Skip to content

The martyrdom of Stephen and narrative theology

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.



  1. mshedden wrote:

    Do you seem the same dynamic at play in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2? Reading through both of the sermon’s briefly before I leave work it seems like there is room for a faithful narrative and unfaithful narrative of the gospel. McClendon’s reading of Acts and narrative theology is that with the power of the Spirit we can faithfully say “this is that.” (I think that is KJV rendering of how he speaks of Joel.)
    Are narrative theologians Peter in Acts 2 or those stoning Stephen in Acts 6-7?

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    I disagree, Halden. Stephen is using narrative to counter narrative. He’s not undoing narrative. The fact that multiple narratives are at play here is part of the great drama of the gospel, and it demonstrates some continuity with the OT and the multiple and contending narratives there. That’s really the whole point: he’s not telling them they’re wrong to have story, but that they have the wrong story.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I didn’t say he was “undoing narrative.”

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Matt, I think Peter is doing fundamentally the same thing as Stephen in his sermon, the crucial difference being the response of the audience. In the case of Peter they are “cut to the heart” and, by the Spirit, respond with repentance. In Stepehen’s case they resist the Spirit (as Stephen says outright) and murder him.

    Its not that there’s no narration going on (obviously there is!), but it seems to me that the point both Peter and Stephen are making is that the death and resurrection of Jesus stand in judgment of our attempts to tell or claim God’s story as our own.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Brad A. wrote:

    Pardon me – you said his use of narrative was undoing narrative theology, but that’s not really true. Stephen here, as Peter and others forcefully do, tells their story truly. This is really what narrative theology’s all about. It’s not just about some uncritical construction, as you seem to suggest here, but about construction and critique both. Stephen fits well in that prophetic tradition.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    What I said was that he was undoing them (the people he was talking to) by telling their story under the judgment of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

    What I see in most narrative theology however is nothing like what Stephen does. It it typically used to critique those outside of the church and stimulate the church’s own inner formation and communal construction.

    Certainly we could (and should!) say that a “true” narrative theology should be more like what Stephen does, namely telling the story of God’s people under the judgment of Jesus’s death and resurrection, through which we, by the Spirit, are given to tell our story “against ourselves”, as I suggested in the post. That’s really the point I’m trying to get at.

    Of course we’re going to be “narrative theologians.” The question is whether we are going to tell the story as something we believe we can “have” with the certainty that we have got it right, or as story that we can never possess, and can only tell by submitting ourselves constantly to judgment, a judgment we cannot control or determine in advance.

    So really what I’m against is not “narrative theology”, since obviously all theology is narrative. Rather I’m against the notion that the true story of God is something apprehendable, that we can possess, on which we can rest then proceed to construct ourselves.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Not saying you necessarily disagree with any of this, just clarifying what I mean.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    I appreciate your point, Halden, and very much share the sentiment. I think your second para here is off, though. The narrative theologians I’ve read are primarily directing their critique at the church, so I don’t really know who you have in mind here. Could you be more specific?

    As to your third paragraph, I’d imagine the story isn’t just against us, but for us, too. Just perhaps in ways we haven’t imagined or aren’t often inclined to. The cross isn’t just judgment, but also grace, of course, so it’s not merely “deconstructive,” but “reconstructive.”

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Brad A. wrote:

    Yeah, I get you.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I should be more clear, there is a sort of critique of the church that is levied by folks like Hauerwas and his followers. But the problem with the critique is that it always couched in terms of the church’s failure to fully embody the story that they already know. Thus, the convential narrative critique of the church’s unfaithfulness is really a critique of forces outside the church (modernity, America, capitalism, liberalism, etc.) that have tainted it and kept it from keeping faithfully to the story that is already internal to it.

    So while it is a critique of the church on the surface, the deep structure of the critique is really directed at that which is “outside” the church and has come to infect it, to make it defect from the story that it thinks it already knows or should know.

