The William Stringfellow Project: Imposters of God

This is the seventh installment of my William Stringfellow Project, where I read all of William Stringfellow's books in chronological order in their first editions. Check the sidebar for links to the prior installments.

The seventh book published by Stringfellow is a little book--with a fantastic cover--entitled Imposters of God: Inquires into Favorite Idols. The book was published in 1969 and, as a small hand-sized paperback, cost 85¢.

Again, as you can see, the cover of the first edition features, yes, that's a troll doll. Having finished the book I still have no real idea why a troll doll is on the cover. Researching the history of the troll doll I did discover that the doll reached its peak craze in the US in the 60s. From Wikipedia:
A troll doll, also known as a Dam doll, is a type of plastic doll with furry hair depicting a troll. They were originally created in 1959 by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam. They became one of the United States' biggest toy fads in the early 1960s. 
Given that Stringfellow's book is about idolatry, the troll doll craze in the 60s might have functioned as a symbol of cultural fascination. If so, a troll doll on the cover would be playfully hinting at the social dynamics behind idolatry. Every generation has its troll dolls, its "favorite idols" per the subtitle of the book.

Turning to the contents of the book let me say this: This might now be my favorite book by Stringfellow. I had not read Imposters of God before starting this series. My favorite non-biographical books by Stringfellow, and the ones I always recommend to others, are Free in Obedience and An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. People love these two books as they are the books that give the best expositions of Stringfellow's seminal treatment of the principalities and powers. But for a short and practical abstract of Stringfellow's entire theological project I don't think Imposters of God can be topped. The Wipf & Stock reprint is only 66 pages and in those pages you'll be exposed to very clear summaries of Stringfellow's theology regarding the Fall, justification, the moral power of death in the world, idolatry, the principalities and powers, and Stringfellow's unique take on death and resurrection. More, all this is given a practical framework as Stringfellow discusses the idols of religion, work, status, money, patriotism, racism, and church.

Basically, if someone is wanting a short, accessible and practical abstract of Stringfellow's theology, something that can be read in one sitting, then point them to Impostors of God.

The heart of Stringfellow's book centers upon his treatment of idols and idolatry, which is really just another way for him to describe the principalities and powers. For Stringfellow, idolatry are those activities by which we attempt to justify our existence and our significance, the means by which we seek to achieve meaning and value before ourselves and others:
To serve idols is the elementary response of men to the reality of fallen existence in this world.

The Fall begets the human quest for meaning in existence. Men search for their lost identity. They seek somehow to bridge the brokenness of their relationships within themselves and with others and with the principalities and powers. They grope for justification. And in doing so, they set up persons or things or abstractions as idols and serve them.
Service to the idol "renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile." Consequently, we find ourselves serving and enslaved to these idols because "the idolater believes that his virtue of worthiness depends upon the consistency, zeal, and appropriateness of the devotion, service and elevation he accords the idol."

A great example of this is the idol of work. Work is how we justify our existence and achieve our moral significance and value:
The myth on which the worship of work is based in that in the occupation of work itself--in the mere doing of it--as well as in the products of work or in the rewards of work, a man's existence is morally vindicated. Work is the way, it is supposed, that a man proves his virtue. 
Work even provides a route to immortality: "Immortality is even attributed to some men because their work has been remembered after they have died."

Beyond work, Stringfellow talks about other idols, other means by which we try to morally justify our existence--religion, nationalism, money, status, and feelings of superiority in relation to social identity (i.e., I am significant because of the group I belong to).

But in the classic Stringfellow move, he goes on to connect these idols to death, arguing that service to the idols is service to death. Stringfellow describes what he means by this:
The term "death" is being used here in the manifold connections of its uses in the Bible: not only physical death but all forms of diminution of human life and development and dignity, and all forms of alienation of men from themselves and from one another and from God. Since idolatry of any kind demeans man, prevents him from becoming fully human, death is that which, under many disguises, idolaters really worship.
This analysis might seem abstract, but we can return to Stringfellow's discussion of the idolatry of work as an example of what he's talking about:
That work is idolatrous--that work is a worship of death disguised as an ethic of verified in the everyday experience of men and women at work.

