David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Malcolm Gladwell. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. 320 pages. $29.00.
When you pick up a book by Malcolm Gladwell, you expect provocative, counter-intuitive research that blends history and psychology with compelling stories. His earlier books—including The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers—have changed the way readers view success, trends, and even our instincts.
Thus far, however, readers haven't expected religious musings from Gladwell, staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996. But while researching his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell explains that he came "back into the fold" of his family's Mennonite faith. In an interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, Gladwell said he calls himself a Christian in the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition, because "their values and interpretations are most consistent with what I have come to feel is important."
From the first to the last word of David and Goliath you see that return to faith on display. Often Gladwell's prose reads like the book of Esther: God may not be named, but he's everywhere at work. Gladwell begins with the most famous underdog of history, David, to explain that we often underestimate the power wielded by the weak and marginalized.
"Giants are not what we think they are," Gladwell writes. "The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness" (6).
In the case of Goliath, Gladwell contends that the giant's size, weaponry, and infantry armor hardly prepared him to counter the shepherd boy's artillery skills with a sling and stone at distance. You might even say David had the advantage. He hardly talked like an underdog. "Your servant has struck down both lions and bears," David told Saul, "and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them" (1 Sam. 17:36).
Gladwell supports his thesis with many other examples of unexpected victors. A coach who never played basketball leads a group of young girls to win after win because he disdains the unwritten rules of the game. Children in large classes outperform peers with lower teacher-to-student ratios. Scientists thrive as the top graduates of less-selective universities while they give up at more prestigious schools. Dyslexic youth develop coping mechanisms that lead them to thrive in law and other professional fields as adults. Gladwell wants us to see how advantages can become disadvantages, how some difficulty can be desirable, and how power has limits.
His chapter on the triumph of civil-rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, taught me about the role of the trickster in African American culture and tradition. When you have nothing to lose, you don't feel bound by the rules set by the powerful and self-interested. The youth who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. could only win by losing. They needed to trick Bull Connor into showing his evil to the watching world by unleashing his police dogs and fire hoses on the helpless crowds.
But the helpless are rarely so helpless as they seem, according to Gladwell. One famous image from the Birmingham marches depicts a young African American male with his hands down to his sides as a police dog thrusts at his abdomen. The image of unwarranted cruelty shocked ordinary Americans and politicians alike around the country. In reality the young man is kicking the dog, possibly even breaking his jaw. Yet people only noticed the calm expression on his face.
Wisdom of Scripture
Even so, Gladwell helps Christians appreciate historical examples that illustrate the wisdom of Scripture. Again and again I thought about the apostle Paul's rebuke of a power-obsessed Corinthian church.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
This is how God works. This is the story of Christianity. His chapter on how parents mourn lost children moved me in surprising ways. Gladwell interviews a man who avenged his murdered daughter by spearheading a movement to get tough on crime in California. But the state eventually abandoned the harsh "three strikes" penalties in light of unsustainable costs and uncertain results. But he also talks with a Mennonite woman in Canada who responded to her daughter's gruesome torture and murder by extending forgiveness. The man who sought to wield the power of the law to gain retribution has never recovered from his loss. The woman who showed grace and forgiveness found peace.
The world tells us vengeance will satisfy. In our sin we seek to punish our enemies. But God's Word tells an altogether different story.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
Unfortunately the same name assumed in these passages is strangely missing in Gladwell's book. David may be the proverbial underdog, but Jesus is the gold standard. Gladwell acknowledged as much in his interview with RNS:
Here is one of the most revolutionary figures in history. 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.
For all his poignant insight on power, Gladwell portrays Jesus in terms of his strategy instead of his identity. That approach neglects the key aspect of David's triumph as well. Responding to a skeptical Saul, David knows he will defeat Goliath because the Philistine has "defied the armies of the living God" (1 Sam. 17:36). And David knows he will triumph because Yahweh has delivered him safely thus far.
No man is an underdog when God is on his side. That's why we endure any hardship. That's why we never despair. And that's why we rejoice even at the foot of the cross. We know Sunday is coming!
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter.
Copyright © 2013 by the author listed above. Used by permission.