The student refused to read the book because, as he said, it is against his religion.
This made me pause because I had read that particular book, and I had never found anything particularly offensive in that book although, like many classics, there have been several movies based on it, and many of those movies have mischaracterized the book entirely.
This episode reminded me of Philippians 4:8, below in the NIV version:
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.
People often cite this verse as the reason they appreciate or do not appreciate a particular television show, and often it is the verse people quote to explain why they listen to only Christian radio. Many people say that we should judge the arts by this verse, and therefore it is important, as artists, to correctly understand this verse for our own consumption and production of art.
First, the idea this verse conveys is not unique to Philippians. Even back in the Old Testament Solomon said, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” (Proverbs 23:7) And in Colossians 3:1, Paul says that we should seek the things above.
Before we dig into each of the attributes in Philippians 4:8, let’s look at the verb. The verse tells us to think about such things. Other versions translate think as “dwell on.”
So much of a Christian’s time in what he or she would call “spiritual pursuits” is about negativity. What are we protesting today? Is it homosexuality or abortion? What new law do we oppose so much that we sign a petition or write a letter to our congressman telling him so? If it’s not something political, then we’re protesting a movie or a book or a television show. Not that Christians should be wimps and not take action. But we have done this so much that, in the eyes of many, we have turned Christianity into a negative political or social agenda. Meanwhile, the truth and power of the Gospel get lost.
This verse is telling us Christians to think about or dwell on the positive aspects rather than the negative aspects of things. We do not live in a Pollyanna world where white unicorns chase rainbows. There are harsh realities and drudgeries all around. But God is telling us to think about the good things, not being blind to the bad, but in an intellectual and loving sort of way.
Think. Reason. Calculate. Estimate. Contemplate deliberately. Carefully reflect. Meditate. Consider. Not enough of those things are done in many Christian circles today.
As artists, we take up pursuits that many people consider fru-fru, and since artists tend to see the world a little differently than most other people, often artists are also considered flighty and unintellectual. In other circles artists are considered little prophets, and their work isn’t to be questioned or analyzed, but accepted and lauded no matter how uninteresting or offensive. In fact, in some circles, the more offensive a piece of art is, the better it must be.
Come on, Christian artists! Think! The verse is in the present imperative, and that means it is a call to continuous action, a call to spiritual discipline. Think now, and continue thinking, trying to find what is true, what is noble, what is right, etc.
So what are we to think about? Philippians 4:8 lays out 8 tests in the way of 8 adjectives for how we should think about art and other things:
True is the Greek word alethes. It means something that conforms to reality. It is absolute, provable, and non-negotiable. If a man runs a personal ad and says he is 6’3” with dark hair and blue eyes, these items are either true or not true. If a woman answers that personal ad, her first thought when she finally sees him will probably be, “Let’s see if what he said about his looks is true.”
When we judge art or create it, we need to think about whether truth is conveyed in that art. In order to do that, of course, we have to know the truth, and as Christians we do know the ultimate Truth that is found in the Bible. One way to judge whether a piece of art is true is to think about whether it depicts something that compliments or contradicts the Truth found in the Bible. The point isn’t whether or not the story is true, but whether the central idea or theme is true. Remember, Jesus Himself told parables, at least some of which were probably fictional, but they conveyed a Truth.
The same word, alethes, is used 26 times in the New Testament. Based on the other times it is used, we can ascertain some points about things that are true.
-The truth isn’t always pretty. In Matthew 4:18, Jesus uses the word to affirm the story the Samaritan woman at the well told him about not having a husband. He said, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true (alethes)."
-Truth is true, even if some don’t believe it. Romans 3:3-4a says, “What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true (alethes), and every man a liar.”
-Sometimes, even strong Christians don’t know or comprehend the truth. In Acts 12, James is killed by a sword, and Herod puts Peter in prison. Verses 8 and 9 say, “Then the angel said to [Peter], "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening (alethes); he thought he was seeing a vision.”
