Agree or Die. [Improvisational Christianity #4]

Agree or Die. [Improvisational Christianity #4] January 18, 2012

Improv is play – simple pretending. Think of what works best when kids are at play.

Here are three examples of how little children tend to play together:

Example 1:

Girl: I’m a Princess!

Boy: No, you’re a Wizard!

Girl: No, I’m a Princess. You’re a Prince.

Boy: You’re ugly and stupid!

Girl leaves weeping.

Example 2:

Girl: I’m a Princess!

Boy: Ok, I’m A Wizard.

Girl: No. You’re a Prince. You have blonde hair and green eyes and you live in a castle and you have white horse and…

Girl won’t shut up. The boy grows bored (and annoyed.) He leaves.

Example 3:

Girl: I’m a Princess!

Boy: Yep, and I’m a Wizard!

Girl: Are you a good Wizard?

Boy: Yes, and I’m here to warn you of something terrible.

Girl: Oh no! Quick, come in my castle. It’s over here.

Boy: Ok, but hurry.

They play like this for hours, telling an impossible story, laughing together and becoming friends.

If you have spent time with kids lately, you’ve probably seen a real-life version of each of the three above scenarios. An underlying premise behind improvisation is, not only that play is important, but that there is a better way to play. A certain style of play is more mutually fun and meaningful. This style of play (Example 3) is centered in the concept of Agreement.

Rule #3 – Agree and Accept.

(Late to the discussion? Learn about Rule #1 and Rule #2.)

When I teach kids (or adults) to improvise, this is the biggest stumbling block. Non-agreement is the easiest way to spot an amateur improviser. Here’s an example of a typical scene with two adult students during a first level improv class:

Guy: W’sap?

Girl: Nothing.

Guy: You come here to get your fake ID?

Girl: No. I don’t need a fake ID.

Guy: Yes you do. You called me and told me.

Girl: I don’t even know you, how could I call you?

Oh the agony of bad play! Put me out of my misery… fast.

The above scene tells me that I am dealing with two insecure actors, afraid to trust one another.

Here’s an example of how two professionals might play the same scene:

Guy: Psst. Jenny. Over here. I got your fake ID. (He waves it above his head.)

Girl: Put it away! The cops will see you. (She looks around and walks to him, whispering.) They’re all over the place.

Guy: Uh, yeah. It’s a police station. You got the payment?

Girl: Yes, $20 of Chick-fil-a gift cards, just like your text said…

You get the point. There are some rules at play we haven’t discussed yet in this short scene, like heightening, raising the stakes, etc. But this scene works because there is agreement. The first scene lacks agreement so it, professionally speaking, sucks.

You have to agree and accept to be a good improviser.

The second you don’t agree, you weaken the story and fail your partner. We call this saying Yes.

Yes is always the right answer in improv.

Saying Yes means that we are constantly affirming the reality that we are creating together. If my partner tells me that I’m a doctor, then I’m a doctor. End of story. I can be any kind of doctor I want to be until one of us specifies, but I am a doctor:

You: Doctor, we have a problem!

Me: Ok, nurse. I’m ready to do brain surgery right this time.


You: Doctor, we have a problem!

Me: Please, my friends just call me Dre. Let’s just get this track down.

Here is a BAD choice:

You: Doctor, we have a problem!

Me: No we don’t it’s all under control.

Or an even worse response –

You: Doctor, we have a problem!

Me: I’m not a doctor, I’m a blind cowboy.

You can’t play with anyone until you agree with them!

As improvisers, we agree. Because it is the best way to play.

Agreement does not mean that we agree that the other person is right.

It means that we agree that what is happening is really happening. We agree on reality.

We may completely disagree what our scene partner does, but it doesn’t matter. To deny the reality of our pretend world makes it vanish into awkward meaninglessness.

There are at least four reasons why people don’t agree in improv (and life):

1. Hidden Agendas.

This is the biggest reason younger improvisers have for disagreeing. An actor will think before the scene starts something like, “I’m gonna be Tarzan.” Then he walks on stage and his partner leads with, “Doctor, we have a problem.” The amateur will instinctively say, “No.” Because he thinks he is Tarzan. But only he knows he thinks that. His partner made him a doctor, so he’s a doctor. The reality we live in is mutually created moment by moment. Nobody except all of us is allowed to be the writer the story.

2. Self-absorption.

If you don’t hear your partner, you can’t agree with her. If you don’t watch your partner, you can’t tell a story together. Your partner matters more than you do in any scene. You can’t play without her. The more fun she has, the longer you get to play together and the better story you tell. In short, it’s never about you. You only exist to serve the story and the other storytellers.

