My social media friends keep posting memes, and it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t sure what a meme is. So, I did some research. I found that the term was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist, to describe “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, through writing, images, speech, gestures, rituals or other phenomena with a mimicked theme.” Since then, some social scientists have been seriously studying what they call “memetics,” with the belief that memes are a way of passing ideas and values among human populations, similar to how genes pass on physical traits and behaviors.
Memes that appear and reappear on Facebook and other social media are a lot more fun than that, but they seem to serve a similar function. Either by a picture, through words or both picture and words together, they put forward an idea that both the sender and the receiver intuitively respond to. The meme rings a bell and draws a number of people together around a common experience of life. Usually, a meme will be changed over time, and ultimately the best and most memorable form will outlast the others and become part of social media’s memory.
As I was thinking about this, I realized that Early Christianity developed a very wonderful meme, long before computers were imagined, and even centuries before the printing press was invented. It was the fish outline shape that Christians universally recognized as a symbol of their common faith. Archeologists have found numerous carvings, some dating back to the Second Century after Christ. These range from being very simple and basic
The Greek word for fish is ICHTHUS, and early believers saw in the letters of that word a secret reference to the One they worshiped and followed:
I — In Greek, this is the first letter of JESUS.
CH — In Greek, this is one letter and the beginning of CHRIST.
TH — In Greek, this is one letter and the beginning of the word for GOD
U — In Greek, this is the first letter of the word for SON.
S — In Greek, this is the first letter of the word for SAVIOR.
So to the early believers, the Fish Meme was like a creed of their faith: JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S SON, SAVIOR. Also, it was a way of identifying other believers and fellowship groups in times when the church was underground because of opposition. Christians would recognize a rough drawing of a fish, while their persecutors would not. The Fish Meme may be saying “There’s a meeting here tonight.”
In later Christianity, the meme was expanded to include the letters within the fish outline, and in our day, we see artwork, decorations and jewelry of all kinds based on this meme.
Over the centuries, the believing Church has found other layers of meaning in the Fish Meme:
- At least four of Jesus’ twelve original disciples were fishermen, and much of his ministry was in fishing communities along the Sea of Galilee. Jesus promised that, if the disciples followed him, he would use them to “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).
- One of Jesus’ most notable miracles was multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed five thousand people. This miracle was seen as a preview of the fact that he would later establish The Lord’s Table, from which he would feed the souls of people from every tribe and nation on earth, throughout many generations.
The Christian Fish Meme has a lot to tell us.
— Pastor George Van Alstine