The writings of William Stringfellow have existed in a shadowland for me. I’ve heard people quote him and I’m aware of his influence on Walter Wink and his trilogy on the powers. But I’ve spent about 8 years, and counting, in theological education in Belfast, and Stringfellow has never been mentioned. And speaking recently to some friends, young, hip, theologically literate and trained, they had never heard of him.
I remember a day spent with Ched Myers, driving around Belfast and talking about my own work in the Skainos Project. I thought I had a reasonable grasp on the biblical imagery associated with tents (Skainos means tent), but Ched began to speak about Stringfellow with passion and affection. Stringfellow was intrigued by the circus you see, and had theological things to say about the circus tent. I was entranced, and I’ve been reading him more or less since then.
So much theological writing these days is polemical, or arid, or simply reheated sermons published for our benefit(!), with little to stir the blood or the soul. Stringfellow does it all for me. His writing is dense and careful and repays careful consideration. Indeed, there are riches to be found in repeated visits. And he thinks theologically about things that I struggle to find anyone else talking about, obsessed as we often are about minor and often irrelevant issues.
I’m sure there are theses to be written, maybe already have been, on why evangelicals in particular have ignored him. Is it because in our fascination with the ‘current’ he is considered old hat, writing as he does in the 60s and 70s? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think there has been anything as rational a consideration as that. Is it because he was trained as a lawyer and was considered a ‘lay’ theologian? Maybe. Though Karl Barth, after one of his visits to the US described him, and I paraphrase, one of the only theologians worth listening to that he had encountered.
Perhaps it’s because back when he was active there was suspicion about his sexual orientation and about his relationship with poet Anthony Towne. Sadly, in the thinking of many, even the suspicion disbars him from having anything to say that might be worth hearing.
His books have been out of print, but with a rise in interest in recent years they have been republished and are worth getting hands on. To feel your way in Bill Wylie Kellermann’s superb collection A Keeper of the Word is well worth the investment.
All that to say, I want to post up some quotations from Stringfellow on a Friday afternoon. Something for you to chew over.
Image from here