3. Fear.

Unfortunately, we tend to say “no” when we don’t know what else to do. People are watching. Our partner may be struggling. So we take over, ignore everything we have created together and try to save face. It never works. You will look desperate. Better to agree and fail together, then disagree and die alone.

4. Pimping.

The best improvisational comedians aren’t trying to be funny. They are trying to be in the present and tell a story. Funny comes from being real. In every scene, there is always the opportunity to tell a cheap joke at the expense of your partner. (We call this pimping for obvious reasons.) You can pimp your partner by selling them out to get a cheap laugh. And the audience will laugh. Once. But you killed the scene before it started…and you damaged the trust of your partner because you were selfish.

This thinking has gone way beyond a hobby or a job for me. Agreement is my life philosophy. It doesn’t mean that I have to agree with everyone’s opinions. Lots of people are wrong about lots of things.

But it does mean that I have to agree to reality.

Especially in matters concerning God, Jesus and the faith.

For instance, my denominational heritage (Christian/Church of Christ) tends to interpret most all of the Bible “literally.” Let’s take a less controversial story like Jonah. I now think it is clearly allegory. I was taught growing up that if I think that way, I am “on a slippery slope” to heresy. At some point, through study and contemplation, it just screamed out to me that the reality is that parts of the Bible are meant to be allegorical. Do I really think some guy was physically in the belly of a fish for several days – not only surviving, but writing and memorizing Hebrew poetry?

No. I don’t believe that actually happened. The point is that I had to overcome my hidden agenda, self-absorption, and fear to see the reality that was there all along. I was also pimping the book of Jonah – selling it out for a quick and easy interpretation. Now I am free to play with a brilliant piece of literature.

I see a lot of issues boiling up in and around the church that are divisive. Some of them have yet to reach their climax. It’s not going to be pretty when they do. What I see, often on both sides of any given hot button topic, is a lot of hidden agendas, self-absorption, fear and ruthlessness. This makes honest discussion (let alone unity) impossible. Until we can agree on what is actually going on in the world, we can’t work (or play) together. We can’t agree until we shed our agendas, egos and fears. That’s hard to do. It means vulnerability. It means, not just that I might not get my way, but that I certainly will not get my way.

But we could find our way together.

That’s what an improvisational Christianity looks like to me.

Are you ready to say Yes to reality?

Even if it paralyzes you with fear?

Even if it takes away your power?

Even if it is the harder road?

I had planned on sharing my list of the“realities” that I think we are ignoring. But I would love to hear yours instead. I’d also love to see if we can practice respecting each other’s concept of reality within these very comments.

How long can we play together before defaulting to the age-old time-tested Christian practice of the “No” we call excommunication? It will be an interesting experiment to find out. (I was excommunicated again just yesterday on my friend Kurt’s blog – but not by Kurt.)

What do you think? What is the reality we are currently living in? How do we get past our agendas, egos, fears and comfortability to joyfully play together again in the world we all share?

@JoeBoyd blogs daily at


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  • Theophile

    Hi Joe,
    When I took guitar lessons I was told to learn the fingering of several scales, and different fingering patterns, called rudiments. These rudiments, once learned and practiced provide the foundation for the ability to play in a band, a song You haven’t heard before, and sound good, they call this improvising. Historically this make do with what You know, and have at hand, has been referred to as improvising, as in “I’ve been doing so much with so little for so long…” This kind of improvising requires study and practice in real skills, and knowledge to pull it off, You don’t jump on stage one day, having never learned to play, and produce anything like what the audience, and other band members expect to hear called music.
    The kind of definition Your article applies to improvising though, is nothing more than imagination practice, about a pretend reality. To suggest imagination or improv(as in comedy), can be applied to Christianity, is to completely ignore what scripture records as God’s viewpoint of imagination in general. Not that it hasn’t taken hold though, and scripture is generally ignored I just don’t think God cares for that music. Foxes book of martyrs records a long history of play by our rules of tradition and doctrine(we basically made up), or die, don’t dare read scripture for Yourself and ponder it, which may lead You to question our pretend reality, or we will have to shut You up(kill You).
    I must point out that to Jesus Himself made direct reference to Jonahs time in the fish, as an actual literal event, not some imaginary allegorical metaphor. This “sign”, His 72 hour reference, and His 3pm(ninth hour) death on the cross, works out to a 3pm Sabbath day resurrection, else how was the tomb found empty, at daybreak by the unbelievers bringing dead body perfume, on Sunday? We can imagine God had His Sabbath moved to the day of the sun god, but that was done by a group of men improvising at the council of Laodicea 300 years after Christ. The sign of Jonah is for this evil generation who knows how to do math but refuses, like making Iraq comply 20 years ago with UN security council resolution 678 and the preceding 12 resolutions, What? would enforcing resolution 666 and the following 12(like disciples)resolutions sound to sinister? Hows that making Iraq comply, working out for those Christian churches in Iraq which have been around since the 1st century? Hey lets imagine everything is great instead, and since we all agree it must be true! Or lets just grow up, learn what scripture really says, and quit improvising religion with imagination and tradition.

