While Writing About Underdogs, Author Rediscovers Faith
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of four books on The New York Times bestseller list, all dealing with unexpected implications of social science research. This month, his fifth book came out. Titled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, this one delves into psychology, history, science, business and politics. But unlike his previous volumes, this book also includes underlying faith-related themes. What’s more, Gladwell acknowledges that in the process of writing the book, he rediscovered his own Christian faith after having drifted away.
The book comes at the idea of power from the side of those usually considered at a disadvantage. He suggests, for example, that in some situations, coming from a traumatic childhood or having a disability may actually give a person the upper hand. Among other stories, Gladwell tells of people facing great adversity who were able to do extraordinary things because, like David confronting Goliath, they were armed with faith.
Gladwell was raised in a Mennonite family in Canada, but admits that he had drifted from his Christian roots. Researching and writing this book, however, “brought me back into the fold,” he said.
“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,” Gladwell said in an interview with Religion News Service (RNS). “I am in the process of rediscovering my own faith again.”
When asked by the interviewer if he would now call himself a Christian, Gladwell answered, “I would.” He has long had a disclosure statement on his website describing his perspective on life, and one of the declarations there is “I believe in God.” But now, his theism is specifically tied to Christianity.
The interviewer also asked Gladwell if he’d had “some kind of personal conversion experience.” The author replied, “I realized what I had missed. It wasn’t an ‘I woke up one morning’ kind of thing. It was a slow realization [of] 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.”
More on this story can be found at these links:
The Big Questions
1. What has been your own experience of faith in God and Christ? Has it been a constant reality in your life, or have there been undulations — ups and downs? If the latter, what does that mean?
2. Do you think Gladwell’s research for his most recent book would have drawn him to become a Christian if he did not already have a Christian background? Why or why not?
3. To what degree is faith in God a decision of the will rather than an assurance of the heart? Is our faith any less effective if it is a matter of choice rather than a matter of inspiration? Can faith be both?
4. In what sense does faith give one power? Is it merely “faith,” or does it have to be faith in Christ Jesus? Explain your answer. Discuss the following: Technically, faith always has an object; it is faith in someone or something .
5. In what ways is faith liberating? Does faith create a burden or relieve burdens? Does it sometimes do both? Explain your answer.
6. To what degree should faith be supported by reasonable grounds for belief? Should faith ever be belief against material evidence to the contrary?
Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Proverbs 22:6 (NIV)
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. (For context, read 22:5-6.) This verse should not be read as an iron-clad guarantee — most of us know of people brought up in the faith who departed permanently from it. But there is a truth that Christian faith taught early and modeled well by adults is not forgotten even if it is forsaken.
TWW team member Cliff Harrington comments, “Proverbs tells us to ‘train a child in the way he should go … and when he is old he won’t depart from it.’ It appears to me that the use of the world ‘should’ is remarkably strategic. The Scripture does not say ‘… in the way you’ve learned over the years,’ or ‘in the way that you deem is best,’ or any other linguistic form that would allow us to ignore God’s way. I take the word ‘should,’ in this case, to mean there is an unnegotiable way that should be planted in our hearts and minds as children. I’m intrigued that the language of that verse does not set a standard of perfection. It’s as though the writer understands that we humans can know what we should do, and even acknowledge what we should do, and still opt to do that which we shouldn’t do.”
Harrington adds, “Yet, the writer also seems to understand that wisdom comes with maturity, and with maturity and wisdom comes a desire to do what we ‘should’ do. … I think Malcolm Gladwell would be Exhibit A in an argument that his parents were good teachers of God’s way. Somewhere in his being, there were some lessons about what he ‘should’ do, and he himself links that to his Mennonite upbringing.”
I believe; help my unbelief! (For context, read 9:14-29.) This statement is from a father whose son had dangerous seizures. He brought the boy to Jesus and asked if Jesus could help. Jesus responded that all things can be done for the one who believes. At that, the father replied, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
That divided-mind answer is probably characteristic of many followers of Jesus if truth be told. Many people lean strongly toward Jesus and work to follow him, while at the same time, they have competing thoughts of uncertainty. Some say that such a divided mind is a description of what it means to be human.
The point to note from the story, however, is that this certain-uncertain expression of faith was enough. Based on it, Jesus was able to heal the man’s son.
But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. (For context, read 24:13-35.) This comment was made by one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, following the crucifixion of Jesus. The two were talking to another “man” whom they met on the road, who was, in fact, the resurrected Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him. The comment above was an expression, at least, of deep disappointment, but probably also of faith lost. “But we had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel” (that is, the Messiah). What’s unsaid is, “But now the one in whom we had believed — and thus our hope — is gone.”
Jesus, still unrecognized, then accepted their invitation to dine with them, and as he blessed bread and gave it them, they suddenly knew who he was. Surely that was a faith-returning moment.
TWW team member Frank Ramirez says, “When I was in college and read this gospel story, I suddenly realized I could look back and find Jesus walking with me, even when I was unaware of his presence. This event took place 3,000 miles from home, reading the New Testament in a tent while traveling with other college students performing a play for various congregations and camps about the founding of our denomination. Since then I have tried to be aware I am walking on the road to Emmaus, and I should assume Jesus is walking with me.”
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. (For context, read 14:1-7.)
When Jesus speaks of the “heart” in the verse above, we usually assume he is talking solely about feelings. However, in that day, the word heart, kardia (from which we get “cardiac”), was thought to be more the seat of rational thought than of feelings.
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (For context, read 2:6-15.)
These verses present a good definition of what it means to be a Christian — having received Christ, continuing to live our lives in him, rooted and built up in him, established in the faith, as the result of teaching by the church and family.