Why Doesn’t Jesus Save Us from Disasters?
In September 2022, a meme with a two-panel cartoon of Jesus was posted on a meme site, earning more reactions than another meme, insulting Joe Biden, posted by the same account. The historic religious icon grabbed more attention than the current US president, which seems to be strange because people in the world nowadays are getting less interested in religion. According to the Office for National Statistics (2022), the percentage of the non-religious population of England and Wales increased to 37.2 percent in 2021 from 25.2 percent in 2011. Similarly, the US saw a rise in the number of adults who do not believe in religion to 29 percent in 2021 from 13 percent in 2007 (Smith, 2021). Despite this growing indifference to religion, the meme featuring Jesus apparently attracted many people's interest. That might be due to the effectiveness of the message conveyed by the pictures and words in the post. Using a discourse analytic approach, this article intends to reveal why it is that this Jesus meme drew so much attention.
Recontextualization, multimodality, indexicality
To reveal how the meme obtained people's engagement, this study applies a conceptual framework consisting of recontextualization, indexicality, and multimodality. The idea of recontextualization is involved in the analysis because the meme contains a story similar to a story in the bible. The theory explains that a recontextualized text obtains another meaning in a new context, even if the text holds the same exact words as the original (Johnstone, 2018). The meaning of the text is altered once it gets separated from the initial context (Johnstone, 2018). The notion of recontextualization leads this analysis to focus on how the meme changed the biblical story by placing it in a new context.
In addition, this study applies the concept of multimodality to reveal the consequences brought by employing both a dialogue and a picture in the meme. Multimodal analysis means that when multiple semiotic modes are used, researchers should analyze these as a whole, not separately (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, as cited in Catalano & Waugh, 2020). When several communication tools are put together, they affect each other and in turn develop (new) meanings that extend beyond their individual, separate meanings. The idea of multimodality makes this study look at how the combination of a dialogue and an image of Jesus generates another meaning to the meme.
Lastly, to uncover how the meme is understood by the reactors to the post, the notion of indexicality is included in the analysis. The idea of indexicality relates to the insight that any communication tool relies on personal beliefs, backgrounds, characteristics, and social context (Blommaert, 2005). Indexical meaning is what bridges the gap between the dictionary meaning and the social meaning of the semiotic tool (Blommaert, 2005). The indexical meaning of the expressions used in the meme will allow us to comprehend the implicit message that was delivered from the meme to the people who showed their engagement.
The meme this article elaborates on was posted on 9GAG on September 18th, 2022, as is depicted in the Figure below. It was categorized as “funny” and “hot”.
The name of the user who posted the meme is “madeintheuk” with a flag of England. The account has been used for more than 8 years and has posted memes constantly with for instance 13 posts in September and 11 posts in October 2022. The meme earned more engagement than usual for that account, obtaining 4 thousand up reactions, 520 down reactions, and 310 comments.
The post was titled “It is a mystery” and has two vertical dimensions with the same picture of a sleeping Jesus, but each of them has a different dialogue. On the upper side, a person not drawn in the portrait says “Jesus! Get up bro! There is a war in Ukraine, Covid-19 is still here, and inflation is pushing people into poverty” to Jesus sleeping in his bed. On the lower side of the meme, Jesus answers “Tell them I'm working in mysterious ways yo.” The image of Jesus is from a website “SAD AND USELESSNESS -The most depressive humorous site on the internet”, which offers funny posts, articles, and pictures.
The Jesus depicted in the meme
Jesus is not saving the world
The concept of recontextualization elucidates that the meme indicates the reality that Jesus is not striving to save humanity from disaster. The person who posted the meme created the dialogue between Jesus and another figure by recontextualizing a story from the bible, Mark 4 “Jesus Calms the Storm.” The setting of the biblical story resembles the situation that people around the world are now facing. In the bible, Jesus and his disciples were riding on a boat in a storm, placing themselves at a risk. Similarly, people around the globe are suffering from the lasting Coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and worldwide inflation. Both in the bible and in contemporary reality, people are encountering danger and plead to Jesus to save them. However, he behaves differently in the meme and the bible. In the biblical story, after his disciples asked him if he didn’t care about them drowning, he got up and stopped the storm. On the contrary in the meme, Jesus continues to sleep and does not make any changes to the world, just saying: “Tell them I'm working in mysterious ways yo.” By using a biblical story where Jesus saves people in a similar condition as the world is in today, but making changes in the ending of the story, the meme makes the viewers of the post realize that they are still in disaster because Jesus is not working for them.
