The war in Ukraine continues to dominate the newspaper headlines. Rightly so. It is the most important news story of our time.
News story. It’s a story. And stories matter. A lot.
In fact, in times of war, the narrative matters almost as much as what is actually taking place on the ground. Words seem to have as much power as bombs and bullets. Sometimes more.
Indeed, before the conflict started, the argument over narrative was already being waged. In the eyes of some commentators, President Putin’s views on the history of Ukraine and Russia’s relationship to the West were not being taken seriously. Not only that, it was clear that while dialogue was taking place, the two sides simply weren’t hearing each other. The divergent stories created a gulf between Russia and the West.
Now that the conflict has begun, the issue is propaganda – the war over who tells the story, and who hears it. Peter Horrocks, the former director of the BBC World Service, has warned that the BBC is losing the “information war” with the Kremlin . Apparently, Russia and China are outspending the West and winning the propaganda war in Europe. I wonder. Maybe.
And then there are those reports about fake news. A whole series of videos were released recently showing drone footage and even video game footage allegedly drawn from the actual conflict. Not true. Sadly, the disinformation, once out, is hard to counter. Its effects range far and wide.
As the famous saying goes, “The first casualty of war is the truth.”
But perhaps the most heart-breaking stories are those that tell of families divided by conflicting narratives. Recently, I read about a woman from Kharkiv, a city that’s been shelled repeatedly in recent days. She called her mother, who lives in Moscow, with news of the attacks, but was met with disbelief. “The Russian army would never fire on civilians. It’s Ukrainians killing their own people,” said her mother. What disturbed the woman most was the way her mother seemed to repeat verbatim a news item from the Russian state media. “They are just brainwashing people. And people trust them,” the woman lamented. I’ve read that in Russia today, any news channel that uses the words ‘war,’ ‘invasion,’ or ‘attack’ faces the prospect of being taken off air for ‘spreading false information.’
I have only visited Russia once—a day spent mostly in Moscow airport—but I have a close friend who has been affected very badly by these competing narratives. She lived in Russia for many years, speaks Russian, and has many close friends there. She writes, “One of the hardest things for me is when friends for whom I have always had the deepest respect, are adamant that Putin’s intentions are pure. If feels like our family is losing a lifetime of friendships because we simply can’t communicate anymore.” My heart breaks for her.
If there were ever a time to understand the power of story, it is now. During a war.
So why are stories so important? Many reasons. Here are a few.
The stories we tell about ourselves create our national identity. I remember one of my professors once said, ‘Without the Exodus, there is no Israel.’ What an interesting observation. The story of God’s rescue is so important to the Jews that without it, they would cease to be a people. Their very identity depends on an historical event.
Right now, in Ukraine, they are fighting for their national identity, for their right to survive as a nation. The Ukrainians believe they have a right to live as an independent people, a people with a long and proud history. In July 2021, President Putin wrote a long article in which he claimed that Russians and Ukrainians were ‘one people.’ Two stories—completely different, and a war is being fought over which one is correct. (Along with other strategic reasons, of course.)
Stories help us make sense of the world
The big bang, Copernicus’ discovery that the earth orbits the sun, the theory of evolution, they are about much more than science. Each advance has profoundly impacted how we tell the story of the world, and therefore give meaning to our lives.
Just as important is our own creative output, the stories we make up. They help us make sense of the world. All cultures have valued story-telling. Around the campfire, on cave walls, on scrolls, around kitchen tables, in books, on TV and tablets—we have been telling stories since the dawn of time, because they are the means by which we give meaning to the world in which we live. They create order out of chaos.
Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, once wrote,
All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions.
A story that gives hope
If, according to Pullman, all stories teach morality in some form or other, leaders should be familiar with the stories of our culture. They are ‘teaching morality,’ and we are surrounded by them. Leaders should be well informed.
More importantly, however—especially during a war—we need to hold onto the one true, big story that gives hope—the Bible. We tell stories not only to make sense of the world, but to give expression to our longings. That’s why the Bible is the foundational story upon which all other stories are based. Every story in which good triumphs over evil, in which justice wins, or a character overcomes adversity, or finds love—every single one is meaningful because it’s informed by the Bible, with God at the centre. Without God, none of these themes make much sense.
Yet because God does exist and his story is true, they do.
And because of this, there is hope.
Because God is alive and he loves us, there is hope.
There is hope for the people of Ukraine, and hope for the world emerging from a pandemic. Stories are the means by which we put Humpty Dumpty back together again. They help us deal with the suffering of our world, because they express our most profound desires. For love, for peace, for justice, for significance, for the triumph of good over evil. In Russia, in Ukraine, in our own nation.
As leaders, we tell some part of God’s story every Sunday. We’re not explaining laws, or codes of conduct, or giving advice on how to find health and happiness, still less success. We’re helping our people to understand their role in God’s story, and then encouraging them to trust him for the strength, wisdom, and faith needed to play their part well.
Take heart from the truth that all our individual stories are connected in this bigger story of God’s work in this world. No one in church this Sunday is outside the story of God’s great love for his people, for his world. Every last person you see this Sunday is playing a part in a story filled with hope. And the end is so magnificent and certain that whatever may happen today can be faced, because God has already written the ending.
And wow, it’s a fantastic ending.
In fact, it’s the start of a brand new story!