Historically speaking, “culture” is the old guard. As Judaism is the Old Testament of Israel, Paganism is the Old Testament of the Church. Our forebears sacrificed to gods which were not. The gentle heel of Christ brought down Olympus and Asgard, but he didn’t obliterate them. He made them a footstool for his feet—he made them useful.
Our fathers watched the overthrow of their altars at the hands of a Jewish carpenter, but they were not immediately transformed into well-dressed Episcopalians. The old gods were plundered and the spoils were brought to Zion. But this was not carried out in fits of absentmindedness. Bare appropriation of anything is a concession to the lesser gods by proxy. But this is not to say that things formerly unacceptable aren’t sanctified when bound under the easy yoke of Christ. Our fathers brought their tin-fiddles and noise-pipes with them into the City of God and began playing them loudly—to the glory of God.
But how did we get from that to Bach’s cello concertos? The answer is the Church. Albeit imperfectly, the Church follows in the footsteps of her Lord—redeeming and re-creating. Given time and grace, she takes the meager offerings from vanquished foes and refashions them into tributes fit for a king. The Gospel is geared for glory. Through the Church, God spreads his fatherly hands around a community, molding it into his own image. The Creator breathes life into the dry dust of culture. We now enjoy glorious feasts with our neighbors rather than a sumptuous meal of our neighbors. In short, the history of Western Civilization is the history of the sanctification of the Church in the West.
Isaiah gives us some of the most encouraging words to ever fall upon the tired ears of Israel, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee” (Is. 60:1). What follows is the foretelling of Israel’s restoration; when the day dawns, when the “Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2). With the inbreaking of the kingdom, Messiah will scatter the darkness that has long held the nations captive. When this light comes, darkness will not be able to overcome it (Jn. 1:5). The True Light will brighten the countenance of every nation. Gentiles will see it and shall come, bringing their sons and daughters with them. This is the glory of the New Covenant; the Father’s promised vindication of Calvary, and the Spirit’s perpetual enaction of Pentecost.
Isaiah continues with a sweeping, inclusive, redemption and restoration; a veritable transformation of the cities of men into the City of God—the construction of New Jerusalem. He foresees the inclusion of the gentiles, but he doesn’t see them coming empty handed. The “ships of Tarshish” will come first, bringing sons from afar, “their silver and gold with them, unto the name of the Lord thy God, and to the Holy One of Israel, for he hath glorified thee” (Is. 60:9). These erstwhile strangers bring their bounties into the kingdom. This is doubly glorious when we remember that God once destroyed this entire fleet because of their pride (Ps. 48:7). Now, the Brooding Wind of the Spirit calls them from the deep and steers them into Zion’s port.
Every successive verse portrays gentile kings bringing their own particular glories into the City of Israel’s God. The “sons of strangers shall build up thy walls,” and “their kings shall minister unto thee” (Is. 60:10). The people of God will “suck the milk of the gentiles” and “shalt suck the breast of kings” (Is. 60:16).
St. John later takes up this theme. That Holy City—which is the Bride of Christ—is lit by the radiant light of the incandescent Son. By his light, “the nations will walk in the light,” and “the kings of earth do bring their glory and honor into it” (Rev. 21:24). The gates of welcome are open in perpetuity to all manner of men. Overhead hangs the banner of love, saying, “come, and welcome to Jesus.”
This is no small vision, but we serve no small Savior. We serve Jesus Christ—Salvator Mundi. And gifts brought into his Church, however paltry, will be sanctified and glorified. As we are on our way to beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, we are also in the process of turning our kazoos into trumpets and our rough ditties into anthems worthy of the angels. The question is not “how much do we keep out,” but rather, “how do we best appropriate the best gifts that our culture has bequeathed to us and turn this brass into gold?” Indeed, the Gospel enables just that sort of sacred alchemy.