Improv and Religion

A friend pointed me to this blog post today: http://improvmantra.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/rules-suck/

Go ahead and click through and read that. I’ll wait right here.

Now, I’m not going to say that I agree with everything that he says there. (For one, he says that “Improv is about creating interesting stories with interesting characters. It is not about doing silly games with crazy rules.” I disagree to the extent that ComedySportz, which is the only improv that I do regularly, absolutely does have silly games with crazy rules… but I agree that in general, his statement there is correct.) But the concepts he presents are pretty valid, and the discussions a couple of my friends have had inspired by that post also caught my attention.

What the basic idea of these talented improvisors (my friends, not the original writer; I haven’t met the original writer, so I’m just going to assume that he’s a genius to save all us some time and hassle) seems to be is that rules are a great way to get started, but eventually tools are more useful, unless your learning style doesn’t work that way.

I absolutely think the rules are good for beginners; learn to use them so that you know how and when to break them.

But this got me thinking about my religious upbringing.

I want to state as clearly as I can here that I don’t think my religious upbringing was exactly what it was meant to be. I went to a private non-denominational Christian school… which meant that we had a lot of denominations represented. If you know much about Christianity, especially Protestantism, you’ll know that beliefs run the gamut from very conservative to very liberal. At my school, in order to keep things relatively even, the conservative side tended to win out. Evolution was considered, and I quote, “a lie straight from the pit of hell” by our science teacher; many people in our school equated the Democratic party with sinful heathens; and I was literally 21 years old before the thought ever entered my head that it was possible for someone to have a drink of alcohol and not be immediately convicted with guilt by the Holy Spirit. Others who went to that school didn’t have the same experience that I did. This post is not meant to be a referendum on the school, beliefs about evolution or alcohol or politics, or anything like that. I’m sure there will be plenty of time for that sort of stuff later.

This background is just to establish that, whether or not my parents and teachers were aware of it, whether or not they intended it, my exposure to so many different beliefs and my need to have a system that I could understand meant that I grew up with a very strong belief in a legalistic version of Christianity.

There is an old “thought experiment” that can be phrased lots of different ways, but the one that I was most familiar with from my junior high days is this: You are a Christian living in Germany in the early 1940’s. You are harboring a family of Jews in your attic. Nazis come to the door and ask you, point blank, if you are harboring Jews. As a Christian, what do you do?

(Please look past any of the potential reasons to be offended by the question.)

The reaction that most people have is simply to say that they would lie to protect the innocent Jewish family, because saving a life is more important than telling the truth.

However, there is a school of thought among some conservative Christians that “Thou shalt not lie” is not negotiable, and as a true Christian you would have to answer the Nazis that yes, you were harboring a Jewish family, regardless of the consequences — because if the Nazis commit murder, that’s on their souls which you can’t control, and if the Jews are murdered, well, as a good Christian you certainly “witnessed” to them and they clearly chose not to accept Christ, and while their deaths are regrettable and tragic, you are not responsible for their eternal damnation.

Some Christians get stuck between the rule — thou shalt not lie — and the conscience that couldn’t just let this horrible situation play out. They try to justify their way out of it by saying, “Say nothing, and pray,” or “Avoid the question by changing the topic,” or “Answer honestly that you don’t want to answer and demand to see their warrant” — yeah, I really did hear this once — or “Act crazy; that way you’re not answering and maybe the Nazis will get confused or annoyed and go away” (as if that’s not deceit).

Others will argue that “Thou shalt not lie” is actually “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” and is really more about perjury, and since God directed some of His faithful to do deceitful things sometimes in the Old Testament that He must be okay with small sins if they cover up big sins.

If any of this is stunning you, I assure you that I have heard every one of these presented as legitimate Christian answers to that thought experiment, and most of them I have heard several times from several different people.

I’m not here to give the answer to that particular question, but to use that concept about improv — rules vs tools — to try to address the difficulty of much (not all) Christian thought.

Christianity absolutely has rules; the Old Testament in particular is full of them. Much of the New Testament seems to be about revising or changing the rules to get to the heart of what those rules mean.

If improvisors treated improv like many Christians treat Christianity, the second that a character asked a question on stage, the others would be convinced that he wasn’t a real improvisor because he didn’t follow the rules. Some of the most brilliant improvisors in the world would be frowned upon by other improvisors, because the fact that they were so entertaining was irrelevant in the face of their regular flaunting of their rulebreaking ways.

I’m not saying we need to give up on the rules, either in improv or in Christianity. I think in both categories, there are some rules that should stand firm. (In improv, make things up instead of scripting; in Christianity, believe in Jesus Christ as personal savior.)

Instead, I’m going to bring one last topic into this discussion: cooking.

My wife is a brilliant, brilliant cook. I call her a “pantry chef,” in that she can take just about anything from a reasonably stocked pantry and wind up with an incredibly delicious meal. I, on the other hand, have a few things I make very well, and a lot of things that I can barely manage to pull together. I need recipes. And I mean, I need recipes.

Because those are my rules, and I’m enough of a beginner that I don’t have an understanding of why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m not good at extrapolating information, either. Why am I caramelizing onions? How can I use that idea in another dish for which I don’t have a recipe? Why is the oven at this temperature? Why am I supposed to use a wooden spoon instead of a metal one? I don’t know the answers to these, so I need the rules.

In improv, the rules vs tools debate addresses this: why do we say we shouldn’t ask questions? Because making statements will be a stronger choice; asking questions delays the flow of information and puts pressure on your scene partner to fill in blanks that you could have filled in yourself. Ta-da! Done.

I hope, as I raise my daughter in my Christian faith, that instead of just giving her all the “rules” of Christianity, that I can get to the heart of why I want her to act a certain way or refrain from certain activities. That way, hopefully, she’ll understand — not just accept — the whole point of being a Christian in the first place. And hopefully she’ll understand that if other people aren’t meeting the “rules” as she’s heard them, that she needs to look at them from the inside out, and not just as their actions.

So, in summary: rules to establish boundaries, but tools for the heart of the matter.

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6 Responses to Improv and Religion

  1. Kendra says:

    Great post. I grew up in a similarly legalistic background and it very nearly destroyed my relationship with the divine. Your daughter will live a healthier, more balanced life because her daddy understands the idea of the the spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law. My hope for her is that she will always be attuned to the Law of Love. That is where the true freedom and safety lies when the rule book has to get tossed out.

  2. Randy Stacy says:

    That Last paragraph is brilliant.

  3. improvmantra says:

    Great post. I don’t mean to slam ComedySportz. I did Theatersports for years. We had an expression, “the tailing wagging the dog” to refer to the relationship of the games to the story. The idea being that the game should facilitate or support characters and story because the scene should be about character and story not just the game. If the scene is just about the game, you have the tail wagging the dog. So while crazy games are a part of improv, improv is not about crazy games. Just like ritual in religion. Ritual is part of Christianity, but Christianity is not about the rituals. I really enjoyed reading your ideas, very cool.

    • strangedavid says:

      Excellent observation. And I didn’t think you were slamming ComedySportz; I just know that the crazy games (Five Thingz, for example, which does not exactly require character work) are some of my favorite things, even though I know they’re not “pure” improv.

  4. Br.Bill says:

    Well said, Strange.

    I believe you have a small mistake. You said, “harboring any Nazis”, but I’m fairly certain that you meant to say, “harboring any Jews”.

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