Downtime

The Lord’s Little Helpers

Inside the surprisingly earnest world of religious Minion memes.

Minions with angel wings.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by d1sk/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Universal Pictures.

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“This rose is for my dad in Heaven,” read the image’s caption. It’s a sweet sentiment, an earnest expression of grief—which is why I did not expect to see a Minion, wide eyes beaming shyly, flower clutched in its gloved hands, just below the text. Those ubiquitous, diminutive yellow creatures from the Despicable Me franchise were created for the most commercial of reasons, to sell heaps of movie tickets and toys. But apparently the adorable henchmen, beloved by Hollywood’s youngest target demographic (and seemingly loathed by everyone else), were now being used to express sincere mourning in a relative’s Facebook post.

In any other context, I could see the meme as kitchy or ironic, but in the face of a family loss that I knew was real, I was left more befuddled than ever. My uncle had died of cancer just a few months before. And his daughter(my cousin) who posted this image was far from a child—in fact, she was older than me. I didn’t need social media to tell me that our interests, tastes, and values wildly differed. I was used to seeing her post both decontextualized Godfather quotes and earnest prayers to the Virgin Mary. What I was not used to was seeing a meme that combined the pop cultural crassness of the former with the holy sacredness of the latter. Suffice it to say, my brain was exhausted after the mental gymnastics it took to process this uncanny image.

As I soon learned, this one … memorial? … was merely the tip of an iceberg I was about to uncover. Propelled by my morbid curiosity, a cursory Google search led me to one of the most popular (and completely unofficial) Facebook Minion fan pages, simply called “Minion Quotes.” More than 1 million people follow it. While it appropriates the characters in various ways, most silly and sarcastic, some are deeply sincere. Here is one representative quote: “My house isn’t fancy. I don’t have any money. I struggle for everything i have but i am grateful for God’s love. My loving family and true friend.” What I find more curious than this juxtaposition, however, is the 49 comments people have left in its wake. Almost all include an enthusiastic “AMEN.” As one of the page’s top fans put it, “We should be always grateful to The Almighty for such blessings !!” Apparently, our bounty of gratitude is best conveyed by yellow-bodied, googly eyed imps responsible for the highest grossing animated film franchise of all time.

If Facebook is home to the most popular of these fan groups, Pinterest is home to perhaps the most niche and confounding ones. Bible Minions is exactly what it sounds like. Only here could you find Psalm 37:4 next to an image of a Minion dressed in a grass skirt and coconut bra, doing the hula, or James 1:17 accompanied by a Minion with a hat full of fruit à la Carmen Miranda. One can only assume, based on the themes of the other Minion-free Pinterest boards that she’s curated (Holy Week and Social Justice among them), that the creator of this page, Sandra Montes, is sincere in her intentions.

But why Minions, of all creatures? After all, I couldn’t find any other recent (and highly meme-able) cartoon characters co-opted in this way. There were no Bible-versed Shreks or angel-winged Spongebobs to be found. To learn more about these characters, I did something previously antithetical to my cinematic taste. I watched all four films in the Despicable Me franchise. Here’s what I learned: While certainly being mischievous agents of chaos, Minions live, above all else, to serve. Yes, their mayhem aids a man named Gru in becoming the world’s greatest supervillain. Yet in a somewhat paradoxical twist, their solemn obedience to this higher purpose is core to their character.

Minions may be completely violent and anarchic in their methodology—even shooting cops and punching monkeys as a means to an end—but the ideology of duty and subservience trumps all else. What could make a better symbol of belief, fellowship, and faith than that? It almost makes too much sense that characters with such slavish devotion would come to occupy a vaguely spiritual role in the digital landscape. In fact, it’s this very fervor that makes them well-suited to promote loyalty to any ideology, from the political to the pop cultural; yet it’s the weirdly religious strain that best showcases the reverent personalities of the most irreverent of creatures.

A few years ago, Vulture speculated that the Minion’s anonymity was the cause for their inexplicable memeability, stating, “they don’t really have individual personalities, which makes them the perfect canvas upon which to project whatever desires you want.” However, I’d argue that the opposite is true. From watching all eight hours of known Minion footage, I came to understand their many styles, personalities, and names. Yes, they have names. There was the childlike Bob, who inadvertently became the king of England, teddy bear in tow (he’s the one holding out the rose to heaven). He’s especially prominent on the religious meme circuit given his innocence and naïveté. There was charismatic Mel, who helped lead a prison break. (Here he is spouting Foucault.)* And the aforementioned Hawai’i Minion on the Psalms post? That was Hula Jerry. He just likes to party.

As the Scripture says, “Take delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Apparently, sometimes those desires are as simple as basking in the yellow glow of a strange creature, that though born of destruction, has been redeemed in love.

Correction, March 20, 2020: This post originally misspelled Foucault.