Author: Samuel Wells
Full Title: Improvisation
Improvisation in the theater is a practice through which actors seek to develop trust in themselves and one another in order that they may conduct unscripted dramas without fear. Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics is a study of how the church may become a community of trust in order that it may faithfully encounter the unknown of the future without fear.
This is a constructive essay that values the place of the imagination in ethics. It assumes that essential to a notion of the kingdom of God is a perception that things might be different from how they are. In other words, when a community is in Christ, there are no “givens,” no nonnegotiable facts about existence that one must simply accept, other than the great gift of the gospel
This is whence the church derives its power. It is not constrained by a conventional “realist” list of “givens”; it exists in a wonderful moment of possibility, in the Easter moment of resurrection, when all things are possible but not all things, on this side of the eschaton, have yet happened.
In the incarnation humanity is overwhelmed with the abundance of grace. And in the resurrection God uses what humanity has rejected to save humanity. The first kind describes what in this book I call overaccepting. The second kind describes what in this book I call reincorporation. They are the two most significant practices in improvisation. If they are the way God works in the gospel, should they not be the principal ways in which the church seeks to do likewise? That is the thesis of this book.
Aristotle saw humans as political beings. He saw the city-state as the unit of corporate life. Human flourishing lay in the appropriate conduct of these corporate relationships. This is politics. Politics concerns the discovery of common goods that would not have been identifiable without the discussions between people who might otherwise think of themselves as strangers. Politics thus makes possible the art of resolving issues in ways that do not lead to violence. Nonetheless Aristotle regards violence as inevitable too, and the Virtues he commends are ones that are particularly suited to the soldier.
The people of God were a pilgrim people—traveling light, on the move. Jerusalem was no longer the focus of the Promised Land; its temple was no longer the place where sin was forgiven and grace restored. Israel had lived by spatial notions of home and exile. The church was to transform these into temporal notions of past atonement and future reunion.
The drama of the universe ceased to be God’s unfathomable forces of life, death, and judgment, and the church’s negotiation of them through the preaching of the biblical narrative and the ministration of the sacraments. Now the center of attention was the human individual, the new self, and the drama was humanity’s struggle to know and command its environment.
If the center of ethics is the choosing individual, the theories that will prove reasonable and useful are those that make no distinction between persons and treat circumstances and issues regardless of the identities and characters of the people facing them, regardless of notions of overarching providence or everlasting destiny, regardless of the habitual activities of those involved. In this form of argument there may be a valid place for Christianity, as a system and tradition of thought that advocates certain values, but there is little or no place for the church—for the church, like all corporate institutions, seems to represent the tradition of external authority, which has been rejected by contemporary ethical thinking.
These two approaches, the intrinsic (or deontological) and the extrinsic (or consequential), are the two principal forms of ethical argument today. They are the contemporary “establishment,” the norm in reference to which any other approach must define itself. The former could be called “ethics for anyone,” since it sees the individual as a universal category, the principles of whose actions could apply to anyone, anywhere, at any time. The latter could be called “ethics for everyone,” since it has a more democratic impulse, looking for outcomes that suit the most people in the most circumstances
Ethics is not about using power, restoring former glory, or fulfilling individual freedom; it is about imitating God, following Christ, being formed by the Spirit to become friends with God.
“It’s going to be fun to watch and see how long the meek can keep the earth after they inherit it.”
Ecclesial ethics considers that liberation lies not specifically with the articulation and expression of experience but with the traditions and practices of the church and the character and acts of God. This might be called “ethics for the church.” This study pursues this third approach.
With the turn to the subject associated with the Enlightenment, it has become more common for theology to be considered as the study of sacred experience—not necessarily of sacred characters long ago, but particularly of the range of experience accessible to the contemporary heart and mind. And this is the point at which the narrative character of the universal approach begins to emerge.
Universal ethics presupposes that there is one story but masks that story in the assumption that it is everybody’s story. Subversive ethics, by beginning with the experience of exclusion and oppression, points out that this (by no means universal) ideology has an implicit story; that this story is an instrument of domination; and that in fact there are numerous rival stories, representing a host of suppressed parties.
Ecclesial ethics has its own definition of theology. It sees the key location of theology as being in the practices of the church. This is only secondarily about a sacred text, sequence of events, or set of doctrines; it is primarily about the formation, development, and renewal of a sacred people.
It is this people, the sacred community, that is the center of ethical reflection. This is what God wants as witness in the world and as companion in the kingdom. This is what Jesus came into the world to embody and gave his life to make possible. This is what the Bible was written to encourage and guide, and this is what theologians are called to resource and challenge.
The sacred community is the touchstone of Virtue. That which builds it up and enables it to be faithful is good and right and true; that which attempts to bypass it or contrives to render it invisible or undermines it from within is dubious, misguided, or dangerous.
The story presupposed by ecclesial ethics is as follows: Israel was called to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Being holy meant being distinctive and being like God. Being priestly meant that other nations would benefit from the “ministry” of Israel so long as Israel retained its distinctiveness. God then gave Israel everything it needed to be holy and priestly.
