Sacrilege: God Gone Viral
Marketing His message in memes
by alana levinson
Images: Christian Memes
Deep in central Pennsylvania, thousands of teens gather for Creation, America’s largest Christian music festival. Packing a grassy field in front of the main stage, they’re clad in cutoffs and neon shirts bearing religious slogans like “You Only Live Forever…if you are in Christ!” (a reference to popular expression YOLO). But despite its rural setting, this is not Woodstock. There is no pot smoke wafting in the air, no passionate make-out sessions on the lawn. These kids are here to celebrate their creator.
Nineteen-year-old Trevor Nichols wears his faith tattooed on his inner arm. It’s a classic Christian belief: “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). But for this tattoo, Nichols has embraced what to him is a native digital shorthand: He > i.
The aspiring pastor is here with his friend Dalen Stroh, also 19, chaperoning a youth group. At the festival’s skate park, a sign reads that it’s “reinventing the church’s walls,” and the scene certainly doesn’t look like a religious gathering at first glance: Shaggy-headed kids dressed in graphic tees and Vans coast up and down a skate ramp, bobbing their heads to Christian punk and metal. Nichols and Stroh seem like cool camp counselors as they keep their eyes on the younger ones.
When the pair head home in a couple of days, they’ll retreat indoors to spread their religious dogma on the internet. As administrators of Christian Memes, a Facebook group with over 180,000 likes, they invent religious memes or offer a biblical take on mainstream ones (“Memes…but Christian. Pretty basic.” the slogan reads).
“It’s easy to connect with the kids now that are growing up with memes and stuff,” says Nichols. “We’re just showing people that Christians aren’t stuck up…that we can have fun and make a culture laugh and connect with people.”
Christian Memes doesn’t seek to modernize anything about Christianity itself. Rather, it provides Christians and non-Christians alike with memes “centered around learning and living by the words found in the Bible,” according to the group’s Facebook page. The biblical ideas are the same; the only thing different is the packaging they come in. One image features Christ in front of a soccer net. Caption: “Jesus Saves.”
Just like the music festival they’re attending—which bans alcohol, drugs, and suggestive dress in its promotional packet (“While the style and fashion these days seems to be ‘less is best,’ we do not want to be guilty of causing another person to stumble.”)—the Christian Memes community forbids profanity or vulgarity. But ironically, both rock and the Internet are known for their profane side. In fact, they not only allow sinful behavior, but often encourage it. Is Christian rock a gateway drug to heavy metal? Will kids looking at Christian memes develop an appetite for sinful ones?
Not surprisingly, people leave comments calling the memes blasphemous, but it doesn’t seem to faze Stroh. “We’re trying to save people. We’re trying to reach out to the generation that makes light of this stuff,” he says. “And as they come closer, they start asking us questions. And that’s when we can start making a difference in their lives and bringing them to Jesus.”
For the tattooed Nichols, it’s a matter of adopting the right perspective. He admits that last night he danced suggestively, but he doesn’t think that it was wrong. “Whenever [David] was praising God, he was, like, practically naked dancing in front of God,” he says, referring to the Book of Samuel: “Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14). “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Stroh also embraces alternative culture, but says that he rejects the drugs, sex, and sin associated with it. Although he doesn’t skate himself, he says that being a Christian skater means not cursing if you miss a trick—and not smoking a doobie after a session.
He looks at Nichols and smiles, slightly embarrassed about having made such a direct reference to the drug. “Can I say that?” he asks, and they both break out in laughter.
A different version of this feature appeared on Motherjones.com.