Tell It Slant, VII: The Pathology of Superiority
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. —Luke 18:14
I'm going to give you a little, one-question, multiple-choice quiz: Who said this? “Eventually, you realize that there are no answers, just stories.” Was it (A) Jesus of Nazareth, or (B) Garrison Keillor? “Eventually, you realize that there are no answers, just stories.”
Garrison Keillor said that. Maybe the greatest American storyteller since—who? John Cheever? Flannery O’Connor? Mark Twain?
Mr. Keillor gave his final rendition of News from Lake Wobegon a couple of weeks ago, after 42 years, or probably almost 2,000 monologues. President Obama called him in the middle of the last Prairie Home Companion Show to thank him for telling the story of small-town America. “You always made me feel more human,” said the President.
“Eventually you realize that there are no answers, just stories.” Garrison Keillor said that, but Jesus might have, right? Maybe Jesus wouldn’t say there are no answers, but he might say that what answers there are, are story-shaped. Jesus preached a few sermons in his day, but mostly he told stories. That’s because he loved us.
Two men go into the Church to pray. One is a Presbyterian minister—senior pastor at an important church at a prominent intersection in a prestigious town. He works in the soup kitchen on his day off, he’s on the board at Habitat for Humanity, he does all kinds of good things for the community, good father, good husband, donates money to the SPCA and the Salvation Army, never kicks the dog, coaches Little League, recycles his newspapers.
The other is…well, pick your bad guy—Bernie Madoff, Tony Soprano, the baseball coach who absconds to Las Vegas with all the Little League money, the guy in your neighborhood who stamps out fake ID’s for 17-year-olds.
That’s what a tax collector was to Jesus’ original audience—a first-century symbol for everything that was ignoble, dishonest, and greedy. Jesus’ audience would have cringed in revulsion just hearing the phrase.
Anyway, the minister stands up in middle of the chancel, puffs out his chest, spreads out his arms to embrace his Maker, and immediately begins taking inventory of his virtues. He says, “God, thank you, thank you, thank you, that I am not like other people—thieves, rogues, the guy in my congregation who is cheating on his wife, or even like that dirty ex-con kneeling there in the back pew like a dog. I pray, I fast, I tithe, I serve on boards, I feed the hungry. Ain’t I to die for?”
Meanwhile, the ex-con is saying, “God, I beg you, I beg you, please, please, please, be merciful to me, a low-down, god-forsaken, dirty shame of a human being. Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And then Jesus lunges forward with the rapier point of his keen, unusual anthropology, and punctures every inflated ego within earshot: “I tell you,” says Jesus, “I tell you, this mafioso guy, not the other one, but this mafioso, he went down to his house righteous in the eyes of God. For anyone who thinks he is so holy he might ascend any moment to the right hand of God is really just wallowing in the mud, and anyone who thinks he is wallowing in the mud, that one is really with God.”
Has anyone come across this eccentric little novel by Mark Haddon called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time? The protagonist and narrator is a teenager who is both autistic and a mathematical genius. He introduces himself on page 2: “My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057.”
In an instant Christopher can give you the correct product of a five-digit number multiplied by a three-digit number. But Christopher’s brain, rigid and incapable of social nuance, is utterly baffled by normal human commerce and courtesies. He says, “I find people confusing. One reason is that people do a lot of talking without using any words. For instance, if you raise one eye-brow it might mean ‘I want to do sex with you,’ and it can also mean ‘I think what you just said was very stupid.’” He can tell neither jokes nor lies and refuses to be touched.
We used to call such folk ‘idiot savants,’ but, now, more compassionately, just ‘savants,’ from the French verb savior, ‘to know.’ Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man from the great film was one. Remember how swiftly he can count objects, any objects, matchsticks spilled on the floor or cards from a Las Vegas blackjack deck? So damaged in so many ways, and yet so superior in others.
Two Harvard neurologists studying such savants have come up with what I think is a provocative phrase: the pathology of superiority. Christopher Boone’s mathematical mind is so sharp and so rigid and so superior it’s pathological. Christopher Boone, the fictional savant, has nothing to do with the point of my sermon today. I just liked that provocative phrase The Pathology of Superiority.
We all know about an Inferiority Complex, but do you know anyone who has a Superiority Complex. His only prayer—and I choose the gender of my pronoun intentionally—his only prayer is, “God, I thank you that I am not like everybody else.” Do you know anybody with a Superiority Complex? And how are you finding this experience?
I went into a coffee shop one Halloween and all the baristi were in costume. The young woman who took my order was covered in sponges—head to head, wearing sponges. I asked her “Are you Sponge Bob Square Pants?” And she said, “No, I’m self-absorbed.” You know anyone who goes through life covered in sponges? How is that experience working out for you?