The sheer unremitting harshness of work for the vast multitudes of human beings, both long ago and in the present time, in the so-called underdeveloped regions of the earth is obvious. The presence of death in work is clearly to be seen in the poverty, disease, deprivation and coercion which is the most typical condition of human life in this world. The same presence may be perceived in the supposedly advanced societies among the urban poor, migrant laborers, the unemployed, those displaced by technological change, military conscripts. But it is also to be found among the employed and the prosperous as well. The latter are comparatively a tiny minority of mankind, but their status and affluence have not made them free from the presence of death in their work. The demands of conformity in thought, deed and word, the surveillance of dress, social life and the use of time, the human attrition which is the cost of "success"--these are all familiar threats of death in work. In fact, the idolatry implicit in the occupations of the prosperous is intensified because their work not only enslaves them but also is parasitical in relation to the dispossessed of the earth...the lives of the poor subsidize the existence of the prosperous.
In the final chapter "Freedom from Idolatry" Stringfellow sums all this up by giving us a few paragraphs that just might be the best summaries of his entire theological project. In this paragraph Stringfellow describes his analysis of the human predicament, his analysis of the Fall, sin, death and the principalities and powers:
People serve these idols, and many others, to give meaning to their lives, to justify their existence. They are afraid of death--that is, not only physical death but everything which does or seems to militate against life: alienation, lack of identity, frustration, pain, meaninglessness. And so they grasp, as it were, after aspects of life which seem to promise freedom from some form of death, and serve them as idols. But what they are really serving is death, for the fear of death is the power behind all idolatry. And yet, as we have seen, idolatry can only lead to death in one form or another, to violence and dehumanization and also to the degradation or destruction of what is idolized.
Again, if you are looking for a one paragraph summary of Stringfellow's theology of the Fall, sin and the principalities and powers I don't think you can do better than that paragraph. And a few paragraphs later Stringfellow gives what may be the very best summary of his theology of salvation and resurrection:
It is a distinctive mark of the biblical mind to discern that human history is a drama of death and resurrection and not, as religionists of all sorts suppose, a simplistic conflict of evil vs. good in an abstract sense. For what is "good" is, basically, what is good for man and creation--in other words, what is life-giving, life-preserving, life-perfecting. God, the Living One, is the author of life, he is on the side of life...That which is truly evil is that which thwarts life. And sin is any denial or rejection of the gift of life; an offense against God who bestows the gift. But the wages of sin is death, not by some arbitrary decree on God's part, but because sin by its nature is possessed of death, anti-life, death-dealing, both to the sinner and in the various kinds of death it occasions in the world. The conflict between good and evil, then, is no mere matter of choosing between right and wrong; and sin is not the mere misfortune of the wrong choice. These are aspects of the essential conflict between life and death, which God has made into a drama of death and resurrection.

In the light of the Gospel, every life, every person, every event, is included in the context of death and resurrection--of death and the resurrection of life, of death and transcending the power of death. As death is not just something which each of us must eventually face, but a power at work here and now, so the power of the resurrection is neither something remote nor merely promissory. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means the available power of God confronting and transcending the power of death here and now in the daily realities of our lives...

We need no longer fear the power of death, and so we need no longer serve any idols. The resurrection constitutes freedom for men and women from all idolatries, whether of race or money or church or whatever. It constitutes freedom from death as a moral power in history, freedom to welcome and honor life as gift, freedom to live by grace, unburdened by the anxiety for justification which enslaves us to idols...