Land, king, and temple were lost in the exile, and each was restored only in parody. Though the people returned to the Lord, they were ruled by foreigners. Though there were sometimes kings, there was no return to the tradition of David. Though there was a new temple, there was no ark of the covenant at the heart of it. But during the exile the people’s sense of what constituted the covenant was renewed, and this renewal provided the space in which God did a new thing for and with them.
Jesus embodied that renewed covenant and redefined land, king, and temple.
He directed the people’s attention to an eschatological horizon beyond the land dominated by the Romans. He pointed out that the second temple had not brought reconciliation with God and spoke of his body as a new temple.
In the practices of forming their common life—incorporating newcomers, maintaining the community, deliberating over its good order, and restoring it when it faced the setbacks of external persecution and internal dissent or weakness—it was they who, in these practices, were now his body.
Christians may begin to confuse the church and the world, trying to make the world the church, or treating it as if it were. If Christians do not have a distinctive community, they will seek prominent positions amongst the powerful in the world. They may well regard it as their responsibility, rather than God’s, to make the world come out right, to usher in the kingdom. They will therefore need to form a different set of allies, and find themselves with a different set of enemies. This is the danger of “universal” ethics.
For the Gnostic, the spiritual quest is an inherently individual matter. The location of theology, if such a term can still be used, lies in the heart and mind of each discrete individual. Human community is secondary, and is valuable only to encourage, resource, or stimulate the individual experience. Other people are more likely to be an obstacle than to be a requirement of fulfillment. Gnosticism consistently bypasses the need for human community and establishes communion with God on grounds that do not require the conversations and compromises and habits of regular contact with other people.
A church whose members believe that the true location of theology lies in their own private knowledge and experience is desperately vulnerable.
The individual simply is not strong enough to carry the full weight of theological liberation—to become the church. Gnosticism delivers the church into captivity—into exile.
The unit of ethics is neither the universal world nor the isolated individual but the particular church.
The Christian story places Christ at the center of meaning and delivers humanity from the agony of meaninglessness, transforming the unavoidable fate of our mortal folly into the glorious destiny of his unending joy.
Individuals are not the location of theological reflection, but they can be the symbols and narrative and sacramental transformation. Their changed lives embody the hope of the community. They are the most visible face of the church, the most public ambassadors of God.
Aristotle sought to inspire his readers to be heroes. The virtues he commends are noble ones, and the lives he advocates are ones of effort and attention.
They are formed in the virtues required to negotiate an awesome role: they are prepared to be the center of the story. They stand out from the crowd; they form friendships only with others of similar stature. They are self-sufficient and resilient amid setbacks. The definitive icon of Virtue is the soldier, who is prepared to risk death for the sake of a higher good. The noblest death is death in battle, for battle offers the greatest danger, thus requiring the greatest courage.
what today’s readers find most difficult about Aristotle is his assumption that, though everyone would want to be a hero, very few people will be, and that so being requires a Herculean effort of discipline and will. Today’s readers object to such elitism.
Aquinas did not seek to inspire his readers to be heroes. The Virtues he commends are not those that enable his readers to make decisive interventions in the heat of battle or the height of controversy. The Virtues he proposes are those that enable Christians to follow Christ. They are not called to be heroes. They are called to be saints. The word “hero” does not appear in the New Testament. The word “saint” occurs sixty-four times. What is the difference between a hero and a saint? Five differences present themselves.
The hero always makes a decisive intervention at a moment when things are looking like they could all go badly wrong. The hero steps up and makes everything turn out right. In other words, the hero is always at the center of the story. By contrast, the saint is not necessarily a crucial character. The saint may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten. The hero’s story is always about the hero. The saint is always at the periphery of a story that is really about God.
The hero’s strength, courage, wisdom, or great timing—such are the qualities on which the hero’s decisive intervention rests. By contrast, the saint may well not have any great qualities. The saint may not be strong, brave, clever, or opportunistic. But the saint is faithful. The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith.
Love, joy, Peace, faithfulness, gentleness—these do not rise or fall with the stock market.
A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance; the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation.
Of those sixty-four references to saints in the New Testament, every one is in the plural. Saints are never alone
If the community of faith is the primary subject of theological ethics, Narrative becomes an inadequate category for interpretation.
The narrative—notwithstanding its many blind alleys, false prophets, unresolved tensions, and inconsistent outcomes—may still become a “secret knowledge.”
The theologian who has given most consideration to the notion of theology as drama is Hans Urs von Balthasar. He searches for a genre that does justice to the dialogue between God and humanity, to the interaction between the finite freedom of humankind and the infinite freedom of God, and to the way those dialogues are played out through the reception and rejection of the Word.