    So the upshot of all that is that the adversary is still the “outside” and the church’s own complicity is never fundamental, only incidental, only a function of how badly they have been infected by the “outside.” This seems to me to covertly valorize the church itself, and actually reassert it, and its inherent truthfulness. It may falter when it lets what is not church pollute it, but such faltering is inevitably not truly its own, but rather an infectious attack from without.

    That seems to me to be fundamentally different from what Stephen and Peter are doing. The problem is not “outside” but “inside.” And the event of Christ’s death and resurrection constitute a break, an interruption (which is indeed grace!), which forces the church to let go of its imagined possession of its own story, and learn to tell it everanew in light of the cross and resurrection, a process that I don’t believe we can ever claim to have possessed or mastered (and maybe this is something of the linchpin here).

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  11. kenny chmiel wrote:

    Awesome post, love it!

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  12. christian wrote:

    Does not this being “infected from the outside” that you are attributing to the post-liberals not correlate almost exactly with the apocalyptic vision offered by Paul in Galatians and Romans, wherein we are held captives by the powers of this present evil age?

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Not quite, in that for Paul the powers do not lie spatially outside of the church. They are as much present inside the church as outside of it insofar the church remains captive to the “present evil age”. The differentiation is not a spatial, but an eschatological-apocalyptic one.

    So I think for Paul its not a spatial or geographical problem, wherein the church risks being infected from territory outside it. Rather the problem is that, given that all the territory of the world is enslaved by the powers of the present evil age, God has invaded the world in Christ’s death and resurrection and is now bringing about a new creation by the Spirit. To “fall back in to slavery” as Paul talks about is not so much to be infected from “outside”, but rather to fall back to what had formerly enslaved us in our inmost being, and toward which we are still tempted. Thus it is not a problem that lies “out there” but is just as much “in here.”

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  14. Brad A. wrote:

    Indicting the church for failing to fully embody the story it has been given and knows is not to direct the critique to forces outside it. I think that’s an unjustified leap. Are there forces “outside” that are problematic? Of course. But even there, it’s not a foregone conclusion that God’s people will conform to them, so again, the onus is on the people, not the forces. Hence, the “upshot” as you put it is a misreading: their emphasis is always on the church’s own moves and motivations, in relation to which the “outside forces” are merely occasions.

    Moreover, I think you misunderstand narrative theology where you say “keeping faithfully to the story that is already internal to it.” As I understand narrative theology, it would rather see the church as internal to the story, to use those terms. That’s a big difference in light of your concern, I think.

    So in the end, I don’t think what Stephen and Peter are doing is actually that different.

    As to your response to Christian, this is again one of those places where I think you’ve really misread those against whom you seem always to be striving to define yourself. I don’t read them in that way at all; for instance, I’m immediately reminded of Hauerwas’s statement (quoting Bonhoeffer?) that the line between church and world runs right through the middle of each of us.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  15. Brad A. wrote:

    But Halden, you’re missing the point that in both OT and NT, those things that “formerly enslaved us” have structural outworkings that are considered “outside” the people of God, who are given and even commanded toward structural outworkings conforming to the Kingdom.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Brad, I’m fairly sure I haven’t misread them. I’ve done my homework very throughly, actually. I think we just disagree, and we’ve been over that a lot of times.

    As to what is internal to what, the church or the story, I think that you’re mistaken. Hauerwas is very clear on that point in many places that the narrative of Scripture is given its intelligibility by the church and not vice versa. This is the whole argument of Unleashing the Scriptures and is also apparent in “The Church as Gods New Language” to mention just two examples.

    As you say, Hauerwas does indeed say things about the boundary between the church and the world being permeable, but the point is that such statements are always given as concessions and they don’t make any operational difference in his theological project. Moreover, that gets back to the point I’m making: this issue is not the boundary between the church and the world, but rather between God’s intervention in the world in Christ and the powers of sin and death. To confuse those two is a big part of the problem.

