Parables, Memes and Opportunities for Learning

Purposely out of easy reach, in the top-left corner of my study bookshelves, reside the dusty tomes I am unlikely to read again.  They consist of dull, obscure works that are outdated and have served their purpose.  From second-hand bookshops they came and to second-hand bookshops they shall one day return.  One such book, exploring Midrashic metaphors, similes and parables, is titled The Parables and Similes of the Rabbis – Agricultural and Pastoral, by Rabbi Dr. A. Feldman.  I have the second edition which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1927.  It is a scholarly work, but hardly a ‘page-turner’.  The subject matter, and even the chapter headings, are dry and uninspiring; they include, ‘The Fig’, ‘The Olive’, ‘The Thorn and the Reed’ and ‘The Myrtle’.  Being divorced from these ancient sayings by a considerable chasm of time and culture, I find it difficult to connect with them meaningfully.  Admittedly, in Dr. Feldman’s preface, there appears a culinary dictum from the Talmudic Kethuboth, which contains sage advice, lively and practical: “The eating of dates before bread is as injurious as the axe to the palm tree.”

My failure to appreciate and fully embrace these rabbinic sayings is due in part to my familiarity with the parables of Jesus of Nazareth.  I may be biased, but for me the sayings of the learned rabbis suffer when compared with the words of a village carpenter who lacked formal rabbinical training.  He undoubtedly was and remains an engaging, charismatic and thought-provoking teacher.  Parables were Jesus’ preferred teaching method.  “With many such parables he [Jesus] spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (Mark 4:33-34).

Jesus presumably formulated parables and utilised them as his preferred mode of teaching for several good reasons.  As alluded to in the passage from Mark above, they have an enigmatic quality that provokes deeper thinking, resisting simplistic conclusions.  We must deliberately chew over the narrative, trying to identify subtle ingredients, in order to savour its insights and wisdom.  Jesus was a Vygotskian before it was fashionable.  In the Parable of the Sower, the disciples are initially left floundering and require extensive scaffolding, in the form of a detailed exposition from Jesus, in order to make sense of the story and its purpose.  It provides an interpretative key for future stories.  Metaphors and allegories are capable of holding in tension layers of complementary and competing connotations that require careful sifting and interpretation.  There is not always a straightforward answer or application.  A literal and declaratory statement such as ‘God is forgiving and merciful’ can be passed over quickly and lightly; it only captures the imagination to a limited degree.  However, an extended parable such as The Parable of the Prodigal Son causes us to pause and reflect.

Parables are laden with mnemonic power.  They draw upon everyday examples that seek to resonate with the hearer/reader, thus becoming memorable.  For first-century Israel, this involved examples from agriculture, commerce and social interactions.  It is remarkable how many of these parables involve money.  We can still identify with the characters and situations portrayed in these short stories, because the human condition remains the same.  Nevertheless, there is great interpretative advantage in having some knowledge of the social norms of the day.  The insights of scholars such as Kenneth Bailey, with his familiarity of long-standing Near Middle Eastern social customs and attitudes, are invaluable. 

For the benefit of my students, I like to retitle The Parable of the Prodigal Son as The Parable of the Foolish and Indulgent Father.  Such titles, which never appeared in the original Greek New Testament, unconsciously direct our attention to certain characters and we tend to interpret the story from their perspective.  If we put ourselves in the father’s shoes (ordinarily, authority figures in the parables, such as parents, employers, rulers and property owners, represent God), we discern the great lengths he will traverse in order to restore a broken relationship.  What kind of father obligingly hands over a significant proportion of the estate to a son who is not prepared to wait respectfully for an inheritance after his father’s passing?  Why is the father prepared to become a figure of ridicule and contempt in his village, by running out to greet the returning son who has brought such shame upon the family?  In that culture, it would be undignified for the head of the family to run towards a disgraced son: in any event, the long robes worn by the father would impede his progress, causing him to waddle ludicrously.  As the son has already surmised, he should at best be relegated to the role of a servant; yet the father celebrates his return, putting at risk his relationship with the older sibling.  The sacrificial nature of the father/God, even to the extent of absurd profligacy, prepares readers of Luke’s Gospel for the foolishness and costliness of the cross.

This leads us to another quality inherent in many parables: hyperbole, resulting in humour.  People like to hear funny stories and enjoy retelling them.  They remember jokes better than recipes or Ikea instructions.  A great way to introduce students to the concept of hyperbole is by having them watch Monty Python’s The Four Yorkshiremen, in which self-made men at a gentlemen’s club reminiscence upon the hardships of a humble childhood, seeking to out-do each other’s stories to the point of ridiculousness, with the final line, “… and if you tell that to the young people today, they won’t believe you.”    

