Commonweal reviews An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology and Life of William Stringfellow by Anthony Dancer:
William Stringfellow is one of the most intriguing modern American theologians, but you’re far from alone if you haven’t heard of him. Rowan Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, Jim Wallis, and Daniel Berrigan have all been influenced by his work, yet since his death in 1985, Stringfellow’s legacy has been sorely under-appreciated and his writings far too little sought after.
Anthony Dancer’s new book, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow, will help change that. It takes us from Stringfellow’s working-class upbringing in Massachusetts, to his coming-of-age in the 1950s as a Christian student leader, through his move from Harvard Law School to practicing law among the poor in East Harlem, and ends with the publication of his important 1973 book, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.
The strength of Stringfellow’s theology lies in his exploration, specifically within the context of the Cold War-era Pax Americana, of the worldly “principalities and powers” described in the New Testament. Stringfellow saw these malign spiritual forces at work in the most familiar of secular and religious institutions—in IBM, in the popularity of Marilyn Monroe, and even in Billy Graham’s crusades—as well as in all the -isms that seek to shape how we think and act. They’re idols, “impostors of God.” Stringfellow’s work poses a challenge to the imagination, and manifests a refusal to confuse things as they are with how they could or should be. We confuse a Hallmark card with actual love, and next year’s car model with actual progress. For Stringfellow, the gospel calls us to something better. He gives a wildly creative, occasionally funny, and often disturbing picture of a world upside-down and a gospel right-side-up. His apocalypticism is far more akin to the Book of Revelation’s hope-amid-empire than the Left Behind-style sci-fi prophecies of rapture so popular among Evangelicals today.
A lifelong Episcopalian and inveterate Bible-thumper, Stringfellow was a Protestant in the most etymological sense. He saw Christianity as a call to dissent. The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth recognized this, and urged an audience at the University of Chicago in 1962 to “Listen to this man!”
The best introduction to William Stringfellow’s uncommon writings is still Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s reader, A Keeper of the Word. Once you fall under Stringfellow’s spell, as I did almost immediately several years ago, you’ll feel as grateful for what Dancer has given us as I do.