Blessed Are the Outliers

Our lives in the modern west are greatly affected by statistics. Everything from medical research to political polling relies on statistical analysis. (I’m sure there’s a statistic out there somewhere to prove it.)

One of the realities of statistical analysis is something known as an “outlier.” An outlier is a data point, a recorded observation, that sits outside the mainstream of data. It’s an oddity, an anomaly.

This has nothing to do with coffee.

Say, for example, you’re conducting a poll to see what time of day people in your neighbourhood drink their coffee. Your survey gets 100 responses from coffee drinkers: 52 in the early morning, 28 in the mid-afternoon, 19 in evening after dinner—and 1 in the middle of the night, at 3 a.m. That one data point, that 3 a.m. coffee, is an outlier—it’s outside the mainstream.

What do you do with this outlier?

You might decide that the person probably made a mistake, incorrectly indicating “a.m.” instead of “p.m.” in their response. In that case, you determine the outlier doesn’t reflect reality, and you set it aside (though you might, in your head, include it among the mid-afternoon coffee drinkers).

Or, you might decide that there really is a person who likes a cup of coffee at 3 a.m., but that datum is still statistically irrelevant—it doesn’t reflect the norm. That’s especially helpful if you’re using this poll to start a coffee delivery business—there’s no way you’re getting up at 3 a.m. to bring a coffee to this one person (that is, if they even exist).

But let’s say you expand this research beyond your neighbourhood. The larger your data set, the more varied the responses—and the more outliers you’ll find. While the largest numbers might still clump together around early morning, mid-afternoon, and after dinner, you’d probably discover that there are people drinking coffee at all hours of the day. You might even discover that there is a coterie of 3 a.m. coffee drinkers you’d never considered—night shift workers needing that jolt of caffeine to keep going, perhaps.

This is another reality of statistical analysis: in order for data to be useful, it often needs to be aggregated, lumped together into larger, identifiable groups. It’s not all that useful in politics or marketing, for example, to focus on the individual or the outlier. Whether you’re selling legislation or LEGO, it’s the mainstream, the norm, the aggregate groups, that really matter.

Unfortunately, however, many Christians have bought into this notion, that “it’s the mainstream, the norm, the aggregate groups, that really matter.” I say “unfortunately” because that’s not the way of Jesus.

Jesus taught that God was the kind of shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to go searching for the one, wounded, lost sheep. He taught that in God’s economy the last one was just as important as the first. He held up the very least among us—the forgotten poor, the irrelevant outsider—as the one in whom we could see his reflection. Time after time he engaged the individual where they were at—a Samaritan woman, a Roman centurion, a Jewish leper, a man blind from birth, a high-ranking Pharisee, a rich young ruler, a “sinful woman”—their proximity to the aggregate norm irrelevant.

In other words, Jesus saw not just those who fit the norm. He saw the oddities, the anomalies, the statistically irrelevant.

Jesus saw the outliers—and loved them.

This isn’t the way many people think. It’s not the way many Christians think. We often determine the “norm”—both what’s “typical” and what’s “right”—based on aggregate data, and then we either ignore or dismiss all deviations from the norm, all those oddities or anomalies, all those outliers.

Take current debates over sexuality, for example.

We rightly determine that most people are born either biologically male or biologically female—but then we decide this means there are only biologically male or biologically female people. We either remain ignorant (willfully?) of the very existence of intersex persons or we dismiss them as anomalies, the result of sin affecting human genes.

Read this book.

But nothing can change the simple fact that somewhere around 15 out of every 1000 people are born neither fully or exclusively “male” nor fully or exclusively “female,” whether that’s hidden in their DNA or internal sex organs, or that’s obvious from external genitalia. And nothing can change the fact that each one of these persons is created in God’s image, and that they, too, are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.

Or, we correctly ascertain that most people are other-sex oriented, that most biologically male humans are sexually attracted to biologically female humans and vice versa—but then we decide this means other sexual orientations are unnatural and willful, even if the person never acts on that attraction. We either pretend gay Christians don’t exist or we dismiss them as anomalies, the result of sin affecting human desires.

But nothing can change the simple fact that through history and across cultures there has always been a small percentage of people, roughly 5% of any given human population, who are same- or bi-sex attracted. Nothing can change the fact that none of us, gay or straight, chooses our sexual orientation. And nothing can change the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians do indeed exist—experiencing same-sex attraction, some choosing celibacy and others not, but all also experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives, shaping them toward Christlikeness.

This is just one example of the way Christians buy into the dominant cultural narrative of “natural normativity.” In this narrative there are observable norms in nature or society (what’s “typical”) that reflect God’s norms (what’s “right”). These norms can be determined by simple observation, even by statistical analysis, by aggregating the observed data into identifiable groups, even at times clear binaries. These norms of nature or society are then to be defended or even demanded as God’s clear will. All kinds of social distinctions, based on ethnicity, wealth, gender, class, and more, have been justified through human history by this narrative of “natural normativity.” (Did you know Aristotle believed some people were “slaves by nature”?)

As Christians we should be wary of this. Too often these norms don’t reflect real biblical values, let alone actual Christian values based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often they merely reflect some idealized utopia a generation or two back, when everything was good and everyone was godly—even though that utopia never really existed. Too often these norms only reflect the power structures of a particular society—they’re good for the many, but not for the few, or they’re good for the powerful few, but not for the powerless many.

In so many ways in his own day, Jesus broke through the norms of nature and society, including those that were attributed to God. “Righteous” and “sinners,” men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor—in each of these categories and more Jesus looked past the aggregate groups and engaged with individuals. Provocatively, even scandalously, Jesus went looking for the oddities, the anomalies, the outliers, and brought them into God’s flourishing life of holy love.

How about us as followers of this Jesus? Are we willing to look past the aggregate statistics to the individual person? Are we willing to engage each person regardless of how they fit with the “norm,” and see in them the image of God and the person of Jesus, and share the feast of God’s life and love together with them?

Blessed are the outliers, you might even say, for theirs is the kingdom of God.