Formative: Malcolm Gladwell

When I first began to learn about how our culture was shifting/had shifted from modernity to postmodernity, I became very intrigued with the idea that narrative was replacing proposition as the means by which information and truth was transferred.

The fundamentalism in which I grew up, especially in Bible college, loved proposition. We were taught that the Bible is propositional truth and that God revealed himself (and it was always “himself”) through propositional statements. Any stories in the Bible simply served as a vehicle for propositional statements about God. 

That approached worked in modernism, but we aren’t living in the modernism any more. For myriad reasons, we think differently now. And narrative has replaced proposition. This really changed how I read the Bible, opening up for me new and wonderful appreciation for both God and the story of reconciliation told in the Bible.

I was embracing this shift on an intellectual, dare I say propositional, level, but I wasn’t always clear about what it would look like in the real world and how it would impact more disciplines than just biblical studies … until I read Malcolm Gladwell.


Every once in a while I have a strange experience. A book will get mentioned to me by different people in different contexts several different times. About 5 years ago, that happened with Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. My boss asked me if I had read it. Then I heard about it on NPR. Then I read an article that referenced it. Then I saw a friend reading it. I’ve learned that whenever this happens, God or the universe or something is trying to get me to read this book. And so I bought and devoured The Tipping Point. And I’ve devoured all of Gladwell’s books since. (Here‘s where I blogged about a couple of them.)

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of four books as well as numerous articles in The New Yorker and other places. He is a fascinating man with an interesting look. His mother is Jamaican, but he spent much of his growing up years in Canada. After failing to get into graduate school and failing to land a job in advertising, he began writing. And the world is better for it.

A couple of years ago, Vanessa and I heard Gladwell speak in Fayetteville, and it was amazing.

Gladwell writes and speaks about academic and scholarly research. He examines statistics and surveys. He recounts theories and tests the relationships between ideas. He is a brainiac … who is thoroughly grounded in reality.

You see, when Gladwell writes about some big idea or some new research, he doesn’t throw a set of propositions at you, nor does he simply list statistics in mind-numbing monotony. Instead, Malcolm tells stories.

When Gladwell wants to explore success and achievement, as he does in Outliers for instance, he doesn’t merely list test scores, he weaves together captivating stories of people who have become successful in life, skillfully using statistics to underscore the point. In Blink, for instance, when he explores what makes a song popular, he tells colorful stories about the people who make music rather than putting the black-and-white notes on a page through the scientific method.

formative malcolm gladwell


In Gladwell, we find a more expressive, compelling, and contemporary way to pass along information and to make it memorable. His books have made me a better preacher, teacher, and father. He has helped me to see how a very important idea – that narratives have supplanted propositions – can come alive. And for that, he has been formative to me.

How about you – have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s books? What did you think about his style?

Get the whole Formative blog series here.



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