Dr Brian Harris; Vose Principal

Faithful Improvisation: Following Jesus Today

I’m currently reading the revised edition (2018) of Samuel Wells’ book, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. It’s a great read, and tries to answer the question of how we should play our part in the drama of God’s work in the world when we have no closely worded script, and when we are constantly facing new challenges. What follows springboards both from ideas in the book as well as from insights in a Nomad podcast with Samuel Wells on 6 May 2020.

Wells draws his key idea from the theatre, and in a similar way to Tom Wright suggests that though we don’t have a detailed script of how we should live in the present, as with actors who are told to improvise the rest of their play on the basis of an incomplete script, it is possible to improvise and to move the play forward in the light of what we know has gone before and how the play ultimately finishes. He notes that improvisation is a popular form of theatre, with its own rules and understandings. Actors who excel in improvisation do so because they deeply grasp the parts of the script they have.

Suggesting that the works of God can be understood as a 5 Act play, Wells gives a slightly different breakdown to that offered by Tom Wright (who made famous the flow of Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and Act 5: How the play is supposed to end) proposing instead 5 C words to represent each act: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, Consummation, differing from Wright in omitting the fall by validly noting that the fall is not an act of God, but a defiant act of humans which should therefore be understood as the tragic human response to creation – and a part of Act 1.

We find ourselves in Act 4: Church, and improvise by looking back, paying particular attention to Act 3 (Christ) and moving the play along so that it is consistent with the hopeful vision of Act 5, consummation. We therefore improvise both by looking back and by being alert to what lies ahead.

In Act 4 it is important to remember key things. We are not Act 3 – and therefore do not need to try and be the Messiah. When the church over-agonises about its task she does so because she has forgotten that Act 3 has already taken place – the Messiah has come. We don’t have to save anyone – Christ did that at Calvary. Our role is that of faithful witness to this earlier act in the play. We should also remember that we are not in Act 2, desperately trying to please God by closely adhering to all the laws of the covenant. Overly legalistic churches seem to forget that scene 3 had already moved us on from that. When we are frustrated that all is not as it should be, we should remind ourselves that though we are moving towards Act 5, the new Kingdom God will usher in, we are not there yet. We should not expect in Act 4 what will only happen in Act 5.

How then do we live in Act 4 as God’s people, called to be church together in the world?

While the text of scripture gives us many clues as to how we should act, it is not a complete script. We encounter many things never mentioned in scripture, and are faced with possibilities a previous age would have dismissed as impossible. Wells suggests that the way ahead is to improvise, by which he does not mean random or arbitrary responding, but rather a creative embrace of the flow of life in the light of the story of God we have already internalised and made part of our being.

Wells notes that ethics is often viewed as a highly theoretical discipline with little relationship to everyday life. If you have taken a course in ethics you might well have discussed this dilemma. There are 10 men in a submarine which is sinking. Help is on its way, but the sailors have accurately calculated there is only enough air for 9 of them before the rescue can take place. One man is much larger than the others, and is consuming more of the oxygen than anyone else. Should they kill one of the men so the other 9 can survive, and should it be the man who is using the most oxygen? Discuss…

I always have great fun in discussions like this, and it does help to highlight different ethical priorities, but Wells asks this penetrating question of his audiences. While those who dabble in ethics have probably discussed this dilemma many times, how many of you know someone who has been on a submarine that has sunk and has faced this situation? He has yet to meet someone who has. In other words, we tend to build our ethical framework around obscure and improbable scenarios, yet in everyday life we are constantly making decisions with ethical implications. We need a model that works in the flow of life. That model, says Wells, is improvisation, based on the idea of improvisation in the theatre.

While improvisation in both theatre and life might seem spontaneous, good improvisation is based on what has gone before and on where we plan to go. In reality, we are improvising the whole time. Life throws up one situation after another, and we respond. If we have been shaped by Act 1, 2 and 3 (and especially by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the immediately prior act), we will act differently to those who know nothing of these acts. Discipleship is about allowing these earlier acts of God to shape us so that our improvisation bears the stamp of what has gone before, and is directed towards where we are heading.

