For this week’s column, I’m going to do something many Christian columnists do, but that (from what I remember) I haven’t yet done: quote a Bible passage, and thus sound very profound. In this case, it’s a passage that is so often misunderstood — and even less often, that misunderstanding is not contrasted with the life and practice of the apostle who wrote it.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8 (ESV)
This verse came to mind while I was still making a few incidental rounds online, reading a few blogs on which Christian commentators were critiquing The Dark Knight. Already I’ve offered my views, on this site and elsewhere; and as much as I did appreciate the blockbuster Batman film, somehow I’d like to move on and talk about something else. However, the film and its indeed “dark” elements have engendered a variety of reactions within Christendom. And I can’t help but think Christians’ views of the Gospel of grace — whether right or wrong — are affecting how they see stories like this.
I hope some of you won’t be too annoyed here, because in this and in at least two future columns, I hope to categorize those factions and reactions to this film, and novels and films altogether, into three groups. Then I’ll deal with them one by one, ending with the view held by me and many others.
Virtue versus violence
1. Christians shouldn’t expose themselves to negative things no matter how positive other elements are. Darkness can’t mix with light. To do so would be to compromise, expose ourselves to evil and maybe allow Satan to gain a foothold in our lives.
Those who hold this view — or a derivative; my summary can only go so far — would point to the Philippians passage as proof that Christians should avoid thinking much about evil, looking at images of evil or contemplating the reality of evil. Instead, we’re supposed to concentrate on only the good stuff, and thus, only good guys in our stories.
I hope most Christians don’t have the extreme perspective given, purely by accident, by a character in the “Kids Praise” cassettes of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, featuring Psalty the Singing Songbook. In one of the later tapes, Charity Churchmouse, trying to encourage Psalty’s omnipresent cabal of kids not to get depressed and down, sings the words of Philippians 4:8, along with her interpretation (you wild-at-heart guys, please hang tough through this): “I think about bright yellow daisies and daffodils, petunias, and all kinds of posies!” she proclaims. That’s just reading a silly, false and overly feminized view into the verse, though I’m sure that wasn’t Psalty’s intent.
Even the milder form of such a view would seem based on the incidental perception that Philippians 4:8 has a single word in there, which it does not — the word only. If such a meaning of the total-virtue types were true, it seems the apostle Paul would have put in the term between the words think and about — i.e., “think only about these things.” But he didn’t. Everything in this chapter is for encouragement, not a do-this-only command.
And both Paul and we should be glad he didn’t say only. If he had, the erstwhile epistle scribbler would be subject to a heap of hypocrisy. Think about these things: Paul was a missionary, who often traveled to cultures that weren’t necessarily only virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy or commendable. Throughout Acts, we find Paul and his Gospel-preaching colleagues mixing it up with all kinds of false religious advocates. Paul, though grounded on the rock of the Gospel, had to wade through a lot of muck and junk to take that Gospel into the evil world. Could it be said that he let his light “mix with darkness”?
What I find most interesting is the fact that Paul had clearly read a lot of pagan poetry. We first find him directly quoting a non-Biblical selection in Acts 17:28 — probably a poem by a Cretan writer — in support of the Gospel Paul was preaching about. Later, Paul quotes twice from more non-Christian writers’ works in order to contrast it with the truth (“all things are lawful” and others, in 1 Corinthians 6: 12-13 and in 10:23). Also, as Paul later reluctantly tells the Corinthians, he was beat up, shipwrecked three times and often on the lam. Not necessarily petunias and daffodils, this.
Meanwhile, many other portions of the Bible offer graphic descriptions of violence for no clear reason other than perhaps to show the state of man without God. That includes several brothers’ sexual actions with one woman (Genesis 38), a man cutting up his “concubine’s” body into 12 pieces and sending those separately to the 12 tribes of Israel to incite further violence (Judges 19) — and perhaps most repugnant of all, God’s own parable about Samariah and Jerusalem in Ezekiel 23, comparing them to “women” (to use a more-polite term) who repeatedly and disgustingly sell their bodies to the preying men of Israel’s enemies.
Some presentations of evil, whether they’re in Scripture, pagan poetry, The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings or any other story, fantasy or otherwise, are often necessary. They help us picture the state of man, and the natural results of Evil, without God’s powerful and glorious intervention to redeem the universe. Representations of evil often remind us that without Christ’s righteousness, people are dead in their trespasses and sins and would keep doing the same things.
Such awesome truths make people “smaller,” and God “bigger” and more glorious to us. Best of all, they echo the Gospel itself — the Gospel that includes the “impure” elements of sin, Hell and God’s wrath that far too many Christians incidentally gloss over.
But if they do, they miss the point of the Gospel, that Christ died a horrible death to save rebel sinners. The story is weakened. And instead of recalling adequate amounts of evil for the contrast with God and righteousness, such Christians have lightened darkness into gray. They’ve either pretended evil doesn’t exist, or made it seem similar to goodness. And that, not the Biblically unbalanced “think only pure thoughts” view, is the worst, most dangerous way that darkness could really be mixed with light.
Withdraw from the world?
Finally, another argument based on Biblically based logic and common sense rules out the whole avoid-impure-thoughts-at-all-costs view. If certain Christians should not recall or contemplate the realities of evil in this world and its unnatural results, then what? Are they “holier” than other Christians who work in professions in which they go head-to-head with evil?
Consider Christian police officers, detectives, coroners, soldiers, prison guards, ER doctors and nurses, soldiers (in an overall-“just” war), national security agents. Would such a view consider these people below-class Christians because of their dirty work? Or would advocates of the think-only-pure-thoughts belief be left with the rather awkward and reclusive conclusion that Christians should avoid these dirty-work professions 24/7 and leave them all for the unbelievers to fill?
Some Christians (real and professing) do claim this, to be sure, especially the quasi-Amish types of folks. In response, I can’t help but think of the Hobbits, blissfully dwelling in the Shire and smoking pipeweed while the Human Rangers try to patrol its borders and keep them safe and unaware of danger.
Moreover, though, more of the Apostle Paul’s strong language, directed toward the Corinthian church, comes to mind. Paul was much more concerned with how the church interacted with false and disgustingly sinning “believers” than with their reactions with the world’s sordid sinners. “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world,” he told them, “or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” That, to Paul, makes no sense. Neither was it anything he himself practiced.
Now we come to the fact that some people overcorrect with this view, based on Arteestic frameworks of thought, regarding other sinful aspects of the world — ungodly sexual practices, for instance. Junk like that, some professing Christians say, doesn’t bother them, or else it really shouldn’t bother us because this is part of our world and we should understand sins like this. That’s what I hope to write about next time.