Sunday 15 March 2009

William Stringfellow on the circus

Since Stringfellow was such an avid lover of the circus, I suppose I should conclude our Week of Stringfellow with a passage on the theological significance of the circus:

“In the circus, humans are represented as freed from consignment to death. There one person walks on a wire fifty feet above the ground, … another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramid, another is shot from a cannon. The circus performer is the image of the eschatological person – emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death any more…. So the circus, in its open ridicule of death … shows the rest of us that the only enemy in life is death and that this enemy confronts everyone, whatever the circumstances, all the time…. The service the circus does – more so, I regret to say, than the churches do – is to portray openly, dramatically, and humanly that death in the midst of life. The circus is eschatological parable and social parody: it signals a transcendence of the power of death, which exposes this world as it truly is while it pioneers the Kingdom” (A Simplicity of Faith, pp. 89-91).

Normally the theological topics on this blog in any given week are completely random and unrelated. So I’d be interested to know whether readers have enjoyed this week-long focus on a single person. If this was an enjoyable diversion, I’d be happy to do similar themes in future, perhaps focusing on other neglected thinkers. (Lately I’ve been collecting and reading some of Donald MacKinnon’s more obscure and forgotten works: perhaps a MacKinnon week might be fun?)


Anonymous said...


I appreciate the Stringfellow notice. I bought one of his books from Wipf and Stock with the FT discount, so thank you for that.

Jules said...

This has been fabulous. I'll look forward to more under-appreciated theologians...
Thanks for these posts.

Anonymous said...

I will be brief:
Ironically enough, now that Stringfellow week is concluding in grand high top circus style, I feel compelled to stop acting like a clown and to get serious for a moment (though I would like to argue that clowning, in true stringfellowian style, is often far more serious about death in the midst of life than is so much of the seriosity of most contemporary theology.)
If I have one serious doubt about the sudden spotlight Stringfellow has had cast upon him among the Barthians and the post-barthians (monikers, I realize, that only the fool's fool will accept with haste), it is the nearly steadfast refusal to engage him at his most interesting and most troublesome, i.e. in his defense of Bishop Pike. That book is studiously avoided by most scholars on Stringfellow (I recall nary a mention of it in the Dancer volume devoted to Stringfellow, where I first learned of Rowan Williams' interest in him). This avoidance, I suspect, is due to the desire to keep Stringfellow safely ensconced within the orthodox tent, rather than see him drift, as Pike did in his own life and ministry as Anglican Bishop, into the wilderness and side show tents of gay love, spiritualism, and the like. I will never forget the encounter I had one Sunday at coffee hour with one of North America's leading Barth scholars who was attending my parish on a visit. I had just preached a barnburner of a sermon (if I do say so...) on the prophetic voices of Barth and the String man, noting that it was the great Swiss bell ringer and bomb thrower himself who had pointed to Stringfellow and anointed him, so to speak, as the single most important theological voice in America.
At coffee hour, as our Barth scholar (who shall go nameless so as to protect the guilty) engaged me regarding my sermon, I detected his decided unease at both Stringfellow's identity as a gay man, and as a defender of PIke, who was, before Spong came along to so graciously relieve him of his duties, the favorite whipping boy of Anglican orthodox staunch-er-ies. Defend Pike?? This Barth scholar, who was then (i haven't talked to him since that sunday) a fellow traveller with a group of Yale trained Anglican theologians known for their hell bent attacks on Spong, ECUSA liberalism, etc. responded to me as might be expected at this mention of Pike. Thinking back on what Pike had said/done/stirred up during the turbulent sixties in which both he and Stringfellow did their best work, his face fairly burst out in disgust (at least that's how my eyes saw it!): "Pike? What a circus!" And he didn't mean it in the good, Bakhtinian, Stringfellowian way! More like the anti-antinomian, send 'em back to Rhode Island, they're a bunch of nutjobs kind of way.
It was then that I decided that Stringfellow is indeed the man of the hour in a church, (my own!) fractured by the issues of sexuality, orthodoxy and heresy (charges and fortresses both bandied about with relative disinterest in figures such as Stringfellow), life and death (no less is at stake for our gay brothers and sisters in this debatable debate over the 'limits of orthodoxy'.)
I have been struck in reading your blog, Ben, at how little attention you pay to this ecclesiastical bloodletting , to venom and fire that is thrown around these days in the church. Stringfellow was in the very thick of these debates, fought hard for one of the (perhaps) least orthodox bishops the church has ever known, and yet has somehow become the darling of theologians who seem eager to uphold church orthodoxy at all costs. (though I think this is not true of you, Ben, as I see signs of a resistance to the very framing of theological debates in terms of orthodoxy/heresy--Williams' Arius has indeed made such a move increasingly more problematic, even as I suspect he has as Archbishop not always been faithful to the insights he so powerfully presented in that historically nuanced text)
So at the end of the day (at least this day!) I find myself wanting to play the fool a bit more with you and others who I suspect find themselves a bit more on the orthodox side of the line when such a line is drawn before their feet, daring them to cross over. Stringfellow was serious, completely serious when he suggested that the circus was, in all of its heretical shenanigans, often more faithful than the church in presenting the human condition, its flaws, its restlessness, its refusal to bow down to the principalities and powers. More often than not, the church is a pile of shit, trying to mask the stench with incense and theological dia-pyro-tec-alec-nics. I say this as a priest bound by my ordination to serve and love the church with all my heart. But alas, my heart is sometimes black as my humors, which goad me into my red nose and floppies.
Thank you, Ben, for your witness--it is indeed a pleasure doing business with you, even if we're not always sure whose business that is!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for Stringfellow week. What a treat!

