Malcolm Gladwell and Seeing Things Differently

I recently introduced my New Testament students to a video circulating on the TED website by Malcolm Gladwell where he talks about a new book he has written on David and Goliath. At the beginning of his talk Gladwell admits he is obsessed about this well-worn Old Testament tale because after digging around and asking new questions about this old story, he found out that what he thought he knew turned out to be all wrong.

It’s no surprise to find out that Gladwell’s previous assumptions about David and Goliath are pretty much everyone’s: Goliath is a formidable warrior; David is small shepherd boy with about a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving a skirmish with the formidable giant. And so, we have come to believe David wins the battle not because he is particularly well-suited for war but because God is on the side of the Israelites who David represents.

This narrative also works well today, especially for Christians who believe themselves to be under siege, especially by an encroaching secular society. If God could use David to overcome Goliath, God could also enable marginalized Christians to overcome their presumed battle with a society bent on erasing all remnants of Christian influence.

It’s easy to see how this narrative—the underdog overcoming against all odds because God is on their side—has persuasive power.

But what I wanted my New Testament students to see is the potential of a narrative to open up new vistas of inquiry, calling forth new ways of thinking about multiple possibilities. And how in the midst of alternative perspectives, we might just find new insight about God, and indeed, about ourselves.

So, in Gladwell’s retelling of the David and Goliath story, he explains how we have misunderstood not only Goliath, thinking him to be an invincible giant, but also David, assuming he is an incompetent shepherd boy. A close reading of the narrative reveals some interesting possibilities including Goliath having compromised eye-sight, a side-effect it turns out, of acromegaly, a condition of people who are exceptionally tall). Too, it appears Goliath is prepared for one kind of battle—hand-to-hand—and seems rather slow in realizing David has no intention on this kind of exchange having no armor on to protect himself in such situation.

And, rather than viewing David as unprepared to take on Goliath, perhaps we should understand David’s weapon. It isn’t a kid’s sling-shot after all but would have been a sling that David could use to keep wild beasts away from his sheep. Thus, as a weapon and not a toy, David would be skilled, able to sling a rock faster than most pitchers throw a baseball.

In other words, Gladwell invites us to see that perhaps we have misread this David vs. Goliath battle all along. And, if we are willing to lay aside our previous assumptions long enough to consider other alternatives, a rich plurality of possibilities emerge.

To start, it may be that the giants in our lives are not as powerful and invincible as we make them out to be. And, it could also be true that those who perhaps do not look particularly equipped for any given task are actually quite skilled and should be given an opportunity. We also shouldn’t forget that David makes use of his talents. Isn’t this not only possible for all of us, but also what is the best option?

I can only imagine the strength of our communities if we stopped assuming certain people should accomplish certain tasks because this is conventional wisdom and instead if we truly sought to explore people’s gifts and talents and encouraged them to use these strengths.

Several years ago Robin Williams starred in The Dead Poets’ Society, a film about a teacher and his students. In one scene Williams had each student stand on his desk in order to see the room from a different angle. As each one took his turn Williams encouraged them not to ask the same questions everyone else asks, but to take time to make one’s own observations about the world, to learn to ask one’s own questions.

This is, of course, what feminist scholars have been doing with the Bible, theology, and Christian tradition. What is needed, however, is for women in the pews to do the same thing. If women will begin asking their own questions refusing to be satisfied with conventional assumptions, I think the church could become again the expression of Jesus’ alternative wisdom.

David wasn’t just a little shepherd boy. And women are not, contrary to what most churches practice, intended to be silent participants in this grand adventure.