Improvising in the Fifth Act
A review of N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.
By Wesley Vander Lugt
Some readers will have digested this material before in the form of The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (HarperOne, 2005; SPCK, 2005), but those who found this previous book helpful will be delighted to discover two new cases studies in this volume—sabbath and monogamy—that unpack the book’s proposals. Rather than give a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book, I want to focus on the heart of Wright’s proposal outlined in a chapter called “How to Get Back on Track,” and how this proposal affects the issues of sabbath and monogamy.
The gist of Wright’s proposal, which some may also be aware of from The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1992), is that the Bible presents a five-Act drama—creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, the church—and any appropriate understanding of scripture’s authority, interpretation, and application must take into account the nature and development of this drama. In order for the Bible to be properly authoritative in our lives, we must interpret it as the means by which God reveals his story of restoring the entire creation and draws us in as participants in this project of renewal. In doing so, we must understand where we are in the drama if we are to perceive and participate in the play faithfully. As Wright indicates: “We must act in an appropriate manner for this moment in the story; this will be in direct continuity with the previous Acts (we are not free to jump suddenly to another narrative, a different play altogether), but such continuity also implies discontinuity, a moment where genuinely new things can and do happen” (123).
As actors in the fifth Act, scripture is the script that provides a record of previous Acts and an indication of how the drama will end. As a result, Christian life is a matter of improvising with finely attuned memory and hope. In other words, “Our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter, on the one hand, and the complete coming of the Kingdom on the other. Once we grasp this framework, other things begin to fall in place” (126-27). Improvising does not mean making things up as we go, but performing with “constant attention” to the script, performance traditions, and the local performing company in ways creatively faithful to our particular place and role in the drama. As such, all actors (Christians) and companies (churches) perform the Christian faith with variations and contextual uniqueness, but “no actor, no company, is free to improvise scenes from another play, or one with a different ending.” Wright concludes: “If only we could grasp that, we would be on the way to healthy and mutually respectful living under the authority of scripture” (127).
What difference does this model make, then, for our understanding and improvisation of sabbath and monogamy today? Obviously, we cannot simply apply Old Testament sabbath law to our current situation, because that would be ignoring the development of the biblical drama from Act 3 to Act 5 (the church) through the climax of Act 4 (Jesus). Jesus himself indicated that God’s kingdom has arrived, fulfilling the promises and way of doing things in the previous Acts of the drama. Consequently, Christians living after this kingdom inauguration are no longer bound by the sabbath law, but are set free to improvise its true purpose in a way that reflects the goodness of God’s creation and cosmic re-creation. Wright explains with reference to the five-act model in more detail: “In terms of the five-act play, the Old Testament Sabbath law is a vital part of Act 3, rooted indeed in Act 1 itself. But when Act 4 brings in a new day, Act 3 is seen, not as a sidetrack or backwater, but as the necessary but time-limited step by which the ground is prepared for that fresh fulfillment. And we who live in Act 5 must go on telling the story of all five acts in order to understand the abiding significance of Sabbath, albeit translated into the life-giving “now” of the gospel” (172).
In short, improvising the sabbath in Act 5 does not mean repeating verbatim material from previous Acts (strict sabbatarianism), nor does it mean forgetting about them (no kind of sabbath observance). On the contrary, it means reincorporating previous elements in light of subsequent development and the current kingdom context, which in this case means celebrating God’s resurrection rest and integrating gospel rhythms of work and rest into all of life. Not only that, but faithful Christian improvisation involves recognizing that the drama is not finished, and creation is still groaning. The groaning of creation “means that we still need to order out lives wisely with an appropriate rhythm of work and rest, to be navigated and negotiated case by case and from place to place, and most likely honoring the seven-day rhythm of creation in some appropriate fashion” (173).
Wright’s conclusions regarding monogamy follow a similar trajectory. Although polygamy was present in earlier Acts of the biblical drama, monogamy is the pattern in Act 1, and therefore the restoration of the pattern in Act 4 implies through the work of Jesus brings with it the remaking of the original creation. In order to argue for monogamy from a biblical perspective, therefore, biblical proof-texting is a dead-end street. The only way to assert the authority of scripture is to explore monogamy within the continuity and discontinuity of the biblical drama. Only then will we grasp why monogamy between a man and woman is the only fitting option for the fifth Act.
Does Wright succeed in helping us see the implications of his integrative, five-Act model? In my opinion, these cases succeed marvelously, demonstrating the vast potential this model has for helping Christians understand the biblical drama and perform it faithfully today. One of the many strengths of this model is that in regard to ethical matters like Wright’s two case studies, an enormous amount of contextual wisdom is needed in order to improvise with faithfulness and fittingness. Rather than causing despair, however, this only serves to emphasize the importance of tradition and the wisdom of the church that Wright emphasized earlier in the book. In addition, it means that improvising the faith requires the wisdom that comes from prayer, friendships, mentoring relationships, all of which make us attentive to the triune God.
Kevin Vanhoozer develops a very similar model in The Drama of Doctrine (Westminster John Knox, 2005) and in more digestible form in Four View of Moving Beyond the Bible (Zondervan, 2009) and his “drama-of-redemption” approach. Here, Vanhoozer argues, like Wright, that we move beyond the Bible faithfully by improvising on the theodrama to which Scripture witnesses in ways that are fitting to the canonical text and contemporary context. Given the similarity of these approaches, I was surprised not to see Vanhoozer’s work in Wright’s suggested reading at the end of the book, along with other works that suggest a similar dramatic or theatrical model, like Samuel Wells in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Baker, 2004). If you find Wright’s model helpful, I would definitely recommend these others books!
I find this dramatic or theatrical model so helpful, in fact, that I think more careful attention to theatrical language and concepts utilized in the model could generate even more stunning insights. For example, I suggest, along with Samuel Wells, that it is best to scrap the language of the Bible as “script,” because this suggests that the Bible provides particular lines to memorize and perform today. Even talking in terms of “improvising with a script,” as both Wright and Vanhoozer do, is a bit misleading, and other language such as “transcript” and “prescript” may be more helpful and congruent with the rest of the theatrical model. Despite my concern that more care should be taken in applying theatrical models to biblical studies, theology, and ethics, these models have an enormous amount of potential, as I think Wright’s recent case studies show.
In some ways, the five-Act model or similar theatrical models are just good old fashioned biblical theology. The strength of this model, however, is that it is oriented not just toward understanding the biblical story, but playing a fitting role within it. It is model with the power to capture our imaginations and enlist our wills to participate in God’s new creation in Jesus the Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
What about you? Does the five-Act model capture your imagination in this way? Are you satisfied with the way Wrights has applied this model to the issues of sabbath and monogamy? If not, what are your particular complaints? Would you suggest a different model that would come to what you view are more accurate conclusions? Whether or not you have read the book, I look forward to your thoughts. But if you have not read it, I would recommend that you move it to the top of your list.