In the chronological order of books that have changed the way I view the world it probably goes The Bible (Obviously), TrueFaced, and Fight Club. Those were all in high school though, and I didn’t encounter another point-of-view altering book until after I graduated from Bible College. That book was Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells. It was recommended to me by a good friend, and described as “Every time I read the next page its like I’m getting saved all over again”. It’s the first book I have ever highlighted in, and that’s saying a lot because I hate marking books for any reason. I think I highlighted more in the first chapter than I did in the rest of the book combined. In fact, in terms of reading, it started off incredibly interesting for me, and then slowly faded into boring text. It’s still a really good book though because of all of the great parts that are front loaded.
I want to give a summary of the book, but there are so many moving parts to it I have to write more than one article about it. If you are interested, then the book has so much more to offer, if not, then you can just read this article and get the general idea without having to go through the whole thing.
Wells kicks off the book with a few great ideas, the running narrative equating Christianity to Theater. Its clever, and he begins by talking about the Bible itself and the Christian Community.
“The Bible is not so much a script that the church learns and performs as it is a training school that shapes the habits and practices of a community.”
Its easy to take everything in the Bible as literal, but that’s simply not the way it was written. In a sense, it wasn’t even written for or at you. Moses is talking to Hebrews, Paul is talking to the church in Ephesus. You can try to find your connection to them, but the simple fact is that the Bible was not written specifically for you. It’s a collection of stories, accounts, and letters written different communities in different times, by different people for different reasons.
If you treat it like a script to read off of, you will encounter a myriad of problems every time you meet something that isn’t covered by the Scriptures. The Bible doesn’t talk about Necrophilia or Cloning, but Necrophilia is pretty widely accepted as wrong despite the odd silence about it in God’s Word, and if cloning becomes viable, is it morally acceptable to do so? Neither is covered, but I bet you have an opinion about both.
So what do you do when you encounter something isn’t covered by the Bible’s ethical laws? You improvise. You have to. And how? Because you’ve read the Bible; You understand the themes, and the characters, and how they behave. You’ve read about God, and while you sure as Hell aren’t going to know exactly who His character is, you can make a pretty good guess.
But let’s say your guess as to the character of God and my guess as to the character of God are different. What happens now? You improvise; You dialogue.
“Theological reflection must always be in a spiraling dialogue with embodied community.”
I was listening to The Liturgist Podcast (Ep. 3) the other day and the topic was how we view scripture. The first point was that we can’t see it objectively; We just can’t. You can’t ignore the fact that your culture and upbringing affect the way you view the world, and thus, affect the way you read scripture. So of course you are always going to see things differently than other people.
The second point was that the Christian view of Holy text, and the Jewish view of Holy text are two vastly different things. A typical Western Christian approach want the Bible to have answers; to have conclusions; to have it settled. We enjoy finality, and maybe that ties us back to this weird culture obsession with Life after Death. But the traditional Jewish way to read their Scriptures is to wrestle with it. I had a Gentile professor who attended a Rabbinic University, and he described the way the Holy text was treated as an all-out, no-holds-barred contest. You roughed up the historical aspects, shredded the figurative narratives, and critiqued the poetry. Nothing was off-limits. But it wasn’t a matter of disrespect towards Scripture, it was a matter of testing it to discover its worth.
The dialogue comes into play because two Rabbi’s will argue about the scriptures and nothing will get resolved. There’s an old joke about this: Let two Jews talk and you’ll end up with 5 opinions. If that’s the case, why?
Because they keep talking about, and then they practice it, and they come back and talk about it some more. They keep coming back together because of their love for the Holy text, they would not separate because of it. Its their diversity of ideas with no conclusion that keeps them going. They just keep the dialog going, knowing that both of them are not going to get it perfect, but they will keep trying. It’s not about the answers, its about the questions.
Modern Christianity likes to settle, and settle hard. We don’t like ambiguity, we want the answer, as if the Bible is a riddle to be solved. If we thought so highly of it, we wouldn’t make it out to be so easy. And once we have our answer, we don’t like to change it, we like to add amendments. “If you die Unsaved, you go to hell. Except for unborn babies…and children….and those who are mentally handicapped…” Where in the Bible is that age of accountability caveat?
It’s not a script; It’s a reference. It’s not a command; It’s a conversation. A school to teach you how to act. Not act as in do or pretend, but act as in become. The Bible is there for each of the actors to discuss their interpretation, and how they see it; all the ideas and characters bouncing off each other and developing new ideas.
It requires communal discernment and practice. You can’t dialogue without a partner. Therefore, you can’t properly read the Bible if you do it alone. Improvisation requires the corporate engagements to form habits, and these habits from practices, and at the same time, are practiced. This is the life of the Church. The Church isn’t just a stage, it’s the greenroom where you prepare, and yet at the same time, a stage itself where you prepare with others to preform. A Christian life is a life of Theater.
And remember: A good actor can memorize the lines of the script and deliver them flawlessly, and with great emotion. A great actor can keep going even when things go off script. Some of the most iconic movie moments have been when an actor encountered something that wasn’t in the script and they just ran with it.
P.S.- I will continue writing on this. So please look out for much more on this book to follow soon.
Points to you if you can guess what Musical is being preformed in the picture and bonus points if you know exactly which number is being preformed.
I chose this picture because in it is both myself and the friend who suggested reading this book. I also picked this picture because we improvised a lot in this play.