This is the third post in my exploration of Improvisational Christianity. You may want to catch up by reading the first two posts:
The first rule of improv we looked at last week was “Tell a Story.” This week we look at the second rule I learned as an improviser:
Rule #2 – Everyone Plays.
Deeply embedded in this rule is that improvisation is supposed to be fun and communal.
So is life.
My friend Missy was diagnosed with cancer. Her life wasn’t fun. It was scary and painful and uncertain. She was given serious medical advice to find a hobby that could serve as a distraction from her illness.
Just like I wandered broken into the Second City in Las Vegas, Missy wandered sick into the SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando for her first improv class. The first thing she was told there was that this is “an ok place to fail.” Missy broke down in thankful tears knowing that she needed that more than anything else in the world. She needed a safe place to have fun again.
Missy recovered from cancer. (Twice actually.) But she never recovered from improv. She teaches it in Cincinnati and coaches a local troupe that I play with called The Q City Players.
Did you happen to notice all the “playing” in that last sentence alone?
I said that I “play” with The Q City “Players.” This is something you should know about improvisers. We are so serious about play that the word itself is never far from our lips. When we perform, we call it “playing games.” When we invite someone to do a show we say, “Do you want to come play with us?” If it sounds like the way little kids talk, it should. We’ve rediscovered child-like secrets that we lost long ago – that people were born to play, and to play in a community where it is ok to fail. Everyone Plays.
Just so you know this isn’t just right-brained bohemian hippie crazy talk. There is serious science behind it. Psychiatrist and adult play expert Dr. Stuart Brown said the following during at interview for his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:
“It is that we, as homo sapiens, are fundamentally equipped for and need to play actively throughout our lifespan by nature’s design. While most social mammals have a life cycle that involves dominance and submissiveness (as in Chimpanzee troops or wolf packs) with play diminishing significantly as adulthood arrives, we retain the biology associated with youthfulness despite still dying of old age! By this I mean that our overall long period of childhood dependency, which is dominated by the need for play, does not end with our reaching adulthood. Our adult biology remains unique among all creatures, and our capacity for flexibility, novelty and exploration persists. If we suppress this natural design, the consequences are dire. The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, inflexible, humorless, lives without irony, loses the capacity for optimism, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists. In a world of major continuous change (and we are certainly facing big changes economically now) playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive. Our playful natures have arrived at this place through the trial and error of millions of years of evolution, and we need to honor our design to play.”
It makes one wonder if part of the God-image in us, that which makes us eikons reflecting his glory unlike anything else in all of creation has something to do with God’s (and our) playfulness.
An improvisational Christianity would have to be playful. The God of an Improvisational Christianity would have to have capacity for fun. So here is the question that I ask with a little uncertain trepidation:
Is the God of the Bible playful?
The short answer is yes…and no. God comes off very seriously and often perturbed in the Bible. Perhaps for this reason, most Christians I know are overly serious (and perturbed) people. Having fun in my specific evangelical heritage was, at best, a necessary distraction. At worst it was a damnable sin. (If the fun involved alcohol, dancing or a 12-sided D&D die, for instance.)
However, there is also a strange unqualifiable mirth, perhaps even a mischievousness, to the God reflected in the Scriptures. (Talking donkeys, floating axe-heads, prostitutes always saving the day, really old women constantly getting knocked up by their husbands, etc.)
G.K. Chesterton was either one of the smartest men who ever lived or such a masterful wordsmith that he comes off as such. What he says at the end of his masterpiece Orthodoxy has stuck with me for years:
“Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because (God) never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Chesterton takes the time-tested iconic image of the white-bearded-grandfather God and replaces him with the eight-year-old-mischievious-boy-holding-a-muddy-horny-toad God. A God who is younger than us would know how to really play. Maybe Chesterton’s Younger God is exactly what we all need after a few millenia of Grandpa God.
It all makes me think that the most urgently serious question to ask might be this:
Is the God we inherited playful enough to be considered seriously?
Are Christians having enough fun to be taken seriously with our claim to have good news? Are our Christian communities known for our scandalous mirth? Is my God fun?
My concern is that all of us our deceived. What if we are actually still simple seven-year old kids who want to play with our friends? But we now suddenly find ourselves trapped in aging bodies with monthly mortgages, unused business cards and cut-rate auto insurance.
This concern, along with my initial reading Orthodoxy ten years ago, lead me to write a fairy tale under that very premise. If you want it, you can find Between Two Kingdoms on Amazon. If you don’t want to pay for it, I’m sure it is pirated somewhere on the interweb.
I’ll end this post with one more Chesterton quote. It happens to be the same quote that begins my fairy tale.
Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
We need to believe in dragons again.
So we can have fun beating them together.
Here’s to an emerging expression of Christianity where everyone plays, it’s ok to fail, and really old ladies still get knocked up by their husbands.
Follow Joe’s friend Missy at @HotShotPR