  • Becky

    I get what Joe is saying, and I also like Theofile’s reference to improvising music, and the way I see it, you are both saying the same thing. With Joe’s references to how to do improvisational acting on stage I understand that you can’t just get on stage with no prior knowledge or training and expect anything good to happen–unless you are some kind of prodigy. Music is the same, it can’t be any good without training, knowledge and hard work.

    Christianity can be viewed the same. I don’t think it’s about the imagination so much, although I believe that has a role, but I think it is about knowing what is needed, having the training, and putting in the hard work so that the agreement can happen, even between people who believe some things differently. John Wesley has a wonderful sermon called “Catholic Spirit” (which can be read here that gets to the same point that I think Joe is trying to make. Know what you believe and why. Know why you worship as you do. Agree on what can be agreed upon and let the rest go. Live according to the light you have been given, and allow others to do the same. If someone believes Jonah’s story really happened, great, but don’t tell me I have to as well. If someone believes the story is an allegory, fine, why not find agreement on the meaning of the story and what God reveals through it, letting the rest go.

    Don’t be divided over things, but agree on what’s important so we can together change the world in the name of Christ.

    Thanks, Joe! I really enjoyed your thoughts!

  • Nate Sauve

    I like what Becky said in that we should find the right things to agree upon and work there to advance the kingdom. And I think Joe sets up good rules for playing well together. And I do think that Theo points out some important limitations to the effectiveness of a Theology of yes!

    We need to be willing to work together and say yes especially when it makes sense. In our college ministry we work with Muslim and atheistic/agnostic students to serve the community. It’s a setting where we can all say yes. We are free to trust each other, and “even” play together with the “scene” defined for us. However there are times and places that saying yes is not the best way forward. In our college ministry there are times where we are distinctively Christian. We would say no to truth claims contrary to what we hold as reality. No has a place in life as well.

    The whole SOPA PIPA blackout is the most recent evidence where saying no to authorities is in our best interest. That’s what protest is always about whether right or wrong. That’s what your freedom to reject traditional understandings of Jonah is about. Yes and no are important to life as a whole, but I do agree that finding those places we can agree are essential to living with joy. Joe I know you did say some of this already and that you weren’t able to flesh it all out…

    There will be times where No divides. And I think that is ok. In my own life I’ve seen the value of saying no to the betterment of my family and own priorities and calling.

  • Gregg Stokes

    I disagree that music or improv can’t be any good with out training. I remember when my daughter first picked up my violin and starting scratching away at it…I remember distinctly that is was as good as I could have ever imagined. I remember getting on stage for my first improv experience and I recall it being as good.

    I believe the point is to get into the game…good, bad or indifferent. The game is where the action is, the drama, the love and the journey. We can critique if that is what our spirit leads us to, we can ‘yes and’ if that is where our heart is at or we can question everything…He still loves us…but can we get our ‘stuff’ out of the way and love each-other?

    This journey with Jesus is an out-of-control, improved-at-best, walk with a Savior that meets us where we are. The game is to loose the illusion of control and give into the moment where He fully exists 24/7. Wanna play?

  • When I was toddling about so many years ago, in our church there was a 92-3 year old man who would occasionally play the violin for the 300 to 800 of us in attendance on a Sunday morning. He must have had some talent in his youth, but as the few years I had the priviledge of knowing his bouyant and kind personality his abilities became more and more taxed. Whether it was the hymn he made his own or his spirit in wanting to share it with the rest of us, there were few dry eyes when he stepped down from the podium. His innovation led us into a closer walk in the Spirit. Schauntz, his name was Gus Schauntz. I cherish the lessons he taught.

  • Dan Millen

    Who is he kidding? By disagreeing in improvisation we have conflict. Conflict is what every story must have. And I tremble whenever we humans use the term “reality.” Humans don’t know reality, only their perception choices. And everyone is an actor. Each one chooses their own words, and the way they say it, and the body language. That is their “act”. People might not want to hear they don’t know what God knows, or that we all choose our actions and words and so are, in fact, actors. The best improv line was the girl who said, “You don’t even know me!”, because that was the reality. The other guy should have said, “That’s true. So you don’t want to pretend, OK, what do you want to talk about?” That would be a convincing way to either have an intersting conversation, or an even more convincing way to fool the audience into thinking that it’s real. Lying, conflict, disagreeing is the best improv theater, ask any improv actor.