Philippians 4:8 is not a test (ReFrame Adventist Worship Part 5: Virtues, Values, & Feelings)

Housekeeping Items

ReFrame Adventist Worship has been on a bit of a hiatus since 2020. In short, the workflow that my team had established got a little bit upended by other commitments, more pressing work projects, and just the overall confusion and endless improvisation brought on by the pandemic. But people have been asking me when the next episodes would be coming out, and I have been committed to continuing the series in some way or another.

In the time between, I also managed to take some of my notes and drafts and put them out in a different form with the help of Pastor Marcos Torres. He was gracious enough to host me for an extended series on his podcast over on The Story Church Project. A lot of the material that I had written and drafted up for ReFrame Adventist Worship has ended up on that podcast, including material that I have planned for later episodes of the video series. In other words, if you don't mind lacking a video component, you can get a preemptive look at some of the material I plan to cover in the remainder of the video series. Check out "Deconstructing The Adventist Worship Wars" at this link.

We have actually decided that ReFrame Adventist Worship is better suited to the audience we have built over here on The Haystack rather than the audience for iBeleiveBible, so we will be migrating those previously released videos and blog posts over here to the Haystack, as well as completing the series here. The old video content will remain unlisted, with updated versions of the previously released videos going on the Haystack's YouTube and Facebook accounts.

I think that should cover all the major housekeeping items. Now, onto the real reason you're here.

The Philippians 4:8 Music Test

"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." (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

What do you see when you read this verse? What do you hear when it is quoted out loud? For some people in the church, there is a subtle and often unrecognized temptation to sneakily add the word only either before or after the word think. That is, many well-meaning believers interpret this verse as a prohibition against thinking about anything that doesn't qualify under one of the adjectives listed earlier in the verse. If it's not noble, lovely, pure, or excellent, Christians may not under any circumstances feel at liberty to think about such things!

The problem is that this line of interpretation misses what this verse is actually about. Paul is encouraging and reminding the Philippians to make time for something they might otherwise forget to do. He is giving a positive instruction - Hey, don't forget to take time to focus on things that are positive, that are good, that are admirable. It is a reminder, not a measuring stick. Paul is giving a prompt about what to think about, not making a list that excludes what we shouldn't think about.

Put another way, the impulse to use Philippians 4:8 as a measuring stick to exclude anything vaguely "negative" from Christian thought life is based on an illegitimate reading of the verse that ignores the rest of the biblical witness, including a significant number of things in Philippians itself. Within the epistle, Paul has mentioned the following negative things:

  • Being in prison (Philippians 1:7, 12-14)

  • People preaching Christ from selfish movies (Philippians 1:15-17)

  • Being doomed to destruction for rebellion against God (Philippians 1:27-28)

  • Sickness and near death experiences (Philippians 2:25-27)

  • False teachers who mutilate the flesh (Philippians 3:2)

By writing about these things, Paul inevitably causes his readers and hearers to think about those things. None of them really qualify under the list of adjectives in 4:8. But Philippians 4:8 is not a test to exclude certain thoughts from our minds.

The Bible is not Family Friendly

In our broader discussions about media - film, music, television, books, etc. - there is a tendency to define "acceptable" content in a way that would, quite frankly, immediately disqualify the Bible itself from being acceptable for Christians. Granted many people tend to think of the Bible as being something other than media or entertainment, but this is precisely part of the problem. The Bible is comprised of various forms of entertainment art. Narrative. Storytelling, Poetry. Song lyrics. These are artistic forms that we still engage with today - only in more technologically enhanced forms. But the media of story writing, or of songwriting, are still able to carry a profound emotional effect. Poems still touch people's hearts and minds today. People still read books. These art forms are part of the Bible, and were delivered during their historical contexts in forms that people could relate to and that people wanted to engage with.

But this is complicated when we encounter extremely depressing passages like Psalm 88, or Jeremiah chapter 9, or basically the entirety of the book of Lamentations. These aren't happy-go-lucky passages, nor are they just brief, momentary trips into the darkness so that we can get to the happy ending. Both Psalm 88 and Lamentations end without hopeful or positive resolutions. Other Psalms might speak about hope and redemption while also uncritically endorsing violence. The book of Ecclesiastes advocates for happiness and contentment in life while painting a bleak and cynical picture of human existence. Ezekiel 23 also uh .... exists. It's definitely a passage that exists, and just ... wow.

And these poetic passages don't even begin to touch the horrors of stories in the scriptures. Genesis is replete with stories of abuse, violence, betrayal, and pain. Revelation has well earned its reputation for being terrifying in its own right. And the last three chapters of Judges are perhaps some of the most horrifying stories to have ever been written down anywhere.

The point is, even the most basic reading through the entirety of the Bible should make it very clear that Philippians 4:8 is not at all meant to be read as a measuring stick for everything a human being could possibly think about. This unfortunate reading of this verse, I would argue, does not originate in the thought-world of scripture itself, but rather from modern, Protestant, American cultural sensibilities, that have been normalized and made essentially hegemonic. It's easy to take for granted; it's not so easy to establish from the Biblical text.

