Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 conference.

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 conference. Photo courtesy Kris Krüg via Wikimedia Commons


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(RNS) Author Malcolm Gladwell may not be known for writing on religion. His New York Times best-selling books “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” “Blink” and “What the Dog Saw” deal with the unexpected twists in social science research. But his newest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” also includes underlying faith-related themes, and not just in the title. Gladwell said that while researching the book, he began rediscovering his own faith after having drifted away. Here, he speaks with RNS about his Mennonite family, how Jesus perfectly illustrates the point in his new book and how Gladwell’s return to faith changed the way he wrote the book. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: You use the biblical story of David and Goliath in the title and the setup to your book. Do you think we’ve been retelling the story poorly?

A: I think there has been an overemphasis of the idea that David’s victory was improbable. When you look closer to that story and you understand the full historical context, you see it from a different perspective. Here was a guy who brilliantly changed the rules of combat. He was equipped with a sling that was routinely used by armies to defeat the sort that Goliath was. David was very skilled at using the weapon and he was filled with the spirit of the Lord. Put those things together, why is he an underdog? He’s smarter than his opponent, better armed and he had this extraordinary force in his heart. When you understand that perspective, you understand that sometimes our instinct about where power comes from is wrong.

Q: What are some other examples of faith influencing power?

A: The final two chapters of the book also deal with faith: one about a woman who forgives her daughter’s murderer and one about the Huguenots in France who defy the Nazis in World War II. In both cases, people were able to do extraordinary things because they were armed with faith. They were able to perform acts of courage because they came from godly traditions. In both cases, there are people who had been through enormous adversity and had survived — more than survived, thrived.

Q: Is it true you grew up in an evangelical home?

A: Yeah. I grew up in southwestern Ontario in the heart of a Mennonite community. All my family are part of the Mennonite church. I joked at [the recent evangelical conference] Catalyst that I’m the only member of my family who had never delivered a sermon. Everyone has been to seminary, been a lay preacher, the list is very, very long in my extended family of people who have had opportunities to give a sermon. My joke at Catalyst was that it was my sermon; I finally got to give one.

Q: If your family is still religious, are you?

A: I’ve had a different journey. I had drifted away a little bit. This book has brought me back into the fold. I was so incredibly struck in writing these stories by the incredible power faith had in people’s lives, it has made a profound impact on me in my belief. That’s been the completely unexpected effect of writing this book. I am in the process of rediscovering my own faith again.

Q: Would you call yourself a Christian, or are you figuring that out?

A: I would. On my website, for years, I’ve had this statement of what I believe so readers can know where I’m coming from. “I believe in God.” I put that on years ago because I felt it was important that people who read my work knew the perspective that I came from. It changes how people read you if you believe in God. It gives insight into your motivation, how you look at problems and how you deal with people.

Q: Are you part of a church or group?

A: Not at the moment. I was when I lived in DC. I would go to Washington Community Fellowship. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is trying to join a community. I would probably be drawn toward the Mennonite world and the Anabaptist tradition. It’s my family’s tradition now, and their values and interpretations are most consistent with what I have come to feel is important.

Q: Has the evolution of your faith informed your writing?

A: I feel that I have been asking different kinds of questions. This book differs from past books because it’s less about looking at things at a high, theoretical level — what are the principles that govern the way we behave or the way success happens. This book is much more concerned with individuals and the choices they make. Going in that direction makes sense if you’re taking religious perspectives much more seriously.

Q: This seems like the most religious of  all of your books.

A: You’re right. That’s why I titled it after one of the most famous of all Bible stories. The choice of how to end the book is really important because it frames the whole experience. The theme of the book is that much of what is beautiful and powerful in the world comes from adversity and struggle. The other theme is that people who appear to have no material advantage are much more powerful than they appear.

Q: David and Goliath is quite famous, yes. What about Jesus? Where might he fit in in your narrative?

A: He does fit. 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.

Q: Many Christians point to some kind of personal conversion experience? Did you have one?

A: I realized what I had missed. It wasn’t an “I woke up one morning” kind of thing. It was a slow realization something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing. Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too.

59 Comments

  1. Wow, I am so thrilled because these words truer than true are reaching so many! “The theme of the book is that much of what is beautiful and powerful in the world comes from adversity and struggle. The other theme is that people who appear to have no material advantage are much more powerful than they appear.”
    Thank you so much!!!

  2. Great interview. I have always enjoyed MG writings. He writes with passion, humor, and faith, but he reaches out beyond to all people. Thank you for a great interview and Mr. Gladwell, thanks for your courage to ‘stand’ and state you believe.

  3. All the study I have ever done has indicated that the sling considered more-or-less a toy and the backwards tool of a hick-shepherd, not a superior weapon belonging in an army. I agree with the conclusion that David was a warrior (having sucessfully killed lions and bears), and he did have the Spirit of the Lord on his side, but the sling was not the fierce fire power that Mr Gladwell claims.

