William Stringfellow reads the Bible

By Greg Jones

William Stringfellow was a gay, chain-smoking, Harvard-trained New York City lawyer, who lived and worked among the poor of East Harlem in the last half of the 20th century.

In the late 60s, he was a radical supporter of the anti-war movement, an extreme critic of the Nixon administration, and a hands-on advocate for the poor and hated. He defended Bishop Pike in 1966 against charges of heresy. He supported and defended the first women to be irregularly ordained. He befriended the Berrigans in their anti-war protests.

To many, one might suppose Stringfellow was the classic ‘liberal Episcopalian.’ Yet, in much the way that Stanley Hauerwas rejects ‘theological liberalism,’ Stringfellow was not a theological liberal. Indeed, he was a misfit among liberals who shared much of his social justice vision. Walter Wink has said that Stringfellow, “seems to have come, theologically, out of nowhere.” But he didn’t come from nowhere. He came from the land of the Bible. It is quite evident that William Stringfellow lived, advocated and worked as he did based on his deep commitment to living under the Word of God in the Bible.

As such, alongside his social justice activism, Stringfellow was also a surprisingly bold critic of Mainline Protestantism’s “virtual abandonment of the Word of God in the Bible” for a mess of modernistic philosophical porridge. His observation of things inside the establishment-friendly Episcopal Church, and other mainline churches in America, was that folk were neither “intimate with nor reliant upon the Word of God in the Bible, whether in preaching, in services in the sanctuaries, or in education and nurture. Yet it is the Word of God in the Bible that all Christians are particularly called to hear, witness, trust, honor and love.”

According to Stringfellow, the curious abandonment of the Bible by the Church began as a Modern Western phenomenon, with the intellectualization and academic specialization of biblical study. In their exceeding zeal to be regarded as intellectual equals by a secular intelligentsia, Mainline Protestant clergy and faculty put ‘objective scholarship’ ahead of ‘faithful engagement’ with the Word of God in the Bible. In good modern rationalist fashion, they began to look at the Bible as a container of intellectual or philosophical propositions to be analyzed and understood – as if the Bible were no different than the writings of Marx, Plato or Buddha.

Stringfellow tells a funny story to illustrate how far the elephant of biblical indifference had gone into the Episcopal Church:

[In the early 1960’s I served] on a commission of the Episcopal Church charged with articulating the scope of the total ministry of the Church in modern society. The commission numbered about forty persons, a few laity and the rest professional theologians, ecclesiastical authorities and clergy. The group met, in the course of a year and a half, three times for sessions of more than a week. The first conference, as I recall it, floundered in churchy shoptalk that anyone outside the Church would find exasperatingly irrelevant, largely incoherent or simply dull.

Toward the end of that meeting some of those present proposed it might be an edifying discipline for the group, in its future sessions, to undertake some concentrated study of the Bible. It was suggested that constant recourse to the Word of God in the Bible is as characteristic and significant a practice in the Christian life as the regular participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, which was a daily observance of this commission. Perhaps, it was argued, Bible study would enlighten the deliberations of the commission and, in any event, would not impede them. The proposal was rejected on the grounds, as one Bishop present put it, that “most of us have been to seminary and know what the Bible says: the problem now is to apply it to today’s world.” The Bishop’s view was seconded (with undue enthusiasm, I thought at the time) by the Dean of one of the Episcopal seminaries as well as by the clergy bureaucrats from national headquarters who had, they explained, a program to design and administer.

[To me, the implication of the group’s] decision not to engage in Bible study is that the Gospel, in its biblical embodiment, is of an essentially pedantic character – a static body of knowledge which, once systematically organized, taught and learned, has use ceremonially, sentimentally, nostalgically, and as a source from which deductions can be made to guide the religious practice and ethical conduct of contemporary Christians. If that is what the Bible is, then it is generically undistinguished from religious scripture of any sort and, for that matter, is of no more dignity than any secular ideology or philosophy. If that is what the Bible is, then it is a dead word and not the Living Word.

Such a view of the Bible authorizing, evidently, a merely academic use of the Bible, if pressed to its final logic, challenges the versatility and generosity of God’s revelation of Himself in history and is a form of doubt deplored in James (Jas 1.5-8; 3.13-4.6) Yet, that very way of regarding the Bible is not only current among ecclesiastical authorities or seminary professionals, it has gained a wide acceptance in the last decade or so in programs of lay theological education in the several denominations and interdenominationally.”

Stringfellow argued that Christians ought not primarily to think of the Bible as something to be dissected, figured out, and discussed as if it were a dead frog on a lab table – or an encyclopedia of ancient concepts. Rather, he argued that the Bible should be engaged with by living people in living ways – for in and of itself the Word of God is living and active.

Yes, to Stringfellow, the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is a thing not dead, but a Word militant, free and alive. Christians should be focused on living within the Word of God in the Bible in this world. Our primary vocation as Christians, therefore, regarding that Word of God, is to be open to it, to listen to it, and to live it – to live humanly and biblically as he would say. Yet this kind of open listening to the Word of God in the Bible – is the very thing we modern people are no longer very good at. Stringfellow says we can’t listen to the Word of God in the Bible because we are not particularly good at listening to anything outside ourselves.

But this is the key for the faithful Church in Stringfellow’s eyes. The single most significant thing a Christian must do is intend to be open to and to listen to the Word of God in the Bible. He says, “for that, a person must not merely desire to hear the Word of God but must also be free to hear the Word of God. This means becoming vulnerable to the Word and to the utterance of the Word in much the same way as one has to become vulnerable to another human being if one truly cares to know that other person and to hear his or her word.”

Stringfellow explains that a person must come to the Bible quietly, eagerly, expectantly and ready to listen. “One must (as nearly as one can) confront the Bible naively,” without preconceptions or baggage about it. The primary question of the seeker after God looking to encounter the Word of God in the Bible is – “what does this Word say?” “Not, what do I think? Not, do I agree? Not, is this relevant to my life and circumstances? But, straightforwardly, first of all, ‘What is this word?’

At the same time, one must “approach the Bible realistically – rather than superstitiously – recognizing that access to the same Word of God that the Bible bespeaks” is given to us also in the event of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection – the pivotal event of all human history – and in the incessant agitations of the Holy Spirit – and in the constitution of creation itself.

Stringfellow harshly criticizes Modernist literalism as a tendency which produces either an irrelevant Bible or a fundamentalist Christianity. Stringfellow would argue that the kind of Modern reductionism rampant among incredulous agnostics and credulous fundamentalists alike is false in that does not really engage with the living Word of God in the Bible. Moreover, this kind of biblical literalism is a denigration of the humanity of the reader or listener whose role in engaging the text is reduced to a passive one, and a flattening out of a text which is divinely multidimensional.

It is worth noting that Stringfellow admired Karl Barth, and Barth admired Stringfellow. Barth once said publicly of Stringfellow, “Listen to this man.” For Stringfellow and Barth, despite their many differences, they both believed that theology ought to be no different than proclamation and witness to the Word of God. Stringfellow said,

“[This is what makes] Karl Barth such a threatening and unnerving figure among the professional theologians. … For him to speak theologically is indistinguishable from confessing the Gospel.”

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones (“Greg”) is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael’s Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

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