In the last few weeks I’ve spent a good bit of time in Acts, and more than a little of it on the story of the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 6-7). The more I read it, the more I’m struck by its profoundly explosive nature, and especially how it stands as a witness against what we commonly think of as “narrative theology.”
Stephen’s “defense” (a more profound misnomer I’m hard pressed to think of) recounts the whole story of Israel in a new way, a deeply offensive way. Indeed there is nothing defensive about his speech. His constant emphasis is that God’s people have consistently rejected God’s agents and God’s actions and have refused to obey. All this culminates in their rejection of Jesus, the presence of God himself. This is very crucial to see: Stephen tells the story of God’s people against themselves. He narrates their history as a history of their failure and refusal of God’s intentions and actions. In effect, his telling of the story of Israel is his own attempt to rob them of their assumed possession of that story.
It is a common tenet of most accounts of narrative theology that the telling of stories is crucial to how communities fashion and shape their life. We tell our stories as myths that support and sustain us; our telling of our story is a source of coherence, stability, and formation. Stories are meant to reinforce, strengthen, form us into a common identity, and that is how the church is directed to appropriate its Scriptures and traditions.
Interestingly, Stephen does the exact opposite of what we normally think of as “narrative theology.” He tells their story to literally “undo” them and all they have built themselves up to be. He claims that what God’s people have made of themselves is a failure so great that they have become the very murders of God come among them. He tells their story, not to shape, form, and maintain a community, but rather to blow the hinges off the doors that enclose this community (note that this whole conflict arises out of a controversy involving religious/cultural divisions, cf. 6:1). In his witness to the Gospel, Stephen explodes the very story that secures them, that binds them together. He is not building up, he is out to destroy. To destroy in the service of the new creation which the Gospel proclaims, to be sure, but this proclamation cannot simply be accepted (or “overaccepted”) into the existing narrative inscription, rather a break, a fracture must occur if the Gospel is to be truly spoken of and lived.
What Stephen’s opponents cannot see, and what they violently (cf. 7:54, 57) refuse to see or hear is the freedom that Stephen’s destructive narration has to offer them. The event of the resurrection, and the judgment it speaks is too much for them. They cannot accept anything other than the Old World run by Death, which is the weapon they choose to use against Stephen. And yet in the very event of wielding the power of death to try to silence his witness, the reality of the resurrection and its repetition in the martyr-witness of Stephen is made only too clear, as he dies willingly, with words of forgiveness for his killers, seeing and testifying to nothing other than the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands at the right hand of the Father.