"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things," Philippians 4:8, NIV.
How many times have you heard that verse? How many times have you heard it used as a reason not to think "ugly" thoughts? Personally, I’ve heard it a lot and it always makes me wonder how many times the phrase "pretty thoughts" is being transposed onto Paul’s meaning here.
But I’ll get back to that in a sec. First, Mark Moring, Online Managing Editor of Music & Film for Christianity Today wrote about the new film, Little Children (adapted by Tom Perrota from his book) for the Film Forum newsletter today. In prepping readers for Jeffrey Overstreet’s review, he speaks of the higher purposes of facing evil in film. I thought his comments had some relevance for us here.
“Little Children is a movie about adults acting like, well, little children—acting on their selfish desires, lusts, and impulses, with little regard for what’s right and what’s wrong. The film clearly and explicitly depicts various sins being acted out. The R rating—for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content—is more than warranted. It is definitely not a film for everyone, and I would argue that it’s not even a film for many. But it depicts not just sin itself, but the wages of sin—and that’s where many other films fall short. Little Children is a well-made film that will certainly be on the Oscar table at Academy Awards time. Some Christian media types might simply write off the film as ‘abhorrent’ and barely give it a thought, blind to any truth that it might depict—even if that truth is difficult to watch. Such observers are right to urge extreme caution and discernment for viewers—and indeed, we do just that in our review—but not to dismiss the film outright merely because of its graphic depiction of sin. If we ignored all films that depicted sin in all of its awful ugliness, we wouldn’t have even seen the horrifically violent Passion of The Christ, because the violence inflicted upon our Savior was certainly sin of the utmost degree. Part of God’s perfect plan, yes, but the scourging and crucifixion were as sinful as it gets.”
Mark goes on to say that in no way is this film (one of the better made of the year so far) being endorsed or recommended. It’s far too explicit and potentially tempting. Still, it can’t be dismissed either. It’s important, even if ugly, though he recognizes many will not approve.
Back to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He begins with an exhortation to humility and the "whatever-is-true" verse falls within the context of how to live in peace. "Practice forebearance and be patient," he says in this book. "Consider what you know to be true. This is the way to be at peace."
So the words he uses to describe the good things we’re to think on were specifically chosen.
Start with things that are "true." Now biblical truth, as we all know, is a bit dicey. Interpretations are necessary, as Rob Bell says in Velvet Elvis. What follows is mine.
"Honorable" Another way of saying this is respect-worthy. In our modern lingo, we might say, "stop thinking of ways to slander people and show some respect." Think respectfully.
"Right": i.e. not wrong. i.e. not sinful. That is, when you encounter sin, don’t dwell on it and risk sinning yourself. Think about what’s right about the nature of sin. And when in doubt, refer to the first word in the verse–"true."
"Pure." Ironically, this word gets sullied with people’s connotations. But it’s really another way of saying what is honorable, right, true, and good. Purity is untarnished by evil. Can writers write about evil without getting tarnished? Yes. Because there’s a bigger goal. Can readers read about evil without getting tarnished? Yes. They can think about the bigger goal. What is true, right, honorable, and pure about an encounter with evil?
"Lovely." My Ryrie commentary says lovely = winsome. Isn’t that great? For writers to be winsome, we have to be good at what we do. We have to stay above the trees to see the forest, and not get dragged down into the emotions or grimy details of the moment. Though good books require attention to detail, being winsome is about being above our own uncooperative natures when we encounter something we don’t like–such as sin. We put ourselves in the background to serve the larger goal of affecting and engaging the reader.
"Good repute." i.e. other right-thinking people think highly of it.
"Excellence." There’s the pesky word. Paul’s follow up here is "and worthy of praise." Unless things are excellent as well as pure, we’re not to think of them. So what is excellent? Excellence is things that are true, respect-worthy, right, pure, winsome, and praise-worthy. Yet it’s also being humble and seeking after righteousness. It’s being "right minded," filled with the spirit, and at peace with yourself, God, and others. A book is excellent when it’s created to serve these purposes.
As close as I can figure, a biblical definition of high quality may be "whatever serves the purposes of God over self and others." And my contention in this series here has been that in CBA, we have too many books that serve the writers and that serve others, their tastes, their expectations, their whims. If we’re to have high quality books, we have to start serving readers by serving God first. And not in a heavy-handed way, or a "secularized" way, but in a way that’s winsome and lovely. These are books worth dwelling on. These are books worth writing, books worth reading.
Beauty and truth in CBA will not always go hand in hand. But if we can find a better balance of the two, maybe we can start to influence what’s produced in a way others have been reticent to do. And much like the famous Chesterton quote about Christianity being found difficult and remaining untried, we’ll discover that change in our subculture may be difficult, but it must not remain untried.