If the criteria set forth in Philippians 4:8 were applied to our way of thinking as well as our way of viewing the world and seeing and responding to other people, what would change in our public discourse?
For that matter, what would change in our political exchanges, our preferred vocabulary in discussion and argument, or even in our use of language on social media?
The Latin form of those words from Philippians is chiseled into the stone in the entrance hall of the old BBC headquarters.
If these were intended as criteria for content and overall policy, they were always going to be an ideal beyond fulfilment, a wish list destined to disappoint.
And there are compelling reasons why they would fail. They set standards so high they would be unattainable given the way the world is.
We live in a world where bad news dominates the news platforms because bad news has become the actual reality of some people’s lives when it goes wrong. And bad news is the virtual reality of the rest of us sucked into the vicarious pain and borrowed brokenness of the people in the stories we consume.
Further, that relentless flow of bad news sustains levels of anxiety and uncertainty that have an overall impact on how those of us who consume the news view the world, how we conceive of threats, and how we seek security in whatever political and economic structures might seem to offer the more credible protections.
So, the high ideals of justice, truth, honesty and the rest as the quality controllers of what is aired are already and always under huge cognitive and emotional pressure.
Then add this. The huge diversity of sources for news and comment, for perspectives and prejudices and for information and misinformation means that the authority of any one source is questioned and contradicted by other sources.
The result is a Babel of voices, a supermarket of opinions and standpoints from which the consumer chooses.
The subject matter of the news is selected, edited and scripted from a world of stories, mostly of life gone wrong for others, often far away, and not us.
News is told from one perspective or another, edited and presented and shaped by the assumptions and presuppositions of those who choose and tell the narratives. Again, what of truth, honesty, justice, loveliness and good report?
To go back to Philippians 4:8, those words on BBC House are the ideals of an institution formed to report with informed authority on the events of the day. That was Lord Reith’s vision.
The world of human affairs has been spectacularly uncooperative with words like true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report. And yet. Those words are from an Apostle who knew his Greek moral philosophy and was steeped in the ethics of the Hebrew prophets.
For millennia, human thought, behavior, values and character have been a central concern in the formation and sustaining of human community and culture, and therefore also values that historically have been held to quality-control rhetoric, discourse and debate.
Ask any citizen of the first century Greco-Roman world about the values that are foundational in a civilized culture, and they would have naturally spoken of truth, justice, goodness, beauty.
These values were expected to govern words and thoughts, actions and social attitudes, and therefore the instilling of such values was a large part of education and learning in the wisdom that sustains the good life.
What I find interesting about Paul’s words, and their permanent inscription on a public broadcasting organization, is that these words are about mindset: “Think on these things.”
Whatever words we use are to come from a mind open to truth, committed to honesty, insisting on justice, unembarrassed by purity, admiring of loveliness and careful of goodness.
In the harsh world of news broadcasting, entertainment production and documentary reflection on the real world, those seem impossible ideals, ludicrous criteria, a strategy for saccharine sweetness and solipsistic sentiment.
It’s a gift of a text if all I want to do is moralize, tell people to be nice, to think good thoughts and aim at a life of undisturbed peaceableness.
On the other hand, it is a text that calls in question much that is now normalized in the speech, discourse and rhetoric of 21st century global politics, economics and the deeper forms of human and cultural exchange.
To preach on this text means taking seriously the way we speak and listen to others. It also means interrogating the lenses and filters that color and may well distort the way we view the world and hear and see the other.
Human discourse is the making audible of thought, it is in effect speaking our mind.
A destabilized Peter was reminded within earshot of the Lord he had denied, “Your speech betrays you!”
It’s a searching, searing question; what kind of mind is exposed to public view and hearing through the words we speak?
As an old preacher once said in one of the first sermons I ever heard, “It’s not what you think you are, it’s what you think, you are.” The comma is of decisive hermeneutical importance.
This text is not so easily domesticated. It cannot be confined to the personal and individual as if those “whatsoevers” were merely about being nice to each other.
Paul’s whatsoever imperatives have decisive purchase on the Christian mind and conscience. His words are addressed to you plural, so to Christian communities as witnesses to truth, justice and loveliness.
But that witness will require and demand resistance to all that is untrue, dishonest, unjust, impure, unlovely and disreputable.
And that is a political imperative, a requirement that Christian thinking and speaking intentionally invade the polis, patiently pervade the human city, slowly soak into the cultural community.
The gospel of reconciliation, peace, love, truth and justice is to be thought and rethought, spoken and repeated, lived and performed.
And as Paul says at the end of his litany of community health, “think on these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.