Christian Storytelling, Part V: Faithful Improvisation


There’s a lot of N. T. Wright talk around here right now, so it seems an appropriate time to continue the series on Christian Storytelling. In the past couple of installments we began looking at Wright’s view of the Bible as an “unfinished drama.” We continue now with an understanding of ourselves as actors in the fifth act.

The Christian story gives new meaning to the old Shakespearian line, “All the world’s a stage.” The world is the stage upon which the drama of redemption takes place. And you and I are players. But we are not merely players. We are the faithful improvisors of the tragic and glorious fifth act of history, trying with all our might to remain faithful to the first four acts, as well as the few scenes of the fifth act, that preceded us.

The first four acts, and perhaps even Act V, scene 1, have been laid down for us in the Scriptures. We have some solid clues as to what will happen in the final scene of Act V, but there is a great length of scenes in the fifth act to be played out.

Obviously, the objection might arise that if we only have four acts and have to improvise a fifth, we’ll be left to our own devices, and authority would shift away from the text and to us. I think this would miss the point of the illustration, however, as the first four acts would serve as the authority for the fifth. It just wouldn’t be a comfortable or easy authority. Rather than pulling timeless principles from Scripture to apply in any and every context, we would now be forced to ask the question, “Where was the biblical story going?” and “How do we, as its followers, continue to take it there?” We somehow have to deal with the fact that the Scriptures do not give us the whole story, nor do they give us an answer for every single question that arises. To treat the Bible like it does is to misuse it. The Scriptures do not lay out the fifth act in detail, but they provide a direction that we faithful improvisors should take.

The strength of this position comes in its treatment of the Scriptures as the story of redemption. Certainly the Bible is not laid out in the form of a Shakespearian play. But it is a story, and we must treat it as such, difficult though that may be.

The story, of course, has a main character: Jesus of Nazareth. If we get bogged down in too many of the minor details of the story and do not focus on the story’s central trajectory, the proclamation of Jesus as crucified Lord of the universe, we’ll take the story in all sorts of misguided directions. Therefore, we should see the Scriptures as an unfinished drama about Christ, a drama which we are to live out in each setting we are given. We should take our places in our allotted scenes, take the role given to us, and live out the incarnational story of Jesus as faithfully as possible.

The term “faithful improvisor” is meant to be a self-correcting term. If we focus solely on the word “improvisor,” we’ll think authority lies in each actor, making it up as he or she goes along. But if we are genuinely “faithful” to the script we have been given, we’ll hopefully avoid such an approach. And furthermore, there are few soliloquies in this play. We surround ourselves with other actors (and even drama critics) on the stage to point out when we’ve taken too much creative license.

But likewise, if we neglect the word “improvisor,” we will establish for ourselves some rigidly narrow view of how things should be done and lose our ability to become faithfully incarnational in our own worlds and contexts. We’ll also refuse to learn from other actors who might be better than us.

So with humility, we have the joy of playing our parts in the drama of redemption, living and speaking the story of Jesus.


  1. Dustin

    It seems like one of the biggest struggles of our generation is that we’ve gotten so used to being the ‘audience’ that we have a hard time believing we’re really meant to be actors / characters.

    I’m reminded of Gideon’s story in Judges. I love the exchange that occurs when God first calls to Gideon: Gideon’s response is to doubt, saying “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? (…) The Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

    God then responds by asking, “Am I not sending you?”

    Gideon was so used to passively watching bad things happen that he’d forgotten his role was to act, and to help make things right again.

  2. Loren Warnemuende

    Reading this brought to mind the movie (made from the play) “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” There you have two characters who are dropped into the middle of a story (Hamlet), but they have no idea what the story is or that their inevitable end is death. Ironically, throughout the movie, the entire story is acted out in front of them a few times, not to mention parts of the script show up in random places. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend their brief life trying to figure things out, but completely miss the truth set before them. It’s a picture of futility.

    How different our role in this grand tale can be if we recognize that there is an Author, and we can study the Story! Not only that, our role is anything but futility ending in death. If we trust in the Savior, the hero of the tale, our small role is full of purpose and life.

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