by T Derrick Witherington
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018

In a pluralized context wherein the variety of possible choices becomes ever more widened with each passing day, many people seek an identity which can provide them with a certain degree of certainty.

Identity is, of course, necessary, but sometimes identities which are too strong and closed can possess a closed, lifeless, and, at times, lethal edge.

The insights mapped out by MaryAnn McKibben Dana in God, Improv, and the Art of Living could be seen as providing Christians with a road-map with which to construct their identities in a faithful and openly-creative way. Drawing upon insights she learned through years of Improv classes and experiences she has experienced as a Presbyterian pastor and working wife and mother, McKibben Dana provides a creative and compelling model for Christian living.

Identifying the essence of Christian praxis as being a living in the ‘yes-and’ of improv, McKibben Dana maintains that it is only in letting go of our preconceived notions and living fully ‘in the moment’ that we can live into God’s invitation to create something beautiful with our lives. This begins with first acquiring a realistic view of what is around us, serenely ‘accepting the things I cannot change,’ in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr. After this we then are to discern what things we can change, and this puts us in the moment of improv, the moment where we are bold and courageous enough to risk doing something creative in order to live authentic lives. Such authenticity is not derived from conforming our lives to God’s supposedly unchanging plan, but is, rather, a question of responding to the ‘prompts,’ the ‘interruptions,’ which are set in our path, and our courageous response to them is what actually ‘conforms’ us to God’s plan.

I did find myself nodding my head quite a bit while reading, and I certainly know from experience just how overwhelming discernment can be. How much precious time we would save if we stopped yearning to discover the ‘one path that leads to happiness,’ and, instead, see that happiness is something that can be created and chosen here and now? This aside, I also found myself posing a couple of questions. First, does the speed of improv really do complete justice to the first move we highlighted, namely, determining what can and cannot change? Sometimes, it seems, situations - such as that of systemic injustice - call for careful examination to properly assess the situation and determine the best way of proceeding. This leads to my second question, namely, how would someone in a situation of injustice - a refugee, a sweatshop worker… - read and respond to this book? While it seems that McKibben Dana would say that such people respond with as much creativity and freedom as possible in order to create happiness even in the darkness, don’t some situations require direct action in order to open closed and deadly systems and, thereby, liberating people so that they may say, robustly, ‘yes-and?’

In any case, I found the book to be a creative and valuable work on contemporary Christian praxis. The author’s inclusion of suggested group activities at the end of each chapter, along with each chapter’s relative shortness, make this book ideal for use in church groups and on retreats. It should also be required reading for anyone involved in pastoral ministry or spiritual direction, or, indeed, for Christians who are facing big decisions. Too often have Christians hesitated to live fully in the moment, seeking to fulfil a divine ‘plan’ which always remains at a distance.

God’s call is for us to have life ‘in abundance’ in each moment we find ourselves in, and McKibben-Dana’s book helps us to do just that.

T. Derrick Witherington is a Doctoral Researcher at the KU Leuven and a member of the research group, Theology in a Postmodern Context.