When Salt Loses Its Savor

The Bible tells us to be like salt in the world. But the New York Times, not to mention local, state, and federal governments, now tell us that salt is killing us, and we have to cut it out. Who’s right?

Well, both and therein lies a tale of a simple substance and human perversity. Man has both made war for salt and now makes war on salt.

Salt is one of the necessities of life. The body uses salt to balance fluids. Without salt we die. Before refrigeration, salt was one of the main methods for meat preservation. It was likely in the preservation process that we noticed that salt improved the taste of food. It was also used to disinfect wounds and even as a unit of currency.

Salt used to be very hard to get. Kings and commoners lusted after it. The Hapsburgs used salt to raise money for armies. For a time, the Venetians made a killing by cornering the salt market – and went to war over it. And as recently as the late nineteenth century a salt war pitted Texans against Mexicans. But now it’s so common that we barely notice it, except when we think we’re getting too much of it.

So how are we to understand the biblical admonitions about salt today? Salt is mentioned in Genesis, Leviticus, Ezekiel, Exodus, Numbers, Second Chronicles, the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah, Judges, Matthew, Luke, Mark, and Colossians. We are told to be the salt of the earth, and that if salt loses its saltiness, it’s good for nothing.

Thomas Keller, arguably America’s greatest chef, runs two of the finest restaurants in America: Per Se and the French Laundry (located respectively in New York City and Yountville, California). Keller was once asked about the chef’s most important skill. He said, “Knowing how to season. Actually, knowing how to salt.”

Professional chefs such as Keller season before, multiple times during, and even after cooking. Keller boils green beans in water so salty it takes like soup. He cooks pasta that way, too. Professional chefs are not afraid of salt, and each use of salt imparts something different through the process, giving food what they call “depth of flavor.” As those of us who cook know, consistent and proper seasoning is what makes food what it’s supposed to be, and in the final tasting even gives glory to God.

But there’s also a lesson in the fact that thousands of people are dying from hypertension brought on in part by too much salt. This is due almost exclusively because men feed from over-salted processed food and from fast-food that is drenched in salt. Salt imparts flavor to largely flavorless foodstuffs that come in boxes and packages. Processed and fast-food have turned salt from our friend to our enemy.

When the Bible says we should be salt, it means we should be more like Thomas Keller and less than like that bag of chips. As with so much else, modern man has lost the easy understanding of Jesus’ parables. We don’t relate to them. Shepherding. Milling. Salting. Keller and other chefs could read Luke and get – instantly – what Jesus was teaching about salt.

He would know that we should be salt to the world in precisely the same way salt should be used in our food, not as something that overpowers and tries to substitute for another reality, but in a background way that brings out the essential nature in the people we meet.

The purpose of salt is not to make things taste salty. The purpose of salt is to make food taste more like itself; steak more beefy, green beans more green-beany, that is to say, more like themselves. The purpose of Christianity is to make man more himself, that is, to reconcile himself and others to God and to become what we were when we were made in his image and likeness. A man that has missed the seasoning of Christ, seasoning that can only come in the first instance from other Christians, is quite frankly not himself. He has lost his connection to his essential humanity, his image and likeness to God Himself.

But Christianity can be over seasoned, too salty, and then can repel. We are all too familiar today with myriad aggressive Christians. Think of certain television preachers. Too much salt. That is not to say there are not times for bold public proclamations of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but even this should be used judiciously.

And just as a Thomas Keller seasons dishes throughout the cooking process, our Christianity cannot just be reserved for Sundays or holidays, or in cravings or bursts of inspiration. It has to be with us constantly, all the way through our lives. And we as Christians must not only properly season those around us but we must be properly seasoned ourselves. We must be tasty, if you’ll forgive the expression, to those we meet so that when we are encountered they find us pleasing and want more.

Most of our Christian seasoning should pass almost unnoticed. It should always be present, elevating the essential and proper humanity of those we meet. Certainly we should always be prepared to explain the reason for our joy. But in the end, Jesus said we should be known by our love for one another – and not for our mere saltiness.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.