If we look for humour and hyperbole in the parables we will quickly find them.  Why is the sower so uncoordinated, continuing to toss seed on stony, weed-infested and infertile ground?  What sort of shepherd, with the ever-present threat of wolves and thieves, and without the benefit of barbed-wire, puts at risk ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that has strayed?  Common-sense employment practices are upended when employees receive the same, fair payment for a day’s work, even though they have worked different hours.  A distant landowner naively sends his son to wicked tenants to collect his share of the produce, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that he may be executing his son’s death warrant, as these tenants have beaten and killed his servants on previous occasions.  A reviled Samaritan exhibits compassion and generosity, rather than a priest or Levite.  The original hearers would have shaken their heads with a wry smile and muttered, “Ridiculous!”

In order to ascertain whether my Year 7 students have understood these concepts, I have them write their own modern-day parable, which begins with the prompt, ‘The love of God is like a lifesaver standing beside a stormy sea’.  Having already explored the shepherd metaphor in Luke 15 (which draws upon Ezekiel 34), students recognise readily that the lifesaver has a protective and salvific function.  They then turn their minds to the kind of hyperbolic threads they can weave into the story.  Obviously, it will not be a calm day – to build tension, mountainous waves need to be crashing on the shoreline.  There might be swarms of jellyfish and the occasional shark.  Students who develop a real taste for hyperbole will add flourishes such as ‘shark-nados’ (sharks spinning wildly within tornados).  Is the drowning swimmer (representing fallen humanity) entirely blameless, or has he brought this catastrophe upon himself?  Has he ignored the lifesaver’s advice and failed to swim between the flags?  Was he saved earlier in the day but displayed little gratitude?  If students conclude that the purpose of the parable is to inform the reader about God’s love, which paradoxically finds its fullest expression in the crucifixion, then perhaps their lifesaver will give up his own life to save the life of another.  Not all parables end happily.

Memes share many of the characteristics of parables.  Comprising both image and text, they are humorous, pithy and can have an educative role.  People enjoy sharing them.  They may be subversive and edgy, promoting a particular idea, belief or agenda.  Deceptively straightforward, under careful examination they often betray complex thought.  Just as an appreciation of Ancient Near Eastern culture assists in the understanding of parables, memes too require a familiarity with contemporary youth culture and language.[1]

Memes have a viral quality: they spread and mutate.  Someone will find inspiration from a meme and amend it in subtle or obvious ways, thus creating a new idea that is transmitted afresh.  It was Richard Dawkins who introduced the meme concept in his 1976 work, The Selfish Gene.[2]  Meme is a shortened version of the ancient Greek word μίμημα (mimeme) meaning ‘imitated thing’.    Dawkins likened the transmission of our behaviours and ideas to genes.  Our ideas evolve as they are passed on to others, but admittedly more quickly than living organisms.  Ideas and their expression compete for attention – if they are topical and pique interest they will subsist for a time.  It is not so much ‘survival of the fittest’ as ‘survival of the funniest’.  Memes are participatory and enable the free and democratic dissemination of opinions; they are usually anonymous, encouraging one-upmanship and uninhibited expression.

An ‘Image Macro’ is a subset of internet memes and one of the most prevalent and typical forms, with images that are captioned, ordinarily comprising a picture with a succinct catchphrase or humorous message.  It is difficult to categorise memes, due to their fluid nature.  Certainly, they can be corralled by topic (music, film, celebrities, etc.) or by the nature of their humour, ranging from light-hearted and incongruous, to irreverent and vindictive.[3]  With regard to religious memes, one article has identified six common genres: Stock Character Memes with Religious Memes, Religious Figure Memes, Reaction Memes, Implicit Religion Memes, Religious Spoof Memes and Video Memes.[4]

Some creators of religious memes acknowledge the connection between their form of communication and the parables of Jesus.  One such example appropriates a scene from the 1988 motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese.  This film was based upon the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Jesus is played by Willem Dafoe.  In the meme he is pictured smiling with a sideways glance to someone off-camera, while raising an earthen drinking cup.  In typical meme format, words in capital, bolded, white letters appear at the top and bottom of the picture.  They read as follows: 

[Top] “JESUS SPOKE ALL THESE THINGS TO THE CROWD IN MEMES.

[Bottom] HE DID NOT SAY ANYTHING TO THEM WITHOUT USING A MEME.”

In small type at the foot of the meme a Bible reference appears (Matthew 13.34) together with a website reference (ChristianityOriginal.com/Kingdom).

