Big story, little story

My wife and I recently finished streaming a TV drama that went off the air several years ago after only 30 episodes. The show was gritty and dystopian stuff, about the people of a small town in Kansas trying to survive and adapt after nuclear terrorism destroyed much of the rest of the country. The story wove together numerous subplots involving multiple complex characters, playing out against a background of national conspiracy, chaos, corruption, and looming civil war.

We knew when we started watching that there could be no happily-ever-after. Not with such a wide-ranging premise; not in 30 episodes. We kept watching, however, not only because we found the story and the characters compelling, but because we were curious. Would the writers just leave everything hanging at the end, or try to bring some sense of resolution?

Ultimately, they did both. The question of what would happen to the country as a whole had to be left open-ended. But the writers gave us some smaller victories. The “good guys” were tempted to go deeper into darkness and violence, but refused. An “enemy” saw the light and became an ally. And most importantly, the two main characters successfully completed the heroic mission they had begun. Their courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice allowed the series to end on a hopeful note, even as the larger story remained unresolved.

That’s how it is with big stories. They contain smaller stories within them, each with its own dramatic tension, narrative arc, and possibilities for resolution. A satisfying conclusion to the larger story may seem a long way off. But the resolution of each smaller story points hopefully toward that future.

Something similar could be said about the stories of Scripture.

In previous posts we’ve seen how Stephen, in his testimony before the Sanhedrin, began a highly compressed retelling of the grand story of the people of Israel, beginning with Abraham.

The “big story” of Stephen’s testimony is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise. The “little stories,” to this point, are the interwoven tales of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Because God was with them, even as the big promise remained unfulfilled, they continued to act in faith and hope.

The book of Genesis ends on a positive but open-ended note. It is positive with respect to Joseph’s story: he is reconciled with his brothers, lives to a ripe old age, and gets to see a new generation of babies born.

But it is open-ended with respect to the grand narrative of the promise. He tells his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Gen 50:24). Having said this, he then makes the people swear to bring his bones to the Promised Land when the time comes.

Thus ends Genesis and the narrative cycle of Joseph. The book of Exodus begins with Moses, whose story dominates Stephen’s testimony. Notice the big story / little story distinction as Stephen introduces Moses into the tale:

But as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied until another king who had not known Joseph ruled over Egypt. He dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die. At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful before God. (Acts 7:17-20, NRSV)

Moses had come to occupy such a dominant place in the Jewish imagination that it had become possible to “speak blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 6:11; note how Moses comes before God!). That’s the crime of which Stephen stood accused.

The Sanhedrin would probably not have found much objectionable in Stephen’s summary of Moses’ story, as far as it goes. As we will see, however, the gist of his testimony will be that they have gotten the big story all wrong.

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