The Philippians 4:8 Test

rafael_constru_o_arcaTrevin Wax’s Wolf of Wall Street post is the gift that keeps on giving. During the course of the second wave of debate threads in comments section, I stumbled onto an interesting formula.

Christians who lean on the reactionary side of the Culture Wars often cite Philippians 4:8-9 as one of their proof texts for avoiding movies with lots of swearing or naughty bits:

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.

Christians who cite this verse assume that it clarifies the debate: if you don’t obey Philippians 4:8, then you’re a backsliding believer (at best). As I pointed out in Part 1 and Part 2 of my series about R-rated content in movies, the boundaries of this debate have shifted so dramatically over time that it’s impossible to set up objective standards.

Then I had my eureka moment.

It started with a little back and forth about the Philippians passage (you can find it in the bottom half of the comments section). Initially my point was that Christians used Philippians to discourage movies and stories that tackle complex stories in a mature fashion. But I also wanted to prove that Wolf of Wall Street scored better on the “Philippians Test” than conservatives assumed. Here was my breakdown of the movie:

Is WoWS true? Yes, it is.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It attempts to uphold honor by scrutinizing dishonorable people, but there’s some disagreement beyond the Christian bubble about how effective it is.

Is it just? Not sure about that, although sometimes you can say a lot more about justice by focusing on injustice. The documentary Blackfish focuses on injustice towards whales, but showing a tragic problem did more to motivate people towards justice than a happy ending would have.

Is it pure or lovely? No, but most of the stories of the Bible aren’t pure or lovely, either. By definition all stories must contain sin, otherwise there is no conflict and therefore no story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely. It’s getting rave reviews and being discussed as a candidate for Best Picture.

My conclusion was that, if you score it conservatively, WoWS passed 2 out of 5 categories. If you allow for more nuance in storytelling and are willing to accept movies that don’t spell out moral lessons with speeches or the villain’s comeuppance, then it scores a 4 out of 5.

But the point I had hoped to emphasize was that no story can pass the “pure and lovely” part, and therefore no story can pass the Philippians Test. To make my point, I put one of the most popular evqngelical movies- Fireproof – through the test:

Is Fireproof true? Yes, it is, for the same reason WoWS is: the movie depicts the human condition.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It tries to be, but the behavior of the characters is loathsome even after the “happy” ending. Unlike WoWS, Fireproof want us to praise very disturbing behavior.

(For more about how reprehensible the movie is, check out Sarah Moon’s analysis and Waneta Dawn’s multi-part breakdown of the movie.)

Is it just? Absolutely not. The movie depicts a woman who is married to an abusive husband and implies that her only justifiable choice is to remain in an unhealthy relationship. The abusive husband never stops being abusive; he just finds new ways to control her. The movie wants us to believe that she needs to change even though she wasn’t at fault for his behavior in the first place.

Is it pure or lovely? No, for the same reason WoWS isn’t pure: it depicts sin. Almost every story will fail this category.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely not. It fails on every artistic level as a movie: it’s poorly acted, poorly directed, etc.

So Fireproof scores 1 out of 5 – even worse than WoWS.

Then I realize that I was aiming to low with Fireproof. What if we apply the Test to the Bible itself?

Let’s put Noah through the Test:

Is the Noah’s Ark story true? This is trickier to answer than Fireproof or WoWS. If you’re a fundamentalist, then of course it is. If you believe in Divine Inspiration,  then it’s true, but not necessarily a historical event. If you’re a liberal Christian or a nonchrisitan, then it’s probably not true.

Is it honorable? Again, this is debatable. It honors God, but the story itself is about global genocide and ends with Noah getting drunk and cursing his son for seeing him naked. No one acts honorably. 

Is it just? This is also debatable. If you believe that God was justified to cause the flood and everything that happened follows God’s Will, then sure, it’s just. But anyone willing to look at it more critically will find no justice in the story.

Is it pure or lovely? No. Even if you believe that the story passes the above categories, you can’t get beyond the fact that it’s an ugly story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? It’s one of them most well-known stories in the history of western culture, so I’ll have to say it’s excellent. Although nowadays it’s mainly remembered because of its awesome visuals and the role it plays in creationism and theodicy debates.

So depending how you score it, Noah’s story scores anywhere between 4 out of 5 or 0 out of 5. So even one of the most famous Biblical tales doesn’t pass the Philippians Test.

2 thoughts on “The Philippians 4:8 Test

  1. This is excellent. I would add that the verse is wrongly stretched too far by the conservative evangelical culture policy. I see absolutely no indication that the verse is meant to be a test of what kind of art we take in. It is an concluding statement at the end of a letter that encourages Christians to think about the good and the just, etc. So is Paul telling them not to think about injustice or evil? Not at all.

    • I agree, Caleb. My sense is that the evangelical view of art is slowly changing for the better, and Christianity Today’s unvarnished endorsement of Wolf Of Wall Street indicates this. I know that many Christians still subscribe to a closed-minded view of the arts, but I don’t think it’s the majority opinion anymore. Many Christians still subscribe to the Philippians Test, but they can’t help but define goodness, purity, and excellence on their own terms.

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