Hi all! Last time we talked about the first part of a new Christianese metaphor making the rounds, “salt and light.” We focused on the “salt” part of the metaphor last time, so today we’ll be looking at the “light” part. The term “light” has long been something Christians claim ownership of in the context of seeing themselves as the shining lamps that light up the dark world. We’re going to talk about the term itself, how I used to see it discussed, and how I see it changing in usage today.
I’m at that age when the idea of someone being “light” reminds me of the 1977 Debby Boone single, “You Light Up My Life.” In the song, the singer repeatedly tells an unknown person about his importance:
And you light up my life,
You give me hope to carry on.
You light up my days
And fill my nights with song.
Though the “nights” reference sounds a little lurid, I wasn’t under any illusions even in the 1980s that the song was anything but religious in meaning–which Ms. Boone herself freely admitted. You couldn’t turn the radio dial from one end to the other without hearing this rather codependent little ditty at the time, though now it routinely lands on “worst ever” lists like this one and it’s got a somewhat tainted reputation because the guy who wrote the lyrics turned out to be an alleged casting-couch rapist; he killed himself in 2011 while awaiting trial on 91 counts of various sex crimes.
When I became Christian in the mid-to-late-1980s, the song still had quite a bit of cultural cachet, so I heard it often. I saw Jesus very much in the way the singer did: as a being who brought light to my life and gave me hope. It was one of the two “light” songs I saw as being well-suited to my view of Christianity, with the other being “You Are My Sunshine”, which my grandfather used to sing to me all the time when I was a very small child. One needn’t head into secular pop music to find such references; my own time in Christianity was punctuated constantly by puns on “son-light” and whatnot. It was a popular idea, though I got really uncomfortable about repeating those puns once I found out how similar Christianity was to its contemporary rival, the Roman sun-god cult of Mithras, during its earliest days.
But Christians don’t actually own the term “light.”
In the non-religious world, most of us are familiar with the idea of light-bulb moments when someone suddenly realizes something, “brightness” as a measurement of intelligence (and “dimness” as a measure of the opposite!), seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” when we suddenly feel a “ray” of hope in a bad situation, feeling “in the dark” when we don’t know something, and “shedding light” on a matter when we do. There’s even a small Brights movement of secular humanists and atheists. This etymology dictionary puts the origin of the very word “bright” as we understand the term today as quite ancient–linking it all the way back to Sanskrit. Obviously humanity’s had the idea of brightness as a mental and emotional quality since long before Christianity was even a “glimmer” in some anonymous 1st-century writer’s mind.
And, too, most of us have heard of the Allegory of the Cave, which was given to us by Plato, who was describing something he says Socrates said. The allegory describes most of humanity as a group of people trapped in a dark cave lit only by a fire, unable to see anything but the back wall of the cave. In this cave, the trapped people can only look toward that back wall, and so can only see the shadows cast on that cave wall by stuff moving around behind them. Sometimes, Plato taught, someone escapes the cave and wanders out into the light to see how things really look, and that’s what happens when someone finds real knowledge. Many ex-Christians describe their lives after deconversion in terms of this allegory, including me; we realize that the version of reality we were operating under wasn’t reality at all, and things actually look very different to us now that we’ve come to understand that Christianity’s truth claims aren’t objectively true after all. (I’ve decided we’re going to do a post soon about those specific claims because I’ve been hearing about this topic a lot lately.)
Light corresponds in philosophies and religion alike to knowledge, wisdom, hope, enlightenment, and understanding–while darkness and shadow mean the complete opposite of all of these.
Ancient human groups probably didn’t find it difficult at all to extend the idea of light and darkness to the spiritual world.
Nowadays we take light for granted–but even until our recent past light was a commodity. If the sun wasn’t shining or there wasn’t a lot of moonlight, we had to create light artificially through fire. And that itself could be a huge production–and even a small one can make a huge difference. That’s why movements like “A Liter of Light” help so much to elevate poor people who either can’t afford artificial light or have to make unreasonable sacrifices to get it.
In the dark, by contrast, humans can’t see too well. We can trip and hurt ourselves, or run into obstacles that could even kill us. We can’t find or hunt food very well, nor protect ourselves from harmful people or animals. Under cover of darkness, we find it much easier to do things that are otherwise forbidden. It’s no wonder that the fear of the dark is very common, especially in children.