The dramatic perspective synthesizes the strengths of the epic and lyric dimensions. Like the lyric, it does justice to the role of the subject, the way that events arise from the hearts and minds and actions of people, rather than from impersonal external forces. Like the epic, it perceives an object that has reason and validity beyond the subjectivity of the involved observer
Von Balthasar’s notion of drama brings together the internal intentions and dispositions of acting characters with the external events and deeds of the story. Thus he synthesizes the subjectivity of lyric with the objectivity of epic.
Lyric ignores time by reverting to atemporal subjectivity, while epic strives to overcome the contingency of time through imposing an artificial coherence. Drama celebrates and embraces an open and social future
While pointing out that it was sin, rather than just sin’s consequences, that Jesus took on himself and overcame, von Balthasar nonetheless commends Girard’s project as “the most dramatic” in contemporary soteriology and theology generally.
What I described as the “Gnostic” temptation can be seen, in the light of the foregoing treatment of von Balthasar, as the temptation to avoid the vicissitudes of time by reverting to inner lyric experience or overarching epic truth. What is needed is a truly dramatic theological ethic, one that incorporates von Balthasar’s commitment to a synthesis of lyric and epic, while genuinely embracing time as a friend and therefore reinstating the practices of the church and the significance of the present.
Apocalyptic speculation lends itself to the Gnostic temptation of a secret knowledge that tries to circumvent the contingencies of community and the open-endedness of time through the assurance of a guaranteed ending.
What emerges after these four amendments to N. T. Wright’s model is a revised version of the five-act play. Act One is creation, Act Two is Israel, Act Three is Jesus, Act Four is the church, and Act Five is the eschaton.
The first act is creation. The drama of this act is that there was too much love in the Trinity for God not to share it.
God is the creator, and God is surrounded by creatures. Those creatures do not exist for themselves but have a purpose for God. God made them this way because God wanted one like each of them. Their chief purpose is to glorify and enjoy God forever. And yet these creatures use their freedom for ill
The second act is Israel. God longed to be in true relationship with creation through the part of creation that apprehended the divine glory—humankind. The prologue to Genesis describes how this failed in Adam and failed again at Babel. So God called Abraham, and Abraham followed. The rest of the Old Testament is a love story in which Israel strives with God, unable to live with God and unable to live without God.
Here is the drama, the wrestling of the story: can Israel find the forms of life that honor its call to be holy? How will God woo or wrest Israel back when Israel strays? How far is too far to stray? Will God save the nations another way?
The third act is Jesus. This is the definitive act, at the center of the drama, in which God’s character is revealed; the author enters the drama.
Christians are in Act Four, the church. Israel thought it was in a three-act play, creation—Israel—Messiah, and the shock was that when Jesus came he neither restored political authority nor brought the story to an end. Instead, he inaugurated Act Four. In this act, the church is given all it needs to continue to be his body in the world.
Still to come is Act Five, the end (or eschaton). This is a frightening thing for those who have built up power and resources, but for those who have nothing to lose, it is unbounded joy.
The face on the cross is the face on the throne.
The myth of human fulfillment, the stretching of human capacity to its utmost and the filling up of the resultant space with experience and reward, means everything must be squeezed into the unforgiving span of a single life. The five-act drama, in its epic dimensions, means that Christians are spared such a crisis. They are not called to be effective or successful, but to be faithful.
Christians can afford to fail, because they trust in Christ’s victory and in God’s ultimate sovereignty. Their faithful failures point all the more to their faith in their story and its author.
On the great debating points of church order, people talk as if Jesus and the early church lived an eternity ago and set everything in stone. But what if Jesus lives today and the church still has thousands or millions of years ahead of it?
The mistake of assuming one is in Act Two is to behave as though the Messiah has not yet come. Yes, one is a member of a special people, called by God, but no, God has not yet revealed the definitive divine way of encountering people and moving in the world. Thus one can be moved to sacrifice others, or oneself, in order to change things rather than recognize that Christ has made the sacrifice instead.
To take on the role of Jesus, rather than enjoy being a disciple in Act Four, is to assume one lives in Act Three. This point of view is always fashionable—everyone likes to think they live in significant times. But the shape of the five-act play reminds the church that it does not live in particularly significant times. The most important things have already happened.
In baptism, Christians are taken into a drama, where God has created them and others for a purpose, where Israel has answered a call and pursued a vocation, where Jesus has become one like them and has conquered sin and death, where the Spirit has empowered the church to follow Christ, and where God will end the drama in the fullness of time. Christians find their character by becoming a character in God’s story. They move from trying to realize all meaning in their own lives to receiving the heritage of faith and the hope of glory. They move from fearing their fate to singing of their destiny. For this is the effect of God’s story: it transforms fate into destiny.
In the performance of a play there must always be an element of creativity that enables the performers to make the text a living event.
“We would do ourselves a disservice if we understood the incommunicative, affective engagement in the drama as merely a back door entry into the sobriety of cognition.”13
“Theatrical performance, like Christian practice, has a script, is communal, is done in dialogue with society, employs a variety of methods and of media, and is embodied.”14
Performance does justice to the embodied, communal way in which the church tries to involve itself in the life enjoined by the Scripture while remaining faithful to the character of God that emerges from the biblical witness. However, the notion of discipleship as the performance of a script has significant drawbacks, and I shall briefly highlight four of them.
