Tom Wright, in his commentary on Acts 7, says, ‘Sometimes a story is the only way of telling the truth.’ (‘Acts For Everyone’ Pt 1, P110) Storytelling is embedded in the Bible, one of the chief ways that God unveils His story to us.
Stories engage us from a very young age. From the repetition and rhyme of many children’s stories through to the great adventure stories and fairy stories which we re-tell to each generation, stories capture our imaginations and enable us to enter a world that is larger and more wonderful than the reality we presently inhabit. Stories open our eyes to the invisible world, not only through fantasy and imagination, but by enabling us to identify with characters and evaluate actions and responses without the defensive wall of protection standing in the way. Think of Nathan’s skilful storytelling piercing David’s sinful defences (2 Samuel 12) or the way Jesus’s simple story of a prodigal son leaves us marvelling at the father’s compassion and love and wondering if the older brother will change his ways or not (Luke 15). Jesus told stories about people which draw us in in oblique fashion; in the words of Emily Dickinson, they ‘tell it slant.’
Stories refresh the parts of the brain which information can’t (to paraphrase a lager advert from the 1970s), and in giving us an apparently random history of Israel, Stephen is actually drawing us into the story of God. We are lulled into thinking this is just a history lesson, and may even be mildly interested in which parts of the story he focuses on and which parts he omits. Nonetheless, his dénouement (Acts 7:51-53) hits us with powerful force. Suddenly, Stephen is no longer talking about the past, which we can comfortably embrace or dismiss as we will. He is back in the present: ‘You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!’ (Acts 7:51) This is the skill of the storyteller – to draw us in as 3rd person observers and then to bring the punchline home with force so that a 1st person ‘now’ response is required. We’re not observers; we’re participants. Jesus’s death was not just a historical fact to be learnt along with the dates of the kings and queens of England; ‘ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers’, as Stuart Townend’s powerful lyrics go (‘How Deep The Father’s Love For Us’). Stephen’s defence, far from being boring or repetitive, is a tour-de-force in storytelling. His death is the proof they got the point.