I was first introduced to the man through the circus writings, thanks to my friend's special edition of them (download PDF here).

If you haven't seen it already, I'd also invite you to read my short essay on Stringfellow at Religion Dispatches: "The Biblical Circus of William Stringfellow."

That same friend, the other day, was so kind as to give me a copy of Anthony Towne's Excerpts from the Diaries of the Late God, which I blogged about here.

Thanks again! Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ben,

As an ignoramus on Stringfellow, Barth, MacKinnon, and most of the other people whose works you feature on this list, I'm equally happy with short series or one-offs. But if there are to be series, don't make them too long - Preachers should always remember that there might be newcomers in their audiences.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Brian Lugioyo said...

Ben, really enjoyed being introduced to Stringfellow and, as an Aberdonian, I am very much looking forward to hearing about MacKinnon.

Daniel Imburgia said...

Very much liked the week of Stringfellow and look fwd to similar features. (especially if Barth doesn't end up in every other sentence--not that there's any thing wrong with that). i reckon this is a Christian blog but perhaps some Jewish theologians could be given some attention (Levinas, Rosenzweig, Moses Mendelssohn, just to name a few). enjoy the site, obliged, daniel

Anonymous said...


I've enjoyed the focus on Stringfellow, and am excited to read that your reading MacKinnon. (The Lord might have you reading Forsyth yet!). The idea of following a theme from time to time is a good thing.

I wouldn't call F&T 'completely random and unrelated'. Most posts about God or Bob Dylan, sometimes both. We even had a run of Cohen for a wee bit. I miss the posts from your kids though - they always had great things to say.

Ben Myers said...

Nathan, thanks for the links: I loved your Religion Dispatches essay on Stringfellow.

Saint Egregious, you are wonderful—I stand in awe of your comment about the conservative reception of Stringfellow. Actually, I think there ought to be some sort of prize for a comment as good as this...

But anyways, just to add one thought: One of the things that impresses me most about Stringfellow is his remarkable commitment to his friends. Even their Block Island home was itself a sort of monasticism-of-friendship. And I think this is an important piece of the background to his defence of Bishop Pike. Stringfellow doesn't necessarily speak up in advocacy of all Pike's ideas (for example, he freely admits that Pike's dabbling with mediums and clairvoyants was delusional). But his defence of Pike is nevertheless absolute and unconditional. He is a friend to Pike (just as he is a friend to Daniel Berrigan). And for Stringfellow, this friendliness (one might say: a friendliness even unto death) is itself the supremely radical gesture, the act in which death is scorned and resisted and undone.

But anyway, that's just an additional thought: I don't say this in criticism of your comment—a comment like this evokes only applause and good cheer. And besides, how could I presume to correct you, when you are the clown behind everything here (since it was one of your own comments that first prompted me to start reading Stringfellow).

Ben Myers said...

Jason, since you've been missing my kids' theologising, here's something for you—a couple of days ago, my 6-year-old daughter told me she'd had the following dream:

"There was someone in our house named Isaiah the Thief. We went to the kitchen and unpacked everything from the fridge, and we put all the food out on the kitchen bench. Then we went away, and Isaiah the Thief came and ate up all the food. And all the mice came and ate up all the crumbs."

I'm no Joseph, so I didn't know the interpretation. But I told her it was a great dream: a dream of Old Testament proportions! (And let's face it, "Isaiah the Thief" may well be the coolest name ever invented.)

Anonymous said...

Now that's deserving of a post all of its own ... May Isaiah the Thief return. Thanks for indulging me Ben.

Anonymous said...

In the spirit of Mary Catherine Gallagher, let me say that my feelings in response to your all too generous response to my droppings can best be summed up by the following scene from the 1997 Academy Award winning film As Good as It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt:

You make me want to be a better blogger, Ben, even as I inconsistently overshoot!

And as for an award, your book on Milton, which I am reading in preparation for an upcoming conference paper on the influence of the consistent calvinism of the American theologian Samuel Hopkins, is plenty gift enough.

Anonymous said...

The week-long treatment isn't a bad idea. I mean, who of us doing theology today would find it honoring to have someone else a generation from now summarize our entire theological project in one blog post?

"Donald MacKinnon Week Just for Funsies." Do it, please.

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