Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Art of Improv

According to dictionary.com, Improvise means 1. to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation; extemporize: 2. To compose, play, write, or sing on the spur of the moment. 3. to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available. 

Comedian and 30 Rock Executive Producer, writer, and star Tina Fey is one of my favorite comedians. For me 30 Rock might be the best thing about Thursday nights in the winter months.  Fey is also the author of Bossypants, a of biography of her life up to 2010.  In her book she describes some of the most important elements to being a good improve actor that I think has some great value for people of faith.  

Improvisation is a key part to our faith life I believe.  Our daily lives might be predictable to a certain point but no day is fully scripted (sorry Calvinists).  There is nothing exactly the same from day to day.  All day everyday we are improvising within a safe framework from which we base our basic behavior and beliefs.  This might be better understood in the context of Jazz and Blues music (for more about Jazz improvisation see Thinking in Jazz). As a guitar player myself I have learned the value of some good improvisation.  Jazz and Blues like all music has some rules that are expected to be followed.  Time signatures, scales, key's of music, rhythm, and tempo all have to be followed.  But there is quit a bit of freedom within those rules to do whatever your musical imagination will allow.  You have to follow proper scales and within those scales are any number of "correct" notes that will sound "right."  However, if you go outside that scale and hit an incorrect note, you can hear it immediately and it can through the whole song off.  The same is true with our daily lives of faith.

So back to Bossypants and improv in the world of acting.  In her book Tina Fey lists some rules to good improve.
#1 The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES.When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt.But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You [jerk]!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
This is probably the key to all good improvisation. It is true in music, acting, and life in general.  If you spend all your time butting heads with others because you demand they do things your way chances are you won't get far and feel as though everyone is against you.  By no means are you expected to agree with everything that comes your way.  Christians have a unique point of view and shape their lives around a specific set of beliefs and practices.  However, keeping an open mind and honoring what others think and do is a great place to begin any relational encounter.  It also opens us up to our spirit of adventure.  Our willingness to explore new places and learn new things.  For the sake of faith it is important to remember that no matter how differently we interpret the various sub-points of our faith, things like the Apostles Creed and the Canon of Scripture provide us points of agreement from which to begin all conversation.  Start there with a "yes" and you might find you have more in common with your fellow Christian and even non-Christians than you think.
#2 The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill.But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
 This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers

Improve requires you to contribute.  You are asked to add to what is going on.  You can't just stand there and let things happen to you in improve or keep waiting for the other person to do all the work.  You have to carry your share in an improve sketch.  The same is true in a life of faith.  We are called to contribute to our churches, to our society, and any other place we go.  We cannot just sit back and let others do all the work. If a ministry is going on in your church say Yes, and we could do blank to make it better.  We are all given gifts, don't just sit on them, use them.

I would like to make a distinction between good questions and being a road block.  Don't ask questions just so things don't get done.  Don't be the person who ruins a simple church ministry meeting with a ton of questions just because you don't want some vote to go through.  That person does not believe in improvisation but instead desires a rigid predicable life.

However, if you don't understand something, ask a question.  If you don't understand basic tenants of faith, are confused about doctrine or practical elements of faith, ask.  The Christian faith is not a "fake it til you make it" sort of religion.  It really is built upon understanding and proper daily implementation.  And that is where the beautiful Art of Improvisation comes in.  

What shapes us is scripture, tradition, and theology and the interpretation of those things.  Those things act like scales for a jazz guitar player.  How you implement them in your daily life is where rote scale memorization becomes fantastic musicality.  Your theology, tradition and reading of scripture should impact and shape how you do everything from buying groceries to how you choose to interact with a stranger in line.  Each encounter is unique and each requires a certain level of improvisation based on available resources and your knowledge of the "scales" of faith.  To be too dogmatic is like simply playing the scale...it is right but is it musical?  But if you throw in a bend, a slide, or a hammer on and mix the scale up a bit suddenly your playing lead guitar.  The same is true for us, use the basics but apply them creatively and you will discover all sorts of amazing applications to Christian faith that not only is "right" but also extremely pleasant to the ear.

#3 If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

That is great news in life and faith.  You should feel that you have the freedom to wonder around the various realms of Christianity.  Examine its history, flip through the biographies of priests, monks, and pastors gone by, look into how denominations other than your own interpret things like baptism, communion, prayer, and the like.  Who knows you might learn something new, you might not, you might even find more resolve and strength in your own understandings.  Read books, blogs, and articles from a variety of sources.  Experiment with different types of prayer, worship, silence, and lectio-divina.  You might just accidentally discover you're a hamster on wheel duty for being to too much of a loose cannon!

Improv is key to faith.  But improv has rules and boundaries just like faith.  In John 8:34-38 Jesus has a discourse about being a slave to sin but, "if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  but he also say's in verse 38 "as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father."  That pretty much sums it up.  We have guidelines but within those guidelines is great freedom.  Faith is not a box, a cage, or any other constricting device that keeps us from having fun, enjoying life, or other wise getting the most out of our experiences.  What it does provide us with the right notes and it is up to us to improvise with those notes in our daily lives to make great jazz and hilarious improv.

Great blog post on how narratives work on our lives and how we might be numb to them.

Is Christianity in America dying?  Diana Butler Bass thinks not.

Becoming Missional by Don Everts

Some Social Media Advice by Danny Zacharias

Pastors can over care for others to the point of injuring themselves.  I suppose this is what it means to give until it hurts.  This doesn't really surprise me.

