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 advised.
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.