If I'm supposed to be the light of the world, why do I feel like a dim bulb? If I'm supposed to be the salt of the earth, why do I taste like cream of wheat? Since the 1970s Christians have been deploring the state of the culture and solutions, but the culture keeps getting worse. Does anyone have a clue how salt and light works?
Three models within living memory are the Godly Voters, the Culture
Warriors, and the Christian Incubators. The first of those developed in
the mid-70s and flowered with Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and the
election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the Christian Conservative's
dream: articulate, winsome, focused. And he wrested America back from
the brink of socialism and set us on a steady course for the
future ... not.
The Culture Warriors surged in the 1980s, with organizations like the
American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and CLEAR-TV.
They called for boycotts and protests and better alternatives to the
mass-media rot, and their efforts ushered in a new era of good role
models and decent, family entertainment ... ahem.
The Christian Incubators were humming by the early 1990s. Since
secular leaders let us down, we would grow our own. The home-schooled
generation would arise as social and political leaders, models of
stability and virtue. Enough of them would turn the culture
around ... maybe. It's too early to say, but healthy skepticism is
Some Christians throw up their hands and head for the hills—sometimes
literally. Others retreat into a Jesus & Me religion, letting the
world go its merry way to hell. But that salt-and-light thing still
makes us uneasy. Maybe Jesus should have told us how?
Perhaps we should stop confusing a Christian lifestyle with the
Christian life. When we look back nostalgically at the 1950s, or
celebrate the Greatest Generation, or laud our American Christian
heritage, we overlook one critical distinction: The world has sometimes
been friendly with the church. But the world has always, in every
generation, been deeply hostile to Christ. His call to self-denial is
never in fashion; His shameless sacrifice for people who didn't ask for
it is never good taste.
When churches are full it's generally because church is the thing to
do. When family values are practiced it's because society understands
the benefit. And when cultures slide into obvious depravity, as in
Georgian England and Weimar Germany, it's because certain restraints
have been removed and people are showing their true colors.
That's not to say that Christianity has no influence at all during
virtuous eras; of course it does. Christianity has some influence even
today. When God Talks Back (Knopf) records the attempts of
Harvard-educated anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann to understand "the
American Evangelical Relationship with God." She spent four years as a
member of two Vineyard Fellowship churches, one in Chicago and one in
Palo Alto. She concluded that the Christians she came to know and love
were naïve in their appropriation of God, but their conviction
nevertheless charmed her.
The same goes for Josie Bloss, who writes fiction for young adults.
She began trolling the blogs of homeschooled young ladies because she
couldn't believe anyone actually lived or thought that way. But, to her
surprise, and to the surprise of the protagonist of her YA novel Faking Faith, she found herself drawn to these girls. Their warmth and stability held a genuine, wistful appeal in a world of brokenness.
That attraction was not enough to convert either author to Christ.
While a Christian lifestyle may sometimes appeal, Christ commands. His
call to self-denial is not just unpopular; it's impossible. And so is
being salt and light—until you notice that He didn't say to be. He said,
you are. As we conform to Christ, we are a stench to those who are
perishing, and a fragrance to those who are being saved. Showing Christ
is our commission, and what that does to the culture is up to God.