Skip to content

Reading William Stringfellow

I’ve appreciated Stringfellow’s work in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land for as long as I can remember, but only recently have I started acquiring his works on a larger scale and devoting myself to reading them. Stringfellow, is, for my money the greatest lay-theologian to come out of the 1960s-70s upheaval in the United States. His level of perception and theological acumen, combined with a very profound sort of situatedness in the realities of his time make him utterly unique. One possible analogy I might make is that Stringfellow is an urban sort of Wendell Berry, though a good bit more polemical.

For those interested in reading Stringfellow, one helpful thing to keep in mind is that among his 15-odd books there are two unofficial “trilogies” that really encapsulate Stringfellow’s life and though. The first of thes consists of An Ethic for Christian and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Concience and Obedience, and Instead of Death. These three books serve as a statement of Stringfellow’s theology as a whole and present his attempt to deal faithfully and biblically with the realities of America in the twentieth century from the perspective of a proper theology of the principalities and powers. They also reflect his distinctly sacramental and incarnational theology of the word and his perspective on the theological meaning of freedom. All of it superb stuff.

His second trilogy consists of My People is the Enemy, A Second Birthday, and A Simplicity of Faith. This is his “autobiographical” trilogy if you will. The books respectively chronicle his own dealings in his life with the issues of work, illness, and death. My People is the Enemy in particular presents Stringfellow’s own life and work in the tenements of Harlem in the 60s. Never have I read more a more moving and theologically sensitive form of autobiography. It is animated throughout with humility and a form of fragile tenderness that can only be described as true strength. For anyone interested in reading Stringfellow either of these two trilogies are great places to start. That’s where I’m starting anyway.

Also, I should add that all of these books are available from Wipf & Stock Publishers.

17 Comments

  1. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Isn’t Wendell Berry, as the agrarian poet, known to be the anti-urbanite?
    Or do you mean this just in the way that they are both so situated in their particular ‘times and places’?

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I really mean the sort of call towards authentic humanity they both represent. They may not agree on all the specifics of that, but there’s a prophetic edge to both of them that strikes a similar chord with me.

    And, for Stringfellow, the urban context is not a good thing, per se. The reason for his presence therein had to do with his commitment to living in solidarity and proximity with those who were on the underside of the social order.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Ben Myers wrote:

    Glad to know we’re on parallel tracks: I’ve been reading all his books, and have just a few more to go. For what it’s worth, I reckon the best one is Free in Obedience.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Halden:

    There is, of course, this quote from A Second Birthday, excerpted in A Keeper of the Word, regarding his move from Harlem to Block Island:

    “The move from New York City seemed in the circumstances prudent and necessary, but, in my consciousness at least, it carried no intent to desert the city. In this culture it is literally impossible to flee from the city’s dominance anyway – as all those white suburbanites have discovered – and, in my belief, the city is the central theological symbol of society. That is not only the contemporary reality in America, it is the biblical insight as well. Biblically, the city is the scene of both doomsday and salvation. There is Babylon, but there is also Jerusalem. The city is the epitome of the Fall, yet the city is the sign of the Eschaton. These connotations of death and life associated with the city empirically and theologically mean that the city cannot be escaped and that the city must not be rejected by human beings, as it seems to be by the utopian hippies and their commune movement, for example, and least of all can it be repudiated by professed Christians. (Billy Graham, if he were more attentive to the Bible, might realize this and cease his facile preaching against the city as a realm of sin and give up his proclamation of a pastoral image of salvation generally identified with the hinterland of the American South or Midwest).” (55)

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Great stuff there, Nate. Thanks for the quote.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Nate and Halden-

    So…how does this not indict Berry as the agrarian hippie and his love of earth and solitude, or Merton and other monastics?

    Like the new blog look Halden

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Dammit! I’ve tried to reply to you twice and my browser has crashed both times. Really short answer is that I think that Berry and Stringfellow both seek to challenge the shape of urbanization in America, though they do so in different ways. I don’t think Stringfellow is saying that none of us should be agrarian farmers any more than I think Berry is saying that’s what we all should be. They both, in different ways, challenge us to rethink what our relationship should be with the land, work, and communal life. That’s where I see the connection despite their two very different forms of vocation.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    By the way, Ben I think you should do a post on how The Wire portrays Stringfellow’s theology. You’re right on there.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  9. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Roger:

    I will be the first to admit that I am not a Wendell Berry “fan,” although I appreciate his work and what is emerging as a prophetic voice. Part of this might just be that I was born and raised and so probably always will be a “city-boy” (Stringfellow’s comments really resonate with my time as a child in both the “city” and the “suburbs” of Chicago). But I do think that Berry’s life and work can be understood as a kind of monastic move that is prophetic precisely in relation to the city, that speaks prophetically to the city as the epitome of the Fall, which need not at the same time be an abandonment of the city as the sign of the Eschaton. But this would indeed be a monasticism very much in congruence with that of the ancient desert Fathers. All monasticism is in some kind of a critique of the way of the church that would presume in the mode of a realized eschatology to make of the earthly city too much of a “home.”

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Nate-
    Mmmm…yes, I think that’s partly right, but I don’t think Berry or the desert fathers (and mothers),
    all necessarily set out to critique anything, but to escape ‘the city’ to find life. Their lives and words (sometimes) become a prophetic critique because their quality of their ‘testimony’ (can) speak to us as wisdom.

