The Power of Story
Three speakers at the Calvin University January Series shared how narratives can be powerful in shaping how we live and act. James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, for example, has co-written a novel that highlights the problems that can occur when nations aren’t having honest conversations and sharing points of view.
Another speaker was Colum McCann, a National Book Award-winning author who started a program linking young people in a small town in Kentucky with students at a school in the Bronx borough of New York City. They share their stories and find ways through the narratives of their lives to get to know one another better.
And a third speaker was N.T. Wright, a well-known New Testament scholar. He spoke about the book of Galatians and how Paul, its author, used his writing to sketch dimensions of heaven in the here and now, not as a merely spiritual place where we will go when we die.
Here is a look at what each had to say.
In his presentation Stavridis said that he “understands the mind of Vladimir Putin” and that Putin “deeply hates the United States because of the role he believes we played in the ending of the Soviet Union.”
Ever since he took over as leader of Russia, Putin, a former KGB agent, has wanted to restore the Soviet Union, with Russia as its hub, employing its power to keep the countries in his region of the world in line.
“We see the ending of the Soviet Union as the end of an evil empire, while [Putin] sees it as a tragedy and as the destruction of everything he worked for as a young man,” said Stavridis.
“Putin does all he can to create dissonance. He wants to demonstrate that Russia is powerful and that the U.S. is weak.”
Just recently, for example, Putin has sent more than 100,000 troops to deploy along the Ukrainian border. Ostensibly, his goal is, one way or another, to keep Ukraine within his sphere of influence and prevent it from pursuing a more democratic future and joining the European Union, noted Stavridis.
“There is a pretty good chance that Putin will invade over the next few weeks,” Stavridis said.
Stavridis served as commander of the U.S. Southern Command, with responsibility for all military operations in Latin America from 2006 to 2009.
From 2009 to 2013, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations as Supreme Allied Commander, overseeing Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, counter piracy, and cyber security.
After his military career, he served for five years as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. In 2016, Stavridis was vetted as a potential vice-presidential candidate by the Hillary Clinton campaign.
After the 2016 election, President-elect Donald Trump requested to meet with Stavridis to discuss a possible cabinet-level position in his administration.
In his presentation, Stavridis also touched on a variety of troubles threatening world security: the rising dominance of China; the increasing problems of cyber attacks against businesses and countries and other entities; the growing, increasingly dangerous volatility facing nations in Africa; the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria; and the threats posed by Iran.
In a brief review of a novel that Stavridis coauthored, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, the Wall Street Journal commented, “One of the messages of this book is that war is utterly unpredictable and that opportunist adversaries of the U.S. are likely to play important roles in any widening confrontation.”
In 2015, Irish novelist Colum McCann visited Israel and Palestine with a peacemaking group. It was a compelling experience, he said, but he didn’t expect to have his heart broken and his writer’s soul touched deeply by what happened near the end of the trip.
“It was a rainy and cold day when we walked up a staircase and came into a room and then listened to the stories of two men, one an Israeli and the other a Palestinian,” said McCann. “They told us how they had lost their daughters and how they came together in order to use the force of their grief as a weapon [for peace].”
In this way, said McCann, he was struck by the enduring, transformational power of telling stories. In this shared story two men were striving to push against the darkness, fighting back against the pessimism that can seem to engulf the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.
McCann said that when he returned home, something kept nagging at him, and he decided to go back again and again to talk to the men, to hear and probe their entire stories.
“Hearing the stories of these two men reminded me of the nuclear power of storytelling. I believe the force of their stories put a crack in the world, a crack in everything so that the light gets through,” he said. “Are we available when the light gets through? What happens when the world comes tumbling down on us?”
From his visits with Rami Elhanan, an Israeli graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian scholar and previous political prisoner, along with other research he did, McCann wrote the 2020 novel Apeirogon, which, consisting of 1001 short sections, tells how the two central figures bond over the untimely and devastating deaths of their respective daughters.
“Our stories connect us to the world, but too many people these days are saying that their stories are right and [others’] are wrong,” he said.
“It’s a matter of ‘you staying away from my truth.’ The emphatic possibilities are walled off,” he said.
So McCann wrote the novel, thinking of how stories – when told faithfully – can create paths of understanding between people.
This idea also inspired him toward cofounding Narrative 4, a program that began by linking young people in Kentucky and partner students in New York City with a chance to tell their stories to one another and then to retell the stories that their partners told to them.
Today, Narrative 4 brings together young people from all over the world to walk in one another’s shoes. The program seeks to develop a generation of radically empathetic leaders, facilitating the sharing of over 48,000 stories across 20 states and 12 countries.
“This is storytelling from the ground up. It is emergent storytelling,” said McCann. “In this day and age, gathering together to tell our stories to one another might be one of the only things that can save us.”
In our storytelling, he said, we are not “as stupid as our political parties or news organizations think us to be. Learn to listen and retell the stories of others. In the right hands, stories can work miracles.”
In the New Testament book of Galatians, the apostle Paul writes to members of the early church who were contending – as we are today – with a world filled with idols, said biblical scholar N.T. Wright.
Speaking virtually from his study in Great Britain, Wright described an early church that was oppressed on the one hand by Rome and its growing cult that considered Caesar a god, and on the other hand by Jews who didn’t agree with Christians that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
“The central argument of [Galatians] is ‘Who are the true children of God?’” said Wright, who was appearing as a January Series speaker for the sixth time. “This is where the true story of Israel, however paradoxical, lands.”
At the time Galatians was written, he said, the Christians in what is today southern Turkey were being pressed by Jewish leaders to have their adherents, who were Gentiles, circumcised – and Paul argued passionately that this was not necessary.
“Paul was calling Christians to serve the one, real living God” – the God who opened his arms to people of all nations and didn’t demand circumcision, said Wright.
This was a time when the Jews were not required to worship Caesar and could worship more or less as they pleased. But then this group of Christians came along, and the Jews and Romans weren’t sure what to do with them, said Wright.
In addition, this “ramshackle” group of Christians were living in a new kingdom brought to life by the death of Christ and his resurrection.
“What Paul was writing about was the launch of God’s new creation in the present moment,” said Wright. “The Mosaic law was being set aside, and faith in God was replacing it.”
Wright continues this discussion in his new book Galatians, described as “an excellent resource for individual readers and for those preparing to teach or preach on Galatians.”