If performance of a script is regarded as the paradigmatic form of discipleship, a great deal of disappointment or doublethink is likely to result. It cannot simply be a matter of performing the same story in new circumstances. The story must make some allowance for the new circumstances.
A third course is to seek to translate the script into contemporary motifs. This is generally done in an effort to save the notion of tradition in the face of the tendency to dismiss the script altogether. What invariably happens is that the narrative character of the drama gets lost. In its place comes a number of abstractions, sometimes taken to be a middle course between scriptural witness and secular experience or wisdom. These can easily result in the focus of the drama moving away from the church, its practices, and its interaction with the world, and moving instead toward either the faceless forces of social formation, such as markets, arms, and communication systems, or the privatized interiority of personal decision-making.
The nineteenth-century essayist J. A. Froude described his experience of modernity in these terms: “Thus all round us, the intellectual lightships had broken from their moorings, and it was then a new and trying experience. The present generation which has grown up in an open spiritual ocean, which has got used to it and has learned to swim for itself, will never know what it was to find the lights all drifting, the compasses all awry, and nothing left to steer by except the stars.”18
The longing is for the epic security of the anchor and the lyric intensity of the stars. But instead they find that they are alone and bewildered, free from the moorings that generations ago provided a structure to life; and moreover the sea is rough, and refuge is hard to find.
How can the church continue to be faithful without the reassurance of the script? This is the central question that pervades my whole inquiry. I have considered performance, but that, while allowing for the “spaces between the words,” is still tied to the script. I have glanced at rehearsal, but that, while offering a still looser form, continues to presuppose a fixed script. It is not that the text of Scripture is not, or should not be, fixed. It is that there is a dimension of Christian life that requires more than repetition, more even than interpretation—but not so much as origination, or creation de novo. That dimension, the key to abiding faithfulness, is improvisation.
When improvisers are trained to work in the theater, they are schooled in a tradition so thoroughly that they learn to act from habit in ways appropriate to the circumstance. This is exactly the goal of theological ethics.
Improvisation is concerned with discernment. It is about hearing God speak through renewed practice and attending to the Spirit through trained listening. It is corporate, since it is concerned with a group of people acting and reflecting like a theatrical company. It is concerned with engaging with the world.
In terms of theatrical improvisation, every actor must learn to avoid trying to be original. Few things paralyze action more than one actor refusing to engage unless he or she is able to do so in an original way. The only way it is possible to keep the drama going is to be obvious.
If Christians live in the fourth act of a five-act play, they have permission to improvise—as saints. They have no need to make everything come right, nor have they need to correct perceived shortcomings in any of the previous three acts. They simply use the resources of the first three acts, and what they anticipate of the final act, and faithfully play with the circumstances in which they find themselves.
The community of disciples that has been formed in the habits of the Christian story has all its attention on the surprises God will bring. It is not racked with anxiety about what inspired thing it must now do.
Improvisation is not about outstandingly gifted individuals who can conjure rapid-fire gags from a standing start. It is about nurturing a group of people to have such trust in one another that they have a high level of common understanding and take the same things for granted.
For the improviser, the unconscious is not to be feared as a dark realm of dangerous instinct and forbidden Desire. It is instead to be trusted as a gift of God that can, like all other aspects of the baptized person, be transformed and conformed to the service of God.
By articulating the unconscious, improvisation opens the Christian community up to grace: it does not bury its unknown gift, but trades with it, and thus comes to know it, and to trust God to forgive and heal it when necessary.
Throughout the Christian drama there is joy and playfulness that arise in human and divine communion. It is inherent in Act One—the play of creation, the desire for Adam not to be alone. It is there in Act Two—the dance of David before the Lord, the irony and humor of a host of narratives. It is there in Act Three, as a company of disciples are found, follow, consistently and then definitively lose the plot, only to be found new roles again in a restored company. And it is there in Act Five, as vindicated victims take their seat at the banqueting table and their place in the heavenly choir. So why not in Act Four? The church can afford to concentrate on details, because God has given her time to follow him. Taking time for the trivial is therefore a sign of faith, not foolishness.
Free from the paralysis of being original, the pressure to be clever, the fear of the unconscious, and the demand to be solemn, the church can faithfully follow its Lord by improvising in the fourth act. Happy to be obvious, relaxed, open to the unconscious, and playful, improvising transforms the Bible from a script that needs performing into a manual that trains disciples to take the right things for granted. No longer need Christian communities anxiously glance over their shoulder, lest they make a terrible mistake that betrays their performance of the script. Instead they can trust the practices and patterns of their common life and have confidence that God joins their faithful improvisation.
Each may respectively be seen as any of the three (stage, players, and audience), or all, at different times. These reversals and interplays of expectation and custom are the stuff of improvisation.
Contemporary ethics seems to offer a series of baffling dilemmas. The moral life seems to be an impossible negotiation of hopeless quandaries. Why is this?