    And in your reply to Christian, I disagree. As does Paul, from I’ve read of him. In Galatians for example it is precisely the Law itself that Paul equates with falling back into slavery to the elemental powers of the cosmos (Gal 4:8ff). That was decidedly something “internal” to the people of God.

    Also, I don’t know if you misread, but my whole point was that Stephen and Peter are doing the same thing, so I’m not sure how you got the idea I was saying something other than that.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  17. Christian wrote:

    Have you read Martinus de Boer’s essay “Paul and Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology”? Matryn draws on it a bit, and I found it extremely helpful. But all of that to say, I wonder if the post-liberal position and the position your advocating are two forms of apocalyptic. One is forensic and the other is cosmic. One places emphasis on volition to overcome what is wrong with the world (in this case, being faithful to our story/being habituated through linguistic practices) and the other places emphasis on the redemptive action of God.

    But what I was thinking was, that I think there is a strong similarity between the post-libs and yourself with regard to the powers control over us. The difference, it seems, is what can be done about that.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  18. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’m just not sure they can be interpreted so monolithically. I learned both the value of, and to be critical of, the church from Hauerwas (and Yoder and others). I’m not convinced he and whoever else you have in mind can fit so easily within the critiques you so often level.

    As to Galatians, yes, Paul is very hard on the “law” there, though (1) I’m not sure he is speaking only of Torah in 4:8 and (2) I’m not sure he’s not critiquing more the current practices associated with Torah rather than the Torah that Jesus actually fulfilled (hence Jesus critiques of practicing Torah in a twisted manner that rendered Israel’s thought and practice akin to the nations, especially to empire). Nevertheless, Paul is one voice of several in the NT, and his stridency at certain points is only one voice in the biblical conversation.

    Friday, June 3, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  19. I was going to make a similar comment that it looks like Brad made above. Although after reading your comment thread, perhaps I’d go in a different direction. Halden writes,

    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.”

    But what Stephen does almost could be seen as corroborating narrative theology, rather than a witness against it. Israel had narrated itself into in one fashion—”a source of coherence, stability, and formation” as you noted—and Stephen is challenging that narrative with a counter-narrative.

    I don’t think “narrative theology” at root is as much about its target or intended audience (church vs. world, as the previous comment thread) so much as about an epistemological position (perhaps “correspondence vs. coherence”). Then after we’ve made that epistemological shift, theology looks differently. The target audience can be any number of folks, and most often seems to be the church itself.

    Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  20. Brad A. wrote:

    Aaron, this is exactly my point in one of my posts above. There is no one to expose here, no one to shoot down with this, no one even to critique, except ourselves as a church. That is precisely what the “narrative theology” I learned from does. Thank you for saying this well.

    Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Aaron, the thing is, he doesn’t offer a “counter-narrative”, rather he offers the same narrative radically fractured by the event of Jesus’s death and resurrection. It is that event that stands in judgment over the people of God’s assumed possession of that story.

    So to be sure, as I said above, this is a sort of “narrative theology”, but it is decidedly different from much of what is proclaimed under that name, which assumes precisely that the church does possess the story in advance. Brad has obviously denied this, which of course he is free to do. I’ve done my best to respond by speaking about what’s actually being said in the Scriptures under discussion, and by pointing to specific relevant sources that do what I’m talking about, showing that there manifestly is something that needs critique. This, of course he has disregarded and dismissed, which of course he’s also free to do. I’m happy to allow people to register their opinions and hear them out, regardless of whether or not they are willing to really engage the substantive issues under discussion.

    Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  22. bruce hamill wrote:

    Thanks Halden the long silences between posts are worth waiting through. Mark Heim picks out the apoclypticity of Stephen’s speech in a Girardian way in his book Saved from Sacrifice.

    Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, I’ll try to keep the gaps shorter. As best I can . . .

    Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  24. roger flyer wrote:

    Great stuff, as usual.

