One day last summer, I climbed a mountain. It was a lovely day – if anything a little too hot – and I enjoyed some gorge scrambling, stunning views, and the sense of challenge fulfilled as I reached the top. I sat down to eat my lunch as I admired the view. I was disturbed by only one other person during my break. Yet under a mile away, on a very similar peak, I could see crowds of people. They were coming and going all the time. At one point I tried to count up through my binoculars: there were at least 25 people on the summit at that moment.
The two peaks were very similar: equally accessible, equally scenic, and with similar views. In some respects, the mountain I was on was more impressive than the other. So why should there be such a huge preference for the other, of two virtually equal alternatives? The reason is very simple: that one is the highest peak in England (Scafell Pike); mine was merely the second highest (Scafell).
So this set me thinking. Superlatives are incredibly alluring, aren’t they?
I thought about how often they crop up in advertising: newest, fastest, biggest, most powerful. The Christian world is no exception. I have come across churches and other organisations self-describing as the largest, fastest growing, most innovative, oldest, newest.
I wonder what kind of effects this culture has and what are the implications of following it? In the Lake District that is very clear: some fells suffer serious erosion from very high volumes of visitors. What analogous ‘damage’ might result in social or spiritual terms if we succumb to the allure of the superlative? I don’t have any clear idea – and I don’t want to make suggestions in case they sound like accusations – but it seems to me a question well worth pondering.
Two biblical principles come to mind as I reflect on this matter. The first is the way that God consistently subverts the allure of the superlative. The blessing of the first-born passes from Esau to Jacob. The election of Israel was not because they were the largest but because they were the fewest (Deut. 7:7, using the opposite superlative in deconstruction of the allure). Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful, became powerless and pitiful (Dan. 4:28-33).
So God does not unduly value the superlative. Instead, God’s ways are the ways of grace: unmerited favour, value that is freely bestowed in reckless and even unfair ways.
Which leads to my second reflection which is the blessedness of contentment. ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1Tim. 6:6). The antidote to the allure of the superlative is satisfaction with the present. Perhaps it is discontentment that pushes us towards the superlatives. It is entirely natural to want to feel ‘valued’ or ‘special’. The superlative can have its allure because it provides a rationale for that value. In other words, perhaps a desire to identify with (or as) a superlative is effectively a yearning for value, a comfort blanket of reassurance that there is a reason why we are special to God (or anyone else).
Part of the prompting to write this now is the very unusual circumstances we are in. Many churches are doing something radically new during lockdown and no doubt that will be a gateway to different patterns of ‘being church’ when restrictions are lifted. I wonder whether this will create a context where there is a temptation to want to ‘keep up with the (St.) Joneses’. The allure of the superlative plays right into the hands of such temptation.
So here’s to a celebration of everyone and everything that is typical, normal, average, also-ran, middle-of-the-road. This is a good place to be. Superlatives be darned.