Ethics has become the study of the battlefield without much recognition of the training ground. This has happened because ethics has come to be understood as the study of what is right always, everywhere, and for everybody. In other words, ethics considers what all people have in common, not the areas where they differ.
The heart of ethics lies in the formation of character. Once out in the “battlefield,” it is too late.
Ethics is not primarily about the operating theater; it is about the lecture theater, the training field, the practice hall, the library, the tutorial, the mentoring session.
In every moral “situation,” the real decisions are ones that have been made some time before.
The moral life should not be experienced as an agony of impossible choice. Instead, it should be a matter of habit and instinct. Learning to live well is about gaining the right habits and instincts, rather than making the right choices.
Forming the right kinds of instincts is really about developing the imagination.
One may distinguish two kinds of imagination, rather as one may distinguish between habit and effort. There is the imagination that one uses in one’s ordinary perception of the world. This “ordinary” imagination enables one to take for granted those things that one needs to be able to rely on. But there is also the imagination that is inventive and revolutionary, perceiving objects as Symbol of things beyond themselves. This latter, “creative” dimension is described by one Christian philosopher as the ability “to see simultaneously what is and what might yet be for the best, to engage at the same time the most creative of human passions, and consequently to lure into action and to sustain commitment.”4
When the crisis of ethics, the time for acute moral effort, is understood to be the moment of decision, and when ethics itself is understood as the balancing of moral principles so as to adjudicate tricky cases of conscience, the result is implicitly socially conservative. It is conservative because it assumes that the status quo is broadly satisfactory—so satisfactory that one need only agonize over its anomalies. In such a view, sometimes known as “quandary ethics,” the majority of life, run by habit, is rudely interrupted from time to time by quandaries, which require concerted moral effort to resolve
The church’s faith is that, in story, sacrament, and Spirit, God’s people have been given all that they need to be disciples.
Most of the Christian life is faithful preparation for an unknown test.
Jacques Lecoq, one of the leading practitioners in using improvisation as a way of preparing a script for performance, uses the term la disponibilité. La disponibilité is a condition of relaxed awareness. In this state of awareness the actor senses no need to impose an order on the outside world or on the imagination; there is openness to both receiving and giving.
It is like the condition of athletes at the height of their form and fitness, but added to that is an awareness of others and an openness to the unknown.
Virtue ethics has become a shorthand term for all the writers in the field who have grown tired of the conventional emphasis on decision and the neglect of the character of the Person or “agent” making the decision. The emphasis on Virtue in Christian ethics has shifted attention from the deed to the doer. It is the agent who matters, more than the action: ethics is about forming the life of the agent more than it is about judging the appropriateness of the action.
Experienced improvisers know that if they have attained a state of relaxed awareness, they can trust themselves to be obvious.
The practices and disciplines of Christian discipleship aim to give the Christian this same state of relaxed awareness, so that they have the freedom—indeed, the skill—to “be obvious” in what might otherwise seem an anxious crisis. Those with that relaxed awareness, who take the right things for granted, are what the church calls saints.
For Christians the principal practice by which the moral imagination is formed, the principal form of discipleship training, is worship.
Theatrical improvisation is all about games. Games are both training and performance—both preparation and “situation.” Improvisation thus inspires us to see the whole of life as a game and—far from that being trivial—to imagine the whole of life as worship.
It is remarkably difficult to sustain righteous anger against a person who makes no effort to suggest they are in any sense in the right.
The use of space is highly significant in status transactions.
Moving from the use of space to the affirmation and subversion of conventional relationships brings us to the work of James C. Scott.
Discipleship involves a constant questioning, teasing, and subversion of status, both high and low. For the New Testament is all about status, but its message is that, in God’s reign, status is far from static.
The reason improvisation seems impossible to inexperienced players is that instinctively they spend most of their time trying to avoid being dangerous.
A community that is terrified of the danger lurking in its unconscious will be paralyzed when it comes to facing the unknown future. A community that trusts the practices it has inherited and allows them to shape its unconscious should be much more confident when facing the unknown.
Anything an actor does may be regarded as an offer. An offer may be a speech, a facial expression or gesture, or an action—even an attempt to remain silent or still. Any of these things may be treated as an invitation to respond, and thus be treated as an offer.
An actor accepts an offer by any response that maintains the premise of the action that constituted that offer.
Blocking prevents the action from developing. It undermines one’s partner’s premise. It may be amusing to watch, but it kills the story. It happens when one actor is overwhelmed by the danger or difficulty of keeping the story going.
What would it be like to be committed never to block, always to accept? What would it be like to be surrounded by people who are committed to the practice of accepting all offers? The interactions in such a community seem telepathic. It looks like everything has already been arranged. There is no such thing as an accident or an interruption. Everything becomes an offer that can be accepted.
The exhilaration of perceiving what it might mean to be in the practice of accepting all offers is generally followed by anxiety. The anxiety assesses the sheer depth of the evil that is in the world and thus anticipates the range of occasions when it must be essential to block.
