Can offensive memes be redeemed?
Also, cannibal vegetables, queer Christian music and Liz Bruenig
What the h*ck is going on here?
This is the first edition of Throwaway Relics. I hope you like it.
A bit of context for you: For my day job, I’m a religion and ethics media specialist and audio producer. As religion journalist Liz Kineke says, “religion is always in the room”. In this newsletter, I’m not so much interested in “the room” as the social media newsfeed and other ephemeral spaces people make culture.
I’m a bit Online, and I see posts every day that act as windows into little-understood worlds with their own history and politics. I intend to tease these out, as well as highlight some of the stranger cultural artefacts that go with religious online spaces.
I hope you’ll find something of interest even if you’re not religious, or if you come from a different tradition than me. I’ll try to keep jargon to a minimum, or explain it where it’s unavoidable.
If it matters to you, I’m a member of the Uniting Church in Australia, a Protestant Christian denomination. I was raised in the evangelical part of that church, but now I’m kind of more mainline. I also spent some time living and working with the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian organisation in Scotland.
I’ll kick off with stories from my own circles and the digital culture that develops there, but if you want to introduce me to your corner of the web, I would love to hear from you! You can email me at email@example.com.
I regret to inform you Larry the Cucumber is a cannibal
VeggieTales is loved by Millennial Christians, ex-Christians and non-Christians alike (apparently it went through a popular phase with American college students in the early 2000s - who knew!)
But a nagging question remains: What do the vegetables eat? Clearly, Jerry Gourd eats cheeseburgers, which opens a lot of other questions about where the animals come from… hang on a sec was there lettuce on that burger?
Incidentally, that song has always struck me as a ‘waiting for marriage’ metaphor, except for when Jerry leaves Burger Bell early to eat bacon and eggs at Denny’s instead, which would completely undermine the message. But I digress!
After an unfortunate bankruptcy at Big Idea Entertainment, the VeggieTales IP eventually settled at Dreamworks. Lee Hale from Preach podcast did an excellent history of it in 2019, and the Good Christian Fun podcast has addressed it from time to time. Since the buyout, things have gotten… looser when it comes to plot and character.
Brad Esposito at BuzzFeed points out that in the first Dreamworks episode, Larry the Cucumber appears to be eating a sandwich containing tomato. Larry, no! That ingredient is your best friend Bob!
But it gets worse. On 23 May 2021, the official VeggieTales account tweeted a picture of Larry the Cucumber “just chillin’” with… bits of cucumber over his eyes.
Naturally, millennial Christians, for whom this show was foundational, were very upset, including RELEVANT magazine senior editor Tyler Huckabee.
For the record, Lisa Vischer, original voice of Junior Asparagus and wife of VeggieTales co-creator Phil Visher has distanced herself and her husband from the post.
The genderqueer musician rewriting the rules of Christian music
Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is its own weird and wonderful world I’ll hopefully get into later, but for now I want to focus on documentary host and musician, Grace Baldridge (stage name, Semler).
Semler’s album Preacher’s Kid managed to knock CCM royalty Lauren Daigle from the top spot on the Christian iTunes chart. But Grace is an unusual rival for the crown - she’s genderqueer, gay and her album comes with a parental advisory warning.
Normally, an LGBT+ person would not be able to exist in the same marketplace as a CCM superstar - Christian record labels would never publish an out, queer person’s music, which means it would never appear on the Christian charts. But digital streaming services, home recording equipment and a smart TikTok campaign have made the comparison possible.
Semler continues to preview music on her excellent TikTok - not all of it serious. Sometimes her clips are blistering responses to Christian content that can be found there. My favourite is Homosexuals in a Burning Car:
Where does Liz Bruenig fit?
Former NYT writer Elizabeth Bruenig (who recently moved to the Atlantic) is a socialist Catholic, and sits in the overlap between Christian Twitter, Left Twitter and News Twitter. At the centre of that conflagration of fury and opinion, Liz is the calm eye of the storm.
She’s an example of how Catholic social teaching can both energise and grate against modern political groups. Her ideas about social welfare find a home on the left, but her views on abortion read as anti-feminist to many in the socialist movement. Likewise, her outspoken religious piety could find her acclaim on the American right, if it weren’t for her beliefs about the death penalty and support for Bernie Sanders.
It reads as dishonest to those whose only lens is the left-right political spectrum, leading many to view her as some kind of sleeper agent working for the other side.
And so, Liz has unintentionally gained the power to turn even Very Serious People into crazed posters, who read her seemingly mixed messages as fascist and communist at the same time.
Even a flippant joke can cause a huge amount of discourse, with prominent users apparently taking her completely seriously:
For what it’s worth, Liz always seems unfazed, and sometimes reminds everyone she is on Twitter to have fun, and all her posts should be read with this in mind.
Religion journalism folk constantly drone on about how understanding religion is critical to understanding the world, and when it comes to someone like Liz, it’s true. Liz Breunig is not an enigma, she’s just a faithful Catholic.
We will boil him soon Alhamdulillah
If a meme begins as a slur but becomes decontextualised away from its offensive beginnings, does it become ok to post?
It’s a question not just for religious online spaces, but for the broader social web too. Pepe the Frog has run the full gambit, originally starting out in innocuous stoner memes, only to be co-opted as a white supremacist symbol. Now in a post-Trump web, I see the character used frequently, seemingly innocently, in a range of contexts.
But even if Pepe is being rehabilitated, given the cultural baggage that image now carries, would you post it?
Same goes for We Will Boil Him Soon Alhamdulillah. Many Muslims consider it forbidden to keep or even touch a dog, let alone eat one, although it’s possible OP is a Muslim making an ironic joke along those lines (The dog is so cute! Who would boil it?) However, the hashtag #BosnianChicken attached to a lot of these posts gave me pause.
Regardless, the meme has now ricocheted around long enough that the phrase is being posted unthinkingly, but without malice.
Some posts leave off “Alhamdulillah” (an Arabic phrase meaning “praise be to God”) and these posts have morphed into a series of jokes about animals you would be unlikely to boil, or jokes about eating cats sitting in cookware.
But it hasn’t fully shaken its origins, as some users are now appending “inshallah” (Arabic for, “if God wills it”) to these posts, or riffing on the #BosnianChicken hashtag.
Some Muslims (or users claiming to be Muslims) have embraced these memes, but others not at all. Of course, this is all a matter of perspective: I’d be interested to hear from someone more familiar with Islamic communities on the social web.
Other bits that might interest you:
Here’s a philosophical analysis of Mr Bean.
Check out these fully sick Chick Tract pics of the Pope heralding the apocalypse.
I confess I’m not fully across TikTok but I’m starting to think I should be.
If you’ve seen a good post I should see, I have open DMs on Twitter: @RJSalmond. If you have a question, have noticed I’ve made a mistake, or know something I don’t, then please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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