As the name suggests, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Sam Wells seeks to cast reflection on Christian ethics in terms of drama, more specifically, improvisation. Wells’ basic argument can be succinctly stated: Christian ethics is less a matter of making decisions as it is of Christians thoroughly grounding themselves in their story and practice so that their ethical decisions will flow naturally out of who they have come to be. Wells’ book is neatly divided into three parts, each of which I will now try to summarize.
In Part One, Wells argues that Christian ethics is something done in and for the church, the redeemed body of God’s people. He puts little stock in “universal ethics”—ethics that will shape the practices of those both inside and outside the body of Christ. Rather, he argues that Christian ethics must be theological, grounded in God’s story and in the practices of the church. Thus he says, “Ethics is about forming lives of commitment, rather than informing lives without commitment” (30).
Central to his understanding of the place of Christian ethics is his dramatic rendering of the Christian story. Wells suggests that the Theo-dramatic story can be divided into five acts: “Act One is creation, Act Two is Israel, Act Three is Jesus, Act Four is the church, and Act Five is the eschaton” (53). In Wells’ view, this 5-act structure is important because the church lives between the accomplishment of the story (in Act Three through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection) and the final completion of the story in Act Five, meaning that she must fittingly participate in God’s story as she waits for God to bring the story to a close.
But how does the church conceive of her participation in the drama? Wells suggests that the church should think of her role as one of improvising upon the Christian tradition. He summarizes this conception of the church’s role like this: “When improvisers are trained to work in the theater, they are schooled in a tradition so thoroughly that they learn to act from habit in ways appropriate to the circumstance. This is exactly the goal of theological ethics” (65).
Wells is not suggesting that Christians should “make up” the story or do things on their own authority. Rather, he is suggesting that they be so grounded in and shaped by the practices of the church that they simply do what is “obvious…trusting that God will do what only God can do, and thus having the freedom to do what only the disciple can do” (67). Accordingly, Wells’ proposal focuses on ecclesiology—who the church is and how she faithfully witnesses to the way of Jesus.
In Part Two, Wells takes his basic thesis and suggests specific ways that the metaphor of improvisation can enrich Christian ethics. Central to his presentation is the idea that ethical decisions are not made in the moment of ethical crisis, but are instead shaped by the habits formed in the community prior to that moment. He says, “Christian ethics is more concerned with the development of good habits than with the making of good decisions” (152).
Wells devotes a considerable portion of Part Two to illustrating how the practices of the church as embodied in worship should form the community into habits, particularly the habit of peacemaking (Wells clearly aligns with a pacifist viewpoint). Space prohibits a full description of Wells’ suggestions in Part Two, so I’ll attempt only a brief summary.
Wells suggests several strategies of theatrical improvisation as metaphors for how the church should be a faithful witness. First, he suggests that the church learn how to overaccept the offers that the world presents, rather than simply accepting them or blocking them. Essentially, what Wells means is that rather than falling prey to the evils—or supposed goods—that the world presents (accepting them) or forcing our own view or path on the world (blocking the world’s offers), we should creatively look for ways to take the offers/threats of the world and transform them into witnesses to God’s larger story.
Secondly, of central importance to this concept of “overacceptance” is questioning the givens of the world and looking instead for the gifts that God gives, so that God’s people can overaccept the gifts. By givens, Wells means those things “that are simply there and the community must simply adapt to, if it is to remain in the real world” (125). By gifts, he means things that “are largely what one chooses to make of them” (125). Wells argues that much of what the church sees as given is actually gift. In fact, he argues “that the only given in God’s story, the theo-drama, the church’s narrative: all else is potentially gift” (125). Accordingly, many seemingly given aspects of lives—disabilities, the threat of violence, the global food crisis, and so on—can be instead viewed as gifts, as opportunities for the church to witness faithfully to the story of God in the world. Improvisation, then, is the way in which the church seeks to transform the “givens” of the world into gifts.
Thirdly, Wells suggests that reincorporation is a helpful way of seeing how the church can overaccept and transform givens into gifts. He argues that the forgotten parts of the story—the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed—can be viewed not as givens, not as accepted (though sad) parts of the story, but as gifts to be reincorporated into the body of Christ. Accordingly, a large part of the church’s ethical witness is to focus on reaching out to the poor and oppressed.
In Part Three, Wells applies his model to more specific ethical situations. He first discusses difficult issues facing the church: human evil (particularly in the context of oppression by the state) and flawed creation (dealing with disabilities in the church). His basic argument in the case of both is that Christians should not listen to the rival stories presented in the world, but should rather form themselves in the habits of Christian practice.
Specifically, he argues that rather than taking up the power of the state to block human evil, the church should learn from the Eucharist and offer themselves as sacrifices, confessing Jesus as Lord rather than the state. And rather than seeing people with disabilities as painful givens, as those who don’t fully fit in the church’s life currently, the church should fully incorporate them, recognizing that all of us long for the eschatological redemption of our bodies. Those with disabilities and those without them are “resident aliens” (to use the title of a book by Stanley Hauerwas). In worship, the church comes together as one to anticipate the final act of the divine drama, a drama in which the disabled participate as well.
