I missed participating in the theotek podcast last night, things are a little hectic around these parts and it just didn’t work out. Today I tuned in 1 to see what I missed and, thanks to the diagramming work of Kevin Purcell, I literally saw something.
Kevin was using Philippians 4:8-9 as an example, and it reads:
Finally, brothers and sisters, 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (NIV 11)
What struck me is when he broke out all the “whatevers.” Now, I’m not one for lists. I can’t abide bullet points, and people use shove lists in my face cause my mind to glaze over. In Scripture the individual components of what we’d categorize as a list are not what’s important. Instead, the combined sum of each part tends to be the pulse of a text 2. This is certainly true in the verses quoted above, but seeing the image of the list-form broken down made me interpret its point a bit differently.
- 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.
Then the list gets summarized a different way
- Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.
To be honest, in Christian circles this verse often gets sucked into the black hole of arguing over what types of behaviors and entertainment in which Christians are “allowed” to participate. In our entertainment-oriented culture it’s understandable we’d see it that way. After all, it’s a relatively simplistic to have a bar for our leisure activities which designates the types of traits listed above. Anything which is under the bar is unacceptable and therefor ruled out 3.
The problem with “simplistic” interpretations, however, is two-fold. First, a simplistic interpretation often isn’t “true.” That is, it doesn’t line up consistently with what’s actually being taught in the larger context of Scripture 4. Second, simplistic interpretations are often lenses instead of mirrors. That is, they allow us to look at other people while distorting the image in a way which confirms our established viewpoint instead of reflecting our own souls and challenging us to change.
When we are looking at the world through a lens, instead of allowing God to reveal our own hearts, we end up looking very ugly indeed. Even worse, because we’ve reflexively neglected to look at ourselves in a spiritual mirror, we’re completely unaware of our own ugliness. This is not a good thing.
This brings me to social media. Much of what Christians post in spaces like Facebook and Twitter grieve me, but until I held up what I was seeing to the mirror of Philippians 4:8-9 I didn’t quite understand why it grieved me. When I see Christians 5 sharing posts which are designed to make us angry, or fearful, or combative, or bitter, or vengeful – all in the name of upholding the “truth” of the Gospel 6 – what if we’re thinking about the wrong things? When we make condescending statements about the “main stream media” or the “nanny state,” or casually label anyone who raises a question we don’t like as “homophobic” or “racist,” what if we’re doing the opposite of what Paul tried to teach? 7.
What if all the posturing done to “rally the Christian base,” Left or Right, is really just spiritual blindness on all our parts?
Wouldn’t it be better for us Christians to concentrate on what is true, and noble, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable? I’m not saying, “And so no Christian should see a movie with a swear word in it!” In fact, quite the opposite.
You see, the early Church didn’t have the luxury of creating a “family friendly” parallel culture. They were an extreme minority, many of whom were living in the midst of the most powerful Empire on earth. It was a culture which thought a clay sculpture of a penis made nice base for wind-chimes in the garden, idols were found in nearly every household, and blood sports were “just a thing.” In that culture, when people were out in the market, or visiting friends, or going to a neighbor’s for dinner Jesus’ disciples were to focus on things which were admirable. In a sense, this posture was missional. When disciples were out and about in a world painted with oppression and immorality and violence they needed actively look for the good 8 in others. Specifically, they needed to search for the very thing all Christians would say must be in people by nature of their very existence. The image of God. When we work to spot the presence of the image of God in both people and their works, twisted though it may be, it forms a bridge of love and courage. We no longer see someone who is potentially an enemy, we see someone in whom “whatever” can be found.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we Christians spent our energy looking for that, instead of insulting one another and tearing our enemies down?
- Some figures of speech will never die. ↩
- This is actually how lists are supposed to work in our culture as well, but somehow we’ve turned list elements into multi-paragraph points. Don’t get me started. ↩
- Or, at least, “ruled that we won’t recognize each other as we’re partaking in supposedly banned entertainments.” ↩
- Or even the next verse. ↩
- And I mean “Christians.” Not “Conservatives” or “Liberals” or “Fundamentalists” or “Progressives.” I mean us, all of us. ↩
- In quotes because, well, when manipulation is part of standing up for “truth,” it’s not Truth which is being defended. ↩
- And if that last phrase just reflexively made you want to write me off, please take a breath and reconsider. ↩
- Just point of fact, I’m using “good” as shorthand for the entire list. ↩