Martin Saunders enters the enigmatic world of Malcolm Gladwell, and discovers a man returning unexpectedly not just to the Bible, but also to his Christian roots.
The biggest non-fiction book of the year opens with a Bible verse, and takes its title from one of the Old Testament’s most iconic stories. It’s also littered with references to and from scripture, and in the process of writing it, the author has begun to rediscover his own Christian faith. In the context of the post-Christian culture into which it has been published, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath is an extraordinary book.
Gladwell is one of the world’s leading popular thinkers. A big-haired, wiry Canadian of Anglo-Jamaican descent, his day job as a staff writer on The New Yorker is overshadowed by his fame, success and influence as an author. His books, most notably including The Tipping Point, focus on unexpected findings in social science and not only make them accessible for the average reader, but also weave them skilfully into patterns and rules. In each of his four original volumes, Gladwell takes one surprising big idea, and then tries to prove his own emergent theory around it.
The latest of these is David and Goliath, subtitled ‘Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants’. Here the ‘big idea’ is around our perception of advantages and disadvantages, and how we frequently misread both. Gladwell argues that while our culture is fascinated by clashes between giants and underdogs, we are only continually surprised by their outcomes because we have misunderstood the nature of strength and weakness.
On his recent speaking tour to the UK he spoke much like he writes, weaving together the story of Alva Belmont (formerly Alva Vanderbilt) ‐ for a time the wife of the one of the wealthiest men in the US in the 19th century ‐ with a discussion of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
One narrative charted the manoeuvrings of an ambitious and capable woman who shifted from social mediocrity, to a life of total extravagance, to eventually become one of the foremost voices for women’s suffrage in North America.
The other concentrated on one night in July 1970 when an army of women marched arm in arm into the town of Lower Falls to face the guns of the British Army enforcing a curfew in a Catholic community.
Gladwell’s style is to find statistical anomalies, and then prove them through storytelling
Though the link may sound tenuous, the point drawn from each was that where legitimacy flounders, the radicals rise.
His storytelling was enigmatic and engaging ‐ leaving one train of thought adrift while turning to the other. He repeatedly invertedthe audience’s perspective ‐ at one point reflecting the disdain of the establishment, and at others invoking sympathy with the rebels.
So where does the Bible fit in to his latest book? In an opening section of which a theological scholar would be proud, Gladwell turns the tables on the classic interpretation of the shepherd boy’s battle with the Philistine giant, gradually proving his theory that David actually went into the fight as the favourite. Goliath, he argues, could only have defeated David if he’d dictated the terms of the fight. ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air’ (NKJV) he shouts in 1 Samuel 17:44, in what we’ve probably all dismissed as an arrogant war cry. But what if it was more than that, asks Gladwell? What if Goliath, slow,encased in heavy armour and perhaps even suffering from poor eyesight linked to his freakish size, needed David to come to him in order to engage him in combat? And in that context, as the boy expertly trained to kill lions and bears with a slung projectile wound back his arm a safe distance away, surely there was only ever going to be one winner?
This is exactly the sort of surprising ‐ yet, once explained, intuitive ‐ revelation on which Gladwell has built his career. Like its predecessors, his new book is layered with statistical quirks and story twists, as the author crafts a compelling and ambitious argument designed to challenge and even change the reader’s view of the world.
For example, most of us would agree that smaller school class sizes represent an advantage for the children placed in them. Gladwell argues that this isn’t true. Similarly, we’d probably all see someone’s acceptance at Oxford or Cambridge as placing them at a great advantage and even privilege over their peers, but the research used in the book suggests that this isn’t always the case.
David and Goliath is so compelling because the points are made through the incredible true stories of real-life underdogs and ‘giants’: the man whose emotionally stunted single-mindedness enabled breakthroughs in leukaemia treatment; the French painters who chose to go outside the established art system that rejected them, and ended up launching the Impressionist movement.
Gladwell’s tipping point
Gladwell reveals precious little of himself in his writing (although his third book, Outliers, breaks this pattern and is semi-autobiographical). Mostly he speaks through the voices and stories of others, only bringing his own voice in to draw links and conclusions. It’s as if he’s weaving together a quilt of life stories, where only he is able to see the bigger picture of the final result. The closest thing that theologically-minded literature has to Gladwell is Philip Yancey (they also share a hairdo). Both come from a journalistic background, rather than the specialist field in which they write; both try to show us the world through the eyes of others (even if that happens to be a dog, hence Gladwell’s compendium What the Dog Saw).
‘That’s been the completely unexpected effect of writing this book. I am in the process of rediscovering my own faith again’ Malcolm Gladwell
Like Yancey, Gladwell was raised in an evangelical Christian home. Also like Yancey, he later drifted away from his faith, and to complete a hat-trick of parallels, he has also now rediscovered it. Writing David and Goliath provided the unexpected key.
So while Gladwell himself isn’t a character in the narrative, its construction proved to be a remarkable personal journey for him.Aside from the section on David, three chapters of the book deal with the stories of people who drew on the extraordinary reserves of their Christian faith to defeat seemingly insurmountable odds. They take in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, where Martin Luther King fought the D-Day of the civil rights movement; the story of a woman ‐ Wilma Derksen ‐ who forgave her daughter’s murderer; and the incredible courage of the World War Two Huguenots who defied the Nazis. Their life stories provided the ‘tipping point’ of Gladwell’s own faith journey. As he explained in an interview with American website RNS, ‘[these] people were able to do extraordinary things because they were armed with faith…I was so incredibly struck in writing these stories by the incredible power faith had in people’s lives, it has made a profound impact on me in my belief. That’s been the completely unexpected effect of writing this book. I am in the process of rediscovering my own faith again.’