    I think your time in the Chicago suburbs no longer qualifies you as a city-boy. I’ll need to ask you for your ‘Chicago’ badge and I must refer to you as a ‘burb’ boy, especially if it’s one of the north shore suburbs or Wheaton.

    I’m probably the ony one blogging here who hasn’t read your book, but everybody says it’s great! I will soon.
    Kudos!

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  11. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Roger:

    Well, I spent the best chunk of my childhood years in Burbank and Oak Lawn, so I am a south-sider. My high school years were spent in Clarendon Hills, a suburb further out on the Stevenson (I-55) in DuPage County, which is where my parents now still reside. I can very much attest to the futility of attempting to escape the “city’s dominance” in the suburbs, though, as Stringfellow puts it. Though the presence of the cities of Hinsdale and Burr Ridge within DuPage county make it one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, there is no more county that more represents the growing desparity between rich and poor and the shrinking middle class in America than DuPage. About three years ago, when I was back in town for a few days, one of the Chicago papers (I can’t remember which) ran an article in which it was reported that the percentage of those living below the poverty line in the small town of Westmont (in DuPage county) at one point crept higher than that of much of Cook County (metropolitan Chicago). (Incidentally: You may take it, but I will not give up my “Chicago” badge without a fight.)

    And thank you for your kind words. I will look forward to hearing what you think of the book. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the challenge of defending my Chicago city “cred.”

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink
  12. Jim wrote:

    Hey, way to push those books, my man. Seriously though, glad for your commitment to not settle for fluff, or tv.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  13. Roger Flyer wrote:

    OK Nate.
    I hope you know I was teasing you fondly with tongue in cheek. I forgot my emoticons…. :)
    You can have your badge back, Sox fan.

    There is a particular tough, world weariness in the western and southern Chicago suburbs unlike any other (except for…New York?) Da bears. Oh yeah…tv show Jim! (Sorry.) Maybe it’s the weather, or the ‘hog butcher of the world’ inheritance.

    I only know Chi-town from a half dozen visits to 1/north shore suburbs of Wilmette, Winnetka, Evanston, etc (singing for young children and their train riding lawyer parents), 2/ driving the cruddy, pot-holed pathwork ‘expressways’ (Hah!), 3/ finding myself l(and my young family) lost on a south side exit and driving through ethnic neighborhood after ethnic neighborhood.4/ sitting in the Amtrak station with the Amish and the Iranian Muslim and the Indian Hindu and walking by the guys in cardboard huts perched over sewer grates.

    This is when I realized Chicago is a BIG city, and Minneapolis is a small town. And why I’m a fan of Wendell Berry and the desert fathers.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  14. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Roger:

    Yes, yes, of course I knew you were teasing. But as you’ve intuited, there is a kind of grittiness to we south-west siders that sees even jest as an arousal to defense. Which is why we tend more toward sarcasm.

    And, yes, I am a Sox fan — and those train-riding lawyer parents you mention are no doubt Cubs fans. I have a different take on the Cubs than does Kim Fabricius in his “Ten Reason’s Why Baseball is God’s Game.” Whereas Kim likens the Cubs to the “suffering servant,” and Cubs fans to those whose love is unconditional, but experience is rather that Cubs fans secretly love losing more than they love their losers. Cub fandom in Chicago is really more nihilistic than anything! ;-)

    Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  15. Roger Flyer wrote:

    How can they be nilhists when beholding the glory of God’s game in Wrigley on a perfect June day?

    Thanks for the conversation Nate. i’ll talk to you later after I read your book. Where are you living now by the way?

    Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  16. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Roger:

    Now you are going to get me started on the price of tickets and the changing demographic over the last twenty-to-thirty years of those who attend Cubs day games. Suffice it to say that the Wrigley day game used to be a “neighborhood” thing (just like at Ebbets Field — very “parish”-like approach to attending baseball games). Now, it is largely the lawyers and business-men who come out from “the loop” for a business meeting. At any rate, I do hope that their hot-dog and beer may yet be a means of grace by which conversion might happen — for surely Christ does not cease to receive us at the altar, even when we’re sure we’re there for other reasons, or not even sure why we’re there at all. If Cubs fans tend to be nihilistic in their love of losing, perhaps the very ongoing existence of the Cubs and of Wrigley field is yet a sign of God’s own enduring faithfulness even in the face of idolatry. And we must not forget that involved in every one of those games there is always a “visiting” team and its migrant fans in attendance — surely theirs is a missionary venture! ;-)

    I now live in Nashville, TN with my wife and daughter. I teach at Trevecca Nazarene University here in town.

    Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  17. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Lovely,
    Wrigley: The visitors have come to visit the temple or have come on pilgrimmage to Mecca.

    Nashville! don’t get me started!

    I took my son Ry (rainandtherhinoceros) to Nashville when he was 18. (He was considering going to school there) We took a walk downtown and saw an alt-country band playing in Tootsie’s. Ry was a talented aspiring singer-songwriter and I thought it might make a great shared experience.

    I said ‘Ry, do you want to go in and take a listen?’ He said, “Dad, don’t you know I hate country music?’

    I said, “Ry, I’m not sure Nashville is the best place for you.’

    I’m a fan of Franklin.

    Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site