Many religious memes utilise Carl Heinrich Bloch’s painting Sermon on the Mount.  The painting depicts a seated Jesus on a rocky outcrop with a raised, right hand, as if making an authoritative pronouncement.  He is surrounded by a section of the crowd exhibiting various facial expressions and poses as they respond to his teaching.  The words in bold, white capitals appearing at the top and bottom of the picture are as follows:

“AND GOD SAID UNTO THEE

THOU SHALL COMMUNICATE VIA MEMES.”

The archaic language melds neatly with the visual.  The incongruity of memes forming the subject matter of God’s directive from the lips of Jesus provides an absurdist touch.

Some religious memes even provide their own modernised version of parables.  A popular meme image, now known colloquially as ‘Story Time Jesus’ is The Parable by the American artist Lars Justinen (b. 1955).  It is an overly wholesome, sanitised scene, with fresh-faced children gazing in adoration at the Teacher.  The words read:

“THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE LOOKING EVERYWHERE FOR YOUR LOST PEN

AND THEN YOU REALIZE, WOAH, IT WAS RIGHT BEHIND YOUR EAR THE WHOLE TIME.”

The same image is used for a similar meme, bearing the words:

“THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE TEARING APART YOUR ENTIRE HOUSE LOOKING FOR YOUR KEYS WHILE YOU’RE RUNNING LATE FOR WORK

ONLY TO REALISE THEY WERE IN YOUR POCKET ALL ALONG.”

Another meme acknowledges that Jesus’ parables are often enigmatic and not readily understood.  The image, taken from a painting by Greg K. Olsen (b. 1958), is of a luminous Jesus standing at a lectern in the Temple, saying the words “The kingdom of Heaven is like 3x² + 8x – 9.”  A bewildered disciple, leaning towards another, asks, “What does the teacher mean?” The more knowledgeable disciple responds, “Don’t worry, it’s just another one of His parabolas …”

Creators of religious memes enjoy the interplay between Jesus and other cultural icons, as diverse as Star Wars, the Avengers, McDonalds, Colonel Sanders, Batman, Superman, Lego, Godzilla, Star Trek, Raptors, Where’s Wally and the Transformers.  For these memes to resonate, their audience must possess sufficient literacy across both religious and contemporary cultures to make sense of the connections being drawn.  As with Jesus’ parables, the meme recipient must grapple with the image and words, perhaps even having to do some research or reading the comments of others, to appreciate the author’s intention.  Even then, the meaning may remain purposely elusive, capable of several reasonable interpretations.

Star Wars is a fruitful cross-over for creators of religious memes, particularly as the actor Ewan McGregor, playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, bears some physical resemblance to a commonly-imagined version Jesus, with obligatory beard and robe.  Further, in their fictional universe, Jedi Knights adhere to the belief in a moral and spiritual dimension, with a teleological understanding of history. They teach their disciples with authority, based on ancient wisdom.  (Arguably, there are just as many nods to Buddhism as Christianity in the Star Wars universe).  Belief in ‘the Force’ (an energy field created by all living things that permeates the galaxy and binds it together) requires an almost religious faith – as Darth Vader memorably quipped, “I find your lack of faith … disturbing.” 

In his dotage, Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Sir Alec Guinness, lays down his life so that others might escape death, only to live on in a resurrected yet disembodied state, continuing to give guidance to his young mentor, Luke Skywalker.  His earlier prophecy, spoken to Darth Vader, warns that, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”  Reinforcing the Obi-Wan Kenobi – Christ link, McGregor played Jesus in the Last Days in the Desert, released by Universal Sony Pictures in 2015. 

In Phillipe de Champaigne’s 1648 work The Last Supper, Christ is pictured blessing the Passover bread. A meme creator has taken this work and superimposed light sabres, (the traditional weapon of a Jedi Knight) placing them into the hands of each disciple.  The caption reads: “If only detecting evil was this easy …”  Presumably, the author of the meme is drawing a contrast between Jedi Knights, who were unable to identify the evil within their midst, and Jesus, who knew who was to betray him and identified Judas at the Last Supper (John 13:21-27). 

There are numerous examples.  Obi Wan-Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) kneels over Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), from a scene where Luke has been rendered unconscious by an attack of Tusken Raiders, also known as the Sand People.  The words read, “Abraham attempts to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, to show his devotion to God.  Unknown date. (Colorized).”  In another, Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan-Kenobi in the film Attack of the Clones is pictured in a bar, in which someone is propositioning him to buy ‘death sticks’. According to the website ‘Wookieepedia’ (starwars.wikia.com), death sticks are ‘a highly addictive illicit substance … a favourite among desperate addicts and foolish thrill-seekers.’  The caption to the meme is: “Jesus rejects temptations of the devil in the Judean Desert (c. 33 AD colourised).”  There are several examples of intentionally dubious dating, which flippantly purport to bestow historical validity upon a clearly modern image.  Perhaps the creator of the meme is gently calling into question the trustworthiness of the Bible?