    Sunday, June 5, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  25. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, you know better than to characterize me like that, especially after all the previous discussions we’ve actually had. Not to mention times when I have engaged you substantively, point by point, only to have you stop responding altogether. I’m also tired of you being seemingly unable to offer much in the way of constructive reflection anymore without it also including some sort of slamming of your erstwhile and apparently hopelessly ideological and error-prone teachers. So please save the rhetoric.

    The fact is, Stephen does in certain ways offer a counter-narrative, if you consider the fact that multiple narratives were at work in the OT as evidenced in the prophets. I’m thinking particularly of monarchy vs. covenant. I’m generalizing a bit, but I would read Stephen as hearkening back to the prophetic tradition espousing one view of Israel as centered around Torah-in-covenant, versus a power-based, centralized state view held both in the OT and in the NT. Those whom he critiques here are primarily those whom Jesus critiqued, which are those Jewish persons (mainly in leadership) who used Torah as a source of power over others, just like the nations/empire. That is what Jesus disrupted, not Torah itself, which he clearly affirmed, fulfilled, and surpassed. He is the fulfillment of the narrative in question, not its fracturing. What he subverts is the pretender narratives.

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    Brad, I’m sorry, but in this discussion you have simply stated your disagreement and denied that you think I’m right. And that’s fine. But while I’ve pointed to sources and discussed Scriptures you’ve just continued to simply state your own opinions as undisputed facts, as if you are some sort of omniscient arbiter (“the fact is,” “he clearly affirmed”, “there is . . . no one even to critique”, etc.). Such statements are simply dismissals, not arguments. You can’t demand that I take them as something they are not. Its fine with me if you want to register your disagreement, but please stop pretending that you’re “refuting” me or something. You’re not, you’re just saying you don’t like what I’m saying.

    And I’ve gone point for point with you ad nauseum many many times, so please stop pretending I don’t respond to you. In those discussions, as also seems evident in this one, you simply keep restating your current position and your frustration that I don’t agree with it. You’re certainly free to do that, but again, please don’t act like I’m not responding to you. As is evident in this thread, just like the others, I’ve spend typically far more time and put far more content into my comments in an attempt to respond to you and you continually come back with shorter, sniping comments, that don’t address what I attempted to offer to you in reply (for example when I point out that Hauerwas’s own work explicitly refutes the position you attribute to him, you just ignore it above).

    I also highly recommend you read Roy Harrisville’s Fracture which handily refutes the position you advocate in your second paragraph in great depth.

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  27. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’ve not been discussing scriptures? I thought I was discussing the same passage you were. As to Hauerwas, forgive me for not being more explicit – I think I forgot to in my previous comment. I do see your point on Hauerwas, but I simply don’t interpret his move the same way you do. Saying the church gives the scriptures intelligibility, for instance, is not giving the church control over Scripture, just as Paul explaining that people will only believe the gospel if they hear it doesn’t place the gospel under the control of human discourse. Does H. tend to go further than I would on this point? Yes, a bit, but not enough that I can’t appreciate his general point and leave the rest. You and I disagree there, and that’s fine.

    I have not sniped here – brief comments above were not intended as snarky, but as brief comments. Perhaps I view the blog too much as conversation and not as much as ongoing, continuously cited argument. It’s not a medium I usually rely on for the latter as much as the former.

    I appreciate the time you put into responding to me here; I’m sorry, but with a family and moving (and with my books packed) I’m not in a position to offer much more than the conversation above. Perhaps I should refrain entirely from this point on. My greater concern, which you have not yet acknowledged, is the unceasing, derogatory treatment you give Hauerwas and his students whenever you make any substantive post (beyond quoting somebody you like). By all means critique as necessary, but surely you have something more constructive to offer that doesn’t hinge on disparagement.

    I’ll have to check out Harrisville and juxtapose him to the rest of my research.

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    Actually Hauerwas does say that the church controls the meaning of Scripture, and goes so far as to say “the church creates the meaning of Scripture” in Unleashing the Scriptures. But enough on that.

