Wednesday, January 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

With books like Outliers, Tipping Point, and Blink, Malcolm Gladwell has become one of the more popular writers in the last few years.  When I saw the Kindle version of his latest book, David and Goliath, on sale, I bought it looking forward to his insights with, hopefully, a biblical perspective.  Unfortunately, after reading it, I was disappointed.  While he tells some interesting stories, he misses the point of David’s victory over Goliath and demonstrates a lack of moral judgment, which undermines the overall book.

Gladwell’s premise, drawn from the story of David and Goliath, is that we misunderstand power and advantages.  Often things that appear powerful have significant weaknesses that make them beatable.  Similarly, advantages often have significant disadvantages.  On the other hand, what can appear to be a weakness or disadvantage can be turned into strength or advantage.

Gladwell begins with David’s victory over Goliath and claims, “All these years, we’ve been telling these stories wrong.”  In his telling of the story, Goliath only appears to be a powerful giant.  Instead, he has significant weaknesses that David exploited.  For example, Goliath was armed for hand to hand combat; he was not prepared to battle a “slinger” (someone using a slingshot).  Since Goliath was so large, he probably had a physical disability, “acromegaly”, which causes vision disability.  His vision problems prohibited him from recognizing that David was attacking with him a sling.  Consequently, according to Gladwell, David’s victory is completely explainable in human, not supernatural, terms. 

Gladwell completely ignores the presence of God in the story.  While it is possible for people to overcome strong enemies and disadvantages, that is not the focus of the biblical account of David and Goliath.  When King Saul tells David that he cannot defeat the giant, David responds, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:37).  When Saul sent David to battle, Saul says, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” (1 Samuel 17:37).  Clearly, David won the battle, not because he “outsmarted” Goliath or exposed Goliath’s human weaknesses, because of the presence and power of God.  Gladwell completely misses this point.

In addition, Gladwell demonstrates no moral judgment.  For example, in one chapter, he explains how some people overcome disadvantages, such as dyslexia.  However, in overcoming their disadvantages, they often resort to sinful acts.  Gladwell summarizes, “They bluffed their way into professions that would have been closed to them.”  This “bluffing” included lying and deceit, which are sins.  Nevertheless, Gladwell justifies their actions, “What they did is not ‘right,’ just as it is not ‘right’ to send children up against police dogs [he tells a story of civil rights leaders purposefully baiting police into using dogs against children in order to gain a propaganda advantage in the battle for civil rights].  But we need to remember that our definition of what is right is, often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside” (emphasis added).  According to Gladwell, there are no moral absolutes.  Rather, morality is used to control power.  So, it is okay to change the morals in order change power.  This is wrong and is not biblical.  Such thinking is dangerous.

Disturbingly, some Christian book reviews failed to fully identify these weaknesses.  A couple of reviewers identified Gladwell’s weaknesses in the story of David and Goliath, but they failed to fully understood the significance of Gladwell’s misinterpretation.  One reviewer wrote that Gladwell’s approach “neglects the key aspects of David’s triumph.”  Another reviewer noted that Gladwell “ignores the obvious divine empowerment behind David.”  But, neither seem to express this as a major problem.  However, neither reviewer noted any of Gladwell’s moral problems, which should have been pointed out.

Notwithstanding these problems, Gladwell tells some interesting stories and makes some interesting points.  However, even his good points are overstated.  Just because one or two people have defeated a giant or overcome a disadvantage does not mean that everyone can use the same strategy to defeat a giant or that the disadvantage is really an advantage.  The book was mediocre.  It wasn't terrible because it had some redeeming traits (good stories and interesting points), but it had too many weaknesses to be considered good or great.

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