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The inventor of a new wisdom literature

06 November 2015

Hugh Rayment-Pickard relishes the insights of David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

creative commons

IF YOU think that being tough on criminals brings down crime rates, or that small class sizes are good for children, or that dyslexia is a disadvantage, then Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath will make you think again.

Gladwell is the master of what the philosopher A. N. Whitehead called the “questioning of our fundamental presuppositions”, showing our assumed “facts” to be fictions, uncovering false logic, and making our common-sense assumptions look foolish.

In wonderfully lucid and engaging prose, Gladwell argues that the things that we think of as advantages — a place at one of the best universities, for example — are often impediments. The top universities are the worst place for a moderately able student, who will struggle in comparison with his or her peers. Much better, Gladwell says, to be the star student at a second-division university than bottom of the class at a top institution.

The point is that calculating our advantages requires an inverted logic. Strength does not necessarily lead to success (as Goliath illustrates); being part of an elite may stifle your creativity (as the Impressionists worked out); and getting tough on crime may lead to more crime (as Californians discovered).

Gladwell illustrates his arguments with a range of brilliantly chosen stories from real life, such as the girls’ basketball team from Redwood City who nearly make it to the finals by using tactics devised by their Indian coach, who knew nothing about basketball, but had an absolute determination to win.

Gladwell has the journalist’s facility for reportage — for example, when he explains how Martin Luther King used the power of non-violent direct action to get the upper hand over the police in Birmingham, Alabama.

The stories lead us along Gladwell’s ingenious paths of argument, showing us again and again that our assumptions ain’t necessarily so: “The powerful are not as powerful as they seem — nor the weak as weak.”

Towards the end of the book, Gladwell writes beautifully about the most complex and counter-intuitive form of human behaviour: forgiveness. Forgiveness defies our intuition that pain deserves pain; that violence deserves violence. With great compassion, Gladwell talks about forgiveness through the voices and experiences of two people whose child has been murdered. I found this the most moving part of the book.

The book makes several nods towards the Bible, not only to the giant-slaying story of the title, but also to St Paul’s description of weakness as strength. Gladwell could also have spoken about Jesus’s own life and teaching.

Jesus uses the same strategy of reversing our intuitive logic: the first will be last; defilement comes from within; the exalted will be humbled; and the meek will inherit the earth. Like Jesus, Gladwell has a bias to the poor, the weak, and the oppressed.

Gladwell’s thought is not conventionally religious, however. His account of David and Goliath is a staunchly rational deconstruction of the story, showing how Goliath is logically doomed to lose: he is too slow, too large, and too complacent to dodge David’s slingshot, which has a range of 200 metres and a velocity of 34 metres per second.

We soon notice that Gladwell loves numbers, any numbers. He can find something surprising in lists of class sizes, or publication rates of research papers, or crime statistics. For Gladwell, numbers contain hidden patterns that tell us what is really going on in the world. Readers familiar with Gladwell’s book Outliers (Penguin, 2009) will know that he finds just as much illumination in numbers that do not fit any pattern.

In Gladwell’s analysis, numbers are used not only to illuminate truth, but to open up a new ethical perspective. Throughout the book, there is a coherent underlying morality that is all the more convincing for not being spelled out.

Gladwell shows the vanities and ignorance of the powerful, who underestimate the strength of those they oppress. He unsettles lazy prejudices against apparent “losers” and misfits, showing their hidden strengths and abilities. British readers will particularly enjoy his account of the Blitz, in which he shows that Hitler’s bombing strategy had failed before it started because it made Londoners more courageous and resilient.

Gladwell’s special gift is for “counter-intuition”, the capacity to think against the grain of everyday thought, seeing where we have jumped to the wrong conclusions. As he puts it, “We have, as human beings, a story-telling problem. We are a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things that we don’t really have an explanation for.”

Arguably, Gladwell’s most significant achievement is to have invented a new genre of wisdom literature: contemporary, rational, anecdotal. He combines statistical insights with the direct testimony of the oppressed, to offer us a version of the world which is both intellectually pleasing and emotionally true to human experience.

The book has a core message that will resonate with Christians. So much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the underdog, “who has more strength and purpose than we can ever imagine”.


The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is a co-founder of the charity IntoUniversity.

David and Goliath is published by Penguin at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-241-95959-6.


David and Goliath — SOME QUESTIONS


One reviewer of David and Goliath called it ‘‘a feel-good extravaganza”. Do you agree?


Malcolm Gladwell uses Bible verses as epigraphs, and thanks his ‘‘theological consultant” in the book’s acknowledgements. How ‘‘Christian” do you think David and Goliath is?


‘‘The world turned upside down”: to what extent is Christianity a ‘‘David and Goliath” story?


How much of a virtue is it to be ‘‘disagreeable”?


What does this book teach us about the relationship between individuals and organisations?


What would ‘‘legitimacy” look like in a church context, or in the wider Church?


How desirable is ‘‘desirable difficulty”?


Has the book changed how you think about ‘‘advantage”? How do Gladwell’s findings affect your view of the distribution of wealth and resources, for instance?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 December, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. It is published in various editions, most recently by Arrow/Random House at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-09-951369-8.


Book notes

First published in 1925, Carry On, Jeeves is a collection of the first stories that P. G. Wodehouse wrote about fiction’s most famous valet. In its first tale, “Jeeves Takes Charge”, the unflappable “personal gentleman’s gentleman” enters the service of the affably clueless Bertie Wooster, setting the scene for nine more instalments in which he must extricate Bertie and his friends from multiple scrapes and entanglements. Elegantly written comedies, Wodehouse’s stories have been widely cherished: Stephen Fry has written of Wodehouse’s prose: “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”


Author notes

P. G. Wodehouse is one of Britain’s best-loved comic authors. Born in Guildford in 1881, he attended Dulwich College and worked at a bank before becoming a full-time writer in 1901. Thereafter followed a long and successful career as a writer of fiction, playwright, and librettist — at one point, Wodehouse had five musicals running concurrently on Broadway. Regarded in both his lifetime and afterwards as a master of English prose style, Wodehouse spent the latter part of his life in Long Island. He died on St Valentine’s Day 1975, shortly after receiving a knighthood.


Books for the next two months:

January: A Lot Like Eve by Joanna Jepson

February: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

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