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Content vs. Intent

January 22, 2013

I wrote this as a weekly journal assignment for my Intro to Communications class and really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d leave it here for you guys to read and interact with, too. The question for the assignment was “Do you think that Philippians 4:8-9 should serve as a guideline for the type of media we view? If so – why do you feel that this verse is helpful in guiding believers through the world of media. If not – what verse(s) or biblical principles do you find helpful and why?” This was my answer:

The way our evangelical community tends to use Philippians 4:8-9 is a lot like a man taking a baseball bat to the country club to tee off – we have a basic idea of what to do with it, but we’re not going about it in quite the right way. Yes, a baseball bat is made for hitting a ball and Philippians 4:8-9 makes a great standard for how we interact with media, but the kind of ball you’re hitting is just as important as the kind of standard you’re using the Bible to justify.

The way we look at Philippians 4:8-9 is far too often as a checklist against which we must measure the content of our media choices. Is this movie pure? Is this song lovely? Is this book commendable, this video game morally excellent, this article praiseworthy? We count the swear words, rate the violence on a scale from 1 to Quentin Tarantino, dissect the motives behind every turn of phrase, and try to draw a firm line between the dark and sordid world of secular media and the Dove-approved, family-friendly, Christian alternative.

The trouble with our approach, however, is that Philippians 4:8-9 doesn’t concern itself primarily with what we watch, listen to, or read. No, the operative verb in Paul’s exortation is “think”. He urges us to think about things that are true, just, honorable, pure, and on down the list. We get so caught up in whether it’s okay to watch movies in which characters speak and act like real people – e.g. not always truthfully, justly, honorably, purely, etc. – that we don’t consider what message their story is intended to convey. What does your mind linger on when you’ve finished watching, reading, and listening? That’s what Paul wants us to consider: not the content so much as the intent.

And yes, sometimes when the content is excessively violent, sexually immoral, or in any other way unwholesome, that can affect our thinking in ways that we’d be best to avoid. But what about films like Blue Like Jazz, which takes place at Reed College and features characters who swear, drink, and get high and includes a lesbian’s crush on a classmate as a central plot arc, yet leaves viewers mulling over such true, commendable, and praiseworthy subjects as forgiveness, grace, and what it looks like to be an authentic Christian in a world full of hypocrites, Christian and otherwise? I’d suggest that to dismiss honest portrayals of humanity because they aren’t squeaky-clean makes us into the golfer with a baseball bat – ill-equipped and ineffective. Instead, we ought to step up to the plate and tackle the media that challenges us to turn on our minds and think about what is true rather than just spoon-feeding it to us in its simplest form, and in so doing fulfill the command of Philippians 4:8-9.

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