(Guess what, gang? The wonderful folks at Patheos have introduced some code to the blog that allows you to mouse-over mentioned Bible verses to see what the verse is right away! Try it out if you like.)
Today we’ll be talking about the increasingly-popular Christianese phrase, “salt and light.”
It’s one of those evangelical concepts that has been creeping around in the background of Christian churches and apologetics for a while now–this idea that churches and Christians alike are supposed to be “salt and light” to the society around them. I didn’t hear this exact phrase much at all when I was a Christian; like a lot of their other weird ideas, this is a pretty modern one so it might have taken you by surprise too. We’re going to talk about how Christians conceptualize this idea, and then how it actually works out in reality, because this idea is yet another in a long, long line of excuses Christians use to be assholes to people. Knowing about this permission slip helps you see it when it’s deployed against you, and it’s one of those dog-whistle terms that is useful to know when you see Christians slip it into conversation.
I realize that some of what is coming next might sound somewhat pedantic. Christians are using “salt and light” as a metaphor, and there isn’t a Christian metaphor in the world that really stands up to serious inquiry (any more than other metaphors might, I suppose; I’m probably simply more familiar with Christian attempts at making them). But they’re using this term specifically to be assholes-for-Jesus, as if it’s some kind of divine mandate from the heavens that they behave as they are nowadays. They’re taking a metaphor and turning it into something they should do in reality–even though the metaphor, applied too much in reality, falls apart. So here’s how that metaphor falls apart, and why it’s best left as a metaphor rather than used as an excuse to trample over other people’s boundaries and social mores.
What the phrase means.
“Salt and Light” comes from the Bible. Followers of Jesus are supposed to be “salt” and “light” to non-believers. This page explains the idea fairly well, defining the various Bible verses that give Christians the idea that it’s an ideal way to conceptualize their position in their societies.
“Light” is pretty obvious; most people who’ve been around the religion are aware of the numerous Bible verses comparing Christianity and Christians to light, and non-belief, disobedience, and dissent to darkness. It’s hugely arrogant, especially considering that the primary identifying trait of Christians as a whole is their inability to live up to their religion’s demands of its followers. I won’t dwell on it on this post other than to say that it’s hilariously self-important as well as really insulting to others for Christians to think of themselves in such exalted terms without any evidence that they’re really any better than non-Christians. We’ll cover its ramifications next time because I already know that this post is going to be long enough as it is.
“Salt” might need a little more explaining anyway, so we’re going to spend more time on that idea today. Obviously, salt is a compound that is fairly plentiful in nature. It occurs mostly in seawater, but also in underground veins. Technically, according to the dictionary thingie over at Google, a salt is “any chemical compound formed from the reaction of an acid with a base, with all or part of the hydrogen of the acid replaced by a metal or other cation.”
We’re likely most familiar with NaCl, sodium chloride, which is table salt, but whoa, there are oodles of salts. There are lots and lots of different types of salt–many of them edible. If you’re a foodie, you probably have six different kinds in your pantry right now, from kosher salt to sea salt to pink Hawaiian salt to even more exotic varieties. In a couple of days I’ll be brining a turkey using one of these–and I wouldn’t even think of using the wrong kind of salt for it.
Humans early on realized how important salt was to both their bodies and their entire culture. I’m going to refer here to the excellent Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. He equates use of salt with the flourishing of the world’s earliest civilizations, which brings him to an interesting hypothesis about why the ancient Hebrews used unleavened bread for their Passover feast: Egyptians relied on salt for their most common and luxurious foods and their most serious religious observations (salts were used to preserve mummies, among other things). By eating bread that had been made with no salt at all for that feast, this author’s theory goes, Hebrews were symbolically rejecting all the trappings they could of the decadent Egyptians’ culture.
Why this metaphor is bullshit.
There are some serious problems with the idea of Christians being the salt of the world.
1. Not all salt is edible.
Various salts show up all the time in one chemist’s hilarious blog posts about “things I won’t work with”. This particular entry is about a paper he was reading about some “Bavarian rowdies [who] have prepared a series of salts of the unnerving azidotetrazolate anion,” which I’m going to quote a chunk of because I want you to get inspired to go read everything he’s ever written because it’s all this awesome (just finish my post first please!):
The authors report a whole series of salts, X-ray structures and all, which range from the “relatively stable” lithium and sodium derivatives all the way to things that couldn’t even be isolated. In the latter category is the rubidium salt, which they tried to prepare several times. In every case, the solution detonated spontaneously on standing. And by “spontaneously”, they mean “while standing undisturbed in the dark”, so there’s really just no way to deal with this stuff. It’s probably a good thing they didn’t get crystals, because someone would have tried to isolate the hideous things. The cesium salt actually did give a few crystals, which they managed to pluck from the top of the solution and get X-ray data on. A few hours later the remaining batch suddenly exploded, though, which certainly must have been food for thought.