Question: Things that are true can sometimes be ugly, because sometimes truth is ugly. How should an artist display the ugly truth in art? Sometimes truth is beautiful. How should an artist display the beauty of truth in art?
Noble is the Greek word semnos. It means worth respect or entitled to honor, and is sometimes translated “honorable.” It also has the connotation of “socially respectable”.
When we judge art, we should consider things that are esteemed in the culture. The church is often at war with the wider culture, especially in the West. Sometimes the culture seems to accept things as right and honorable that go against Biblical principles, and sometimes things that are good and right according to the Bible are reviled in culture. But, just as people are not all good or all bad, sometimes we should consider what is good and honorable in a piece of art that is esteemed, even when it has some unseemly aspects to it as well.
That’s why we can enjoy the imagery, phrasing, and sound in H.D.’s poetry, even if we find some of her lifestyle choices despicable. It’s why we can enjoy the genius of a musician such as Frank Zappa without approving of all his choices in subject matter. It’s also why, as artists, we need to educate ourselves on the abundant histories of our disciplines, studying the masters who have come before us, even if their theology wasn’t exactly perfect (or anywhere close). Figure out what it is that has brought that artist or piece widespread honor. Is it the brush strokes? Is it the unusual instrumental mix? Is it the athleticism the dancer shows in every performance? While you may not find everything pleasing when you look through the lens of truth, you can hopefully find something noble, respectable, and honorable about the work, and think on that thing!
It is interesting that the word semnos is used only 4 times in the New Testament: Philippians 4:8 above, and these three below. Notice that it never stands on its own. It’s always buried among a list of attributes, shaping it, defining it, and adding to it.
1 Timothy 3:8 Deacons likewise must be men of dignity (semnos), not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,
1 Timothy 3:11 Women must likewise be dignified (semnos), not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
Titus 2:2 Older men are to be temperate, dignified (semnos), sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance.
Notice that all of these other times it is used, it is referring to characteristics of people.
Above: some artists who are considered noble or praiseworthy examples of artists. Not all of them were morally good, and not all of them were Christian believers. But, we can still learn from them when we consider what, exactly, was noble about their work.
Question- Should a Christian enjoy art that is well esteemed but has a message that is not on par with Biblical principles? What steps can a Christian take to protect himself or herself from being wrongly influenced by unchristian things?
Right is the Greek word dikaios, which means something that matches the perfect standard of God. It is translated in other passages as “innocent,” “just,” and “righteousness.”
While noble is an opinion, right is a fact. It is very close to truth, but truth is more about factual accuracy while right is based more upon a standard. By the accepted standards of mathematical theory, 2+2 is always equal to 4, and not ever equal to 7, 326, or a baseball bat. 4 is therefore the right answer.
The standard of moral and spiritual aspects of life has been set by God and revealed in the Bible. But, not all things that are right are actually in the Bible. For instance, there is a right time for my children to go to bed at night so they get good sleep and are well rested for school in the morning. There is also a right way to hang your flag, a right way to load the dishwasher, and so on. None are Biblical, but they are still right. The same applies to art and other aspects of life.
Artwork that depicts war, for instance, might be judged by the standard of right or wrong. There are some gray areas, of course (depending on which side of the war you are on), but it is not acceptable to kill civilians, nor is it permissible to rape, pillage, and set fire to villages during the course of the war. Art that shows these things in a negative light is right, and artwork that glorifies these things is wrong.
Here are some thoughts on things that are right:
-Things and actions that are right please God. In John 5:30, Jesus says, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just (dikaios), for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
-Faith in God helps us to recognize what is right. Romans 1:17 says, “For in the gospel a righteousness (dikaios) from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’"
-God’s makes right decisions. 2 Thessalonians 1:5 says, “All this is evidence that God's judgment is right (dikaios), and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”
God has a lot to say about right and wrong. This word appears a whopping 79 times in the New Testament!