So no, we shouldn’t be shocked to notice the term “light” used in exactly the same way Christians use it in these various Hindu blessings and prayers. In Buddhism, the same strange thing happens. And in Islam, too. And many of these religions predate Christianity.
You can find references to “light” in every single religion and philosophy there is, even rather eclectic ones–and in the heretical offshoots of Christianity itself, like Gnosticism. Like miracles, divine visitations, virgin births to mortal mothers, magical healing, and funny hats, there really aren’t any elements in Christianity that aren’t present to some extent in most if not all other religions. But in Christianity we find a near-fetish for darkness and light imagery.
Christians claim–vociferously–that their light is the only real light. Other light is really a darkness that will send non-believers straight to a fiery Hell forever to be tortured eternally by Christians’ loving god. Darkness is directly equated with evil, sin, and even ignorance, while Christians who even hint that maybe the current fundagelical obsession with light is misplaced face some serious pushback from the rest of the tribe. As just one sample of that pushback, see the comments that result when one of them tries to say anything like this. We’re not supposed to mention that in their mythology, their god made the darkness, so if he’s perfectly good then it seems odd that evil fruit could come from a good tree. No, instead the marching-song plays on and on, inciting Christians to loathing and hatred for the very darkness they think their god created.
One “fuming” Christian writer declares that “the state’s latest attack on Christianity” (which in this case turns out to be the removal of an illegally-placed religious monument on taxpayer-funded land) reminds TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like himself to “be most aware in the hours of darkness,” “just like in combat.” It’s not hard to find other blog posts (like this one suggested by a commenter on the last post) wherein Christians openly compare their religious faith to the light, and then declare that everything else–no matter what, no matter how ethical, no matter how kind–equates to darkness.
Christians can’t actually know for sure that their religious claims constitute “light,” much less the only real light there is, much less how to figure out which one is which.
One pastor has a surefire way to tell which Christians are part of the Light Brigade and which ones are actually false light: they should be “be rooted in God’s Word,” which means they should read the Bible like he does and then interpret it the way he does. I thought exactly the same thing when I was a Christian and so did everyone I knew, but you’ll still find Christians declaring this idea as if they’re the first ones who ever thought of it and they’re just astonished that nobody came up with it before then. The problem, of course, is that of the 40,000+ denominations of Christianity currently out there (not counting all the quirky idiosyncratic interpretations and the pick-and-choose way most Christians use to create their ideology, or all the long-gone denominations!), many other Christians will read the same Bible this pastor is reading and manage to come to a very different understanding of what it means than he did. And most of them will be just as convinced as he is that they are right, which means he is wrong, and they’ll make their case using almost exactly the same arguments he does and using the same book–often the exact same verses!
I ran into this same exact illogic when I was Christian. It’s very circular, and the only way whatsoever someone can buy into the reasoning is by assuming that the Bible is not only authoritative but divinely-authored/inspired by no less than a god–and moreover that there actually could be one perfect, correct way to interpret that mishmash of a book. This completely unverified assumption, plus a hefty dose of confirmation bias and subjective feelings of euphoria and catharsis, leads Christians to the conclusion that their reasoning is correct.
Almost every single fervent Christian out there thinks that the Bible is fairly easy to understand and that there’s only one perfect way that anybody could ever interpret it, and almost every single one of those Christians believes that he or she has figured out what that way is. If someone comes up with a different interpretation of a particular verse or myth, then obviously that person is incorrect and has come upon a misreading borne of a desire to sin or innocent error, one that is likely send that Christian straight to Hell. That “rooted in God’s Word” Christian above is convinced that his particular version of the religion is filled with life, though he doesn’t define the term or tell us how to know if something has “life” or not in it, and he knows it’s the right religion because all other religions (and one assumes denominations that interpret the Bible differently than he does) are “lifeless.” Yes, he goes on to insist, “man-made religions are lifeless; there’s no spiritual life in them.” His religion, however, isn’t man-made, he is sure. And he knows it because he perceives that it has “life,” whatever that is, and conforms to his personal interpretation of the Bible, so it’s not false light. It’s real light. And he knows this because he perceives “life” within it. One must wonder how many people he’s ever met who weren’t Christian, too, because I know lots of folks in a variety of religions and philosophies who appear to have both “life” and “light.”
Christians are supposed to be the light of the world, which means they are to light the darkness they are taught exists everywhere else in the universe except within their own lives. That’s incredibly arrogant–not to mention insulting to the good people who exist in all faiths (and those who have no faith in any supernatural claims at all).