Way too many Christians are salts like that. Would you want some of that rubidium salt sprinkled on your mashed potatoes this Thanksgiving? Pass the shakers (but carefully)! The ancient world likely didn’t know about salts that could explode without provocation, since the ones described in that blog post generally need some sophisticated techniques to create, but you’d kinda think that the omniscient creator of the universe would have guessed that comparing Christians to salt had some serious downsides, and one of the most serious of those is that there are a lot of salts that are terrible for anybody who likes having unbroken glass in their windows.
2. Too much salt is bad for people.
Even within the list of edible salts, salt toxicity is a thing that can happen if humans eat too much of it. I’ve got a little experience in this area myself; when I was about 12, after some friends of mine and I had eaten a bag of pretzels, I ate the salt at the bottom of the bag. I still don’t know why; I just liked the taste of the salt, I guess, and my family didn’t use a lot of salt because my mom had big trouble with hypertension. I knew right after I did it that I’d done something really dumb, though. On the bike ride home, I got roaring sick from it. Tell ya what, I never did that again! I’d learned my lesson. But even today, I have to remember to salt food while I cook.
And of course we know that our diets contain way too damn much sodium, which can cause some serious illnesses and problems if we’re not careful–like my mom’s hypertension. We’ve evolved to really like the taste of salt, with our brains reacting to a jolt of it the same way they react to addictive narcotics, but humanity has gone from it being a precious commodity to being entirely too easy to get–without our inborn taste preferences able to keep up with that monumental change.
Christians might style themselves “salt,” leavening and seasoning the world itself, but frankly maybe they need to learn that a little bit of a good thing is better sometimes–and too much of a good thing can actively hurt people.
3. Salt can’t be not-salt.
The Bible verses Christians rely on to sell this idea to themselves try to make an argument that if Christians don’t push themselves out at others, then they’re making themselves “salt that has lost its savor,” but chemically speaking that’s impossible. As long as it still qualifies as a salt by the chemical definition, it can’t be anything but salt. That’d be like water that has lost its wetness, or a kitten that has lost its cuteness. Saltiness is an intrinsic property of salt so it can’t be made less salty. This page tries to argue that disobedience can “corrode” salt and make it poisonous, but that’s ridiculous. If Christians were truly salt, then sinfulness would at best introduce an impure element to their saltiness, but it wouldn’t turn them into something that isn’t salt at all.
Besides, that’s not how the Bible verse actually discusses the concept. A careful comparison of the different translations of the Bible verse in question reveal that Jesus, according to his ghostwriters, certainly appears to be specifically stating that salt can become not-salt. And that’s certainly how bigoted groups like Focus on the Family interpret the verse, claiming that salt “becomes useless when contaminated by other chemical substances.” They think that being salt means that they must “penetrate society while keeping themselves from being influenced by sin in the world,” lest their pure and pristine saltiness become something the Bible refers to as “insipid” salt.
How the idea is actually used by Christians.
Despite their general insistence that the Bible’s various commands are easy to understand, evangelical Christians (who are the ones mostly using this metaphor of “salt and light”) can’t really agree much on what the idea of being “salt” means and few of them can really talk meaningfully about what the metaphor actually should look like in spoken interactions, though trying to figure that out leads one to some fascinatingly nebulous Christianese word-salad sermons that don’t actually tell any Christians anything about exactly how to enact that Bible verse. Christianity.com goes through the major ideas I’ve heard:
* Christians are meant to pour stinging salt into wounds, meaning they’re supposed to be assholes at people by telling them they’re sinning because otherwise we couldn’t possibly know that what we’re doing is wrong.
* Christians are meant to “add divine flavor” to the world, though that sounds kind of twee to me as well as being a stark denial of what Christians in our culture really want. They don’t want to be the flavoring for the meal; they want to be all of the food on the table forever, for everyone.
* Christians are meant to “create a thirst for Christ” somehow, like how eating salty food makes people thirsty.