Question: Can something be right and not be true? Why do you suppose both of those words appear in this list? What are the differences?
Pure comes from the Greek word hagnos, and it means something that is not defiled, has no stain or mark, or will not contaminate other things.
One of the things you have to especially worry about when it comes to contamination is your mind. That is why some Christians choose to set larger boundaries for themselves than others. Some Christians have a more sensitive tempt-o-meter than others in one area or another, and those who do would be wise to make especially careful choices in that area.
However, everybody is not the same. God is a very creative God, and what makes one person get interested or excited will bore the next. What makes one person fall into sin will not even be a speed bump to another, who will pass by it without noticing it or falling. That is why some former alcoholics will not even permit one bottle of booze in their house for cooking, while another former alcoholic has lost all taste for alcohol and is no longer tempted.
Artwork that is pure should not depict sin in a positive or tempting light. Of course, since what tempts me won’t necessarily tempt you, purity can sometimes become a judgment call rather than a hard and fast rule. There are some lines that should never be crossed. Hardcore pornography has one purpose and one purpose only: to tempt you to sin. It should be off limits. Period. But, Michaelangelo’s David, which is a statue of a naked, young, virile man can be a toss-up. It was not made with the purpose of tempting people to sin, but rather to depict a story (and a Biblical one at that). However, if a person is especially sensitive to temptation at the hint of a naked body, perhaps that person should err on the side of purity.
That’s not to say that Christians should erect false barriers just to impress others and look more spiritual. If you don’t watch T.V. because you are especially prone to temptation when you watch T.V., so be it. But if you are using your strict standards as a source of pride, advertising the fact that you finally got rid of your “evil” T.V. to anyone who will listen, then your own motives aren’t pure, and that defeats the purpose of purity, doesn’t it? Likewise, if you listen to only Christian music because you are especially tempted to sin through music, then fine. That’s honesty. But, if you listen to only Christian music because you are somehow convinced that songs that don’t use the name of Jesus at least once hurt your chances of getting raptured, then you need to rethink your motives. That’s pride or laziness, but certainly not purity.
In James 3:17, we learn that God’s wisdom is pure. It says, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure (hagnos); then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” In 1 Peter 3:1-2, we learn that purity is something non-Christians look for when they consider whether or not Christians mean what they say: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity (hagnos) and reverence of your lives.”
Question: Can you name an artwork you have seen that you would define as “pure?” What does it take to make something pure? What temptations do you need to be careful about when it comes to your purity?
Lovely comes from the Greek word prosphile, which refers to behavior or conduct that is dear or important to a person. It is a compound word from pros, which means toward, and philes, which means friend. It is something that is pleasing in motive and actions. Note that it does not have to do with physical appearance in this Biblical context, but has taken on new meaning over time to include things that look or sound attractive.
In Song of Solomon 5:16, it says,
His mouth is sweetness itself;
he is altogether lovely (prosphile).
This is my lover, this my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.
This characterizes what something lovely really is. It is affirming and gentle. Truth can sometimes be harsh and difficult to digest. But something that is lovely is an easy pill to swallow.
In Acts 5, Ananias and his wife, Saphira, died instantly because they lied to the Holy Spirit. It is in the Bible, so it’s true. But, it’s not a lovely story. Going to the Simon Wiesenthal Center (Museum of Tolerance) in Los Angeles is so true it is emotionally draining, but it is definitely not lovely. Christ’s passion is central to the Christian faith. It’s true, but is it lovely?
God knows how we tick so well that He understands that we sometimes need truth, and at other times, we need loveliness.
Thomas Kinkade paints pictures that have all sorts of quaint loveliness, but they aren’t real situations, and many of them don’t even particularly depict any deep thought or pensiveness. They are lovely, but not true.
There is a place for both in the Christian life. Isn’t that wonderful?!
God gave us a place in our minds where we could digest difficult and sometimes painful truths, but he also gave us a place where we could escape to loveliness.
