March has come and gone. Still working on my admittedly low bar of 24 books for the year. Last month’s offerings:
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
Only having experienced Malcolm Gladwell’s writing in “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, I thought of him as a guy who is a good writer who uses interesting stories (often true life ones so he claims) to state rather obvious themes and conclusions. These conclusions may not always be scientific.
The main thematic thrust of his “David and Goliath” book is in the title: smaller organizations and/or individuals can often “win” against bigger organizations or bloated corporations because they are leaner and meaner (one of the reasons would be a lack of bureaucracy). A person walking down the street may be able to spout this off the top of their head but Gladwell makes the concept sound fascinating, dressing up his message in clever analogies and accounts, while sounding profound in the process. As the book moves on, particularly toward the back half, the reader becomes less and less convinced that the information Gladwell is selling and the analogies he drenches throughout his narrative necessarily line up with what he wanted to do from the outset.
Gladwell talks about underdogs playing basketball, how a significant percentage of CEOs and other leaders have dyslexia, children who lose parents, students who attend mediocre schools and even individuals who are discriminated against. His argument remains that these disadvantages can be turned to advantages hence the Biblical account of David slaying the giant. Some of his writing seems a little neat and tidy compared with the roadblocks that society puts in front of some people that is entirely out of their control.
All of this to say, there are still fascinating gleanings that we can take from the work. I have read the actual Biblical account of David and Goliath dozens of times and have heard sermons on the encounter between the shepherd’s boy and the giant Philistine but I have not delved into the expert analysis of the episode. To be sure, Gladwell is not representing even the mid-range of scholarly commentary at the beginning of this book when he talks about David and Goliath but the ideas he brings out of the text are interesting to consider. He theorizes (as others have) that Goliath had poor eyesight while being an intimidating brute in combat. The poor eyesight condition, according to Gladwell, could have come from acromelagy, a disease of the pituitary gland. Gladwell also talks about the necessary component of “slingers” in those battle times and those would be individuals who had slingshots to fire at the opposing armies and some perhaps could sling a rock from 200 yards toward their target. There are other issues that are not addressed by Gladwell (as Goliath wearing a helmet and why not?). Some even ponder if Gladwell chose the right “moral” to bring out of the David and Goliath account.
If someone enjoys Gladwell’s work, they probably will enjoy this book. For others or for those compelled to learn more about David and Goliath, I would recommend looking elsewhere.
Here are some quotes:
“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”
“Any fool can spend money. But to earn it and save it and defer gratification—then you learn to value it differently.”
“We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.”
“The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”
“When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave.”
Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell
The inaugural book by Rob Bell came out in 2005. The popular author/ speaker and occasionally controversial pastor has had quite the interesting spiritual journey since then. As I was reading this book, I realized I could refer to this as the period of Bell’s life when he was more orthodox in his Christian faith.
That doesn’t mean that Bell doesn’t significantly challenge the status quo and that “Velvet Elvis”, while meandering around in parts, is not a good read. To the contrary, Bell introduces important concepts to re-visualize the Christian faith while being fairly bold with his own doubts and struggles while being a mega-church pastor. This book simply felt different from anything that a mega-church pastor would write. More raw, real and honest.
The “Velvet Elvis” is reportedly a figure that Bell had in his basement. A relic. Out of date. He compares this old figure with the American church.
The book continues with Bell describing the doctrines of the Christian faith (which he affirms, if questions, in the book) as akin to the springs on a trampoline from the outset of the book. People are jumping (experiencing) the doctrines on the trampoline and inviting others to join in. A kind of cheesy metaphor but Bell starts here at the outset of the book before launching into his challenges of “American Christianity” while not really explicitly saying that is what he is doing. He calls the different segments of his book “movements”.
Different episodes are captured such as when he is wrecked by doubt between services on Easter. Is Christianity actually even true? He contemplated getting in his car and driving away between services while he was intensely doubting and struggling.
Questions, grace, forgiveness, phony pastors, salvation all are covered in Bell’s book. The best thing about the work is Bell’s knowledge of Judaism and how he repeatedly uses the facts of Jewish cultural traditions to illustrate Jesus’ teachings and bring different elements of the gospel alive.
I don’t agree with Bell on a lot theology currently and that is why I liked this book. As I mentioned, this is the period of Rob Bell where he was more orthodox. While he always has challenging and interesting thoughts rather on paper or on his podcast (the Robcast), a part of me wishes he would circle back around to an embrace of these few baseline beliefs of the Christian faith.
“Velvet Elvis” is a smooth and conversational read that will both challenge and affirm faith in Jesus.
Here are some quotes:
“If there is a divine being who made everything, including us, what would our experiences with this being look like? The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. And if we made him up, then we are in control. And so in passage after passage, we find God reminding people that he is beyond and bigger and more.”
“Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.”
“Whether we are reading the Bible for the first time or standing in a field in Israel next to a historian and an archaeologist and a scholar, the Bible meets us where we are. That is what truth does.”
“Think about some of the words that are used in these kinds of discussions, one of the most common being the phrase ‘open-minded.’ Often the person with spiritual convictions is seen as close-minded and others are seen as open-minded. What is fascinating to me is that at the center of the Christian faith is the assumption that this life isn’t all there is. That there is more to life than the material. That existence is not limited to what we can see, touch, measure, taste, hear, and observe. One of the central assertions of the Christian worldview is that there is ‘more’ – Those who oppose this insist that this is all there is, that only what we can measure and observe and see with our eyes is real. There is nothing else. Which perspective is more ‘closed-minded?’ Which perspective is more ‘open?’
“It is such a letdown to rise from the dead and have your friends not recognize you.”
“Whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately a good place and you are not alone, I need a faith that doesn’t deny these moments but embraces them.”
“For Jesus, the question wasn’t, ‘How do I get into heaven?’ but ‘How do I bring heaven here?’
“But the first Christians didn’t see Jesus this way, as if God were somewhere else and then cooked up some way to solve the sin problem at the last minute by getting involved as Jesus. They believed that Jesus was somehow more, that Jesus had actually been present since before creation and had been a part of the story all along.”
“This is why it is so toxic for the gospel when Christians picket and boycott and complain about how bad the world is. This behavior doesn’t help. It makes it worse. It isn’t the kind of voice Jesus wants his followers to have in the world. Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”