But the so called "dark side" is not the only side of this issue. The Bible is also not family friendly when it comes to good things. The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs), for as much as it has been allegorized and reinterpreted through various theological frameworks, at its most basic level is a semi-erotic celebration of human sexuality that does not shy away from vivid poetic descriptions of the human body, and euphemisms for sexual acts. There is no preface to the book warning the reader of its contents. There is not appendix that explains "well, just think of this as a metaphor for God and Israel, or Christ and the Church." The art just stands on its own, demanding to be taken seriously for what it is.

Values, Emotions, and Music

While there are certainly apologetic issues, questions of progressive revelation, and so on for addressing some of the questions that inevitably arise around these biblical passages, one thing remains clear: the bible does not shy away from the fullness of the human experience. The scriptures to not retreat away from human emotions, or from the human body and its sensations. More often than not, everything is on full display to a great degree of intensity.

While today we argue about whether smoke machines, lights, and amplification are emotionally manipulative, we seem to skip right over slitting the throats of animals and throwing their blood on the walls when you have done something wrong (Leviticus), or the mourning practices that involved ripping apart your clothes, wearing irritating fabrics, pouring ashes on your head, and sitting outside screaming and crying for extended periods of time, surrounded by professional, hired weepers (2 Samuel 3:31, Jeremiah 9, Amos 5:16, 2 Chronicles 35:25, Esther 4:1, Ecclesiastes 12:5, Jonah 3:5-7, Matthew 9:23, and more).

Frankly, it is not possible to read the Bible responsibly and come to the conclusion that God forbids us from feeling or expressing strong emotions in big, explosive ways. It's not possible to read the Bible accurately and conclude that emotion is somehow wrong, or to be avoided by Christians, or treated with great timidity, trepidation, and caution. Can emotional thinking lead down the wrong path? Of course. But hyper-rationality can also do that. The Bible is absolutely replete with intense expressions of emotion, and we should thank God for that acknowledgement and recognition of our shared humanity.

Biblical Mourning vs. Spiritual Bypass & Toxic Positivity

The picture of mourning and lamentation we get in the Bible is diametrically opposed to two modern terms I mentioned in the video above: Spiritual Bypass and Toxic Positivity. The first term refers to a tendency to use spiritual or religious beliefs and practices as a way to gloss over or "bypass" negative emotional experiences. The second term refers to a forced kind of positivity and optimism that refuses to acknowledge negative feelings, no matter how real. Both articles linked here can express the concepts better than I can. But it's important for Christians to understand how these two psychological realities are diametrically opposed to not only a biblical understanding of the arts and media, but to a healthy biblical understanding of humanity itself.

While there are plenty of guesses and explanations as to why Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus - who he knew he was about to resurrect (John 11) - we should be immensely glad that we have an example of God himself being subject to human feelings in his incarnation.

I'm Too Sexy For Your Bad Theology

There is also the issue of sexuality, both on its own and in the way that is relates to dance. First, to be clear, not all forms of dance are inherently sexual, and I would argue that most forms of dance around the world are social or artistic in nature without a sexual or romantic connotation. That, of course, is something that we would have to take up with an anthropologist, but it doesn't take much inter-cultural exposure to realize that dance is an integral and meaningful part of most cultures in a way that is usually socially acceptable.

It is modern, western, Protestant, and especially American culture that tends to link together dancing and sex. There are, of course, reasons for this that are tied to various moments in history and require a detailed look at the stories of the people who came to America from Europe. But, it is very important for us to remember that European Christianity, especially in the middle ages, inherited a theological tradition that was heavily influenced by Platonism and even some traces of Gnostic ideas - which seems to have contributed to a culture with a pretty drastically negative view of the physical body.

Speaking of false teachers who were importing anti-biblical ideas into the Christian community, Paul said this: "20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." (Colossians 2:20-23 NIV)

I'm going to come back to this theme in later posts but it is important to mention now. Historic Christianity has in many ways been affected by these ideas that were already gaining steam in the days of the Apostles and the early church. Fear of the physical body, the maligning of human sexuality, and the prioritization of "spiritual" reality over physical creatureliness are all foreign to the scriptures and need to be evaluated with a critical eye.

We have already seen in previous episodes of ReFrame Adventist Worship how figures like Ivor Myers (but also Brian Neumann, Christian Berdahl, Neil Nedley) mistakenly assign physicality to a qualitatively "lower" status than the "spiritual" or "intellectual" parts of human existence, at least when they're talking about music. It's actually baffling that Adventists can so carelessly promote notions that are directly and irreconcilably opposed to actual Adventist doctrine.