Being outgunned and outnumbered can have its advantages
If that feels a little non-committal, Gladwell goes further. In the same interview, he answers that he does now define himself as a Christian, and he was recently the headline speaker at the American evangelical leadership event, Catalyst. ‘It was a slow realization [of] something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing,’ he explains. ‘Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too.’
Questions for the Church
Gladwell acknowledges that David and Goliath is his most ‘religious’ writing to date. Each of the book’s three sections open with a Bible verse, and references to faith ‐ specifically Christian faith ‐ abound. So what are some of the questions raised by the book’s key ideas for a Church which now finds itself a David in the face of culture’s Goliath?
1. Change the fight. Goliath wanted to fight David up close; David knew he’d lose, so chose artillery instead. You are more likely to lose as an underdog if you engage on the same terms as the perceived power opposing you. What does that mean for the Church? What did it mean for Jesus? As Gladwell says of him, ‘He comes from the humblest of beginnings. He never held elected office. He never had an army at his disposal. He never got rich; he had nothing that we would associate with power and advantage. Nonetheless, what does he accomplish? An unfathomable amount. He is almost the perfect illustration of this idea that you have to look in the heart to know what someone’s capable of.’ Jesus didn’t pick up a sword to fight; he sacrificed himself instead, and kick-started a revolution.
2. Strength and weakness are linked. Gladwell argues that often a person’s key strength is also the source of their greatest weakness, and that they become blind to that weakness as a result of the strength. Goliath’s size and strength made him arrogant about his shortcomings in battle. Charismatic preachers who are undone by adultery are unfortunate evidence of this rule too ‐ so what implications should this have about how we take care of, and look out for, the gifted among us?
3. Something is working for our good. The most emotive and challenging chapter in the book revolves around a doctor and scientist who, having suffered a horrendous early life, was incapable of empathy. However, due to this he was also the only doctor able to persevere with the painful treatments for childhood cancer which led to today’s 90% survival rates. It might be hard to see God at work in the small picture of that awful story, yet the big picture is astonishing; thousands of children have lived because of him, and in part, because of his tragic upbringing. Has Gladwell inadvertently discovered a compelling answer to the question of why God allows suffering?
4. It’s better to be David. Christians of a certain persuasion may feel that we’re in a new age of persecution, or at the very least, that the Church’s influence is being drowned out by the rising tide of secularism. If that’s true, then Gladwell’s book suggests it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being outgunned and outnumbered can have its advantages, such as the natural innovation which springs from being the underdog. The comedian Frank Skinner ‐ another returner to faith ‐ wrote in The Times in 2010 that ‘Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls.’ You can’t do that as Goliath.
Not everyone has been convinced by Gladwell’s arguments; David and Goliath has already drawn more criticism than any of its predecessors. His use of the Northern Irish conflict was, according to Jenny McCartney in The Spectator, ‘poor history…firmly sculpted into sleek Gladwellian shapes’. Which illustrates the problem with Gladwell perfectly: crafting a series of stories into a compelling argument is not easy; life is too messy for that. So in drawing them together, he naturally has to play down certain elements which don’t serve the pattern, and play up others that do. That makes sense, of course ‐ but for those who know his individual subjects well, it presents a problem.
Meanwhile, both Christian and Jewish theologians have been quick to critique Gladwell’s retelling of David and Goliath, questioning some of his more extraordinary claims, such as the idea that Goliath had a visual impairment. But Gladwell is not a theologian, he’s a journalist. This isn’t Tom Wright writing the definitive history of Israel, but a New York Times chart-topper with 50 times Wright’s global influence, choosing to put an ancient biblical story at the heart of the cultural zeitgeist. For this Christians should be delighted, not critical.
Gladwell isn’t read best as a discoverer of facts, but as an observer of trends and anomalies who dares to suggest what they might mean. Most of his books contain more big ideas in one volume than most of us originate in a lifetime. Of course some of them are flawed. Does that matter if it provokes the rest of us to think big too?
David and Goliath is Malcolm Gladwell’s fifth book (although one, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his New Yorker columns). We take a look at the other three, and how they might be applied to the Christian life.
The Tipping Point (2000)
The big idea: Gladwell’s first book explores how seemingly small changes can make disproportionate differences; from the street-cleaning campaign that lowered New York’s crime rate, to the unexpected renaissance of Hush Puppy shoes that ‘went viral’ among American hipsters. The book argues that epidemics are created through a ‘perfect storm’ of socially gifted participants, a ‘sticky’ idea which grabs people, and the right cultural context.
One little gem: ‘If you want to bring a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior...you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs can be practiced and expressed and nurtured.’
A challenge to us: We shouldn’t waste our energy trying to make the Christian message ‘go viral’; instead we should invest in these three areas ‐ helping Christians to be highly relational and vocal, ensuring the message is clear and memorable, and trying to create a church that is attractive and nurturing.
The big idea: Perhaps Gladwell’s most dangerous book due to the ease of its misapplication, Blink explores the brain’sremarkable aptitude for lightning-fast processing. If we can train our brains to filter preconception out of the equation, we’re able to make spontaneous decisions that are as good, or better, than those over which we deliberate.
One little gem: ‘The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.’
A challenge to us: Could it be that God sometimes speaks to us in a moment, rather than a long journey? Might some of our angst that God isn’t directing our path enough be a reflection of our inability to hear him first time? Could we become better at listening instinctively to God?
The big idea: Gladwell sets out to explore why certain people in various fields enjoy high levels of success, and whether there are common factors in their life and upbringing which contribute to that success. Central to his findings is the ‘10,000 hours’ principle ‐ greatness in any field is dependent on practising it for at least that amount of time.
One little gem: ‘Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.’
A challenge to us: It’s not just the talent that you have that’s important, it’s what you do with it. Hard work is more important than natural ability.