Is the Internet better for Christ or for cats?

While the title of this blog post may seem flippant, I do mean it to raise serious questions about how well Christians are using new modes of communication.  Also, please don’t hate me for posting seemingly flippant things on Good Friday.  I hope all Christian readers of this blog have a solemn and meaningful end to their Holy Week before the joy of Easter.

Here’s what lies behind this question:  In the Reformation, Christians (mostly Protestants initially, but eventually Catholics, too) made very good use of a powerful new tool for communication: the printing press.  Something like 20% of books printed in Germany in the middle of the 16th century were written by Martin Luther.  Very few, if any of them, were picture books of cats (a phenomenon that would only emerge much later).  See Mark Edwards’ book Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther for a great example of an argument about how important printing was to the success of the Reformation.

I wonder, though, if the Internet as another powerful new tool for communication is feeding any Christian movements as significant as the Reformation.  Certainly, some Christians have made good use of the Internet.  I think Christians have taken especially well to podcasts and blogs (hence this blog), and I know Rob Bell and others do good things with video.  But Christianity and Christians seem not to have generated a lot of what has really caught on around the interwebs.  Jesus has yet to go viral.  And a lot of ways that Christians have tried to use the Internet have failed or just seemed hokey.  And successful or unsuccessful, a lot of Christian uses of the Internet have served to perpetuate a Christian subculture rather than to disseminate the message of Jesus to the wider culture (think Godtube).

Cats, on the other hand, have really benefitted from the Internet.  A decade or so ago, cats were mostly pets.  Sure, you had some cats which were also cartoons and therefore cultural icons, but cats weren’t driving the culture.  Then came the Internet.  Pictures of cute cats (along with cute puppies and cute babies) took up a significant portion of early bandwidth.  But more importantly, cats went viral in other ways.  Lolcats not only became cultural icons, they’ve influenced spelling, grammar, and language (lolcat WIN!).  Maru, keyboard cat, and other Youtube celebrities have racked up huge numbers of views.  Cats have become central to a number of cultural memes.  Indeed, there are ten times as many memes for cats on as there are for Jesus and Christ put together.  Furthermore, a lot of the Jesus memes are things like raptor Jesus, which aren’t exactly promoting a Christian message.  (Though conversely, one could argue things like the lolcat Bible are.)

Thus, it seems to me that cats have benefitted much more from the Internet than Christ, whereas Christ definitely benefitted more from the printing press than cats.  Why is this?  Four possible reasons spring to my mind.  The first two I don’t think should trouble Christians that much.  The second two should.

The first reason is the breadth of the medium for printing and the Internet.  Maybe 10% of Europe was literate at the invention of the printing press.  It tended to be the 10% who was most educated and thus most potentially interested in debating theology.  Of course, a lot of what sold of Luther’s was more low-brow, and those who were literate read Luther’s (and others’ works) to those who weren’t literate, but printing was itself a form of narrowcasting.  The Internet, on the other hand, is limited only by issues of access and rarely by issues of ability.  If you’ve got a router, you can be looking at Youtube videos.  Thus, the Internet appeals to a much wider slice of the population, and if you assume that only a more-or-less fixed percentage of the human population is going to be initially interested in talking about religion, then that percentage is going to make up a smaller portion of those on the Internet than it did those reading books and pamphlets in the Reformation.

The second reason has to do with the nature of communication and memes on the Internet vs. in print.  While print can certainly be used to produce short, pithy things, books and even pamphlets are really designed to convey arguments, explanations, etc.  The depth of the medium is conducive to conveying more substantial messages, such as the sorts of religious messages Christians want to promote.  The Internet, and especially Internet memes, operate via pictures, short videos, and short bits of writing.  These means can convey very powerful messages, but they’re not as well-elaborated or well-controlled by the image/text producers as are the messages in books.  Hence, the Internet may be better for cats than Christ because it’s easier to convey (non-) substantive things about cats through the medium than it is to convey substantive things about Christ.

The third reason is that Christians might just not be as good at using the Internet as they were at using the printing press.  Please note that I am not saying there aren’t Christians who use the Internet well.  Obviously there are.  But as a whole, have Christians embraced the Internet as a means for promoting Jesus in the same way they embraced the printing press?  I’m not sure.

The fourth reason goes back to a comment above about Christians using the Internet mainly to reinforce Christian subculture rather than influence the culture.  The way in which different subgroups of the culture interact in the postmodern world may be different from the way it was in the Reformation.  Cats may be easier to share across subcultures than Christ, probably because they are less religiously, politically, and in other ways fraught.  The ease of sharing non-substantive bits of culture is probably not something new, but it should challenge Christians to think about how to share Christ effectively.


Edie Tepper posted on April 25, 2011 at 9:30 am

This has to be the single greatest title ever for an intellectual essay! Who can resist reading this?

Jamie Ayrton posted on April 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Fantastic point outdone only by the way you make it (although images would have been fantastic to go along, primarily hoping for Jesus asking for a “cHezbrgr”) What I think is sort of interesting about Internet memes is that that are primarily random in their success. I have to assume that the people who posted some of the most successful really did not have a large planning process or analysis of what would become popular. That however does not stop the pile-on effect of responses, parodies, and copying (in the Cat Video vein). This leads me to think maybe that is the way to at least start to movement. Perhaps we need Jesus-themed parodies of already existent memes. Sure it is belittling the conversation, but as you point out that is basically what made Luther’s work so popular. Sometimes you give a little in the dignity department to gain some in the exposure department.

“We are vatican assassin warlocks!”

On second thought, maybe thats not always the best transaction…

David Wm. Scott posted on April 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm

I find the idea of Jesus-themed parodies of existing memes really interesting, though, as you point out, also laden with the potential to backfire.

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