    • I totally agree, I would love to see references to these claims. He implies Goliath was a handicapped giant suffering from a pituitary disease, whose armor bearer was more like a nurses aid. Goliath was a descendant of a tribe of people known as the Nephilim. The nation of Israel would not hide in fear of the Goliath he describes with a understanding of slingshot weaponry as he suggests. Goliath’s defeat is a significant act of God displaying the use of His anointed to deliver His people. Gladwell rewrites the story as simply an act of a young boy with superior weaponry picking on a sickly (all be it large) opponent. I agree that God plus anyone, no matter how insignificant, is a majority; but the message of David and Goliath is, and has always been, God will use the weak to confound the strong, or in this case the self proclaimed wise. This is simply a rewritten history filled with the eisogetic imaginations of a bookseller that in my opinion is along the lines of Dan Brown’s Davinci Code.

      • It always grieves me to see bible scholars pick someone apart and miss the person’s heart. Malcolm Gladwell is on a spiritual journey that embraces our Savior. I am no bible scholar, but I can promise you that God honors his journey far above one’s knowledge of slingshot weaponry and giants.

        It would serve us well to remember that God judges the motives of a man’s heart, not us. Located on the page after the table of contents in David and Goliath, please find Malcolm Gladwell’s quote of God’s Word. God makes this point quite clearly.

        I might also add that we are hated by the world because of Who’s we are; that is an honor. To have this kind of misguided help from those who identify with him must surely make God cry.

  4. So sad to see such a brilliant mind drift back into ages old superstitions…..otherwise known as faith.
    In his book “The Stuff of Thought” he writes so clearly about the nature and beauty of the human thought process …..and now throws in all out the window by attempting to rationalize that faith makes any sense at all.
    He has outed himself as being guided by age old myths….in place of reason.

    • The Holy Spirit is very POWERFUL…… Malcolm Gladwell now understands TRUTH because his HEART is in the right place. Seek and you SHALL FIND. The BIBLE has ALL the answers…..Praise GOD….

    • I agree…and it absolutely does make a difference to me if an author/thinker/”scientist” believes in god or not. Belief discredits them a bit (or a lot, in many cases)…

  5. Malcolm’s interview tells me why we got on so well during my interviews with him on my radio show in the past. I am truly excited and encouraged as I have been Thru dry, desert trials and find my Faith renewed and Mr Gladwell is the perfectly/ imperfect vehicle and Man for this exciting new book and quest. We all seem to need a dose of hope these days.
    Here it comes …

  6. G. Vincent Lewis

    I really appreciated this interview of one of my favorite authors in the person of Malcolm Gladwell. Furthermore, to learn about his return to faith made the book more meaningful as faith should do.

  7. Loved the book “Outliers”; Gladwell is both original and inspiring.

    Not sure where he is spiritually, but I’m left to wonder where the cross is for him?

    Doesn’t really seem to be anywhere; I pray that I’m concerned unreasonably! However, salvation runs right through the middle of that bloody sacrifice for our sins that we call the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    Apart from that, there’s no salvation whatsoever.

  8. Not to rain on your parade, but it seems that Gladwell has very likely fabricated his claim that there is a disproportionate amount of dyslectics among successful entrepreneurs. In view of that, I think this return to faith is more about increasing his sales by finding new readers.

  9. For those whom have deemed Mr. Gladwell’s most recent work on rediscovering his Faith as discrediting and sloppy. Will do well to remember it is most discrediting and sloppy to spend the other side of life as a sure citizen in gross darkeness, Nothing is more discrediting and sloppy than to end up there. It is very heavy to display disdain to the Creator and The King of kings.— Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks your heart is discredited your is sloppy.

  10. I really like MG’s work. I’d like to hear a bit more, though, on who he thinks Jesus is. This comment leaves me unsure:
    “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.”
    I know you can’t say much in interview sound bites. But if you were given a few seconds to say what Jesus accomplished, I’m not sure about this statement being either accurate or the most important thing about him. I don’t think I’d say Jesus is an illustration of what someone is capable of. He, by becoming God incarnate, suffering, dying, then rising from death, stood in place of anyone who would believe in him before God’s judgement seat. He wiped away a believer’s sentence of death before God. Yes, that is unfathomable!

  1. […] Malcolm Gladwell is the author of Outliers and The Tipping Point, works of what has been called “pop sociology” that turn social science research into bestselling books of personal and business motivation. His latest book is David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.  In the course of studying underdogs and how they are often victorious, Mr. Gladwell returned to the Christian faith.  He tells why in an interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey. […]

  2. […] Malcolm Gladwell on his return to faith while writing ‘David and Goliath’ by Sarah Pulliam Bailey.  ”The theme of the book is that much of what is beautiful and powerful in the world comes from adversity and struggle. The other theme is that people who appear to have no material advantage are much more powerful than they appear.” […]

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