along, one right after another. In their own way they stick out as much as Hasidic Jews.

In 2011 a hard-core feminist writer at Slate posted that she couldn’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs, asking, “I’m a young, feminist atheist who can’t bake a cupcake. Why am I addicted to the shiny, happy lives of these women?”

Indeed, Mormon bloggers like Holbrook make marriage and motherhood seem, well, fun. Easy. Joyful. These women seem relaxed and untouched by cynicism. They throw elaborate astronaut-themed birthday parties for their kids and go on Sunday family drives to see the fall leaves change and get mani-pedis with their friends. They often have close, large extended families; moms and sisters are always dropping in to watch the kids or help out with cake decorating. Their lives seem adorable and old-fashioned and comforting.

“I’ve gotten e-mails from readers thanking me for putting a positive spin on marriage and family,” Holbrook says. “It’s important to acknowledge the hard parts — and I think we all do — but why not focus more on the lovely and the beautiful? That positive attitude is a very common theme throughout all aspects of the Mormon faith.”

The Toronto Star also notes that, “Mormon mommies have the best blogs.” It’s not just mommy bloggers. Brett McKay of the popular Art of Manliness is a Mormon. It’s not well known, but the couple that started the uber-hipster magazine Kinfolk were Mormon and drew on that memetic. (They later apostatized, which I believe is one reason the quality of the magazine and its aesthetics have significantly declined over time).

Kinfolk dinner in Portland via West Elm. Note how they drew on the imagery and emotional resonance of traditional family dinners in a way that was forward looking and of the now, just retro-nostalgia.

Guess what religion is actually growing at a strong clip in our secular age? You guessed it, Mormonism.

As for me personally, I see so much hunger and so much pain out there from people seeking after family that this is something I am planning to take on myself. So stay tuned for possible future memetic initiatives from me on this. If you know of any good material on it or are particularly interested in this, please reach out and let me know.

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