17 April 2004 - Saturday

Whatever is excellent, part II

Part I is here.

When evangelicals discuss media propriety, someone always seems to bring up a particular Scripture passage. It is difficult to conduct a conversation of, say, the morality of watching certain kinds of movies, without hearing this verse. For some time the passage was emblazoned across the redirect page of the university's Web filtering system.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8 ESV
Many invoke this verse to prove their point -- or at least to render their point more appetizing. Some view it as implying that anything "impure" should not be "thought on" at all; others merely find it helpful as a guide to the development of refined taste and habits. While few argue that the verse prohibits anything in particular, many seem to think that their weaker brethren will find it a helpful subject of meditation the next time they feel tempted to slip an insufficiently uplifting CD across the checkout counter.

The odd thing about this phenomenon is the fact that Philippians 4:8 is not a prohibition. It tells its audience what should be embraced, not what should be avoided. The words are "whatever is," not "only what is." It does not paint a picture of restraint, but of passion -- the pursuit of everything that is worthwhile.

The verses immediately preceeding this one tell the audience to rejoice in the Lord, display "reasonableness," be thankful, and allow the peace of God to guard their hearts. The verses immediately following it encourage the practice of the things of the Lord. None of the immediate context seems to have anything to do with avoiding contact with evil.

The preceeding chapter, however, does concern the avoidance of evil. Specifically, it warns believers to watch out for legalism (3:2-7). The book as a whole speaks of a purity that is found in service and humility. Believers are to set an example in their unity and diligence, not their separation from the world (1:27-28). Blamelessness is found in doing good; it is a blamelessness of involvement, not distance (2:12-16).

When 4:8 says "if there is anything worthy of praise," why do some evangelicals read instead "if there is nothing worthy of censure"?

Much evil exists in the world. Much evil is depicted -- indeed, advocated -- in the world's communications. This has always been the case. Christ ate with sinners and paid taxes to an emperor who called his father a god. Paul based sermons on pagan shrines (Acts 17:22-23) and quoted pagan poetry into the Holy Writ (Epimenides and Aratus in 17:28). The followers of Christ face the task of communicating with a world full of sinners just like us.

Why are we so preoccupied with preventing unbelievers from influencing us? Is the truth weaker than a lie? Can Christianity not withstand the very evils for which it promises forgiveness? Is the blood of Christ less potent than the sins it covers? Is our beacon so weak that we cannot be let out of doors after dark?

Christians are susceptible to every influence that works on the rest of the world's population. In the theaters we are apt to be seduced; in the cloisters we are apt to become Pharisees. Jesus preached against the Pharisees a lot more than against the actors.

No amount of separation will ever change the fact that we are sinners too. Nothing will ever make us better than our neighbors. But at least we can avoid the mistake of the priest and Levite; we can stop to help the bloody Samaritan (Luke 10:31-32) -- even if we require another bath or two afterwards.

"Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws," said Daniel O'Connell (among others). We run the risk of separating ourselves from the thoughts and questions and desires and heartbreak of the world, if we cut ourselves off from its art. As for sin . . . we will sin on regardless.

To my relief, Gene Edward Veith interpreted Philippians 4:8 in a similar fashion when he wrote the article that prompted the first part of this post. In his explanation of World's movie review policy, Veith said:

At the same time, since Scripture enjoins us to think about "whatever" is excellent and of good report (Philippians 4:8), we want to pay attention to quality work, whether it has explicitly Christian themes or not, since all of life, including the aesthetic realm and the so-called "secular" sphere, is God's dominion. . . . While we will point out their shortcomings, movies like these deserve a "good report."
I can agree with that.

| Posted by Wilson at 20:56 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk