Center for Strategic Communication

By Jeffry R. Halverson

I’ll admit that I slip sometimes in everyday conversation and use the word “story” as a synonym for “narrative.” A lot of people do it. But I should know better. There’s an important difference between the two. For the average conversation the difference doesn’t really matter much. However, when it comes to strategic communication and understanding the role of narrative in messaging strategies, it’s a distinction that has to be made.

Explaining the difference between a story and a narrative can easily get bogged down in academic jargon. Eyes will glaze over. There might be some dismissive comments about the “ivory tower.” I think I can avoid this with a good example that illustrates the differences.

First, I want to give you a definition of narrative. We have a detailed definition in our book Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). But since we’re avoiding academic language here, let’s abbreviate it by defining narrative simply as a “system of stories.” That means that narratives are composed of multiple stories that relate to one another.

The aforementioned book also provides a nice academic definition of “story.” But again to keep things moving, I’ll abbreviate that too. Let’s define story simply as an “event unit.” It relates the ‘who, where, when and how’ of an event that occurred (or will occur if we’re talking about ‘prophecy,’ although prophecy is prefaced as something ‘revealed’ in the past). A narrative is made up of several of these interrelated “event units” that work together as a system. There’s no maximum number, but there is a minimum (at least two). And the system isn’t exclusive either. A narrative can have stories added, subtracted, and swapped out. Confused? Let’s get to that great example I told you about.

Talk to your average Christian at church on Sunday morning and ask him or her to tell you the “story” of Jesus (by which you actually mean “narrative”). The response is what we’ll call the “Jesus narrative.” Most readers probably already know the narrative. You’ve seen it depicted in a movie or two or three. It’ll start with Jesus being miraculously born to a virgin, Mary. The virgin birth (no, it’s not called the Immaculate Conception – that’s Mary’s birth, honest) is a story. It’s one story that operates within the system of stories that makeup the Jesus narrative.

Now if you open a Bible while you’re at church, you’ll find that the New Testament contains four different narratives about the life and mission of Jesus Christ. We call them the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Each one of these Gospels contains similar but different narratives, which is why the Church fathers decided to include four Gospels instead of one. For example, the story (event unit) of the virgin birth is found in only two of the Gospels, namely Matthew and Luke. We won’t find it in the narratives of Mark or John. As you’ll recall, narratives aren’t exclusive. That means that when you ask someone at church to tell you about Jesus, the stories from all four Gospel narratives can come together to form a coherent system of stories, the Jesus narrative.

Let’s take another example. When I was a kid attending Risen Christ Lutheran Church in Rochester, New York, I was taught the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the one that starts, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Jesus teaches this prayer to his disciples in the Jesus narrative. But again, if you pick up the Bible, you’re only going to find that story in the narratives of Matthew and Luke. You won’t find it in Mark and John. Additionally, the “Lord’s Prayer” I was taught, the one Christians use every week at Church, is only found in Matthew (6: 9-13).  It’s much shorter in Luke. This story unit from the Matthew narrative is freely incorporated with the stories of John, Luke, and Mark to form the system of stories we know as the Jesus narrative.

Seeing the distinctions between stories and narratives may sound like academic nit-picking. But it’s essential when it comes to organizing and making sense of narrative and the way people deploy or use them. Stories are pieces that can come and go, change, and morph, but the narrative remains.

When the narrative shows great resilience, we have “master narratives,” meaning narratives that have endured the test of time and become deeply embedded in culture. These are the most important narratives in strategic communication. People make use of them all the time. The American Revolution is a master narrative that we learn in grade school civics class, and it’s composed of a lot of stories like Paul Revere’s ride, Washington crossing the Delaware, the Boston Tea Party, and so on.  A modern political group calls itself the “Tea Party,” using revolutionary slogans, dressing up in period costumes, and so on.  They don’t do that for nothing:  Their aim is to invoke the values, thinking, and grievances of the American Revolution in the minds of people they hope to persuade.

When we look at the way extremists utilize master narratives, we can see the dynamics of the story system working. An extremist may invoke a master narrative as a whole while ignoring some stories it contains, to better serve his or her ideological goals.  For example, Islamist extremists like to call the U.S. and other Western countries Christian “crusaders” and liken themselves to the Muslim champion Saladin. However, Saladin was actually allied with Byzantine Christians against the Crusaders of the Holy Roman Church. It was hardly a cosmic clash of civilizations.

Recognizing these kinds of inconvenient stories allows us to subvert, refute, and disrupt extremists’ use of  narratives, perhaps by promoting a different variation of the story system that challenges their own.

* Jeffry R. Halverson is an Islamic studies scholar and an Assistant Research Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. He is the author of Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam (Potomac 2012), and co-author of Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism (Palgrave Macmillan 2011).