A powerless and lazy human
The concept of indexicality discloses that the meme does not regard Jesus as a supreme existence who deserves to be respected. In the conversation illustrated in the image on the meme, the person who pleads to Jesus uses the slang “bro” in talking to him. Likewise, Jesus also uses “yo” in responding to the person. Slang is an informal language that is utilized when talking with friends or family who are close. The use of informal words can lead to the positive interpretation that Jesus is in a close relationship with the person who is talking to him. However, when the slang is used in a recontextualized story from the bible which shows Jesus is not saving humans, the slang indexes that he is not admired as a person to whom formal language should be used. Making Jesus use the slang “yo” also indexes him as not a supernatural being but rather an ordinary human, who uses slang for daily communication. The slang used in the meme contributes to degrading Jesus from an esteemed supernatural power who saves humanity to a mere human being who does not have to be spoken to with formal words to show respect.
Indexicality also reveals that the meme portrays Jesus as a powerless person who does not save the world by expressing his incredible work as a mystery. The work of Jesus for saving people is usually called a miracle. However, the meme describes his work as a mystery as seen in Jesus' reply to the plea that he is working in “mysterious ways.” While miracle is a word that implies astonishment and appreciation of the activity performed, the word mystery indexes that his work is literally strange, meaning it is not reasonable and does not deserve reverence. By presenting his work as a mystery, the meme ridicules the work of Jesus , which is believed to be a fearful and respectful act that saves humanity, as sheer meaningless.
The word “mysterious” contributes to shedding light on Jesus in still another way. When the word is combined with the picture of Jesus sleeping, he looks like an idle person who makes excuses for not getting up from his bed. In contrast to the biblical story, Jesus continues to sleep in the meme, saying “Tell them I'm working in mysterious ways yo” even after he was told that people are in danger. As far as he insists that he is doing something for humanity in mysterious ways, people cannot accuse him of not getting up because they cannot rule out the possibility that he is doing something while sleeping. The word “mysterious” sounds as if he is making clever excuses for not doing anything but staying asleep. As the notion of multimodality implies, the word “mysterious” compounded with the portrait of a sleeping Jesus leads people to associate him with a lazy human being who makes excuses to avoid accusations of not getting up. The consolidation of the picture of a sleeping Jesus and the word “mysterious” tailor him as an idle figure, which is the opposite of a savior of humanity.
Is Jesus a savior of humanity from disasters?
This meme succeeded in gaining attention because its depiction of Jesus matched the doubt in the minds of people that Jesus is not doing anything to save them from catastrophes. At the time that the meme was posted, inflation started to influence life all over the world. Since people had already endured the long-lasting coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine war, they were tired of this new global crisis. While Jesus is known to have come to the world to save humanity, the multiple disasters have already made it uncertain whether he is actually going to do that. The recontextualized biblical story in the meme implicitly explained that Jesus is not saving people. The meme visualized the doubts about Jesus that people had in the continuous disasters and confirmed and encouraged them that they are not the only ones doubting his superpower.
In addition to denying him as a savior of humanity, the meme is making fun of him as a powerless and rather lazy person who is reluctant to get up even after knowing people are suffering from disasters. Jesus is explained as helpless through the interpretation of his work as a mystery, which indexes that his work is far away from a superior work that saves humanity. Further, the multimodal effect of the word “mysterious” and the picture of a sleeping Jesus degraded him from a supernatural existence that deserves fear and respect to a spoiled human being who keeps sleeping even though he was asked to save humanity. The informal language use seen in the slang “bro” and “yo” also indexes that Jesus is not a person who astonishes people with supernatural powers.
These effective transformations from Jesus as the hero who saved his disciples in the original story into an incompetent human being sounded funny to the people who already were in doubt if Jesus would be like doing anything to save the world. The meme succeeded in gaining popularity by visualizing a question - that people already had somewhere in their minds during the difficult times of disasters - in a funny way, insulting the redeemer who is supposed to save humanity.
This type of meme which denies Jesus' supernatural powers can influence people's religious beliefs, especially of those who already do not strongly believe in religion. The popularity of such memes can be an indicator of predicting the trend of diminishing religious belief in the future. Some empirical research is called for to see whether memes that criticize or insult religious beliefs can trigger people to start to doubt religion or strengthen their already existing skepticism.
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Johnstone, B. (2018). Discourse analysis. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Office for National Statistics. (2022, November 29). Religion, England and Wales: Census 2021.
Smith, A. G. (2021, December 14). About three-in-ten U.S. adults are now religiously unaffiliated. Pew research center.