Jesus gets his point across about what is wrong with the Pharisee by adding an often-overlooked detail to his story. Notice how Jesus puts it: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, began to pray.” “Standing by himself,” says Jesus. He separates himself from his brothers and sisters. He is standing—standing on his dignity, standing on his righteousness, with carriage erect to look God straight in the eye. And he is alone—by himself, pointing fingers at the low-down thronging legion of sinners. He is not one of them. He is alone in his moral rectitude.
The Pathology of Superiority. Or, to tip the expression slightly, The Pathology of Certainty. The Pathology of Feeling Closer to God than to Your Fellow Human Beings.
What’s the word from the Lord? This story is about clueless self-righteousness, and perhaps the quintessence of self-righteousness is the Islamic State. A couple of years ago, an Islamic State cleric told his minions, “If you cannot find a bomb or a bullet, single out the disbelieving American or Frenchman and smash his head with a brick, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”
The whole world seems so unsafe right now, close to home and far away. Western democracy seems infected from within and embattled from without. Internally, America weakens and fevers from the virus of racism; externally, there are all these sick, crazy fanatics who take one look at the Statue of Liberty and they just want to throw up. Or they hear the battle cry of Bastille Day—“Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! Freedom! Equality! Friendship!—and it makes them seethe with rage.
What’s a word from the Lord? Let me suggest three things. I’ll be quick. Three things:
(1) Resolve: we will refuse to stoop to their level, right? We will keep shouting “Freedom! Equality! Friendship!” We will defend ourselves, but we will never repay evil with evil. Because we are Christians, and we have this sacred Scripture which tells the story of this carpenter from Nazareth who trusted in the power of love rather than in the love of power. We don’t know what your story tells you, but we know what our story tells us.
And we’re not only Christian, we’re also American, and America has her sacred scripture too. It’s called the Constitution, and it may not be the very word of the Lord, but it’s pretty close, and we will not abandon it. So we will resolve to be as unlike our antagonists as it is possible to be.
(2) Perspective: To put it simply, it’s not as bad as it looks. We’ve been here before, and we’ve always survived.
We were having dinner with friends the other night, and got to talking about all this awful stuff—gun deaths in Chicago; race relations in America; terrorism in Europe; coups in Turkey. We’re all in our 50’s so we were born around 1960, and somebody asked, “Is the world as dangerous as it’s been in our lifetime?”
It was a good question—some dissent, some affirmation around the table. But as I thought about it overnight, I came to the conclusion that no, the world is much safer and the world is much fairer than it had been in earlier years.
Do you remember Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967? Do you remember April 4, 1968? We’re worried about the Convention in Cleveland, but do you remember the Convention in Chicago in 1968? Do you remember Vietnam? Do you remember the Cold War, the terror of detente?
President Obama, who knows from racism, even said that black Americans and white Americans and blue Americans are not as divided as the media sometimes make us think. We love each other more than we can know, and we all want the other to flourish, and to be happy, and to grow old enough to see grandchildren give birth to great-grandchildren.
(3) Faith: Sometimes, that’s all we’ve got to oppose the rage that is arrayed against us. Faith that the world is cradled in hands more loving and powerful than the rage of malice, held in the embrace of a wisdom and love that are greater than our own.
I wish I had better answers to the puzzles that bedevil us. But eventually, you realize that there are no answers, just stories. The stories are complicated and labyrinthine; the stories descend into the shadows of Sheol. They’re terrifying. Innocents die. Freedom, Equality, and Friendship are threatened. Children are mowed down by a serviceable lorry.
Still, still, all our little stories are swallowed up into the greater story of a God who loves us and wills our flourishing. As Martin Luther King put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward the light.”
There are no answers, just stories. And while there are times when it does not look like it, this is God’s story, and it will have a happy ending.
 Slightly adapted from Garrison Keillor, Pontoon (New York: Viking, 2007), quoted by Dwight Garner, “Garrison Keillor Turns Out the Lights on Lake Wobegon,” The New York Times, July 3, 2016.
 Quoted by Garner, ibid.
 Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pp. 2, 14-15. Quotes are slightly adapted for my own purposes.
 Actually, I’m lying. This never happened. I stole it from Scott Piper, in Reader’s Digest, October, 2004, p. 131.
 Quoted by and slightly adapted from Rukmini Callimachi, “In Truck Attack in Nice, Mainstay of Commerce Reinvented as Tool of Death,” The New York Times, July 16, 2016.