The church does not simply accept the story of evil. It has a story of its own. The church’s story begins before evil began and ends after evil has ended. As we shall see, this story does not accept evil—it overaccepts it.
The attitude of accepting all offers may be regarded as an entering into the conditions of life before the fall. In this sense, sin is the refusal to keep the story going, the unwillingness to receive an offer. It is closing one’s heart to grace.
Stanley Hauerwas underlines the way that Niebuhr’s stoicism, far from making him the true exponent of Christian realism, jeopardizes his whole claim to be a Christian theologian at all. In Niebuhr’s hands theology becomes ethics, and ethics becomes about sustaining liberal social orders in a Stoic fashion.
The Bible offers a constant stream of challenges to the assumption that the world is the theater of competing givens. To take the presumed given of time, many of Jesus’ parables address the listener on precisely this assumption—undermining any confidence that there is one unarguable way of seeing the world, and presenting the listener with a surprising, daunting invitation to live in a very different reality of time.
This is why Tolkein’s insertion of “hobbits” into a heroic world is profound, and is profoundly Christian.
The confident man, believing in plenitude, does not steal, and does not need to tell lies to protect himself. The confident man . . . improvises exactly good and always non-identical good works all the time, each of these good works being of equal value—as every good is absolute, and to be good must belong to an entire, an infinite good without exception. The Christian good man is simply for Luther an artist in being, trusting the perfect maker of all things. . . . Only the vision and hope of heaven makes us socially and politically just on earth—and how is it, one wonders, that we have ever come to think otherwise?17
I am arguing that God takes the place in Christian ethics normally reserved for time, death, sin, bodily limitation, and so on—the conventional boundaries. The only boundary, in other words, is the boundary of God. And meanwhile the place that God conventionally takes in Christian ethics—that of a perhaps helpful but largely peripheral and certainly not essential figure—in other words, a gift, a “bonus”—should be taken by those familiar perennial so-called givens. So what seemed given—the conventional boundaries—becomes gift; and what seemed to be gift—God—becomes the given.
Overaccepting is accepting in the light of a larger story.
Overaccepting is an active way of receiving that enables one to retain both identity and relevance. It is a way of accepting without losing the initiative. This often involves a change of status.
It may be helpful to illustrate the tactic of overaccepting from human experience. The story is told of a concert pianist who was on the point of beginning a performance when there was a scream from the audience. A child had left her seat beside her parent and was running around the auditorium. The concert pianist stepped away from his instrument in order to maintain concentration. The child ran up the steps onto the stage, sat herself down on the stool, and began to play discordant notes at random as she pleased. The hushed audience gasped in horror and embarrassment. The pianist walked toward the child and stood behind her as she played. The pianist leaned over her and, without disturbing her, placed right and left hands outside her two small hands on the keyboard. The pianist then began to play in response to her notes, weaving their discordant sounds into an improvised melody. To have thrown the child out would have been to block. To have let her play on would have been to accept. To weave a wonderful melody around her was to receive her as a gift, to overaccept.
What overaccepting opens up is a whole approach to nonviolent response by a Christian community schooled in the scriptural story. When the Christian community is faced by offers coming to it from the society in which it lives, it overaccepts in the perspective of a story that stretches from creation to eschaton—a far larger story
Overaccepting fits the remarks of the previous actor into a context enormously larger than his or her counterpart could have supposed
Overaccepting imitates the manner of God’s reign. For God does not block creation. God does not toss away original material. Since Noah, God has refused to destroy what has been made. But neither does God accept creation on its own terms.
To take another familiar picture, God, the great artist, sees that the painting has been torn and ruined, but rather than throw the painting away, God takes the opportunity to make the painting three-dimensional, the tear in the canvas becoming the broken divine heart, entered by the redeemed people.
Christians imitate the character of God to the extent that they overaccept the gifts of creation and culture in the same way God does
The story narrated by the Gospel writers is one long story of overaccepting. In the annunciation and the nativity, God overaccepts human life. God’s people are not rejected, nor are they simply accepted. Instead God comes among them as a Jew. If the gospel story begins with God in Jesus overaccepting life, it ends with God in Jesus overaccepting death. Jesus does not avoid the cross, nor is the cross the end of the story. In the resurrection, God shows that even the worst offer, the execution of the Son of God, can be overaccepted—even death and all its causes can become part of the story.
“You have heard that it was said” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43), recalls Jesus six times—and each time the disciples and the reader hold their breath to see whether Jesus will abolish (block) the Torah or obediently endorse (accept) it. But on each occasion, with the words “But I say to you,” he instead overaccepts the Jewish law, saying it is not murder but anger, not adultery but lust, not unjust divorce but divorce itself, not swearing falsely but swearing at all, not measured retaliation but nonresistance, not loving the neighbor but loving the enemy that constitute the issue.
James C. Scott uses the term “hidden transcript” to refer to the language of disguise and concealment by which subordinate peoples carry out a performance of deference and consent while subtly undermining those holding power over them.