Wells notes that when improvisation is used in theatre, actors have three choices to guide their response. As another actor does something, they can block, accept or over accept the overture. An example from life might help.

Wells discusses an interview with Princess Di held whilst her marriage to Charles was collapsing and a divorce seemed likely. The interviewer asked, “I guess this means you will never be Queen?” Princess Di paused and thought a while and then replied: “Perhaps I will be the Queen of peoples hearts.”

Wells suggests that this response is a classic over acceptance (or constructive re-framing, or transformation). Princess Di is facing the reality of a bitterly unhappy marriage. She could have blocked this truth and told herself, “Though you are very unhappy, being Queen is more important than anything, so fight against the collapse of your marriage, no matter what.” In other words, nothing that happens can be allowed to block the script: “I must be Queen.”

A second option is to accept. In this instance: “I want to be happy, and so my marriage must end, and I must accept that my dream to be Queen will never be realised.”

What she actually does is to take the third option and over accept (or reframe), insightfully and accurately commenting, “Perhaps I will be the Queen of peoples hearts.” In other words, true, I won’t be the formal figurehead Queen, I will be something far better, the person who matters in the hearts of real people, a true Queen who makes a difference. That’s reframing.

Wells suggests that faithful following of Jesus requires us to find ways to over accept or to reframe what comes to us in the flow of life. We might instinctively think we must block something (this is evil, it must be opposed) but blocking is usually inherently aggressive, and most often misses much of the reason for the overture… simply focusing on those parts that can’t be accepted.

We might also feel that in a post-Christian world we have little choice but to passively accept whatever society throws our way. The trouble with simply accepting is that it is often a denial of the gospel and the vision of a flourishing life that Jesus advocates. Also, while we might appear to stoically “accept”, often begrudging acceptance leads to a passive aggressive attitude – where we accept because we have no option, but a simmering resentment builds inside and leaks out in unhelpful responses during unguarded moments.

Jesus followers are invited to be shaped by the first three acts of God and to live in the light of the coming fifth act. Accompanied and empowered by the Spirit in the present, we should ask what it means to improvise in such a way that we over accept or transform or reframe what comes our way so that the impact of Jesus in our shaping becomes a little more obvious.

This is not an obscure ethical concept (like which person on the submarine should we kill), but one which can provide realistic guidance in the present.

Think of the things that you are currently facing. Some might have arisen as a result of COVID-19 – perhaps you are one of the 600 000 Australians who have lost their job. Or perhaps there are other personal issues – a health crisis, a failed relationship, financial failure, a recurring mental health issue… Ask yourself, how am I improvising? Am I angrily blocking (but perhaps not hearing a fair number of things I should hear); am I passively accepting (but perhaps fuming inwardly at the compromise I feel I must make); or am I re-framing this in the light of the gospel and with the guidance of the Spirit.

My lost job could see me rant on about my unfair boss and my ruthless company – and I will probably become more and more unhappy as I unsuccessfully block in this way. Or I might passively accept, secretly thinking that I am deficient and so it was always going to happen sometime – but then the inherent denial of my pain is likely to leave me bitter. I also have the option to over accept, or to reframe, quietly but confidently trusting that another door or opportunity will open in time, and that even if it doesn’t, the finger prints of God are still to be spotted, even if it takes some time. I choose faith rather than fear, and live in the light of that difference.

If you conclude that you are simply blocking or accepting, why not think afresh of the first 3 acts, and then pray for the prompting of the Spirit, and pray: “Lord, I have no script to follow, so please help me to improvise and reframe this in a way that blesses others and points to your love and goodness, and the hope I am building my life upon.

And lets be kind and gracious to one another as we endeavour to faithfully improvise along life’s journey… for it is a journey filled with many twists and turns, some of which are joyous, others difficult. But we face them as people who have seen the resurrection in the third act, and who cry “come Lord Jesus” as we wait for the fifth, while we keep on improvising in the fourth.


To read more from Dr. Brian Harris, see what he has posted from his blog onto our website.