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What Does Philippians 4:8 Really Mean?

bible.jpgEditor of Movieguide, Tom Snyder writes:

“Alan Noble’s biblical exegesis here is poor…”

and…

Regarding his Old testament verses, Jesus Christ has overcome the world and our duty is to preach the Great Commission and transform the world (we are ecumenical Evangelical Bible-believing Christians at MOVIEGUIDE®, so we do not buy into the doom and gloom approach of Dispensationalism, which is a controversial end-times construct that is a very recent addition to Christian theology with disputable, highly dubious connections to the apocalyptic prophecies actually recorded in the biblical documents).”

In his comment, Tom Snyder challenged Alan’s biblical exegesis. Alan did two things. First, he highlighted OT themes (which, incidentally, are also found in the New Testament) regarding the material success of the unrighteous and temporal triumph of the wicked, showing that nowhere does the Bible demand redemptive themes for all stories within this life. Mr. Snyder felt this suggested a dispensational construct, wherein there is no hope of redeeming the world and therefore no reason to commit to supporting redemptive themes.

Second, Alan suggested a more developed reading of Philippians 4:8, arguing that it is not limited to blocking us from artistic portrayals of sin, and that it might even value considering the artistic value and quality of movies. Here, Mr. Snyder feels Alan uses Philippians 4:8 out of context as an excuse to support the secular methods of non-Christian movie critics. So then, Alan is wrongly taking the word, “excellent,” and applying it to movie excellence as defined by those with a secular rather than a religious worldview.

As we’ve mentioned in several places, both arguments are simply incorrect. We are not dispensationalists, and Alan was asking for a fuller interpretation of Philippians 4:8, rather than using it to uncritically support non-Christian movie critics. It would be easy for us to ignore Mr. Snyder’s comments.

However, Philippians 4:8 is one of the most oft-quoted verses in relation to interacting with the media for everyone from the Christian Ph. D student studying film and culture to mothers telling sons why they cannot have video games (I have personal experience with that one). It seems important to spend some time thinking about the verse.

I have broken the key issues up into a few simple questions. They are designed to draw what we CAN say from the text, and also to highlight what we CANNOT say about the text.

Philippians 4:8. 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.

Q1: What is the GOAL of the verse? In other words, what does the author intend to do with it?

A1: We see a joyful and upbeat tone throughout the book. This verse comes in the section Paul habitually used to make some simple closing exhortations – his arguments finished, he could give some helpful final bits of guidance. It is very short, without any supporting argument or theology. It seems that Paul’s goal was to offer a simple, pithy statement designed to challenge the Philippians to live wisely. Based on its location in the text, it is questionable whether his desire was for this statement to give specific, inflexible direction for the acceptability of various pieces of art. It does seem designed, however, as a reminder for believers to think in a God-honoring way.

Q2: What does the verse actually say? In other words, how would an expert translate what the key words of the verse are trying to get at?

A2: One of the best sources for explaining the Greek text is Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, by Kenneth Wuest. He breaks down the individual words, gets at their meaning, and then offers this more fleshed-out translation of what Philippians 4:8 is saying (emphasis mine).

Finally, brethren, whatever things have the character of truth, whatever things are worthy of reverence, whatever things are righteous, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are attractive, whatever excellence there be or fit object of praise, these things make the subject of careful reflection.”

This construction is very helpful. As we can see, the intent of the words is not to set up systems for avoiding all possibility of non-Christian thinking. Instead, Paul calls the Philippians to spend time thinking carefully and deeply about the best things – things that are true, revered, righteous, pure, and so on. This is certainly something which every pastor wants for his congregation: that they spend time contemplating beauty and righteous character and those things which are worthy of being revered. However, nothing about the more fleshed out version of the verse (beyond repetition of the value of thinking reflectively about pure things) seems to demand avoidance of non-redemptive narrative themes for the purpose of maintaining purity. It even seems, as Alan says, to support the idea of spending time reflecting carefully on truth found in the excellence of even secular art.

