Books

Book Review: God, Improv, and the Art of Living

Let me start by saying that Improv terrifies me. Even as an audience member, I clench, more focused on what might go wrong than on what is actually unfolding. When compelled to improv in acting classes, both as a student and later as an adult, I felt like someone who just could not speak the language.

I do, however, approach every book I open with the belief it may have something important to say to me, whether an idea that sparks new understandings or a disagreement in perspective that challenges me. I’m open to possibility. My friend, author MaryAnn McKibben Dana, would have to tell you for sure, but after reading her excellent new book God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Eerdmans, 2018), I think I may just be taking a “Yes, And” approach to reading, if not to improv itself.

Many of the principles developed in the book resonated for this reader.

First, about God:

Rather than being remote and impersonal, God’s nature is to collaborate – to improvise – with God’s people. And when that improvisation occurs, it moves in the direction of inclusion and mercy and grace. (p. 49)

On the value of listening and how improv can deepen it:

Getting the gist is now our default practice, to the exclusion of deep understanding and shared wisdom…

True listening trusts there is enough time to consider, absorb, and be changed. Onstage, a good improviser trusts that a little bit of awkward silence isn’t nearly as bad as making a hasty move that doesn’t honor what their partner has offered. (p. 64)

On the role of the self-critical internal Voice that limits our risk-taking:

The Voice, also called the censor, is guided by two over-arching sentiments: “You’re not good enough” and “Who do you think you are?” These sentiments stop us mid-risk and keep us safe on the beaten path rather than in the improvisational mystery, which is scarier, but ultimately more interesting and satisfying. (p. 134)

And on getting to work:

Good ideas don’t have much shelf life. It’s much better to use them as quickly as possible, before they turn to ashes. (p. 142)

These and many other passages are underlined in my copy of the book, which is useful for looking at one’s life, but also a great tool for churches that might hesitate to take a risk in a changing world. To encourage exploring the principles of improv, the book includes a set of exercises for individuals and groups. Stories from scripture and contemporary life illustrate the principles. MaryAnn is a gifted aggregator, bringing together her experiences in class and on stage with the wisdom of teachers and scholars in a way that elevates her thesis. Being open to say “Yes, and” widens our sense of what is possible, makes our lives richer, and is faithful to the God who invites us to collaborate. Will we take the risk? I hope so.


I received an Advance Reader Copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. I cannot guarantee that the page numbers indicated above are the same in the final version.