In the story generally attributed to John’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted with the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees are all for stoning her—but Jesus says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and invites a response. Rather than block or accept the Pharisees’ demands, he overaccepts the practice of stoning.
He overaccepts the notion of power, of acclaim—of kingship: his kingship rides not on the power of a horse but on the humility of a donkey. He does not block the people’s desire to acclaim him, nor does he accept their idea of kingship: he overaccepts and becomes the servant king.
Charles Péguy, the French spiritual writer, describes the experience of standing before the throne of God after one’s death and asks the terrible question, “What would God say to us if some of us came . . . without the others?”1 These others are all those we have cast aside in making the road of our own lives—all the marble we have chipped away to carve out the edifice of our own biographies.
The key to improvising children’s stories is not in thinking up clever or original characters or contexts, but in remembering what has been discarded and reintroducing it at the appropriate moment. Likewise the key to improvising on the Christian story is not in being clever or original, but in being so steeped in the discarded elements of the story that one can draw on them when the vital moment comes.
The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still “balance” it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them.
An ethic based on the assessment of consequences is likely to have both eyes fixed firmly on the apparent realities of the future. Its solutions to ethical dilemmas need not necessarily have much awareness of the past—indeed, they may well be designed to free the agent from such considerations. The potential for forming the future tends to be dependent on control of the present; by contrast improvisers concentrate their awareness on shelved elements in the past that are ripe for reincorporation. Whereas the improviser looks back when stuck, the consequentialist looks forward.
What the larger story does to the smaller story is to transform givens into gifts and fate into destiny. The tragedy of ethical existence is that one seems to be hemmed in by givens that determine one’s range of responses. A commitment to overaccept in the light of the larger story, and an instinct to reincorporate the shelved elements of the story, transforms those givens into gifts.
By September 1973, not a single bishop, not even the most progressive, any longer sympathized with the Allende government. The bishops felt their role was to ensure continuity. It turned out there was a remarkable similarity between their vision for Chile and that of the Pinochet dictatorship. “Both claimed that they intended to subsume societal conflict into a single whole free of essential strife. The church sought a mystical communion of Chileans above the party political fray; the military regime wanted to eliminate party politics altogether.”4 Hence several bishops saw it as their duty to support the new government.
As Cavanaugh acknowledges, ethical judgments about torture have tended simply to denounce it as evil and demand that it stop. They can be summarized as “Torture is very bad.”15 The claim is generally based on an understanding of individual rights. Torture is regarded as a violation of personal integrity. For Cavanaugh, this is based on a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of torture. For torture is not primarily an attack on individual bodies. Individual bodies suffer great pain and distress, but the purpose of torture is the disintegration of social bodies. “Torture is not merely an attack on, but the creation of, individual bodies.”16
Torture is an extreme version of the process common to modernity, of the state dismantling intermediate social bonds in the name of giving individuals equality under the law, with the result that none of the ties and bonds by which medieval persons identified themselves any longer hold sway.
Cavanaugh’s argument makes it painfully clear that the disappearance of the church (following Pius XI and Jacques Maritain’s ecclesiology) was related to the disappearance of bodies in torture. Once the corporate body becomes invisible, there is no body that can safeguard the citizen against the predation of the state. What is required of the church therefore is to reassert itself as a body in its own right. The church’s response to torture is not to campaign for individual rights, because the notion of individual rights colludes with the assumption that the individual is at the mercy of the state. Instead, the church needs nothing less than to remember and demonstrate that it is the true body, a body more significant than either individual or state, a body entered in baptism and shaped by the Eucharist. It is the body of Christ.
Knitting is a perfect image of reincorporation because the strands of wool could represent diverse stories, rejected material, or oppressed and atomized people. Knitting is about the reintegration of diverse strands, and thereby the creation of something beautiful and useful.
Torture and disappearance undermine and attempt to obliterate all social bodies between state and individual. The church, through its program of social solidarity, set about knitting them back together. By constituting a new body, by knitting together a renewed social fabric, the church responded to torture and disappearance.
“The Eucharist is much more than a Ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in his sacrifice. . . . If torture is the imagination of the state, the Eucharist is the imagination of the church.”
The Eucharist is the principal way in which the church resists torture, because the problem is the invisibility of the church, and the Eucharist more than anything else makes the church visible. “If anyone is to ‘discern the body,’ then it must become visible in present time. . . . The Eucharist, as the gift which effects the visibility of the true body of Christ, is therefore the church’s counter-imagination to that of the state.”
Christ adopted the form of a servant. His self-gift to humanity, his complete kenosis, is such that he gives over his very identity to the community of his followers, who thereby become in history his true Body, which in turn takes the form of a servant. The Christian sacrifice unites both to each other and to God in the body of Christ, so that we become what is offered on the altar. This, says Augustine, is the import of the Eucharist.
