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.

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10 April 2004 - Saturday

Whatever is excellent, part I

This Wednesday I received an issue of World Magazine in the mail, courtesy of my parents. I sat down at a table in the student center and leafed through the publication. I groaned at the cover ("toppling the dictator may prove easier than rebuilding the nation Saddam destroyed" -- wow, that had never occurred to me). I murmured approval after reading an article about the new breed of Generation-X churches (an antidote to the megachurch -- dare I call them "postmodern"?). And I winced when Gene Edward Veith tried to explain World's policy on movie reviews.

I do not like many evangelical movie reviews.

Since I found World's review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in the previous issue) particularly annoying, I should begin by noting that coarse language rarely upsets me much. Unlike most evangelicals, I am not often offended by the misapplication of sexual and religious terminology. I can think of various reasons not to use certain words in certain social contexts; I can think of good reasons not to get into the habit of using certain words; I can think of great reasons to keep children from hearing certain expressions; and I can find ample justification for preserving some measure of reverence in one's speech. But I cannot find it in my heart to be upset by someone else's limited English skills. To the extent that coarse language is usually shallow, sometimes a lame attempt to provoke a reaction, and often an abuse of the name of God, I view it with the same contempt in which I hold the vapidity of most evangelical culture.

I do become annoyed, however, when I see Christians dismissing thoughtful art because it accurately reflects the language of the culture around them. I also object to the (usually unspoken) assumption that anything not suitable for thirteen-year-olds is unsuitable for any follower of Christ. Furthermore, I object to the idea that art must lead its viewers directly to the church -- or at least directly to suburban nicety -- in order to be valid, useful, important, or non-damnable.

World makes a better attempt than most. In theory, this magazine recognizes that art is important, and that good art rarely includes an altar call. However, it still misses the mark.

Veith complains in the 10 April issue:

Nine of the 30 movies in circulation are rated R. This is an unusually high number, after a decline in previous months, since the movie industry has recognized that R-rated films do not make as much money as those the whole family can see. Apparently, Hollywood is trying to bring back the R movie.
That last line is laughable. First, Hollywood will do what it has to do in order to stay in business. Second, there is only a vague correlation between quality and profitability in the motion picture industry; many blockbusters are intellectually insipid and even morally insidious, while many great films lose money. Even if a film is "family-friendly" and therefore highly popular, it may be absolute rubbish; and even if a film is totally inappropriate for children, it may be precisely what their parents need to see.

This may be the right spot for me to mention that the Bible is not always a kid-friendly book. Mrs. Cleaver would have been shocked by the Old Testament. Yes, I know you've heard that before.

In fact, the next sentence from Veith cuts any value from the lines I have just quoted: "Ironically, the most successful R movie ever is The Passion of the Christ."

Funny, that.

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