In this freedom, we no longer serve idols in our work or other experiences; we serve the living God. We work in the service of life, for ourselves and for our fellow human beings. We work to re-establish human life in our relationships with ourselves and others and things in our society, anticipating in hope the final restoration where God will be "all in all."
Again, these passages may be the very best summary of William Stringfellow's theology. Let this passage and the paragraph above soak in and you'll have in hand the theology of William Stringfellow.

And who would have guessed that we'd find this in the book with the troll cover?

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7 thoughts on “The William Stringfellow Project: Imposters of God”

  1. The embracing of death, the becoming a "nothing", in the sense of the gospel's "dying to self in order to live", is, even for the religious, like stepping of a cliff; it feels like suicide. To borrow a phrase used mostly in making a point regarding people's racial fears, there is the upsetting question in the minds of many, "If I'm no better than (fill in the blank) then what am I better than?" This is the question, in one form or another, that takes over the mind of the fundamentalist or legalist when challenged to look beyond their comfortable, secure borders; "If I surrender this, then what do I have?"

    This is the challenge of the Christian Gospel. To provide the assurance of God's catch when stepping off that cliff; to make believable that the greatest light, the only light we have, is that which shows only the next step in front of us; there are no idols in this light, there is no room for them.

  2. Wow...what a gift Mr. Stringfellow's words are, and praise to God for his revelations to his children. I believe work is one of the supreme idols in our contemporary American society...such a silent dealer of death. It is so well-hidden and masquerades as something good or "virtuous," just that good 'ol protestant work ethic...but for those of us with a strong existential bend, it just kinda drives us nuts sometimes ;)

  3. I recently went to WrestleMania 29 in NYC, and what kept going through my mind was the work of Wink and Stringfellow. What's unique about pro-wrestling is how overt and calculated the idolatry all is. It's an act, and everyone (but young kids) knows it. So they have to use very over-the-top techniques to keep people coming back. They appeal to history, legends, nostalgia, immortality, group-emotions, chants, merchandise, masks, costumes, etc. There's really nothing like it. We all know it's fake, but we buy it as an idol anyways! Obviously, there are similarities to war, football, business, etc. But the big difference is that everyone knows it's a lie, and it doesn't matter whatsoever.

  4. Having lived in the 60's Stringfellow's "theology" hearkens back to the struggle we had with "the Man" and how a human being could be "human" while under his thumb. On the other hand, I see that Stringfellow has some commonality in the theology of the Christian East's views of redemption, resurrection and human struggle. "Work" in itself is not death dealing, and I found myself reacting to his 60's rhetoric regarding "work" in the beginning. But I agree in the end that work can be redemptive if done in the freedom of Christ. Thank you for posting this, I'll have to buy the book for sure.

  5. Thank-you, Richard. One of the heffalump traps in my own life is a little inner voice that tells me that it's my knowledge that justifies the "Dr" in front of my name and that people value. Whilst I'm always on the look out for knowledge "in the service of life", I'm still in danger of sucking that life out of it through my need for appreciation from others. Your precis of Stringfellow gives me a vocabulary with which to value work relationships as much as the skills I bring to my occupation. Tomorrow, after a week of 'glorious ruins' (family tour of Benedictine monasteries in Yorkshire), I return to the task of re-establishing human life in my relationships, anticipating that final restoration - and perhaps acting just a little less like a troll.

  6. "the idolater believes that his virtue of worthiness depends upon the consistency, zeal, and appropriateness of the devotion, service and elevation he accords the idol."

    My immediate thought when I read this was "mothers." That was my first thought, but it can certainly apply to fathers as well. I know I, as a mother, struggle with defining my "virtue of worthiness" through my children. Especially since, at the moment, my kids are my "job." Their memories of me and of the things I teach them will live on after I die, sating that desire for immortality. I suppose anything can be an idol, even our love for our children. It reminds me of the disordered love theory I learned in college. I can't remember whose philosophy it was, but the idea was that everything God created was good, but some things were more good than other things. That we create evil when we love a lesser good more than a greater good. For example, loving money more than people can lead to things like robbery and murder.

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