At last we have landed at the final installment of our investigation of Malcolm Gladwell’s work. In this post I want to tackle Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. My approach to this book will be slightly different. With the previous three books I traced Gladwell’s argument and then gave one or two examples of the ramifications that the book may have for the church or the Christian life. With this book however I want to add a piece in between, a critique of Gladwell’s interpretation of the story of David and Goliath.
Gladwell’s basic thesis is that what makes us strong is simultaneously what makes us weak. That is to say, the advantages any individual, team, or institution, etc. brings to the table can turned into a disadvantage. That’s pretty much it, like the rest of Gladwell’s body of work, he makes one major point which is propped up by very compelling anecdotal research. This book is slightly different in that there really isn’t a flow of argumentation. As such there isn’t much more to say.
David and Goliath
I have to say that I agree with Gladwell to an extent. Many things that we would judge as advantages—like his example of attending Harvard—can turn out to be disadvantages (and visa-versa). However I think he misreads his primary case study, David and Goliath. In the introduction Gladwell shocks the reader by claiming that David was not really an underdog as we might think, but that careful evaluation actually tells us that David has several distinct advantages, which practically assured his victory. I completely disagree with this, and I want to take some time to look at the “advantages” Gladwell attributes to David:
- The first issue that Gladwell brings up is that Goliath expected hand to hand combat, but David had no intention of engaging in close quarter combat. Gladwell goes to great length to describe the types of military units that existed and which kind Goliath was, heavy infantry, and as heavy infantry Goliath expected to be engaged by heavy infantry, but instead he got a projectile warrior (which is effectively the rock to Goliath’s scissors). I am not sure I buy this for two reasons. Goliath was equipped with a spear or javelin, which the Bible goes into great detail about, in doing so historians are able to extrapolate a bit more about the weapon based off artifacts that record memorable battles. The historians tell us that the spear Goliath carried was a projectile weapon. While not having quite the range of David’s sling it still gave the ability to strike at a significant distance and with a significant force. If it helps picture the opening battle in the Brad Pitt epic Troy. Achilles is in the same position as David, except he wields a saber instead of a sling, one on one combat. In the scene Achilles, played by Pitt, builds up speed from a job into a sprint dodging two spear throws before striking. Goliath intended his first strike to be from a safe distance, it stands to reason that he probably expected his opponent to approach the bout similarly. This is backed up by my second reason for doubt. Rather than an armor bearer, who acts as a battlefield caddie, carrying all your weapons and feeding you the ones you need based on the situation, Goliath is proceeded onto the battle field by a shield bearer, his job is to carry a large shield which would block your body and some of your head from projectiles, Gladwell even notes this:
Shield bearers in ancient times often accompanied archers into battle because a solider using a bow and arrow had no free hands to carry protection of his own. But why does Goliath, a man calling for sword-on-sword single combat, need to be assisted by a third party carrying an archer’s shield? (13)
But Gladwell is blinded by his own speculation and anecdotal research (what is Gladwell’s strength—imagination and story telling—becomes his weakness, ironic). As such he can’t see that Goliath needed a shield bearer or the same reason archers did, he was carrying a spear and sword, maybe other weapons that aren’t recorded since he does not have an armor bearer with him, and as such needed someone else to guard him from projectiles like arrows, slings, or spears—like the one he intended to use.
- In connection to the first point Gladwell states that David had no intention of engaging Goliath in close quarters combat because of his confidence in his ability to use his sling. Why then is David carrying a staff, Gladwell makes a lot out of Goliath’s opinion of the staff, but nothing of David’s intentions for it. David had used his staff and sling to fight off bears and lions, I bet David carried the staff into battle because he knew there was a chance that he would need a weapon to engage Goliath in case they both survived the projectiles each was carrying.
- Gladwell then pulls some random medical diagnosis out to claim that Goliath was practically blind. I don’t buy this for a second. Goliath was a trained, disciplined, and feared soldier ‘from his youth’. I have never been in battle, but my guess is that regardless of size a guy with as poor sight as Gladwell attributes to him, would not last long enough for a king—who was an accomplished soldier himself—to learn, let alone fear, his name.
Here is the point I want to make, the Bible is clear and speculation is dangerous. No one outside of Gladwell, that I am aware of, reads the story of David and Goliath and thinks that David has the advantage, and that isn’t because everyone else is uninformed and unaware, but rather because the Bible is clear about what it teaches, and it teaches that David was perceived by all around him as the undeniable underdog. But Gladwell is right in his overall point, what was seen as a disadvantage is actually his advantage. Understanding the importance of context should prompt us to ask has anything notable happened in the vicinity of this text? The answer is yes, David was just anointed by a known prophet of God as the next king and God had chosen David because he did not resemble a mighty warrior like Saul (the current king) or Goliath. That was David’s advantage, if he was going to be king as God said, then he would have to survive.
A good reader of the Bible is willing to dig deep into the text and use resources to learn more about history and language to understand some alien sounding issues, but the diligent reader of scripture never forgets that his primary tool for reading the Bible is a faith, faith in clarity, trustworthiness, and divine authorship. Keeping those in mind will tether you to the text rather than running free with speculation.
Today’s church is no stranger to misjudging advantages and disadvantages. Often difficult theology that challenges our culture and the sinfulness of our hearts (predestination, divine judgement, exclusivity of Christ) are seen as disadvantages to the church, but when we try and augment our doctrine statements to give us an advantage we lose everything. It is, in fact, the difficult and hard truths of scripture which are our advantage. Similarly, it may seem like an advantage to think and act more pragmatically in church, but the church isn’t about what is practical, what is easy, or even what “works”. the church is a theological institution and as such it is about God and he often uses counterintuitive means—like David.
Thanks for reading,