Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics - Samuel Wells

Title: Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Author: Samuel Wells
Publisher: Brazos Press
Year: 2004
Pages: 236


Samuel Wells, a priest in the Church of England, has written this thoughtful and thought-provoking book at a time when we're facing ethical dilemmas on all sides. This isn't a mere skim of the typical concerns like forgiveness, adultery, and greed. He puts his template to the test in the final chapters of the book by working through issues of terrorism, disability/handicap, cloning, and genetically altered food. I was all the more intrigued by this book when I saw it mentioned by N.T. Wright in his book, After You Believe.

Wells takes as his starting point the practices of improvisational actors. Many of us are familiar with "improv" from the television program "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" My delight in improv comes from an improv comedy venue in Raleigh that I went to as a high school student. Improv seems random, chaotic, always on the edge of crashing. Anything - the wrong word, the wrong time, the wrong person - can kill the momentum and bring the story to a grinding halt. But the actors keep it going with a few crucial rules and actions. I remember when I first came across this insight. I was reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and there it was: "[T]he truth is that improv isn't random and chaotic at all....[I]mprov is an art form governed by a series of rules" (Blink, 113). It's an exercised in structured spontaneity, where the structure is formed through effort and the spontaneity emerges through habit.

The connection to ethics is made when Wells insists, "Ethics is not about being clever in a crisis but about forming a character that does not realize it has been in a crisis until the 'crisis' is over. Improvisation is not about being spontaneous and witty in the moment, but about trusting oneself to do and say the obvious" (Improvisation, 12).

But this book goes beyond the sphere of personal ethics to engage the church at-large. Wells says, "Improvisation means a community formed in the right habits trusting itself to embody its traditions in new and often challenging circumstances; and this is exactly what the church is called to do" (12). Or again, "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" (65).

The opening section gives a quick sweep of how Christian ethics have been shaped by six specific eras of history:
1) Early Church, 2) Christian Empire, 3) Decay of Empire, 4) Middle Ages, 5) Modern, 6) Postmodern.

But the mention of ethics, even "Christian" ethics, can mean different things for different people. So Wells draws a distinction between 3 strands of contemporary ethical thought among Christians:

1) Universal ("Ethics for Everybody")
This strand desires to work within the methods and "givens" of the culture to treat and resolve questions and dilemmas in the public stage. The goal for this group is to make Christianity reasonable and useful so it suits all people in all places in all situations.

2) Subversive ("Ethics for the Excluded")
This strand announces that the winners are the ones who write history (and, in the church's case, theology/creeds). With regard to the group putting forth "Ethics for Everybody," this group points out that the ones who benefit most from that ethical arrangement are the ones who have the power/authority to make the rules. The goal for this group is to make Christianity listen to the voices that are typically suppressed, and consider what those people have to say.

3) Ecclesial ("Ethics for the Church")
This strand protests that the universal approach doesn't account for the particularity of the Church's history, story, or practices. It also recognizes that the subversive approach is too narrowly defined within the contours of individual expereiences. The goal for this group is to develop people who embody the church's life in prayer and service. Wells identifies these as "witnesses," and says "[They] are the church's truth claim - it has not purchase on truth that is detached from the transformation of lives and communities brought about by its narrative and practices" (41).

Ecclesial ethics and the life of the church must be situated in context if they are to make any sense at all. So Wells slightly modifies N.T. Wright's hermeneutical model of a play with five acts to include:
1. Creation, 2. Israel, 3. Jesus, 4. Church, 5. Eschaton.

This framework reminds us that we are not at the end of the story, and we do not have to usher in the ultimate final establishment of God's Kingdom on earth as in heaven. That's God's prerogative and he will see to it that it happens how and when he wants. Because we aren't in the final act, and because this story has more than one act, we are called neither to effectiveness nor success, but to faithfulness (55).

Faithfulness is formed through training. Training requires effort. Wells explains, "Training requires commitment, discipline, faithfulness, study, apprenticeship, practice, cooperation, observation, reflection - in short, moral effort" (75). But practice forms skill, skill forms habit, and habit forms instinct/character. This is the language of virtue.

Therefore, Wells, continues, "In every moral 'situation,' the real decisions are the ones that have been taken some time before. To live well requires both effort and habit. There is a place for both. But no amount of effort at the moment of decision will make up for effort neglected in the time of formation" (75).

The training ground for Christians is in common worship:
Gathering in the presence of God, listening for the word of God in Scripture, interceding on behalf of one another, confessing sin, passing peace, breaking bread, and being sent out (82-84).

Pages 1-86 are the most helpful and understandable pages in the book. The concepts get complicated quickly and at times I found myself thinking, "Where is he going with this?" Sometimes his seemingly wandering thoughts came out making sense; and sometimes those wandering thoughts left me scratching my head.

The book's basic premise is this: Christian ethics is less a matter of making right or wrong decisions, and more a matter of Christians (individually and collectively) rooting themselves in their traditions and pratices so their ethical decisions will grow organically out of who they have become.


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1 comment:

  1. The idea of improvisation as a strategy for living is apparently catching on. In his latest book, Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes, "The practice of resurrection encourages improvisation on the basic resurrection story as given in our Scriptures and revealed in Jesus" (13).

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