Sunday, April 25, 2010

After You Believe: Chapter Two

This is week two of a discussion through After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by NT Wright. This my first experience blogging through a book chapter by chapter and I'm not quite sure yet what the best tactic is. Last week I simply wrote a summary with some commentary. This week I would like like to simply address a few arching thoughts that I had while reading Chapter Two: The Transformation of Character.

FIrst of all, I feel the need to say that this may not be the best introductory book to NT Wright. I find it somewhat difficult to push through in places. My past history with him helps me move forward. If you have picked this book up because of my suggestion and haven't read Wright before you may want to consider setting it aside and reading Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the ChurchSimply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense or the first of his books that I read, a small work called Lord and His Prayer. Even if you are enjoying After You Believe, I would say based on this week's reading that it might be worth your time to read Surprised by Hope along side of it. If feels very much like a companion piece to "Hope."

This chapter functioned as an apologetic for character as produced through virtues in light of a particular Wrightian eschatological theme - that the followers of Jesus will be, like Jesus was, physically raised from the dead to live (and work, rule and judge) on earth in the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom. The transformation of our character now - through cultivating "strengths" called virtues - allow us to actively anticipate our future reality. 

Improv and Theology

I thought about my own journey in two extremes as I read the first half of this chapter: my story as an improviser and as a theologian.

First, let's talk about improv.

As a kid I had a magnetic pull toward the theatrical arts, storytelling and creative play. A huge regret for me is that I did not pursue theater in high school. I was struggling with being socially accepted and worried that if I aligned with the theater people I would lose my friends. Looking back, had I made that move I would have probably found a true community with them. Since then, I haven't let social expectations keep me away from the acting. I am an actor and a storyteller - those theater people are my people. But, more specifically than that, I am an improviser. I had no idea that is who I was until my amazing wife signed me up for level one improv classes with The Second City Las Vegas about a decade ago. It was the best Christmas gift ever. It changed my life.

I had a few natural moments of success in that introductory class, but for the most part I was a bad improviser. I thought improv was about having a quick wit or being funny. People had told me in the past that I was witty and funny, so it only made sense that I would be good at improv from day one. But I wasn't. Nobody in my class was good at first. I've never met a level one improviser who is good at improv. You can see potential in some people more than others, but improv is all about submission to the art. Here's the thing that most people can't believe when you tell them. Improv - the art of making stuff up in the moment - is about keeping the rules. The freedom of improv is found in the boundaries. 

Here are some of the basic rules that must be mastered to be able to be free enough to excel at improvisational comedy:

  • Agree and Accept. This is rule one. Everything that is said and done in a scene happens for a reason. To deny something that happens is to deny the art - and to deny your scene partner. If my parter starts a scene by saying to me, "Dr. Nancy Willams, your skirt is on fire!" Then I know the truth: I am a doctor, a woman named Nancy, wearing a skirt, that is literally on fire. If I say, "No, I'm her husband and I'm wearing pants," I have broken the rules. The scene will go nowhere and will not be funny.
  • Heighten and Explore. Rule number two says that I start with the reality my parter and I create, but together we  raise the stakes. For improv to work it has to be one of those days that the characters would talk about years later. "That was the day my skirt caught I fire...and..." It is that "and" that makes all the difference. This is why improvisers talk about the power of the "Yes/And". Yes my skirt is on fire...let's explore that and heighten it. Maybe my skirt is on fire because I purchased a new flamethrower or my patient spontaneously combusted or whatever...My parter and I will explore this amazing day together in front of our audience. And it will tell a funny story.
  • Make your partner look good. There are some other rules that we follow, but this one rounds out the big three. Any free second of thought I have in a scene needs to go like this, "What can I do right now to make my partner succeed?" Improv is never about's about us. And the better I make  you look the better we all look. Great improv is never selfish.

I studied for years and years - hours and hours - thousands of dollars spent - to master those rules of improv. I landed a job doing improv six nights/week for three years. I've done improv tours and countless shows now. As a result I can generally improvise with anyone at a moment's notice. I don't get nervous. I don't think about "how" to do it. I just do it. I became an improviser. As long as I obey the rules, I am free to be who I was created to be. It is second nature.

Similarly, I have had a life-long obsession with learning about God. I have a degree in Biblical Studies, but that was just the beginning. I've read hundreds of books about God, Jesus and the Kingdom. I've had thousands of conversations about Him. I have lots more to learn, but I have learned a lot. Compared to a true academician like NT Wright, I am still a lightweight, but if you pull ten people out of line at McDonald's I could hold my own in any conversation about theology because I've devoted my life to being a learner on the subject.

These two realities in my life, in conjunction with some natural talents and abilities, have worked to create something in me that would be otherwise unexpected. I have bad days like anyone else, but I can generally teach a group of people about God in a moment's notice. I don't have to think much about it - I can just do it. Someone was attempting to compliment my teaching last week and said, "It's amazing that you can just get up there and wing it." Well...the truth is I can "wing it" if I want to (though I always spend some time in preparation.) But I can only "wing it" because I have devoted my life to two virtues that collide in a teaching moment - I am an improviser and a theologian. It's just what I became. Improvising and teaching about God are second nature to me now.  I have spent decades preparing the teacher so that I do not have to spend twenty hours preparing every teaching. Had I not done that, I would need to function differently.

This is all to say, that as NT Wright spoke of virtue and character I quickly saw those areas of my life as positive examples of character building. I also saw the areas of my life that have had far less attention and training. If I want to be as "accomplished" at generosity or gentleness or patience as I am at improv, I have to do the work...and maybe even be willing to learn the "rules" and obey them for the sake of my greater freedom within the art.

Section Six - Romanticism, Existentialism, and Emotivism

I felt a tinge of conviction in this section. I don't think I am an emotivist, but by his definition I am close to being a romantic and an existentialist. Particularly, the idea of authenticity as a key virtue exposed in existentialism resonates very deeply with me. "Being me" is very important to me - maybe too important. I suspect that we will deal with this more as the book progresses. 

Section Eight - Vintage NT Wright

For me, the chapter that was a bit laborious to plow through ended with fireworks. This section is NT Wright in his prophetic zone and at his very best. I  think I underlined the entire chapter. In his previous works, I cannot remember Wright giving such a succinct version of his understanding of the gospel:

"The goal (of the gospel) is the new heaven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed world's rulers and priests. The goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory in the world."

I'll end this post with that quote. It is a lot to take in for modern Western Christians who have largely been taught a less substantial, more individualistic it's-all-about-going-to-heaven version of the gospel. If you are reading the book with me, I'm sure this won't be the first time he challenges us in this regard.

1 comment:

Sonya said...

I am reading this book along with several members of my family and it has elicited some good conversations. His discussion about "not 'putting on' a virtue you don't yet possess as an excuse for doing what [you] wanted" was particularly thought-provoking. I always did equate this with hypocrisy but his comparison of developing character to the time and work required to play an instrument, speak another language, etc. made sense to me. Doing what comes naturally doesn't always equal authenticity and even if it does, authenticity isn't always something to be admired or encouraged. Good stuff!