God, Improv, and the Art of Living
By MaryAnn McKibben Dana
All self-help and exhortation-driven books seem inevitably prone to treading precariously close to the precipice of the clichéd and the obvious. Often, there’s something faddish about their latest prescription for weight-loss, happiness, conjugal harmony, renewed spiritual faith, material success, coping with grief, or whatever else may ail you. They implicitly promise (or, at the very least, hint at) the profound and the original, when all they can possibly deliver is the mundane, the gimmicky, or, at best, the commonsensical.
In God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Eerdmans, 2018), MaryAnn McKibben Dana attempts to extend the practices and principles of a niche pursuit—namely, theatrical improvisation—to more general applicability as life-lessons. Paradoxically, so much of the underlying niche pursuit adheres to the book’s prescriptions that non-initiates (those of us who do not do “improv” for fun or a living) may feel a tad detached and distant from its salutary lessons for life. Still, Dana’s approach is accessible, practical, upbeat and witty. An itinerant Presbyterian preacher and lecturer, Dana uses improv as a metaphor for life—and how we live it.
At the heart of the improvisational technique is “responsiveness, a willingness to embrace a call when it comes, to receive a gift when it is offered.” For the person of faith, that means “a lifelong journey of responding to God’s call.” In our daily lives, that means learning to say yes to whatever situation presents itself. Those who do improv on a stage are expected to take the proverbial ball and run with it, by accepting a premise or situation and then building on it—what the author calls “yes, and…” There’s no room for passivity on the improv stage, or in life: “We are what we do—not what we say we’ll do, not what we hope to do someday.” We need, instead, to be fully active participants in the unfolding of our own stories. Even on stage, “improvisation does not mean being funny. It means being human [and] being human in improv means going for what’s truthful.”
There are lessons here for active listening, for spontaneity, for creative collaboration, for generously accepting what we are offered by others, for seizing the opportunities presented by life, for ignoring the inner voice that whispers that we’re inadequate or apt to look foolish, for not letting an idea of perfection get in the way of the graspable good in the here and now, and for embracing the unexpected: “The unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is…to put together a life in the wake of these things—maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life…fashioned out of what’s at hand.” And Dana rejects the idea of a God who pulls strings or has a single plan for us mapped out in advance. Instead, interestingly, she argues that God, too, is an improviser, innovatively interacting with each of us in the face of ever-changing circumstances. The future is in a perpetual state of flux, never predictable, never set in stone. Its eddies and currents (and occasional tidal waves) take us here and there—but an improvisational life needs no fixed destinations. It rejoices in creating something good from the unpredictable, just as God delights in creatively extemporizing right along with us in the ad-libbed dance of life.
John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.
Copyright © 2018 by John Arkelian