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The Art of Improvisation

Monday, 26 September 2022  | Jacqueline Grey

My family regularly plays a game we call ‘scenarios’. We ask: what would you do if…? It usually follows an advertisement on TV for Lotto. What would you do if you won Lotto? We then each describe what we would do with that big pot of cash. But then we sometimes extend the question to the movie or TV show we might be watching. What would you do in that situation? What would you do if you were Frodo holding the ring of power, or were Ferris Bueller with a day off? (I know, showing my age.) We then improvise our own story. We each imagine what we would do if we entered that narrative world. We make believe how we would play out the rest of the story. 

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright uses the analogy of improvisation to describe how we should live out our Christian life in light of Scripture.[i] He describes the biblical story as being like a 5-Act Shakespearean play. Every Shakespearean play has 5 acts. My first degree was in literature and linguistics, and Shakespeare’s comedies were my favourite (especially ‘Much Ado About Nothing’). But imagine that a play written by Shakespeare was recently discovered – a play that had been lost but now has been found. A Shakespearean play that no one had ever heard of before. But in this scenario, the problem is that the play only has four acts. The script to the last act of the play, the fifth act, has been lost. Yet, reading through the first four acts, the direction of the ending is clear. What do we do with this play? Do we abandon it? We could. But imagine if we continue the story of the play through improvisation. The actors could play out the first four Acts exactly according to the script and then we improvise the ending based on all that had gone before but moving the story towards its conclusion.

How might this analogy relate to us? As the actors play out the first four Acts of the Shakespearean play exactly according to the script, so also in this analogy we have the script for the first four Acts in the story of Scripture, which is the Bible. The script of the first four Acts covers exactly what we see described in the story of Scripture – creation, the fall into sin, God’s covenant with Abraham and focusing on Israel, then the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection, Pentecost and the birth of the church, the growth of the early church. But then the script ends. For the last Act, the fifth Act, there is no script. But we know how the story ends – the ending of history closes with the glorious renewal of creation where believers will be with God forever. That is, we are to continue the story started in Scripture until the story begun at creation comes to an end with the new creation, whenever and however that might be.

What do we do? We continue the story. So, we the actors must play out the story of Scripture in a way consistent with all that has gone before in our script of the Bible, but moving the story forward to its ending. It is a living story. The situation of the story we now find ourselves in - the fifth act - has changed. Our world has changed, so we can’t just cut and paste the previous dialogue. We can’t just memorise and repeat verbatim the script from before as though that will suffice in this fifth act. And so, the requirement is to live consistently with Scripture, not clone Scripture. That is, to live consistently is not to cut and paste the situation of ancient Israel or a cultural practice of the Greco-Roman world onto ours, because we live in a different time and different context. We are dealing with new complications in the plot, like foreign policy and unemployment rates. Instead, to be consistent with Scripture is to be shaped by it. This ‘calls for an integrative act of imaginative improvisation’ – placing our situation imaginatively within the world articulated in the biblical text.[ii] So, we, the actors, must be creative and imaginative – we must improvise.

To be able to improvise means we must have a solid foundation of the content and the heartbeat of God revealed in Scripture. We must be formed by Scripture into the shape of crucified love, so that we can act out that love in new, creative ways, seeking the well-being and flourishing of our neighbour. This task requires our faith communities to analyse Scripture to guide us to judge, on our own initiative, the new and unpredictable situations we are confronted with in our world in this final act of history. As 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us, the Bible is useful for teaching and training in righteousness, so that everyone… may be proficient, equipped for every good work. Being immersed in the story of Scripture fosters our imagination and equips us to articulate the good news of the gospel and the hope of restoration in the new context of our changing world. So, issues such as foreign policy and unemployment rates and drugs in sport can be addressed through the creative analysis and improvisation of actors faithful to Scripture, acting out the gospel message in light of the end of the story, of resurrection life, to which the Bible points.

This recognises that, while Scripture does provide an over-arching story and canonical consistency, it also presents us with canonical diversity, in that it does not always present a uniform voice on ethical issues. Therefore, careful hermeneutics and discernment is needed. Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit. We act out our role and our contribution to this story by being led by the Spirit of God. We need the Holy Spirit as our guide and tutor to help us improvise our part of the story, as we work towards the flourishing of our world and thereby move the story – the story of God’s redemption of history – towards its conclusion.

We are each part of this story. We are part of something bigger than our own narrative. This vision for life is noble and contributes to the flourishing of our world.

We join God’s story by improvising the final act of this story of Scripture – staying consistent and true to Scripture, but being led by the Spirit towards the fulfilment of the story in God’s kingdom, seeking the flourishing of human communities and creation as we navigate the new contexts of our changing world.


Jacqueline Grey is Professor of Biblical Studies at Alphacrucis University College, specialising in hermeneutics, the Old Testament and Pentecostal theology.

[i] N.T. Wright, ‘How Can the Bible be Authoritative?’ Vox Evangelica 21 (1991), 7-32. See also Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004), and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2005).

[ii] Volker Rabens, ‘Inspiring Ethics: A Hermeneutical Model for the Dialogue between Biblical Texts and Contemporary Ethics’, in V. Rabens, J. Grey and M. Kamell Kovalishyn (eds), Key Approaches to Biblical Ethics: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 114.

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