The William Stringfellow Project: Instead of Death

This is Installment #2 of my William Stringfellow Project where I read through all of William Stringfellow's books in their first editions and in order of their publication.

The second book published by Stringfellow is a curious little book entitled Instead of Death. My picture of the cover of the first edition is seen here. Instead of Death was published by Seabury Press 1963. The back cover states that the book cost 95¢.

I say Instead of Death is curious as the first edition of the book is more like a pamphlet. It's a short paperback that has staples for the binding. This is due to the fact that the book was initially published as a youth church study, aimed mainly at older high school and college-age students. The back of the book has a study guide--"Suggestions for Group Study"--that leaders and participants of the class can use for group discussion. The study guide was prepared by the Youth Division of the Department of Christian Education of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Instead of Death was eventually republished (Amazon link here) with additional material making it more of a proper book. But we are going through first editions of Stringfellow's books in chronological order. So we are starting with the first edition of Instead of Death where it was published to be used as a youth study.

Stringfellow opens the book with his standard argument that death is the great moral force at work in human affairs. The opening lines of the book:
This book is about death.

It consists of some essays about the specific reality of death in contemporary life: about the vitality of the presence and power of death over human existence and, indeed, over the whole creation. The suggestion here is that the power of death can be identified in American society--as well as elsewhere for that matter--as that which appears to be the decisive, reigning, ultimate power. Therefore, for an individual's own little life--yours or mine or anybody's--death is the reality that has the most immediate, personal. everyday significance. In this life, it seems as if everyone and everything find meaning, when we really come down to it, in death.
Can't you just imagine the faces of the high school kids in the class? Too awesome. Flipping to the Study Guide at the back of the book we read under the heading "Recommended Age-Groups":
This book can be used in a group comprising tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. In its entirety it will probably be a bit steep for tenth-graders...
Come on high school sophomores, pick up your game! Yes, "this book is about death." Put on your big-boy and big-girl pants and deal with it! And don't be distracted by the cover. Yes--oh yes--we did put a skeleton--along skulls and crossbones--on the cover. What did you say? That's not normal for youth bible study materials? Well, suck it up. This is Mr. Stringfellow's sandbox and it's existential time...

Honestly, I would have loved a study like this in high school. But I can't imagine this going over too well with your typical teen, in 1963 or in 2012. Still, gotta love that skeleton cover. Are you seeing this Christian Book Industry?

More skeleton covers please.

Anyway, Stringfellow goes on in the book to discern the work of death across variety of issues of particular interest to young people in Christian communities. (Yes, masturbation is discussed.)

In the chapters of the book Stringfellow discusses loneliness, sex, work, and evangelism.

On loneliness...
Loneliness is the experience in which the fear of a man of his own personal death coincides with his fright of the death of everyone and everything else. Loneliness is not a unique or an isolated experience; on the contrary, it is the ordinary but still overwhelming anxiety that all relationships are lost...[L]oneliness so vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness. 
And yet...
You are not alone. Do not be so proud any more of your loneliness. It is only the shadow of your death, and your death, your loneliness, is like the death of every other person. But your death is overpowered in the patience of God's love for you. Your fear that you are not loved does not negate the gift which God's love is. Your loneliness does not avoid God's love, it only repudiates His love for you. You cannot flee from God's presence. You are not alone.
We know this because Christ descended into the death that is loneliness and in that event showed that God is present in loneliness and has taken that loneliness into God's own life:
Unwelcome, misunderstood, despised, rejected, unloved and misloved, condemned, betrayed, deserted, helpless--He was delivered to death, as if He were alone.

Christ descended into hell: Christ is risen from death.
A great line from this section:
The secret of prayer is God affirming your life.
On sex...
The power of sin permeates the rituals of sex, in all their varieties--in marriage and out of marriage, among young or old, among male and female--just as it does for all other affairs in this world. Thus it becomes and is a tribute to death, a sign of the imminence of death in this life.

Concretely, of course, the vitality of sin in sex is seen in situations where manipulation, punishment, humiliation, or violation of one by another of one's own self is made obvious because of physical or psychological coercion, or of willful enticement, or of false promises, or fraud, or the exchange of money or other consideration, or of lust or possessiveness.
And yet, the sacramental possibility of sex...
[T]he Christian more than recognizes the reality of sin in sex of all sorts. The Christian knows, beyond that, that this--sex--which is so full of death, may also become and be a sacrament of the redemption of human life from the power of sin which death is.
Take home point:
That which is sinful in a radical sense in sexual behavior is the failure, refusal, or incapacity to acknowledge and treat your own self or another or both as persons.
On work...
The legend, in America anyway, is that in either the product or the reward of work a person can find his or her life morally vindicated.
The great temptation:
Make work your monument, make it the reason for your life, and you will survive death in some way, until the monument itself is discarded or crumbles in some other way.

Work is the common means by which we seek and hope to justify our existence while we are alive and to sustain our existence, in a fashion, after we die.
And yet, the sacrament of work as service for the world...
For a person to be free in work or in non-work--free from merely working to death, free from enslavement to the principalities and powers--he or she must be set free from the bondage to death. It is the work of God in Christ for the world that frees us from this bondage and that enables any secular work to become and be a witness to the work of God.