Above: a church displays mosquito nets that are used to keep people from getting malaria. The fact that more than 1 million children die every year from malaria is a sobering fact and a call to action. It's not a lovely fact, but it's true. Often the truth is not lovely. It's fantastic, yet rare, when things are both lovely and true.
When considering art, perhaps it’s just the beautiful or exciting way the music goes together that we enjoy. Or maybe it’s the lithe movements of the dancers that transport us to our “happy place.” Perhaps it’s the vivid colors in a painting that makes us smile. God gives us permission to like something just because it’s lovely.
Question: "Lovely" has become a cultural word that is a judgment call. What someone else thinks is a lovely color for your bedroom paint you might not find so lovely yourself. What things do you find lovely in art? Does art always have to have a message, or can it just be lovely?
Admirable comes from the Greek word euphemos, a compound word made up of eu = well, good + pheme = rumor, fame. It is the same root from which we get the English word “euphemism”, meaning a phrase we use when the truth is difficult (such as “passed away” instead of “died”). Euphemos, or admirable, can also mean highly regarded, of good reputation, or wise.
In Acts 10:22, Cornelius is said to be admirable. “The men replied, ‘We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected (euphemos) by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.’”
In Colossians 4:5, we Christians are admonished to be admirable. It says, “Be wise (euphemos) in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.”
Hebrews 11:1-2 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended (euphemos) for.”
This good reputation, admiration, and wisdom should, of course, be based on Biblical principles and not worldly principles. There are plenty of politicians, for example, who have good reputations but are not admirable or wise from a Christian standpoint.
Many people like to say, “I’m the kind of person who has to make my own mistakes.” This is not Biblical wisdom at all! Proverbs 12:15 says, “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise (euphemos) listen to others.” Life is way too short for you to make all the mistakes. Instead, let others make most of the mistakes and learn from them.
In this same way, when you plan to see a movie that has been out for a while, do you consult with some Christians who have already viewed that movie? When you go to a museum to see an exhibit, do you consult with people who went last weekend?
Now, that is not to say that we should limit our scope of experience to only the things that our pastors permit. After a while, this is controlling and even spiritually dangerous behavior. There comes a time when you have to think for yourself. That is why this verse gives us eight guidelines for our thinking, not just one. If a Christian you respect says, “Naw, that movie isn’t really good, and it depicts a lot of sin,” you could still see it and try to find some truth, nobility, loveliness, etc. within it. You can also then educate yourself about the movie’s content so that you can discuss it with others intelligently. But, this is the Bible’s way of saying “caveat emptor:” let the buyer beware! Perhaps, instead, you should direct your hard-earned cash in another direction.
Sometimes it comes down to your spiritual strength and your ability to process what is presented in art. In the 1950s many church leaders thought rock music was demonic because it allegedly had the same beats that African tribesmen used to conjure spirits. Today, many of the same church buildings where such sermons were preached 50 years ago now have rock-oriented worship bands. Was the church leader in the 1950s correct, or is the worship leader in the 21st century right? Both and neither. It is an example of how our culture has affected our ability to process the music. The modern worship leader commends what was once condemned because it has been adapted to more holy usage.
Artists, like most people, do not hatch wise. Wisdom, good reputation, and admirability come from time and experience. Some new artists have interesting pieces and a lot to say, but they haven’t gained a good reputation yet. Other artists may have a good reputation, but some of their earlier works are questionable. This guideline is something that should not only be earned, but something that we should strive for as Christian artists.
Question: Who are some of the admirable people in your artistic discipline? What do you know about them and their work? What do you have to learn in order to find out what is admirable about them?
Excellence is translated from the Greek word arete, and it can be defined as merit of any kind (moral, intellectual, military). It also means the fulfillment of a thing, the very best example of something, or something that fulfills its purpose. Arete does not refer to thoughts, dreams, or motives. Instead, it comes from action and demonstration. The root for the word in English is excel, which means to be better than the rest, or at least better than average.