Secondly, Wells deals with offers that are promising rather than threatening. Specifically, he examines two issues: human cloning and genetically modified foods. These offers seem to present the promise of life through technological means. Yet Wells, in his focus on the practices of the church, argues that cloning and genetically modified foods present rival stories—stories that claim to be able to fix the body or solve the food crisis apart from God. Wells argues that the church practices of baptism and the Eucharist give Christians a unique answer to these promising offers. He suggests that by providing a community with an eschatological hope that celebrates the ultimate Bread from heaven, Christians can witness to the fact that we are called to trust in God for our future. Not only that, but Christians are also called to distribute the bread that we have rather than using the bread that we have to maintain power over those who are lower in society.
While my above summary does not do justice to the nuances of Wells’ argument, hopefully it gives at least some idea of the direction that Wells takes in the field of ethics. I now turn to evaluating Wells’ approach.
Some might be tempted to simply dismiss Wells’ book as “much ado about nothing.” Why do we need the metaphor of improvisation? Why don’t we just look to Scripture, see what it says, and act accordingly? I hope to highlight a few areas in which I think Christian ethics can be enriched by Wells’ approach before moving on to areas of disagreement and concern.
- Ethicists in general, and perhaps Reformed ethicists in particular, have primarily focused on the duties commanded and acts forbidden by God’s Law as recorded in Scripture. As I will argue later, this is vital to any discussion of Christian ethics. However, Wells highlights for us the crucial role of imagination in Christian ethics. We live in a world complicated by the presence of sin and by the advancements of technology, both of which pose deep ethical questions. Perhaps rather than being content with pat answers, Christians should look for creative ways to point to the Way, the Truth, and the Life in these situations. Wells’ metaphor of improvisation is one possible way to stimulate the imagination to that end.
- One important component of Wells’ thesis is that ethical agents (i.e., Christians) are indivisible from the study of ethics. As I quoted earlier, Wells says, “Ethics is about forming lives of commitment, rather than informing lives without commitment” (30). He repeatedly emphasizes that ethics is about what kind of people we are rather than just what decisions we make. This emphasis is helpful, in my estimation. As I will mention later, Scripture is our ultimate foundation for ethical decisions (and ethical habits and formation). But that should not be divorced from the fact that ethical decisions are made by ethical agents in the context of a particular ethical situation.
- Wells argues that the practices of the church constitute the primary way that Christians should form the habits of ethical living. Specifically, he highlights worship and the sacraments. This insight is one worthy of reflection. If indeed the sacraments are “means of grace” (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVII), then perhaps Reformed theologians in particular should consider how the sacraments form the character of God’s people. While discussions of worship are lacking in many expositions of ethics, the Reformed tradition has typically emphasized worship because of its focus on the Ten Commandments (see the Westminster Larger Catechism, Qs 98-148). John Frame, in his massive volume The Doctrine of the Christian Life, has also spent considerable time discussing worship in the context of ethics (see Chapters 25 and 26). Thus it seems that worship as a central locus for the ethical shaping of Christians fits naturally in the Reformed tradition. What the Reformed can likely explore in more depth, however, is how the very practice of worship shapes the people of God into people who will act out of habit in the drama of redemption.
Negatives/Questions/Causes for Concern
As I have just outlined, I do think that Wells’ thesis deserves consideration. However, before the positives that I have just mentioned can be put into practice, I believe several areas of concern need to be addressed.
- Wells repeatedly emphasizes the practices of the church as formative for Christian character and habit. However, the only practices that he mentions are worship, baptism, and the Eucharist. A natural question arises at this point: has not God given us more to shape us than these three aspects of Christian experience (recognizing of course that many things are subsumed under worship)? This leads directly to the next question:
- Is not one of the practices that is to shape the Christian community what Kevin Vanhoozer dubs the “practice of sola Scriptura” (The Drama of Doctrine, 231-242)? In other words, Wells seems to fail to accord Scripture a central role in the shaping of the Christian community. He does briefly (in pages 60-66) address the role of Scripture, including a mention of Vanhoozer’s work in this area, but his primary concern seems to be to dismiss the concept of the “performance of Scripture” as descriptive of the church’s role in the theo-drama. Indeed, in the final analysis, Wells “sees the key location of theology as being in the practices of the church. This is only secondarily about a sacred text, sequence of events, or set of doctrines; it is primarily about the formation, development, and renewal of a sacred people” (37). I believe that this is where the weakness of the book truly lies. By not ascribing to Scripture its proper place, Wells evaporates the very ground of Christian practices: the sufficiency of Scripture. This leads to a third point:
- Which practices should form Christian habits? Indeed, what meaning should one give to ecclesial practices (such as worship and the sacraments)? By not giving Scripture it’s rightful place in Christian practice, Wells deprives the church of the ability to claim divine warrant for her practice and of the ability to understand more fully how its practices should shape the life of the church.
- Lastly, somewhat different than the first three concerns, it seems that Wells’ approach to the question of “universal ethics” is not sufficiently nuanced. He argues that ethics is not done in a vacuum, that ethics is done by people who have been formed in the way of Jesus. That is a point well taken. However, does that then mean that the ethics as presented in God’s revelation to us are not authoritative for all? That question is seemingly ignored in Improvisation and needs to be addressed in order to make the thesis more substantive.
I have only briefly summarized some of they key strengths and weaknesses of Improvisation. But, as my review suggests, I believe that further study of how Wells’ suggestions might, if built on a solid foundation, enrich one’s study of Christian ethics. For my class, Pastoral and Social Ethics with Dr. John Frame, I intend to explore these issues in some more detail. I will post that paper here once it is completed. For further study, see these resources:Read More