* Christians are meant to preserve the world by preventing it from rotting in “moral decay,” like how salt preserves fish for long periods of time.
Though they end up going with the fourth definition, the actual lived reality of it works out very similarly to the first — and the first is how most Christians proudly live out the term anyway.
Nowadays you’ll see it used in conversation–like here, on a CARM website where the author casually mentions the phrase without even bothering to explain its meaning:
Nevertheless, great work is yet to be done if the church is to become more of the salt and light it was designed to be (Matthew 5:13), after decades of retreating to the walls of the church buildings in the midst of the intellectual challenges of the secular world.
The author of that page doesn’t need to define the term. His intended audience will already know what it means, or at least what they think they know of the matter. And it’s worth noting that what he’s talking about is the use of apologetics as a method of bringing his religion back into dominance over the rest of society. He’s not talking about “adding divine flavor” to his society or “creating a thirst for Christ.” He’s talking about the nuts and bolts of retaining existing Christians and gaining more. Though he has a charmingly misplaced trust in apologetics, he’s quite correct in saying that people are increasingly seeing his religion as philosophically and rationally inadequate; to him, becoming more “salt and light” is how his people can become dominant again.
Similarly, other Christian preachers use this metaphor as a way of justifying their assholery toward others. As this sermon puts it,
But if you’ve ever spilled salt onto a cut, you know how it burns like fire. The truth of God’s Word, when it is rubbed into this decaying world, stings. If you speak God’s truth in this world, it is going to irritate some people.
In other words, says this sermon writer, it’s okay to be irritating because it’s not the Christian being irritating, it is the Christian’s god’s power doing the irritating. And there’s nothing in that sermon I didn’t hear 25 years ago in Pentecostalism, though we didn’t use the same exact words then. We also thought that non-believers’ irritation was proof not of the Christian being a jackass, but of the Christian’s god being powerful and convicting the heart of a sinner of his or her offenses and need for forgiveness. And if someone doesn’t irritate sinners with the Christian god’s power, then those sinners might not ever get convicted of their great sinfulness, because there’s just no other way for the all-powerful Christian god to reach that person without some Christian being an asshole at them.
So if non-Christians object for any reason to Christian assholery, then obviously that’s all the reason those Christians need to be even bigger assholes at them. They’re getting to those non-believers, clearly, and even in my day Christian mythology was filled with stories of non-believers who didn’t convert until some Christian was a sufficient enough asshole at them to “convict” them of their sin. And if non-believers seem stung, well, that’s just the salt doing its job to disinfect our wounds–which is proof of divine cleaning action! IT’S A MEERKUL Y’ALL!
But there’s a greater good at hand than just an individual’s own personal salvation, though. Obviously Christians have to be irritating, because salt is supposed to irritate. Without salt, one of the linked word-salad sermons flat-out stated, America would fall into total chaos, moral decay, and “moral foulness” because Christians Are Totally Important Forever To America’s Continued Existence And Well-Being as a Great Nation. [Citation needed.] So by being deliberately irritating to non-believers, Christians are keeping America from becoming a hellhole dystopia, because their god sure won’t help out unless they do their part. And that’s not even a little bit arrogant.
If this whole attitude reminds you of kindergarten-school courtship rituals, you’re certainly not alone in that impression. And if you noticed that being assholes at people isn’t even close to providing solid evidence for Christians’ ludicrous supernatural claims, but rather a form of childish emotional manipulation, on par with double-death-dog-daring people to watch a YouTube sermon, then you ain’t alone there either.
It’s hard to escape the impression, based on everything I’ve seen about how evangelical Christians actually use the term “salt” in describing themselves, that this concept is simply the trendy new way they’ve devised to give themselves permission to be assholes and to grandstand their faith around people who are increasingly getting sick of having religious penises waved in their faces–and to ignore us when we try to tell them that we don’t really want their religious penises waving in our faces.
That’s the real key right there. Not only do these Christians want permission to behave in a way that can only be described as overreach, but they want permission to override our rejection of their overreach. In this worldview, we don’t know what’s best for ourselves; we need their “salt” poured into our wounds whether we ask for it or not, whether we like it or not. Even if we reject it, we’re just dummies who don’t know we need salt even though we totally do. Our rejection is often itself interpreted as an implicit request for more of the same treatment. And that isn’t even a little bit creepy.
Their conceptualization of being “light” has a whole other use, though, one we’ll discuss soon. See you Tuesday!