My summer professional reading has been a mixed bag of personal curiosity, prep for another year of teaching, and maintaining my connection to the issues of music in the church. (And yes, there is always a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram!)
For several years I’ve wanted to read Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004). For odd personal reasons, I feel a little awkward about reading it now. Still, I’m glad I did because—perhaps surprisingly—there is actually quite a bit of intersection in that Venn diagram.
For one thing, Wells’ thesis is that Christian ethics arise from the disciplines and practices of Christian living. So that, as he says, we act in any moment in character shaped by those disciplines and practices; and we may not realize we have been in a “crisis” until we are already through it, because our actions were “normal.” And in this regard Wells highlights the role of gathered worship as a primary shaper of Christian ethics.
Now, I have believed and taught for years that worship is the primary vehicle for Christian maturity. So this argument seems quite natural to me. And it helps me get some perspective on current political matters. Specifically the question: How can so-called “evangelicals” appear to support a candidate for the office of U. S. President whose words, actions, and personal history are so contrary to evangelical convictions? One reason—in my view, perhaps the greatest reason—is that evangelical worship is so pallid, and so disconnected from life in the world. Many are simply not making the connection between their pietistic convictions and political matters. They are happy to be happy in Jesus, and please just let them pursue worldly power like the world does.
Don’t think our worship shapes the way we are in the world? Well, then maybe our worship isn’t what you think it is.
The other “aha!” thought that drives through the book is the analogy of where the Church is in the great drama of redemption. Following von Balthasar, Vanhoozer, and Wright, Wells describes a five-act drama: I - Creation, II - Israel, III - Jesus, IV - Church, and V - Eschaton (last things). Acts I–III are written; we have the script(ures), full of stories, songs, examples, plot and character development, and, yes, some talky sections of exposition, didactics, and polemics. (Here I am a bit off-book from Wells; you get the idea.) Act V is written and we are waiting for the curtain to come up on it. Meanwhile we are in Act IV.
But Act IV isn’t written. It is improvised. If we are to improvise well, we will work from what has already been played out (Acts I–III), rehearse, explore, and play in a community that is rooted in the words and actions of the previous acts.
We err when we forget what Act we are in. We err when we mistake the earlier Acts as the verbatim playbook for our Act(ions). We do not want to act out of character, and we also do not want to act as if Act V is dependent upon us.
I’m not doing justice to the argument of Improvisation, but bear with me. Read the book if the analogy interests you, or if you are just generally interested in ethics, or in dramatic improvisation!
But I was struck by the notion of acting (singing, speaking, behaving, worshiping) without being mindful that we are in Act IV. Isn’t some of our worship “premature” in the sense that it suggests that all the promises of our future (Act V) are already fulfilled now? In the sense that we may get stuck on the denouement of Act III and fail to act out the implications of the Gospel in our Act? In the sense that being creationists (for those who still are) we nevertheless fail to integrate the themes of Act I into our worship, our life together, our ethical responses in our own day? In the sense that we still long for the blessings of Act II promises that were already fulfilled in Act III?
In this way, this book on Ethics has provided me another way to think about my own worship, my own need for worship and a worshiping community, and the responsibilities of planning and leading worship for the good of the church, for the good of the world, and as good “art” as well.