Don’t be meme! What Christians can learn from online atheism

Don’t be meme! What Christians can learn from online atheism February 9, 2021

The online world is awash with memes that critique passages from the Bible. Eric Strandness looks at how the viral images can help challenge and strengthen our faith.

The Christian response to atheist memes is usually one of either anger or angst, motivating some to come up with their own clever anti-atheist riposte, while others are left to quietly ask themselves if maybe they contain a kernel of truth. I think there is a middle road where they can be viewed as both an opportunity for dialogue as well as a stimulus to take a deeper look into the Bible. 

Californian pastor, Dan Kimball, takes atheist memes seriously and feels that they represent an outstanding opportunity to educate the Christian laity to become more biblically savvy. In his new book, ‘How (not) to read the Bible: Making sense of the anti-women, anti-science, pro-violence, pro-slavery, and other crazy sounding parts of scripture’, he tackles the content of many of those memes and uses them as tools to help Christians read the Bible more effectively. On a recent episode of Unbelievable?, Kimball debated the validity of some of the more powerful memes with atheist, Michael Wiseman, host of the atheist podcast, The Bible Says What?.

I was impressed by Kimball’s patience and kindness and a bit underwhelmed by Wiseman’s arguments. I wish Wiseman had made a stronger historical and textual case rather than just expressing his distaste for a violent God. Sadly, given his materialist worldview, it is very difficult for him to justify his divine disdain when good and evil have no objective content and are dependent on the whims of a given culture at a given time.

In this blog, however, I want to concentrate on Kimball’s optimism regarding the power of criticism to strengthen faith. I think we all too often dismiss the concerns voiced by our atheist brothers and sisters and miss out on a profound opportunity to reveal the truth of Christianity.

Surviving the Cultural Ice Age

The Christian church is under constant cultural attack, yet it seems that every other religious tradition is given a free pass. We feel like we have been good citizens, yet the villagers relentlessly come at us with torches and pitchforks. While others are allowed to meditate, pray and worship, we are told to scold our deity and make Him sit in the corner with an “Unknown God” sign around His neck. Despite all this hostility, the Church not only survives but also becomes stronger in the process.

What is it about Christianity that allows it to survive every cultural ice age? Why has it not gone the way of the dinosaur? I would argue that Christianity’s remarkable fitness is not due to evolutionary adaptation, but rather Divine stability.

Nobilis Forma

“Michelangelo already saw in the stone that lay before him the pure image that, hidden within, was simply waiting to be uncovered…Michelangelo considered the proper activity of the artist to be an act of uncovering, of releasing – not of making” Saint Bonaventure referred to this process of removal as ablatio which slowly revealed the nobilis forma, the noble form beneath. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ‘Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today’.

Michelangelo knew that his David awaited him within the marble slab but it would take a sharp chisel to reveal the beautiful form beneath. I believe that Christianity is no different. The Body of Christ is also beautifully revealed when the unrefined marble of the church is slowly chipped away. 

While the business end of a cultural spear is often painful, its piercing tip may be the artistic tool necessary to reveal the doctrinal contours of the noblis forma beneath. While our critics may pat themselves on the back for cutting off one more argument from the Christian Hydra, they then look on in horror as two new and more-powerful ones appear. Maybe we need to rethink our attitude towards criticism. Maybe the burning anger directed at Christianity is actually a refiner’s fire that purifies our faith, degree by cultural degree.

Cutting Edge Christianity

We need not fear cultural change because it doesn’t alter the gospel but rather brings its previously hidden strengths to light. The tragedy of abortion helped us better understand God’s view of the sanctity of life, the confusion over same-sex relationships helped us revisit the biblical view of marriage, the evolution debate sharpened our understanding of science and faith, The DaVinci Code  taught us what a Gospel truly is and why we can trust the four in the New Testament. And atheist memes that highlight difficult Old Testament passages makes us better Bible readers.

Culture is not sculpting the Body of Christ into something new but rather giving us new perspectives on something very old. Nuances of our faith that weren’t evident in the past become dramatic new lines on the Church statue. Christianity tends to grow when the Church is persecuted, so every time we feel the sharp edge of a cultural chisel we need to remember that we are on the cutting edge of Christianity.

The Unbelievable? Surgical Suite 

Some Christians may even find the Unbelievable? show threatening because, in addition to presenting orthodox Christian views, it gives voice to atheists and heretics. I would assuage their fear by pointing out that after ten years of talking with atheists, Justin Brierley is still a Christian (read more here). I would also add that Unbelievable? has done more to strengthen my faith than any other Christian apologetic resource.  

Sadly, criticism is often wielded more like a scythe than a scalpel leaving a trail of rabid blood in its wake. Unbelievable?, however, minimizes blood loss and the risk of emotionally infected wounds by allowing the sculpting to be done in a sterile surgical suite where both guests consent to go under the debate knife. Brierley, like a good scrub nurse, makes sure the surgical field remains clean, the instruments utilized by both parties are appropriate to the task, and the patients are well cared for in the recovery room.

Criticism will always be painful because it chips away at our unrefined faith, but when the dust settles, we will discover beautiful contours we could have never imagined.

Listen to Dan Kimball and Michael Wiseman discuss atheist memes

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