Yesterday a friend of my ventured into the DMZ of social media and began raising public questions about worship, music, and the possibility of substituting Stratocasters for sackbuts. Anyone who has observed this battleground knows that even asking questions is akin to tap dancing in a minefield. Investigation itself is a dangerous endeavor. These “worship wars” have littered the ground with far too many unfortunate casualties through the years—usually through friendly fire. Even still, questions persist and rightly so.
But if one is going to bother enlisting then one should at least learn where the battleground actually lies. Far too much time is spent tiptoeing around the fringes of a field seventy clicks west of the combat zones. There is no valor in taking a brave stand against an army of poorly armed straw men. Debates that center around which instruments are in or out, what color hymn books should be employed (if any), how many refrains constitutes a lawful chorus, or whether demons lurk in the shadows of a minor third are inglorious distractions. There may be a time for such questions but that time is during the reconstruction after the war.
Lying at the epicenter of these debates is the largely unobserved territory of Church and culture and their mutual influence upon one another. To what extent, if any, is there an open market of trade between these two kingdoms? To the degree that such questions are addressed they usually soon deteriorate into “I am of Cephas; I am of Jesus” scenarios. Lines are drawn and Christ is divided. This often happens among people who profess to have the same doctrinal commitments, confessional allegiances, philosophical underpinnings, and same last names.
I could not possibly hope to broker peace between the mutually hostile forces but I would like to run something up the flag pole long if we could stop shooting at each other for ten minutes or so. It just may be that culture does influence and contribute to the Church and that the Church does influence and creates particular kinds of culture.
Culture influences the Church because in the historical sense culture is the old guard. As Judaism is the Old Testament of Israel; Paganism is the Old Testament of the Church. Our forbearers sacrificed to other gods which were not gods and this gave rise to the culture which eventually gave rise to us. It was the heel of Christ which brought down Olympus and Stonehenge but that doesn’t mean that He simply obliterated them. The opposite is actually true. He made them a footstool for His feet—He made them useful; they serve a holy purpose. When our fathers watched the overthrow of their altars by the power of a ragged Roman cross they were not immediately transformed into necktie-wearing Southern Baptists. The old gods were spoiled and their plunder was brought to Zion. But this was not done mindlessly or absolutely. Bare appropriation of anything is a concession to the lesser gods by sheer neglect; it is a violation of the Great Commandment through negligence. But that is not to say that those very same things which are unacceptable in ignorance aren’t sanctified when bound in the liberating chains of servitude to Christ. So our fathers brought their tin-fiddles and noise-pipes with them into the City of God and began to play them loudly—to the glory of God.
But how did they go from that to Bach? Whence the move from caves to cathedrals? What is the reason for ditching the bone in the nose for cuff-links and top hats? If a culture was already present and was influencing them then what in the world influenced that? The answer, of course, is the Church—the Living Body of Jesus. The Church, albeit imperfectly and somewhat intermittently, follows in the footsteps of her Lord, redeeming and then recreating. Given time and grace, the Church takes the meager offerings from vanquished foes and refashions them into kingly gifts that are actually fit for a king. The gospel is geared for glory so after a time it will invariably exert itself to that great end. So the Church, once influenced in its infancy by the culture, now spreads its big hands around the community and molds it into its own image and after its likeness, breathing into it new breath and life. This is how we got Bach and Beethoven, cathedrals and castles, and 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, and insofar as she has made progress western civilization has been glorified.
Does the culture influence the Church? Yes, but there is more to be said. Does the Church influence the culture? Yes, when it’s all said and done. Does this mean that we can play horns fashioned from the skulls of our enemies in church next Sunday? Sure. But it may be that we are well passed that now. And it may be that we are getting passed a few more other things as well.
In anticipation of the question, “Do you actually have any biblical warrant for saying any of that?” I briefly drawn your attention to the ends of the prophecies of Isaiah and St. John. In the sixtieth chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy we read 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.” That which follows is the foretelling of Israel’s restoration when Messiah arrives; when the day dawns, when the “Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings.” With the inbreaking of the kingdom Messiah will scatter the darkness that has long held the nations captive, a darkness that has even cast its long shadow over the face of God’s people. When this light comes darkness will not be able to overcome it; this True Light will light brighten the countenance of every nation of men. Gentiles will see the great sight 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 activation of Pentecost.
So far there is probably little debate on these points. But Isaiah’s prophecy continues with a more sweeping, more inclusive redemption of restoration; a veritable transformation of the cities of man into the City of God—the construction of that Holy City New Jerusalem. Isaiah foresees the inclusion of the gentiles but he doesn’t see them coming empty handed. Like Israel leaving Egypt, they come leaving no hoof behind. The “flocks of Kedar” come, along with the “rams of Nebaioth,” and the God of Israel says that they “shall minister unto thee.” Foreign sacrifices in the courts of God? Yes! Thus says the Lord, “They shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will glorify the house with my glory.”
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.” These aliens and strangers bring their bounties into the kingdom. This is doubly glorious when we remember that God once destroyed these very ships with an east wind because of their godlessness and pride (Ps. 48:7). Now, the Brooding Wind calls them from the deep and steers them into Zion’s port.
The “sons of strangers shall build up thy walls,” and “their kings shall minister unto thee.” Every successive verse portrays gentile kings bringing their own particular goods and glory into the City of Israel’s God. Note the details: their goods, their glory—for the Glory of the God of all the earth. The people of God will “suck the milk of the gentiles” and “shalt suck the breast of kings.” Tell me, whence the warnings against the worldly paps?
The Apostle John takes up this same imagery in the last chapters of the Apocalypse. 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.” And the gates of welcome are open in perpetuity to all walks 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—savior of the world. And gifts brought into His Church, however paltry, will be sanctified and eventually glorified. Just as we are on our way to beating our swords into plowshares and and our spears into pruning hooks, we are also in the process of turning our kazoos into into trumpets and our rough ditties into anthems worthy of the angels.
The practical questions left to us are not those which say “how much do we keep out,” but rather, “how do we best appropriate the best gifts that our culture has bequeathed to us thus turning this brass into gold?” And for the downcast one who stands in the corner of the courts of God and says, “what could I possibly have to offer,” I ask the same question God put to forlorn Moses, “what is that in thine hand?” When Moses placed his crude shepherd’s staff into the hand of Omnipotence it was transfigured into “the rod of God.” So give Him what’s in your hands; give Him your loaves and your fishes and watch Him feed the world.