Q3: How does this verse fit in with the larger themes of Philippians?

A3: I’m glad you asked! One interesting point is that in several places, the book of Philippians highlights the importance of discernment as an exercise for recognizing right from wrong. Here are some examples.

Philippians 1:9-11. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Phil. 1:27-28a. Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.

Phil. 2:12-13. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Phil. 3:17. Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

All these verses advocate a careful wisdom and discernment to working out the Christian life in a secular context. They ask for thoughtfulness, care, knowledge, and maturity. However, nowhere do they seem to advocate a sense of isolationism, as though Christians are to fight for an alternative society where their views are predominant. They are also not commanded to try to take back the culture, making their world look Christian even among the non-Christian members. Instead, they are told to live wisely and thoughtfully within the context of carrying the gospel to those who have not yet heard. Perhaps most interestingly, they tie concepts such as purity and righteousness to knowledge and discernment; it seems that much knowledge and the ability to discern right from wrong in that knowledge are important tools in the process of sanctification.

Q4: What about the larger principles of Scripture as a whole?

A4: I think there are three basic things we can say pretty clearly about how Scripture relates to various forms of art.

First, Scripture clearly supports artistic skill when it supports the worship of God.

This is especially clear with music, as the entire book of Psalms uses the value of artistic skill in music to praise God. It is also true visually, however, which can be clearly seen in the construction of the tabernacle and the Temple. Leland Ryken (in The Liberated Imagination) points out two especially telling set of verses from Exodus 31:1-11 and 35:30-36:2. 31:1-5 says, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Second, Scripture clearly condemns artistic skill when it is used for idolatry.

When Aaron fashions a golden calf in Exodus 32:4, God is clearly angry. He repeats the command against idolatry in Exodus 34:17. He is consistent in condemning this practice through his prophets (and often using it as a key comment on the morality of the people) throughout Judges, and again throughout the period of the Kings. In Romans 1:22-23, those who exchange God’s glory for the glory of images resembling men and animals are called fools.

Third, the Bible does not say much else!

Apart from praising and accepting worship WITH art and condemning worship OF art, the Bible does not seem to take much position on the visual arts. In fact, we might say it seems to be neutral! However, the artistic skills of those who create art for the tabernacle are clearly God-given. I believe we can say Scripture’s impressive silence on this topic shows that we can view the creation of morally neutral art (meaning it is not designed to assist worship or be worshipped) as being just that- morally neutral.

Conclusions

Philippians 4:8 is not guidance from God telling us to find creative ways of forcing secular society to make art that only supplies certain themes. It is not telling us to avoid seeing themes of sin, even when those themes are portrayed negatively (and thus truthfully). Instead, I think we can say it is a call to wisdom and discernment- a call to describe what is right and what is wrong. It asks that we think carefully and deeply about the world around us, and seek to emulate those things that are true and beautiful and right in society. How will we know the right from the wrong if we refuse to spend time comparing them?

There are limits, of course. We should not view things we know will immediately draw us into sin. We should never pursue sinful desires and then vindicate ourselves by claiming we were just, “thinking critically.” And yes, we SHOULD have some value for artistic themes that truthfully mirror the redemptive themes in Scripture.

However, true discernment is able to see the truth in artistic expression whether it portrays the actual moment of redemption or not. A story that portrays sin as destructive and evil is speaking more truly than a movie that portrays human love as offering ultimate redemption. As Christians, we must be able to see the difference between the two as they compare to the truth of Scripture.

On the whole, I believe the vision Alan articulates for Christian criticism of movies is a faithful “working out,” of the commands and themes found in Philippians. It accepts the importance of contemplating truth and beauty and things worthy of reverence. It accepts and makes use of the call to discernment. It helps Christians increase in sanctification for the purpose of bringing glory to God. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us clarify for non-believers how the Christian worldview contrasts with secular society’s, forcing the non-Christian to be confronted with God’s truth in opposition to the wisdom of the world. This is the highest calling a Christian critic can have, and yet it is within grasp for one who correctly understands that calling.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Movieguide’s representatives insist that we “dwell on … whatever is pure.” And yet, it seems that a great deal of what they publish is focused on condemning and detailing what is impure.