Who wrote the Bible was always a hot topic in college for my friends.   Here is an interesting blog post by Kathy Vestal that might serve as a way to move the topic forward for them.

Rachel Held Evans blog over the past year has interviewed 25 different people regarding why they believe what they believe in a series called, "Ask a..."  such interviews included an atheist, catholic, orthodox Jew,  Muslim, Christian progressive, Christian pacifist, and several others.  Check it out.

Creeds can be helpful in times of spiritual darkness.  I experienced a similar season in my life about 7 years ago.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Great Divorce, Communion, Brave

I have now completed my third C.S. Lewis book this summer.  The Great Divorce is another great fictional work that Lewis uses to work out allegorically some theological issues about heaven, hell, salvation, Christ's redeeming process, and our personal freedom. "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell."    Earlier this year a book was released on the Great Divorce, by Dr. David Clark titled C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven: A Reader's Guide to The Great Divorce.  He recently did an interview regarding the content of the book and I will simply allow his comments to stir your appetite for this short little work.  I recommend both the Great Divorce and Clark's book.

My favorite video this week:
What do you think?  Is this what the faith community is too be about?  Would you attend this church?

Many people believe we have achieved a period in church history called Post-Christendom.  In other words we are beyond a period when Christianity is the primary shaper of culture.  Take what you will from Kurt Willems comments regarding Chris Tomlins song, but his comments on what is Post-Christiandom are dead on.   I am personally grateful we are moving away from Christendom toward post-Christendom, the church is always most effective, natural, and its members at their spiritual best when we are not at the top of anything.
 ...here are some of the major transitions that take place culturally as post-Christendom takes root:
From the center to the margins: In Christendom, the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
From the majority to the minority: In Christendom, Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
From settlers to sojourners: In Christendom, Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
From privilege to plurality: In Christendom, Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
From control to witness: In Christendom, churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
From maintenance to mission: In Christendom, the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
From institution to movement: In Christendom, churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom it must become again a Christian movement
Young Families:
I took my daughter to watch Disney's Brave last week.  A sort of daughter-dad-day out.  I had a great time with her. There were a few things about this film that were great and one major thing that bothered me and I am pleased to see that Rachel Held Evans agrees with me...wink and a nod, she has no idea who I am but her comments are good.

Things She [and I] liked:
1. A strong female lead...with no Prince Charming! I never thought I’d see the day.  In a sense, Merida is the antithesis to the typical Disney princess in that her story is about personal transformation and maturity, not about being beautiful or finding love.  This strikes me as an important and refreshing message to send to girls, who are bombarded with stories and images that reinforce the notion that a woman’s identity is defined by her appearance and her ability to snag a man.  Best of all, the writers resisted the temptation to turn Merida into a flat, kick-ass-and-take-names heroine who doesn’t need anything or anyone.  Merida  isn’t a helpless princess in need of rescue, nor is she a wholly “independent woman,” with no need for the support of her community. In fact, Merida’s transformation occurs when she realizes her dependency upon her family (mostly her mother), and the value of her community.  I was thrilled to see this realistic and affirming depiction of true strength.
2. A strong female lead...who isn’t always right. Too often, fairy tales about rebellious sons and daughters conclude with parental figures shaking their heads with the realization that their children were right all along. Not so with this story. Merida makes mistakes and learns from them. Both she and her family navigate compromises.  And in the end, Merida embraces both her inner voice and her obligation to take responsibility as a leader in her community.  Parents, I am sure, will find this refreshing.

3. A complex mother/daughter dynamic.  Here again, Brave acts as a sort of anti-typical-Disney-movie in that we have a female character with an actual mother! (Mothers are totally absent from the stories of Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, and famously evil in the stories of Snow White and Cinderella.) In Queen Elinor we find a sympathetic, admirable, and flawed character whose love for her daughter is unyielding, though the two often fail to communicate. The sweetest parts of the movie occur in scenes between these two characters where they begin to understand one another better. Brave is a fantastic mother-daughter movie, and I was thrilled to see lots of little girls holding their mothers’ hands on the way out. 
The biggest thing she [and I] didn't like:
1. Weak men. My biggest concern about the movie is that, while its female characters are strong and complex, the men are largely portrayed as helpless oafs, breaking out into silly fights at every opportunity and generally complicating matters with their stupidity.  While fairy tales need silly characters to keep us laughing, it might have been nice to see a bit more leadership and wherewithal from King Fergus. When things get out of hand, it is always his wife, Queen Elinor, who takes control. It would have been better to see them function more as a team.  I fear this plays into the common misconception that for women to be strong, men must be weak.  (Expect complementarian reviews around this theme within days.)

Young Adults:
I really like music.  I have about 22Gigs worth of it in my itunes.  I know many people who have much more than that.  But are we becoming bit like digital hoarders?  Do we really listen to all those songs?  Do we really need every one of them?  See what the Everyday Minimalist thinks.

When prayer requests are shared in your church, small group, or with friends how often are the sick mentioned?  I bet pretty often.  I have seen many church bulletins that list the prayer needs of its members and I would guess 80% of the names listed are because of some illness.  Why do we pray for the sick?  Is it important? Does it really change anything? See this bloggers opinion.

Let's face it, church is an experience of all the senses.  So why do we focus on only a few senses.  Walt Disney was an innovator in creating the "experience" in his parks.  Here are some thoughts on what we can learn from Walt in how we approach church.

Are denominations passe? I don't know what the future holds but I know things are going to be different in the next few years.  Here is one bloggers thoughts.

Aging Biblically:

What do you think about this video on aging?  Good, bad, rude, accurate?