We continue on with the William Stringfellow Project, where I read all of William Stringfellow's books in chronological order in their first editions. See the sidebar for installments.
In this post we turn to the sixth book Stringfellow published, Count It All Joy.
Count It All Joy was published in 1967. The original dust jacket, pictured here, says the hardback book sold for $3.00. The book endorsement on the back was from Daniel Berrigan, S.J.:
William Stringfellow, a Christian without comfort, gives us, beyond all expectations, the only comfort worth having. He gives us the truth.Readers will we recall that Berrigan was arrested for the Catonsville Nine protest in 1967--the year Count It All Joy was published--at William Stringfellow's house. Quite a year for the two of them.
We are not entirely grateful--and far from easy--at the gift he lodges in our hands. How could we be? We are grown weirdly resigned to the mindless exploits of those whose theology is an empty exercise in childishness, and to the heartless exploits of those who justify death as a way of life.
For a new mind and a new heart, explored with new words, we are grateful to this innocent and troubling man. Saint James could have had no more exact and articulate spokesman.
As Berrigan notes, Count It All Joy is a book inspired by the Epistle of James in the New Testament. Many of the themes of the book are common to Stringfellow, themes we've already encountered in his earlier books. So for this book I'd like to focus on a theme in Stringfellow that I haven't yet given much attention to--the place of the bible in Stringfellow's thought.
Stringfellow is an odd duck in many ways. On the one hand he's a liberal Episcopalian. And yet, Stringfellow has this very high view of the bible as a location of Divine agency, something you don't see a whole lot among liberal Episcopalians or other mainline Protestants.
To be clear, Stringfellow is no fundamentalist. He's not reading the bible literally. I'd characterize Stringfellow's reading of the bible as pneumatological, where the bible is a location of God's Spirit encountering us in the midst of death. (Note: Though I've used the word pneumatological Stringfellow would say "Word of God" rather than Holy Spirit in describing all this.) Thus, Stringfellow encourages us to read the bible--a lot--and listen for and wait upon the Word of God.
For example, in the Introduction to Count It All Joy Stringfellow writes (emphases are Stringfellow's):
Listening...is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives himself or herself to another's word, making ourselves accessible and vulnerable to that word.A paragraph later, the pneumatological aspect comes into view, how Divine agency is experienced in this listening to the Word of God:
It is very much like that when a person comes to the Bible. We must first of all listen to the Word which the Bible speaks, putting aside, for the time being, such other issues as whether the Word is credible or congenial or consistent or significant. By all means, if you will, raise these questions, but, first, listen to the Word.
Some will think this a naive approach to the Word of God in the Bible. I suppose it is just that. It is one which simply affirms that the Word of God has content, integrity and life which belongs to God Himself and that this can be received and comprehended by ordinary human beings. It is a view that regards the Bible more as a newspaper than as a systematic body of theological doctrine or as religious instruction or as moral law or, for that matter, as mere esoteric mythology. The Bible reports the news of the Word of God manifest and militant in the events of this history in a way that is accessible, lucid and edifying for the common reader. The Word of God is for us, and through the Bible that Word is addressed to us where we are, just as we are, in this world.If that all sounds a bit abstract and, yes, too theological, later in the book Stringfellow gives an example of what he is trying to describe. Stringfellow recounts his experience of being put in charge of a Sunday School class for a group of rebellious and unruly urban teenagers in New York. Finding the assigned curriculum unsatisfactory Stringfellow does something strange. He asks for everyone in the class to secure a bible (they don't) and then he just starts reading the bible aloud to the teens:
All that happened, and all that was allowed, in the brief sessions of the "class" following that first Sunday, was that I read, aloud, the entire Letter to the Romans.Stringfellow allowed no interruptions or questions. He just read Romans aloud. Predictably, the class rebelled--for example, a boy created a disturbance by bringing a case of beer to class--but Stringfellow patiently persisted.
[T]he essential event each week remained the same--all of us simply heard a reading of the entire Letter to the Romans. It was only after the group had suffered this exercise a dozen or more times, week after week, that the tactic was changed and I proposed that the Letter be then read sentence by sentence, in its given sequence, and that after reading each sentence aloud, we all pause and ask one question: What does this 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?Eventually, a change came:
So we persevered. It was a laborious enterprise. But we did continue, meeting each Sunday, and, as it were, reading and listening to each sentence of Romans, in turn, and asking, What is being said?
Silence--utter, unequivocal, radical, dumbfounded silence--greeted this practice for weeks. But I insisted upon it and the members of the "class" acquiesced in it, as much out of bemusement at this unorthodox "Sunday School" as anything, I suppose.
It was around Christmastime that the change came. The same boy who had brought the case of beer to "class" turned up one afternoon at my tenement in East Harlem. He was, it seemed to me, embarrassed to appear to have deliberately come to visit me, belabored a number of excuses for dropping in. Finally, after his protracted and circumloquacious introit, he mentioned that he had obtained a copy of the New Testament (he had stolen it, he boasted, from the premises of some other church) and confessed that he had been listening in "class," though he had not spoken out there, during all the weeks in which Romans had been repeatedly read aloud. He thought, he said, that I must have plenty of other things to do and would not bother to take time for this "class" or persist in reading the Letter in "class" unless I was convinced there was something important in the Letter. His curiosity was engaged and he had procured a New Testament, he admitted, in order to read the Letter on his own in his privacy. He had now some reflections about his own comprehension of Romans that he wanted to discuss because he had wondered if my own understanding of the Letter corresponded with his.From that beginning, a discussion about the Letter of Romans, the relationship between Stringfellow and the boy was transformed:
For the remainder of the afternoon he and I tried to talk with one another about our respective experiences of hearing the Word of God in and through the Letter of Romans.
This tough, brash, aggressive kid from the streets turned out, in that encounter, to be a most sophisticated exegete, although I am pretty sure that if I ever called him such to his face his impulse would be to hit me for cussing him. Somehow it had lingered in his conscience that the original, indispensable and characteristic question to ask, in reading the Bible, is the very question that seems so seldom to be asked in church or seminary or layman's conferences, namely, What does this say? Somehow, thus, he had come, reluctantly, against his will, with his customary hostility and suspicion, to confront the Word of God in the Bible in a way very similar to that which he would face another person.
Among the gifts of that afternoon with this most remarkable exegete was the illuminating candor of our relationship. Now, for the first time, we met, under the aegis of the Word, in a new way. Now we were set free from from the roles consigned to each of us or adopted by either of us in the prior contacts in "class." We were no longer restricted by differences of education or learning or race or age or class or whatnot. Now, by the virtue and initiative of the Word of God, bespoken and attended to in our respective experiences in the Letter to the Romans, each of us became at liberty not only to praise the integrity of the Word of God but to be accused and convicted in our own identities as individuals. It was, in that afternoon, not just that the Word of God was, as it were, recognized as a name, but that each of us also were named ourselves in the very same happening. Now the Word of God, in the testimony of Romans, had become evident as the event in which each of us were certainly and fully our selves (cf. James 1:18; 1:21).All that might be a bit of a stretch for those of us who have issues with the bible. Regardless, it gives you a sense of how Stringfellow sees the bible and how he views the reading of the bible. This passage in Count It All Joy shows how, for Stringfellow, the the Word of God becomes active in our lives--a location of Divine agency--when we listen and ask "What does this say?"
Part of the wonder of the occasion was and is that when and wherever the Word of God is heard and honored, human life acquires context, people are radically distinguished and identified, community is wrought, and reconciliation happens.