    Check out this latest post, in which they go to great lengths to condemn several of the things that offended them most in 2007:

    http://www.assistnews.net/Stories/2008/s08020191.htm

    These condemnations appear to outnumber the awards they distributed for excellence (or at least their own idea of excellence).

    They get so many things wrong here, I don’t know where to start.

    How about with attacking Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood” as a negative Christian stereotype?

    It’s clear in the film (and even moreso in the book) that Sunday is a cult leader. He insists that this is the church of the “Third Revelation,” and his sermons are not much involved with the gospel. It’s a new religion, a perversion of the Christian church. Sunday is all about his own particular vision, and the strange “spirit” that possesses him and gives him healing powers. He’s a hysterical cult leader. He’s a charlatan. And the film vividly illustrates the wages of sin for people who distort the truth, deceive the vulnerable, and behave in greed and arrogance.

    Sometimes, we’re so quick to take offense that we don’t recognize the truth.

    And what if Sunday *had* been portrayed as a wicked Christian? The Bible itself includes stories about men who, while claiming the name of Christ, deceive others. These charlatans and evildoers even cast out demons and perform wonders. Malevolent religious leaders are as real today as they ever were, and artists should be free to tell stories about the wages of such sins. Such portrayals remind us of the great responsibility that is assumed by a pastor or a priest. Sometimes, we learn about what *should* be by examining distortions and failures.

  • http://what-you-will.blogspot.com Martin Stillion

    Remember Baehr claiming a couple of weeks ago that his OTHER award ceremony was the occasion of joy finally returning to the Hollywood community? If that’s the case, then just what are his Rotten Banana awards supposed to bring to that community?

    BTW, it’s not true that he excoriates more films than he praises: each list has 20 films. He lights candles and curses the darkness with equal aplomb.
    Why, then, do you suppose Baehr’s “nice” awards have their own Web site and their own event at a swanky hotel, while the “nasty” awards are nothing more than a press release on Dan Wooding’s site?

    I’m glad “Amazing Grace” is getting some props. I found it engrossing, moving, thoroughly enjoyable. But let’s not kid ourselves: its worldwide box office receipts were only $31.7 million, less than any of the best-picture Oscar nominees. Sometimes it’s true that positive, uplifting films with Christian values do well at the box office … and sometimes it isn’t.

    “Ratatouille,” BTW, has got to be the all-time perfect movie: $620.6 million worldwide gross, scores in the mid-90s on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and won award from Baehr, the Dove Foundation, AND the Motion Picture Academy. All this despite scenes of intense gun violence, people getting tied up, a major character who was born out of wedlock, passionate kissing, self-reliance in place of acknowledging one’s need for God, communicating with ghosts, fraud and deception, a penis joke, a negative portrayal of critics, and worst of all, being set in France.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Thanks, Martin. I needed a laugh, and that provided many of them.

  • Alan Noble

    Ben-
    This is the first time I had a chance this week to get into your post. This is a very well-written and insightful piece. I learned quite a bit.

    -alan

  • Courtney Dunker

    This was my confirmation verse…. back in the 8th grade I didnt really know what it meant but now I started to research it and I think I just fell in love with it =)…

  • Pingback: Applying Philippians 4:8 to one's life? - Christian Forums

  • The Reverend Doctor

    Most of the media is corrupt today. It is not like 60 years ago. Watch the old movies on TCM, they have more character than the current trash that comes out of anti-Christ and anti-Christian hollywood and New York city. Just look at who controls the studios and the media. You would be hard pressed to find a true Christian in the cesspool.

  • dongwon lee

    This really helped my daughter do her homework!


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