Other memes are less facetious.  While amusing, they have real learning possibilities.  In my classrooms, I regularly employ memes to either introduce a topic, or have students create their own to demonstrate their understanding.

For example, if I want to introduce a complex theological concept such as Jesus’ incarnation, especially the concept of humility as explored in Philippians 2 and Hebrews 2, I use the meme pictured at the top of this post.

This meme confirms the need to be conversant with both religious and contemporary cultures to make sense of the message.  ‘Undercover Boss’ is a television series where senior managers of large organisations will disguise themselves, taking on the role of a lowly-ranked employee in their own organisation.  It enables them to understand the culture of their business and converse with people freely and on the same level.  The boss often learns of the difficulties employees face and their devotion to the workplace, which otherwise would go unnoticed.  Near the conclusion of an episode, the boss reveals his true identity to the overwhelmed employees with whom he has interacted surreptitiously. These employees are often rewarded with a cash bonus or a promotion.  The image in the pictured meme records the moment during the Last Supper when Jesus washes Peter’s feet, adopting the role of a lowly servant.  Having read the relevant Bible passages, students then explore various questions that they have formulated in response to this meme, such as, ‘In what sense does Jesus go ‘undercover’?’  ‘To what extent does he disguise himself?’ ‘What are his reasons for doing so, and could he have achieved God’s purposes in another way?’ and ‘At what point does he reveal his true (divine) identity, and how does he confirm his divine status?’

It is one thing to interpret a meme and quite another to create your own.  To fashion humour in only a few words while simultaneously encapsulating a complex idea is no easy task.  Memes created by students have the ability to reveal their deep and abstract thoughts.  It appeals to their creativity and is a different method of assessing understanding.

For example, having discussed and analysed the topic of Evolution over some lessons with my Year 8 students, I produce a picture that I’ve sourced from Google images.  It shows an orangutan nursing its child.  However, the infant’s face has been doctored and now bears the image of a petulant President Trump.  It is the kind of image that cries out for a humorous response.  The challenge to my students is to create a meme using this picture that reveals their understanding of something we have covered in our evolution classes.  Additionally, they are to accompany it with a verbal presentation to their peers, explaining how the meme ‘works’.

In response, one of my students ran with the idea of ‘devolution’.  When Victorian England initially grappled with the implications of evolutionary theory, the concept of devolution was argued as a real possibility. Rather than improving, species or societies might regress.  The words the student attached to this image to create a meme were as follows:

[Top] “I’M FAIRLY COMFORTABLE WITH EVOLUTIONARY THEORY

[Bottom] IT’S DEVOLUTION I WORRY ABOUT!”

The placement of these words gives the effect that they are being spoken by the orangutan, whose sage eyes look out directly from the image.  In his verbal presentation, the student noted that evolutionary theory is not only restricted within the biological sphere, but now informs thinking on how social systems develop over time, such as politics.  Do political systems continually improve, or do they ebb and flow?  Does Trump represent a devolution in American politics? 

Another student created the caption, “NOT ALL GENETIC MUTATIONS ARE ADVANTAGEOUS TO THE SPECIES.”  In his verbal presentation, he was able to speak about the randomness of genetic mutation and the vast expanses of time that are required over thousands of generations to bring about considerable change, let alone a new species.  He was able to provide examples of where a random mutation, such as a change in pigment, would be disadvantageous, depending on the environment in which the organism lived.

Just like the parables of Jesus, ‘simple’ memes and their humour appeal to our students, engendering much thought, comment and reflection.  They both provide wonderful opportunities for learning and the demonstration of understanding.


[1] Bellar, W., Campbell, H., Cho, K., Terry, A., Tsuria, R., Yadlin-Segal, A. and Ziemer, J. (2013): “Reading Religion in internet Memes”, Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture, vol. 2 issue 2, accessed from http://jrmdc.com/

[2] Dawkins, R. (1976).  The Selfish Gene.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Shifman, L. (2013).  MIT press essential knowledge: Memes in digital culture.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[4] Aguilar, K., Campbell, H., Stanley, M. & Taylor, E. (2017) Communicating mixed messages about religion through internet memes. Information, Communication & Society, 20:10, 1498-1520

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Malcolm Woolrich Written by:

Rev. Malcolm Woolrich is an ordained Anglican Chaplain at Wadhurst, the Middle School of Melbourne Grammar. He teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies and has been a lawyer for over thirty years.

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