And yet, here we remain, still embroiled in the same old theologically-illiterate debate that refuses to accept the plain and obvious fact that dance was a neutral and often accepted part of lifestyle and even worship practice throughout the Bible. As much as this accusation has often been aimed from the traditionalist side towards the progressive one, I would argue that this is plainly an example of traditionalist Adventists caving in to the assumptions of culture and forcibly reinterpreting the Bible to suit their cultural sensibilities. Unnecessary exegetical gymnastics dance all around the Psalms, pun aggressively intended.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with having a tendency, or conviction, or belief that is based in ones own culture. I'm actually an advocate for people inhabiting and claiming their cultural roots. If Christians and Adventists of Western European descent want to say in my culture, x, y, and z are considered inappropriate, that's fine. The problem is when one culture's sensibilities are read anachronistically onto the Bible, especially in a post-colonial context. The historical fact is that white Christian cultural sensibilities around dance, clothing, modesty, and the policing of what is perceived as sexualized behaviour in non-white people and non-white culture is tied to slavery, segregation-era attitudes, and xenophobia. I have already mentioned how white America attitudes towards early jazz music vilified the perceived sensuality of the music and of the social venues where it was performed. Jazz was associated with dance clubs and brothels, and was derided as "whorehouse music" even though there is nothing about jazz that makes it inherently or necessarily more or less sexual than any other form of music.

There is also an interesting excerpt I came across in a book recently that traces the history of Carnival in Trinidad, among other things. The author reports on white reactions to Carnival celebrations among the displaced Africans in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1840. One outraged man in particular not only complained that the "lower order of society" was allowed to run in the streets "[,,,] in a state so nearly approaching to nudity, as to outrage decency and shock modesty [...]." These concerns about needing to control the black population of the island and prevent them from participating in this particular celebration sat right alongside concerns that the Carnival was desecrating "the Sabbath" (Sunday, to the folks involved), which to them should obviously not have been allowed, by law. Let the Adventist reader understand.

There is a spirit at work behind the impulse to control others. When the kings of the earth in Revelation 18 take up a lament over Babylon - the same Babylon declared to be fallen in the second angel's message in Revelation 14 - they lament that among other things, nobody will buy their slaves anymore (Rev 18:13). The protesting voices in 1840s Trinidad saw the conflict between white Europe and black Africa as a contest between Christianity and Paganism.

Cultural Variations in 'Modesty' Standards

Dress and modesty standards vary by culture. What may be highly inappropriate and sexualized in one culture may be normal and either non-sexual or less sexual in another culture. This pertains to both body parts and behaviours. Some may find this argument unpersuasive from a sociological angle. Perhaps one interesting biblical example of this is the way that the "scientific" assumptions of ancient Greek culture affected attitudes towards women's hair. Due to the likes of Aristotle and Hippocrates, many ancient Greeks (and those in Helenized cultures) believed that human hair was actually connected to the reproductive system, and that long hair in women was a sign of fertility and sexual viability. Some Bible scholars have argued fairly convincingly that this worldview assumption is part of what underlies Paul's discussion of women's hair in 1 Corinthians 11. This chapter has obviously been a source of much theological disagreement, but the cultural background of ancient Greek understandings of hair help add some context as to why hair may have been a sexualized bodily feature in a way that it is not today in western culture.

To bring all of this back around to music - the history of modern genres exists in merging space between African and European cultural influences. Within this merging space, there are differences not only in power, but also in attitudes towards rhythm, physicality, the human body, and dance. And within this dynamic, where people of European descent have often seen offence, taboos, hyper-sexualization, and transgression, people of African descent have seen survival, innovation, tradition, dignity, and agency. The criticisms of modern Hip-Hop in the 2020s belong right alongside the criticisms of Jazz in the 1920s. The arguments have not only refused to evolve, but they have refused to look back deep into the scriptures - to find a grounded, earthy, expressive Hebrew culture that looked radically different from the post-medieval cultural that would come to define the North American church.

Final Thoughts

I have been somewhat distressed over the last little while to find that many people's reaction to my position here is to assume I'm advocating for some kind of chaotic "anything goes any time no matter the context" approach to the arts. I find this ridiculous, lazy, and uncharitable. "You can listen to or compose whatever you like without consequence and say or do whatever you want and God doesn't care at all" is not what I am saying. There are plenty of songs, artists, albums, and social behaviours that I personally don't approve of in music genres and music cultures that I do approve of. What I am saying is that overgeneralized rules like the "Philippians 4:8 test" fail to give us a framework for evaluating art that actually complements the overall witness of scripture and of other legitimate sources of human knowledge around the arts.

This debate is about way more than just how we understand music. A huge part of it is how we understand our humanity, and that is a massive theological concern. If we do not have the ability to make sound judgments about our own judgments, and to investigate the antecedents of what we assume to be obvious intuitions, then our own misunderstandings will be codified into practices, policies, and so-called "standards" that miss the mark of the Bible's larger vision for human flourishing.

And I suspect we'll have less fun too.

For resources on how to interpret Ellen G. White's writings responsibly and accurately, I recommend starting out with the episodes on Ellen G. White from the podcast How The Church Works.

"ReFrame Adventist Worship" is presented by is presented by Maxwell Kozen Aka, a Seventh-day Adventist multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, music producer, artist and worship leader from Toronto, Canada. His theological training includes a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and "Biblical Studies & Theology" from Tyndale University, and a Master of Divinity, Andrews University. You can check out his music credibility here and you can hear more about his theology work on iBelieveBible as well as on his soon-to-be-launched theological podcast.