Perhaps the central insight of Cavanaugh’s remarkable treatment of Chile under Pinochet is the portrayal of torture as a perverted Liturgy. In other words, torture and Eucharist emerge as rival practices that compete to define the social nature of the body. The task of the church in the face of torture is not so much to block it, since it does not have the power to do so, but rather to interpret it as a Liturgy and to renew its own Liturgy in the face of it.
Cavanaugh argues that “torture is a kind of perverted Liturgy, a Ritual act which organizes bodies in the society into a collective performance, not of true community, but of an atomized aggregate of mutually suspicious individuals.”
If torture is essentially an anti-Liturgy, a drama in which the state realizes omnipotence on the bodies of others, then the Eucharist provides a direct and startling contrast, for in the Eucharist Christ sacrifices no other body but His own. Power is realized in self-sacrifice; Christians join in this sacrifice by uniting their own bodies to the sacrifice of Christ. Christians become a gift to be given away to others, as illustrated in the practices of the Vicaria and the Sebastian Acevedo Movement. In giving their bodies to Christ in the Eucharist, a confession is made, but it is not the voice of the state that is heard. The torturer extracts a confession of the unlimited power of the state. The Eucharist requires the confession that Jesus is Lord of all, and that the body belongs to Him.
On a personal scale, any thorough treatment of the church and human evil today must engage with the question of the sexual abuse of children. As with most questions of human evil, this would quite possibly begin with a consideration of issues of status, and the horrifying reality that the church has been implicated in countless numbers of such crimes.
Improvisation offers fresh language for befriending God and one another. By adopting key concepts from theatrical improvisation, Sam Wells baptizes the grammar of the theater to invite Christians to discern the possibilities of their discipleship, possibilities that make sense only because of who God is. The moral discernment envisioned by Wells requires that the church become a community of courage and imagination, where Christians dare to trust in God and one another as they live without fear in the world Christ has made possible.
Wells charts a path of Virtue ethics that begins with Aristotle and Aquinas and is more recently conveyed in the work of Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre. In the tradition of Virtue ethics, moral discernment is not reasoning from some universal code of morality known innately by all rational agents in every time and place, nor is it speculating potential outcomes about what would benefit the majority of persons. Ethics is instead about forming particular habits to become a good person with a new nature. For Christians, ethics is theology; it’s about becoming like God rather than navigating a quandary or crisis at a particular moment. Ethics is about who we are all the time—which is to say, ethics is about our story.
Since the first edition of Improvisation came out in 2004, the number of theologians, ethicists, philosophers, and biblical scholars interacting with theatrical theory and practice continues to grow, so much so that we may identify a “theatrical turn” within these disciplines.
Maureen Knudsen Langdoc was another member of the 2006 class at Duke. She states, “I draw on improvisation to guide my approach to parenting—so much so that my nine-year-old daughter has come home from school explaining how she ‘overaccepted’ a situation with a friend. Joining formation and imagination, improv articulates my desire to create space for my children to be formed in particular habits that nurture wonder and free them to receive gifts and offer their own.”
For further exploration of heroes and saints, the violence of the nation-state, and the contrast between Aristotle’s city-state and Augustine’s church, see Samuel Wells, “The Disarming Virtue of Stanley Hauerwas,” Scottish Journal of Theology 52/1 (1999): 82–88; Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Citizenship and Armed Civic Virtue: Some Questions on the Commitment to Public Life,” in Charles H. Reynolds and Ralph Norman, eds., Community in America: The Challenge of Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); and John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006). There are also significant issues raised by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches in Christians among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) and by Hook and Reno in Heroism and the Christian Life.
Among those who have considered the Christian narrative as a drama are the following: Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born to Be King (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943); Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007); Susan Schreiner, The Theater of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); Walter Brueggemann, “Preaching as Reimagination,” Theology Today 52/3 (October 1995): 313–29; Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, trans. James G. Williams and Paul Haddon (New York: Crossroad, 1999); Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Voice of the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology,” in John G. Stackhouse, Jr., ed., Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000); and Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
A similar practice is common among instrumental performers when they make mistakes in their play, incorporating what they call passing notes into their performance rather than calling a halt. A story is told of the violinist Itzhak Perlman. Once, while playing a violin concerto, he found that one of the strings snapped in the first movement. He continued as if nothing had happened, playing on with just the three strings. Speaking to the audience afterward, he said, “Our job is to make music with what remains.” (I owe this story to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.) Likewise in the tradition of Eastern rug-making, mistakes must not be made, but, when they are made, they must not be unpicked: instead a new design emerges that incorporates the mistake into a new pattern.
John Inge introduced Wells to Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (New York: Routledge, 1979). In recent correspondence, Inge noted, “I was very interested in improvisation in theatre years ago and, as Sam mentions at the beginning of Improvisation, lent him the book Impro by Keith Johnstone. That was sufficient catalyst for his fertile imagination. The relation of improvisation to faith was of interest to me, both practically and theologically, but Sam thought through the whole area with characteristic depth and imagination. The book is the result, and it has had a profound effect on my life and ministry, as it has on many others.”