1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful (arete) light.” Surely God’s salvation, His light that Christians live in, is excellent. The things that are not excellent become obvious when put in that light.
2 Peter 1:3-9 calls us to excellence, characterized as godliness and goodness. It says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (arete) through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness (arete); and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Notice the grammatical shift in these last two attributes in Philippians 4:8. It’s as if the Bible is saying, “Look for things that are true, or right, or pure, or lovely, or admirable. See if you can find any excellence or anything praiseworthy at all. Then, think about those good aspects.” I believe the word “or” is appropriate, not the word “and.” God is the only thing that is all of those things put together. It is important to spend time daily with God, reading His Word, meditating on it, and learning from it. But, unless you are a monk hidden away in some cloister high in the hills, you also have work, a car, possibly children, dirty dishes to wash, and a birthday party to go to, and God knows this. In fact, He wants us to be in the world living as examples and evangelists. Jesus Himself, in addition to being God in the flesh and our Savior, is also our excellent example of how to live life with excellence. He showed us how to find value in things and people that others find worthless. He taught us that the idea of standing up for yourself is misguided, and instead, you should seek out opportunities to go the extra mile, give your cloak and tunic too, and consider the plank in your own eye before going after someone else’s problem. Also, He valued His time alone with God, and He valued the Holy Scriptures. But, He also spent time traveling, cooking and eating, sleeping, and many other things.
So, there you are at a museum or a concert and you don’t particularly like what you see or hear. It’s not inherently evil, but not exactly your style. What do you do? Of course you have a right to your own opinion! But, while you’re there, you should consider the good before you dwell on the bad: “I don’t like his music, but he’s a great guitar player,” or “I think my five-year-old could paint a better picture, but this artist’s choice of colors is interesting.” Find the excellent and praiseworthy things and think about them.
It is also a call to action for Christian artists. You’ve been on the worship team for how long? And you still don’t know how to read music or know where all the notes are on your instrument? Where is the excellence? You know if your boss asked you to learn this, you would take the time to go to a seminar or take a class and really learn in rather than hacking your way through it every week. Why don’t you reach for excellence when it’s God calling you to do something?
You’ve been cast in a play, but you can’t be bothered to learn your lines well? You’re still stumbling through the dress rehearsal because you didn’t take the time to figure out your part? Where is the excellence?
Question: How have you pursued excellence lately in your art? How could you continue to pursue excellence?
Praiseworthy is translated from the Greek compound word epainos from epí = upon + aínos = praise. It literally means “praise upon” and it means something that is good enough that it can be praised or get official approval. It can also mean applause, and speaks of public recognition.
In the Bible, praise can come from God to men, such as in Romans 2:29 where it says, “No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise (epainos) is not from men, but from God.” This verse is a play on words because the title Jew actually means “praise” or “the praised one.” It’s saying, basically, that we should seek praise from God, not from our titles or our vanity.
Praise can come from men to God, such as in Psalm 22:3 where it says, “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise (epainos) of Israel.”
Praise can also come from men to other men, such as in Romans 13:3 where it says, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend (epainos) you.”
Things artists do that might be praiseworthy are: tackling a difficult subject, improving in their skills and craft, glorifying God, winning an award, and so on.
Question: Of course we seek to praise God, but is it O.K. to seek praise from men? Who is one artist in your discipline that you don’t know much about, who is praised by men? Why is that artist being praised? Find out!
Read the whole verse, Philippians 4:8, again. “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.”
This verse is not a weapon, and it’s not just a good suggestion. It’s telling us how to judge people, objects, and art as God wants us to. Learn what this verse is saying and use its tenets to become a better consumer and producer of art.
To read Fine Arts Bible Study #1 click here.
To read Fine Arts Bible Study #2 click here.
To read Fine Arts Bible Study #3 click here.
To read Fine Arts Bible Study #4 click here.
To read Fine Arts Bible Study #5, click here .