    I am not even slightly convinced that my comments are derogatory in any way toward those I critique (except may a couple towards some of the First Things-type folks, I’ll admit to that). Disagreement, even strong disagreement is not the same thing as being demeaning and it is incorrect for you to conflate them thusly. In fact it renders you guilty of what you accuse me of.

    And seriously, you really think I’m being too mean to Hauerwas and his followers? The theological school that has made its bread and butter railing unceasingly against modernity, protestant liberalism, and conservative evangelicalism? Come on, Hauerwas in particular has built a professional personality around being an abrasive rhetorical shotgun, and his students, in their own ways have followed suit. You’ve got a serious double standard here.

    Finally, I am doing constructive work in these posts, but you don’t ever seem interested in doing it with me. See, I actually wanted this post to be about Stephen’s martyrdom, and how it might inform the way we think about what it means for the church to tell its story against itself. That was what I was really interested in, not so much hopping in the ring about Hauerwas or whatever. This is why I didn’t spend time naming names or trying to really zero in on specific subjects of critique in the post. I was really more interested in talking about what we can learn from the text. But all I get is “Move along, everybody, nothing to see here. Nothing wrong with Hauerwas etc., can we please just stop talking about it?”

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  29. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Nice, Halden!

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  30. Brad A. wrote:

    Come on, Halden. I was engaging with Stephen. Go back and trace the comments. But you’re also using Stephen to undercut certain contemporary narrative theologies, so I was attending to that, too. Had you stayed with Stephen, I would have as well.

    As to disagreement vs. disparagement, I managed a Ph.D. as an Anabaptist-influenced evangelical in a Catholic university, while developing enduring friendship with my fellow students of various theological stripes. I think I get the difference (and how does supposedly conflating the two make me guilty of one or the other – calling you on something is not to demean you, after all). Perhaps I’m reading you anymore too narrowly through your “apocalyptic” trajectory and previous statements, or perhaps including conversation from other sources (FB or personal conversation) when I should just stay with what occurs on this blog. If I’ve done either of those unduly, I apologize. (And for the record, I don’t stomach disparagement well from any “side” of these disputes, and I bring up the issue whenever I think it’s necessary in whatever context–though I’m not friends with Hauerwas so I haven’t mentioned it to him, no.) I also haven’t hesitated to critique Hauerwas in my own work, so suggesting I’m wanting to avoid talking about such doesn’t make much sense to me. That said, I’m going to bow out now, since I don’t think anything mature or helpful is coming out of our conversation anymore.

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  31. Halden wrote:

    Ok, fine. But for the record your “engagement” with Stephen and the other Scriptures i brought up consisted of repeatedly saying “I don’t see it” or “I’m not convinced.” Which again, that’s fine. By all means register your disagreement. But that’s different than “engaging” in a serious sense. That’s all.

    To accuse someone of being unceasingly derogatory (falsely), coupled with your consistently paternalistic and condescending tone (how I’m “constantly trying to define myself” against people, about how I “know better”, and am “seemingly unable” see what is so obvious to clear thinking people like yourself, etc.) is what was actually derogatory, that’s why I mentioned it.

    It would be one thing if you called me on something accurately and demonstrated that. But all you have in fact done is register your disagreement and talk down to me and make false accusations about how I’m allegedly doing nothing other than maliciously belittling people. Sorry for not just rolling over and taking it.

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  32. Brad A. wrote:

    Forgive me for going against my own bowing out here, but if you read the entire first stream of our conversation on this post, I hardly think you can fairly characterize it as you do in your first paragraph here. We engaged on several substantive points. And forgive me for any tone of paternalism or condescension (which you are not immune to yourself, my friend); it was not intended at all, but was merely me registering my continued discomfort with the way discussions here continue to be framed. To be paternalistic, I’d have to look down on you, Halden, and I don’t look down on you in the least.

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  33. I’ve been struggling through the way that I approach and use the scriptures and my understanding of inspiration. This post was a great read for me.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site