The Gospel According to Improv
A Radical Way of Creative and Spontaneous Living
By Les Carpenter
Morehouse, pp. 199, $19.95
Review by Christine Havens
One of my favorite passages (there are quite a few) in The Gospel According to Improv comes toward the end of the introduction, in the section “Reading This Book Won’t Work.” Les Carpenter, a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, talks about the invitations he receives to share his expertise as an improviser.
“I ask if there will be space for me to get participants to actually improvise with each other as part of my presentation,” he writes. “A predictable dead silence follows on the phone because the organizer is thinking, ‘Wait, this was supposed to be the “fun” thing, and that sounds scary. People aren’t going to want to do something where they will fail.’ Then there is this awkward back-and-forth with me and the organizer where they try to imagine why I would ask such a crazy thing.”
This is such a great jumping-off point for a book about improv and how it relates to being a disciple of Christ. Very few folks know what to do when presented with this form of creative expression. Or rather, they’re very sure they understand it, having watched episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? It’s funny and it’s foolproof, right? There’s always lots of laughter. But as Carpenter points out, “improvisation isn’t about ‘being funny,’” but a “process that reveals the humor, the creativity, the beauty, and the grace in this life we live.”
I cannot advocate for this book of practical theology enough; play in the service of spiritual growth is a discipline I am ardent about. In seminary I took an improv class, inspired by Samuel Wells’s Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, which our theological ethics class was reading. The idea of over-acceptance, of “Yes, &” thrilled me; after all, if I hadn’t said “Yes, and” to God’s call, I wouldn’t have been at the seminary.
Carpenter acknowledges his debt to Wells’s work in Section I, as he unpacks that integral improvisational phrase, bringing it into relationship not only with collaboration and creativity, but also with incarnation and salvation. Sections II and III widen the stage, providing practical ways in which congregations and individuals can practice discipleship through the exercises seeded in strategic spots.
The Gospel According to Improv makes me gleeful. It is, in essence, a workshop in book form — a DIY of spiritual exploration, though it really should not be a journey undertaken alone. Experiencing the potential joy of over-acceptance is so much fun in a group. I appreciate Carpenter’s subversiveness—using improv as a way to help people out of their comfort zones and “create a whole new way of thinking.” How can one say “no”?
There’s a section that explicates the comma in “Yes, &”— a thoughtful reflection on trust. It’s one more reason this book speaks to me and why I hope others will say “Yes, &” to the good news of this book, maybe even take an improv class, as the author urges, and practice, practice, practice “embracing the awkward.”
Christine Havens is a poet and writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest whose work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and on Mockingbird Ministry’s blog, mbird.com.