This post is not a criticism of Pastor Harrison, but I’m glad that the title got your attention.
I very much hope that the current LCMS President, the Rt. Rev’d Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, is re-elected. He is an honorable man, a dutiful servant of the Church, and truly a pastor of pastors.
But, my goodness, the memes being circulated on social media thumping the tub for his re-election are rather irreverent and undignified. Yes, some of them are truly dumb. Such things are completely unbefitting the occasion, i.e., the elevation of a pastor to lead a synod of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church— which thing, a synod of the true Catholic Church, is what we claim to be… or so I have been led to believe (and so I do believe). This would make Dr. Harrison— functionally at least— an Archbishop (I’m sorry if this term bothers you; it is, however, descriptive). With reference to both genus and species, these memes are about as dignified and reverent as a pair of truck-nuts suspended from a sanctuary lamp. An uninformed outsider might easily gain the impression that some mustachioed guy named Matt is running to be president of a fraternity.
Nota Bene: None of this is Pastor Harrison’s fault. For numerous reasons, I’m quite sure that he is not the creator of the memes in question.
We use the word “Reverend” to style those men who have been duly ordained to the Holy Ministry, and well we should. What does it mean? It comes from the Latin substantive adjective reverendus, which means “person to be revered”; c.f.:
My point is this: the Right Reverend Doctor Harrison is not a bro. He is not “the dude with the ‘stache.” If the Large Catechism is to be believed, he is your father in the Lord, just as your own pastor is your father in the Lord. Whether you call your pastor “Father” is beside the point: we are to honor and revere all of our fathers— fathers in blood and fathers in office— and render them “deference as to a majesty…hidden” within them.
“The medium is the message,” quoth the prophet McLuhan. This compact phrase, the eponymous title of chapter one of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, has echoed throughout our cultural discourse since 1964. I don’t propose to be able to unpack his argument here, or even at all. (Here are some selected chapters; read them yourself at your leisure.) I will go ahead and assert that, as a medium, what we call the internet meme (hereafter “meme”, though that term is much broader), whatever else it might communicate, always and unfailingly communicates triviality and a lack of seriousness. Attempts to communicate seriously via “memes” do exist; however, they are, simply put, universal failures, just as it would be a failure (of much more than communication) for the US president to deliver his State of the Union address in a Hawaiian shirt whilst wearing a propellor-beanie.
Not everything has to be a meme. Most things are not reducible to a meme, i.e., most things cannot be fittingly presented as what they truly are via the memelish medium. Memes are at best a low form of discourse, and as such they are not suited to sacred affairs. Granted, childlike prattle by adults is not always bad; Luther says that it can be good and helpful… when the adults in question are speaking to children, not when adults are speaking to each other, and about adult concerns. Perhaps we should take inventory of our childish things and put some of them away— or at least realize when it’s inappropriate to display them on the front lawn.
Or perhaps I’m way off, and it’s actually time to get with the trite, slovenly, perpetually adolescent Zeitgeist. Maybe it would be best if we in the LCMS continued our present course of enthusiastically channeling the banality and demagoguery of public discourse, especially that of secular politics. “The culture” is irreverent and crass; we’re supposed to be all things to all people; ergo, assume the mantle of Beavis for Jesus, and feel good about it, too! (Or you could twist the dial a bit further and join “The Lutheran Locker-Room” on Facebook; byline: “There are no ‘weaker brothers’ here.” Can’t find it? It’s secret, so that pietists like you can’t spy out their liberty.)
There’s a way in which this matter often gets recast, at least in my experience: it is either implied or baldly stated that facility with the room-temperature modes of pop culture is an essential part of “living in the Two Kingdoms”, but this does little more than evince a profound (howbeit seemingly widespread) misunderstanding of this doctrine. (Notably, it’s also the otiose logic underlying the bane of Christianity, the “contemporary worship”/”church growth” movement.) However it’s put forward, the assumption is that being hip is of such vital importance that we all must assiduously keep a thumb on the pop-cultural pulse and school ourselves in its jargony ephemera, thus to know how to verb and weird language like a smirking B-grade po-mo, acquire other worthy cachets, etc. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been disappointed at the fact that none of my pastors have ever mentioned Kanye West in a sermon, let alone used his name as a verb.)
Let’s be honest— maintaining such savvy is a full-time job. It requires us to be on social media— usually Facebook— all day. And, well… we are. Really, though… how else could you ever hope to learn the constantly evolving language of memelish? How else will you “get” “references” and then (much more importantly) signal your non-plussed awareness? Whatever will we do if we’re not in pop-culture-reference-fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ? (Some potential answers: we might talk to them; we might allow ourselves to fall out of constant touch with them just long enough to miss them and wonder what’s new in their lives; we might read books; etc., etc., so on and so forth…)
We flatter ourselves if we think that we’re just appropriating these forms of discourse ironically, or that we’re among a rarefied few who are “just on Facebook because they like to watch other people make fools of themselves” (“other people”; uh-huh, right). We should consider that we are likely acquiring more than just bad habits from the pop-cultural hive-mind we’re all logged into around the clock.
I imagine that this post may not be well-received by all who read it, that it will likely incur derision from some people, perhaps spark some snarky retorts, etc. Perhaps it will be met with specimens from this genus of accusation: <eye-roll>“Yeah, whatevs. You have no sense of humor, obvi.”</eye-roll> The thing about a sense of humor, though, is that it implies an ability to recognize what are/are not fit subjects and occasions for levity. That’d be the sense part, I reckon, and… well… that’s the whole shootin’ match.
True reverence matters. Dignity matters. It is a sham reverence which confines itself to the Divine Service. If we are unable to recognize its needfulness in our attitude toward those ecclesial matters which transpire outside the four walls of the church building, then reverence is truly something that we do not “get”— no matter how fluent in snark and memelish we are—, and all our harping about how much we care about “reverent liturgy” is mere egoistic signaling.