catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 5 :: 2003.02.28 — 2003.03.13


Who's afraid of the big, bad world?

Christians often run scared. When I think about Christians and the arts, in addition to pictures of C.S. Lewis envisioning Narnia, Tim Vermuelen painting the twelve plagues, and the first production of Godspell I ever saw, I also get some ugly images in my head. I picture one of my students telling another not to even open Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because she'll get sucked into a cult. I picture Christians picketing The Last Temptation of Christ because that movie dared to posit that Jesus, while suffering on the cross, might have been tempted to step down and live a human life, get married, have sex, raise a family. And I picture moments of violence, sexuality, and blasphemy—in the Bible.

I'd like to take a look at a Bible passage that we often turn to first when thinking about culture. It is a passage Christians often cite when arguing in favor of a culturally retreatist position, that we should flee or hide from culture—we who believe in a God that created and rules over the entire universe; who, above all others should be confident that we have access to the truth. I want to talk about this passage in particular because I think we are severely misreading it.

Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is beautiful, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." (NIV)

"Whatever is true"

It is no accident that the passage starts with "whatever is true." This is the first and most important criterion we need to consider when thinking about art: is it true? When Christians turn their discerning eyes toward a work of culture, we need to discuss it and think about it in such a way that we can separate out the message of truth that the work, through the grace of God, may contain, from the twists and turns and distortions of sin. For example, consider two relatively recent movies: Four Weddings and a Funeral and High Fidelity. Both films are looking at male/female relationships in the modern world. Both films contain some truth—they both recognize that lifelong, committed relationships are more fulfilling, which is a basic truth affirmed by the Bible. Four Weddings and Funeral, though, contains a twist at the end which seems to argue that making that commitment formal, through a marriage, will actually destroy the relationship. This is a distortion. High Fidelity doesn't specifically address marriage at the end, but has John Cusak's character (who own a record store and is passionate about his record collection) realizing that he has spent his life in frustrating short-term relationships, making mix tapes of his favorite music for people he doesn't know so well, when what he really needs to do is spend his life getting to know someone so he can make the ultimate mix tape for her.

Both these movies contain vulgar language and sexual scenes. The criteria that Christians most often use when evaluating modern film or music is how many instances of sex, violence, or bad language something contains. It is interesting to me that that doesn't seem to be God's first priority. The Bible is first of all a true book. It shows sinfulness and brokenness quite frankly. If we use sex, violence and bad language as our criteria for reading or not reading a book, the Bible is the first thing we need to get rid of. Is there sex in the Bible? Yes, both in the context of a holy relationship (Song of Songs) and in the context of brokenness and sin (Lot and his daughters, David and Bathsheba). Is there bad language in the Bible? Yes. Though we sometimes cover it with euphemisms and holy language, there are descriptions of grossness (Ehud and the king's death) and blasphemy (the Israelite who touched the ark of the covenant).

"Whatever is noble"

Stories and artwork should be noble. The absurdist, avant-garde, and postmodernist movements in the arts have been described (sometimes by their own practitioners) as striving to alienate their audiences. I take the reference to nobility as an injunction to seek that which is edifying. Beyond just finding truth, art should be edifying and uplifting. This does not mean, though, that we should avoid works that are tragic. Tragedy can elevate our sprits, too, by reminding us how well we have things. Also, in order to get to the uplifting part, we may need to suffer through some description of pain. Consider the Easter story. The joy that accompanies Jesus' resurrection is meaningless without Jesus (and the reader) suffering through the pain and torture of the cross.

"Whatever is right"

Film, song, literature, visual art, and other forms should show that there is a right and a wrong, and which is which. Shakespeare's Hamlet contains revenge, violence, murder, and betrayal. It also makes several clear points—that revenge is ultimately empty, that true friendship (as with Horatio) is a rare and wonderful thing, and additional worthwhile truths. It is a play that can make us think about what is right. The recent movie release The Fast and the Furious blurs the line between right and wrong. In it, the good guys break the law for kicks and the bad guys are the police officers trying to stop them. It is a movie that can make us think on what is right—though there is some danger that we will be swept along with it and not reflect that it has things upside-down.

"Whatever is pure"

For some Christians, this part of the verse justifies avoiding all elements of culture. For some Christians, this verse means that we should buy only music sold at a Christian bookstore. For some Christians, this means that we should not participate in anything that reveals the ugliness of sin (including some parts of the Bible). Perhaps this list of things God encourages us to do is just that, a list. Perhaps He wants us to think about things that are pure (God's grace, the beauty of creation, or the totality of our redemption), but He also wants us to think on things that are true (the brokenness of the world, or the twistedness of sin). Thinking on things that are pure is an important part of discernment. We use the standard of the Bible to make clear the right and wrong, the truth and untruth of human attempts at creation.

