Transformers, Terrorism, and the Power of Narrative

As a freshman dorm Resident Assistant, my job was to create a sense of community among 26 new students who had never met each other. Of all the goofy things I attempted, what caused my guys to gel most immediately was something I posted on my wall. That is not Facebook talk–Mark Zuckerberg was still in middle school at this point. I actually printed up something and tacked it to the wall. The essay was called “I am a child of the 80’s” and spoke of G.I. Joe and Transformers, Daisy Duke and Scooby Doo, Tang and fruit roll-ups, AIDS and the Challenger explosion. As the freshmen hovered around the essay something clicked communally–even though we did not yet know one another, we shared the same cultural story.

In short, we learned the power of narrative.

This power reaches far beyond freshman camaraderie. The event children of the 2000’s experienced together, 9/11, sent us scrambling to figure out what would possess a person to fly an airplane into a building or blow themselves up in a public market. Now, 13 years later, our understanding of radicalization and extremism boils down to one word: narrative.

Maajid Nawaz, author of Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism, spoke of this power on a recent radio interview as he traced the story of his own radicalization. A British Pakistani, Nawaz’s journey had nothing to do with economic need or even religious convictions. Rather, a charismatic recruiter tapped into his social ostracization, feelings of disempowerment, and crisis of identity and provided what the 16 year-old did not have: a narrative. He framed the world in Islamist terms that made sense to the young man and wrapped all other reality around it. In a short time Nawaz was recruiting others to establish a Muslim state by any means necessary.

This is not an isolated incident. Two professors at Arizona State University have identified 13 such Islamist narratives that recruiters use to “solidify their base, recruit new members, and motivate actions.” Their work is part of a broader emphasis in contemporary counter-terrorism–drawing Islamists out of radicalization with a counter-narrative.

As followers of Jesus, we hold a very specific narrative to be true. We believe God has revealed this in the Bible. It starts “In the beginning,” records the human rebellion that brought a curse on God’s good creation, and traces God’s redemptive engagement with his chosen people. The story climaxes in God becoming one of us to bring about forgiveness of sins and eternal life for his people through his own death and resurrection. We live in the middle of this narrative and anticipate it’s final chapters of Christ’s return and God’s new creation.

If we immerse ourselves in this narrative, it will create community deeper then any cultural experience could–both with current and ancient believers. If we listen to God’s story well, we will hear the call not to violence or domination but to lay down our lives and share our resources with our enemies. If we accept this to be the one true story, we will share it with everyone from our neighbor to disaffected Pakistanis, whether we are countering the American dream or demands for a caliphate.

Maajid Nawaz’s journey out of extremism occurred in an Egyptian jail where he both met a who’s who of imprisoned Islamists and read George Orwell’s parable of totalitarianism, Animal Farm. Considering the men around him, he realized that if “this theocratic caliphate was ever established, it would be a nightmare on earth.” As we share life with neighbors, coworkers, and friends, let us lovingly challenge them to consider the narrative they are living out, why they believe it is true, and how they expect it to end. And let us communicate the good news we embrace not only with words but with action that reflects the kind rule of our Redeemer King.

Pastor Chris

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