William Stringfellow: an inconvenient theology

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.

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5 Comments
  1. Rick Benson

    I read Stringfellow decades ago, and was instantly taken with, and inspired by, his insight into the Gospel. For years I kept an upside-down map of the world on the wall, as a reminder that one of the best descriptions of the call of disciples of the Christ is “these people who have turned the world upside-down.” Thanks for posting about this, I hope it will encourage others to read the original, and not just settle for a secondary source.

    The Rev. Rick Benson

  2. Thanks for the link to amazon. The original is a link on the page for the secondary reader.

  3. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Stringfellow once told a fellow classmate at Bates College, Maine, that he learned lots from Rayborn Lindley Zerby. She, who had also studied with Zerby, said it made sense to her. Like Peter Gomes, Stringfellow went to Bates, founded by free-will Baptist abolitionists.

    When I read him I think of my alma mater and how carried and renewed its traditions.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  4. Jenny Landis-Steward

    Stringfellow has been an important guide of my thinking for decades. I recall using his ideas when I was running a food box program and we had money at the end of the month to buy food or pay salaries. The mission was to feed the poor, not employ the staff and had we put organizational survival above the mission, we would have become a principality and power rather than serve Christ. I am glad his ideas may have more exposure. I was surprised that his book came out in the 1970’s since I had thought I heard of him in the early 60’s in high school?

  5. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Sorry I missed some words in my previous post.

    Gary

    Stringfellow once told a fellow classmate at Bates College, Maine, that he learned lots from Rayborn Lindley Zerby. She, who had also studied with Zerby, said it made sense to her. Like Peter Gomes, Stringfellow went to Bates, founded by free-will Baptist abolitionists.

    When I read him I think of my alma mater and how he carried and renewed its traditions.

    That Commonweal would name three traditionalist theologians on LGBT issues as having been under the influence of Stringfellow is odd. Odder still is that they omit Walter Wink, clearly in the Stringfellow line and also a friend of the LGBT community. Carter Heyward would also deserve mention, even though her theology is more liberationist and not invested in orthodoxoy. But Stringfellow was her ally in the fight to admit women to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. Finally but not least would be Kenneth Leech.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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