That is why, when someone suggests that Christians be less obnoxious and ostentatious about grandstanding their faith around other people, other Christians will viciously attack that person for suggesting that Christians “hide their light under a basket.” I’ve seen these attacks range from pushback in comments like those I linked you to earlier all the way to physical threats of brutal violence. Very, uh, light-filled, isn’t it?
Indeed, that exact use of the term is the rather more sinister definition of “light” gaining ground with fundagelicals.
I was surprised when I saw how popular the term “salt and light” was because it used the word “light” in a slightly different way than I was used to seeing. I’d always taken it to mean showing people what a wonderful change a person experienced in life as a result of conversion (“speaking truth to power,” aka faking it till one makes it). But I have lately begun to perceive that Christians are using the term to mean pushing themselves at others in a non-consensual way–and wrangling control of governments if need be to push their religious agenda.
For every Christian emphatically declaring that shining their “light” does not in any way involve controlling other people, many others can be found saying the opposite. One Christian site advises that Christians must get involved in government–“not to force their morals onto society as a whole, but to advocate for justice, show respect for life, and support the powerless,” but the way the piece goes onto explain exactly how to go about doing those things sure sounds a hell of a lot like “forc[ing] their morals onto society as a whole.” It’s not hard to find other sites and advice just like that–like this essay purporting to show fundagelical Christian teachers how to “shin[e] His light in a dark place”, with the “dark place” being public schools, of course, and the way to “shine His light” being, of course, to find innovative ways to sneak Christian indoctrination into whatever subject is taught. Or this bizarre document declaring in one breath that its author doesn’t want a “Christian theocracy” before going on to insist that America is best understood as a Christian theocracy whose citizens are called upon to be “salt and light” to non-believers by entrenching their religious privilege into theocratic law. The doublespeak in these writings will give you whiplash if you’re not careful.
Back in my day, “shining one’s light” was understood as a fairly passive activity; it was something that just happened if one was living according to Christian virtues and values; we talked about the idea in terms of how a candle burns and naturally gives off light as a result. A candle couldn’t burn without giving off light, and in that same way, shining the light of Jesus wasn’t something that a Christian could help doing–it was simply part of living as a Christian. But now the term is starting to sound more militant, more martial, more insistent–and way more actively controlling of others.
Here’s a possible reason for why this shift is happening:
Christians have started figuring out that prayer doesn’t work to convert people and neither does waiting around for people to notice how much “light” they’re shining. Part of the problem is that most Christians aren’t actually living in loving or charitable ways. It’s hard for Christians to claim that they have a stranglehold on light when Christians themselves are doing so much to destroy that idea, in large part due to their own misunderstanding about what love is in the first place.
But the other part of the problem is that the Christian claim to superior morality (or “life,” as that pastor arrogantly put it) is weakened by the simple fact that more and more people who don’t believe in the Christian god at all are turning out to be wonderful people. Society as a whole is starting to notice that one’s spiritual label doesn’t seem to have much at all to do with one’s morality, virtue, goodness, kindness, or charitable giving–or seem to stop someone from being a truly loathsome or horrifyingly evil person. As I wrote a couple of years ago, someone’s as likely to ask if a loving and kind person is a vegetarian as to think he or she is a Christian!
Worse, Christians are quickly losing every bit of control they once had over governments and cultures alike. If their god isn’t going to get on the stick and do something, then they’ll simply have to handle things themselves.
This shift from Christians passively wanting others to notice their “light” to shoving their “light” into other people’s faces whether they like it or not is a subtle one worth noticing. The growing push on fundagelicals’ part to involve themselves in government and enshrine their privilege into law, as well, has a distinct whiff of desperation to it–as if they’re trying to get this goal accomplished before they lose the power to do it at all. And their willingness to sneak around and force themselves on others is a big sign of the coming end of their power. Oh, it might take a while yet to happen, but it will, friends. Christians themselves are ensuring that eventuality better than non-believers ever could.
And that’s something we can be very thankful for, this Thanksgiving week.
We’ll be taking a time-out to talk about cats and food on Thursday. If you need a little detoxing, feel free to join us! Bring your favorite recipes (and more animal pictures–I seriously loved those last time we did a FULL KITTEN UPDATE) if you like! 🙂 See you soon.