"Whatever is beautiful"

Sometimes Christians get too hung up on meaning. Some forms of creation are simply beautiful. Some music simply stirs the soul. There are some paintings I don't understand, but some part of me recognizes that they are pleasant to look at. Some poems simply are. When God finished creating, he looked upon what he had made and said that it was good. When humans engage in acts which imitate his creation, whether by writing a sonnet, building a house, composing a symphony, making a wonderful meal, sculpting a drinking vessel, cultivating a garden, painting a portrait, raising a family, or anything else that is an act of making, we must evaluate the product of our creation in part by how beautiful it is.

"Whatever is admirable"

Likewise, when we are part of the audience, we need to admire that which we see, hear, or feel in our hearts. We can praise God for the beauty of the cinematography, or the form or the sculpture, or the arrangement of the notes, as well as for the content that those works are conveying. And when a human who does not know Christ makes a thing of beauty, we must admire that act of creation as well. I should be reading the work of Philip Yancy, James Schaap, and other writers whose work has clear Christian content. But I should be also reading the admirable poetry of Seamus Heany, the admirable essays of Annie Dillard, the admirable novels of John Irving and others.

"If anything is excellent or praiseworthy"

Some Christians, when considering what is appropriate, turn to this verse as a means of limiting what aspects of culture they should participate in. But as with the Christian life in general, the Bible does not confine us (to the one-track materialistic life of our culture, for example) but frees us (of guilt and the burden of sin to live redeemed, fulfilling lives of service). This verse suggests that all of culture, all of God's creation and humanity's creation, is fair game, if it is excellent. Many Christians would object to some television shows and some music on the grounds that it is not pure. A more useful designation with television is whether it is excellent. There are a few excellent shows on television at any given time—shows that have thoughtful writing, strong acting, well-developed plotlines, and so one. The majority of that which is objectionable (including most sitcoms) is simply mediocre material. Shows that depend upon a lot of sexually-suggestive jokes or endless celebrations of violence or scantily clad characters are almost always so lacking in anything excellent or praiseworthy (acting, writing, directing, etc.) that they are not worth our time.

"Think on such things"

So what's the bottom line? What is appropriate for Christians to see, watch, or appreciate? If this verse says anything it is that we cannot make generalizations or let ourselves easily off the hook. To say, "I don't go to movies. They all have sex, violence, or bad language" or, "I listen to whatever music I want to. It doesn't matter what the words are" are both cop-outs. As Christians we have a responsibility to engage, evaluate, and participate in culture.

To engage culture means we need to find out about what is out there. Christians should be reading listening and watching intelligently. We should understand the techniques of the medium we are examining and be familiar with good and bad examples within that medium. We should be talking about what we see with Christians and non-Christians alike. We should listen to each other and see if there is something we have missed. But even in this, we must be sensible. We don't need to watch every single episode of Friends to be able to evaluate it. A show or two should be sufficient. We don't need to watch a selection of pornographic films to make sure for ourselves that they lack quality, content, purpose, and edification. Sensible Christians and non-Christians alike agree that that particular genre serves no artistic purpose. But in terms of cultural products on which sensible people disagree, Christians should be watching and talking.

To evaluate culture means we need to do more than just passively take it in. We need to do more than count the number of times we hear bad words. We must consider the whole thing in terms of all the above aspects and more. The Lord of the Rings is violent, but the good characters enter into that violence regretfully and do not celebrate the deaths they have caused. They are downcast at the destruction they have been forced to participate in. Aladdin is cute family fare, but also features a critical final scene in which Jasmine uses her body as a seductive tool and manipulates Jafar's emotions so that Aladdin can steal back the lamp. Friends is a funny show about how friends stand by each other through anything, but actually has us laughing at backstabbing, two-timing, lying, and stupidity. We need to look at the aspects that are truthful and admirable as well as the aspects that are impure and lack excellence and then make a decision.

And we need to participate in culture by creating. We serve a God who creates. The most obvious act of praise we can give him is to create as well. Christians need to get involved in drama, music, and visual art, not just to redeem a sometimes broken and directionless art world, but also simply as an act of praise. And, as an audience, when we find a cultural product that is mostly true, noble, right, pure, beautiful, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy, we should enjoy it to the utmost in praise of the God who is all those things.

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