With God and good strategy on our side

June 10, 2012

Michelangelo’s David. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

While researching for today’s David and Goliath sermon, I came across this Malcolm Gladwell article from the New Yorker, published a few years ago. I don’t have time to work this information into the sermon, but I recommend the article. It’s not a theological analysis of the story—that’s what us preachers are for, after all. But it is a fascinating strategic analysis of the story.

It turns out, according to research, that in the world outside of the Bible, the “Davids” often beat the “Goliaths,” especially when they pursue David’s unconventional strategy of refusing to play to an opponent’s strength.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”…

Gladwell illustrates the success of this approach with examples from warfare to business to basketball.

And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,” the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. “The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,” the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.” Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.” David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

This discussion of strategy, I believe, is completely compatible with the theology of the biblical story. When Saul asks David why he should send this inexperienced, undersized, under-equipped teenager to fight a man too fearsome for Israel’s bravest warrior, David describes his experience as a shepherd, defending his sheep from bears and lions—even killing the predators with his bare hands if necessary. Nevertheless, David says, “The Lord who rescued me from the power of both lions and bears, will rescue me from the power of this Philistine.”

Does a good strategy give David the victory over Goliath? Yes. Does God give David a victory over Goliath? Yes. It’s not either God does or we do. It’s both/and at the same time. God’s actions are not in competition with human action. This grace-filled cooperation between God and human beings is an example, I would argue, of a doctrine that is close to the hearts of us Wesleyan Christians—”synergism.” David seems to instinctively get this, and he didn’t even go to seminary!

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