In other words, where Christians take seriously the work of Christ for the world, the question of work is not simply or even essentially ethical, it is confessional. The problem is not the moral significance of the daily work of individuals in the world, but, instead, the meaning of the work of God for the common work of humanity.
On evangelism...
Evangelism is the act of proclaiming the presence of the Word of God in the life of another, the act of profoundly affirming that person's essential identity and being. And such an affirmation given by one to another is love.
 On the vocation of the baptized (and the final paragraph of the book)...
Thus the vocation of the baptized person is a simple thing: it is to love from day to day, whatever that day brings, in this extraordinary unity, in this reconciliation with all people and all things, in this knowledge that death has no more power, in this truth of the Resurrection. It does not really matter what exactly a Christian does from day to day. What matters is that in whatever the Christian does it is done in honor of the triumph of Christ over death and, therefore, in honor of his or her own life, given by God and restored to each in Christ, and in honor of the life into which all people and all things are called. The only thing that really matters is to live in Christ instead of death.

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8 thoughts on “The William Stringfellow Project: Instead of Death”

  1. It had to be "death" -- the subject of today's post?  Lovely...

    Two random thoughts:

    Doesn't the currently trending "goth" culture embrace death in all its glory?  A certain segment of our society would, then, be all in favor of Stringfellow's study.  Though I doubt many of these people would be seeking this teaching in church.

    I immediately thought of Jesus' response to the death of Lazarus.  Jesus wept.  All kinds of interpretive fancy footwork has been done to explain the cause for Jesus' tears.  I like to think that in his humanity, he grieved the loss of his friend.  He felt compassion toward the grieving family members and community.  If Jesus knew of the prevailing power of resurrection, why did he bother to weep?  Why not say, "Suck it up, pals!  You're not (really) alone...  Don't be so proud of your loneliness."

    For a long time now, I have not been afraid of death.  (What else can God do to me?  Someone once told me, don't ask/don't tempt God.  That made me want to go all Lt. Dan up on the boat's mast, on the spot!)

    But, I am deeply afraid of the death of those whom I love.  I pray that I especially never have to live through another of my children dying before I do.  It's too much to even contemplate, let alone survive.  That's where the power of Christ in me reaches its limit, I fear.  I feel the same distress when my friends are facing the possibility of such loneliness and loss.

    I found this part to be wholly true, beautiful, and good:  "Evangelism is the act of proclaiming the presence of the Word of God in
    the life of another, the act of profoundly affirming that person's
    essential identity and being. And such an affirmation given by one to
    another is love."

    I'm keeping those two sentences.  As for the rest, I'm making no promises and giving no blanket endorsement.  :-)  ~Peace~

  2. Thank you for posting this today. It seems to be a wonderful book, and the last paragraph is especially beautiful. This just might keep me going one more day.

  3.  The passages on work were particularly relevant as I'm retiring from my
    employer of thirty three years and joining a startup.  I've usually
    invested too much of my ego so I should continue to meditate on this.

  4. I've just (tentatively) begun Becker, and one of his phrases struck me, how religion (Christianity in particular) functions as an "immunity bath" from death.

  5. All I can say is, WOW! I think this approach (even the cover art) might be the inspiration for my Lent-Easter teaching series next year. Thank you so much for introducing me to Stringfellow. I've purchased several books and will undoubtedly be collecting them all.

  6. "The only thing that really matters is to live in Christ instead of death." What a great summation and focal point!

    I'll be following your series with it in mind. If it survives scrutiny, it will be a summation not for a book only, but for life. How many candidates are there for that role? 

  7. I have found your series on William Stringfellow very interesting so far. I never encountered him when I was studying theology, but your posts have made me add him to my 'to read' list. Thank you!

  8. This is wonderful stuff. It's the first of your Stringfellow series I've read. I see in these quotes themes and a perspective that would crop up with even greater strength in his later works -- the christocentrism, the use of death as both a literal reality and a symbol of how our lives go off track, the implicit radical social critique. Also the sheer intensity of the language: there's so much implied in the midst of Stringfellow's rhetorical gymnastics. Can you imagine any publisher putting out something like this for teens today??

    I never read a lot of Stringfellow, but I first encountered him myself as a teen in the early 80s, in talks by Phil Berrigan exhorting our little group to be willing to go to jail to stand against this death-centered empire. When I pursued Stringfellow's books I was somewhat overhwelmed and didn't know what to make of him. I hadn't yet read The Cost of Discipleship, the book that turned my worldview upside down, so I didn't yet understand how you could use this kind of strong biblical language without being a fundamentalist. After reading Bonhoeffer, Stringfellow was still on my radar for a few years, but I made a detour into conservative Catholicism, and my attention drifted from him. I think I was disturbed and confused about the business with Bishop Pike. I was busy convincing myself the Catholic Church was right about women priests. And I'm embarrassed to say his being gay confirmed in my mind that he must be a typical "liberal." Big mistakes. Thanks for reminding me I need to read this guy!

    And Wipf & Stock has apparently re-issued his entire oeuvre. Their books are expensive, but that publisher never ceases to amaze me.

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