Improvising the Missing Act


I’ve recently finished reading The Unnecessary Pastor, by Marva Dawn & Eugene Peterson. The book, in fact, consists of lectures at a conference at Regent College, where Dawn & Peterson were the keynote speakers.

It wasn’t my favorite book of all-time, but there were some really interesting parts. I thought over the next several weeks I’d offer some of those parts for your consideration and/or discussion.

This one is from Dawn:


“N.T. Wright offers an especially helpful analogy for dealing with the question of how we apply the biblical texts to our lives. Frequently, the ultra-conservatives take texts and slap them on the present situation without any concern for the original or current cultures and how the differences between them might affect how we apply the Scriptures at least two thousand years after they were written. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, often react by insisting that the Bible has nothing specific to say directly to this culture, that we can only abstract some sort of ethereal principles out of the text. As a creative and yet faithful alternative beyond both sides, Tom Wright suggests a brilliant comparison.

“Suppose we found an incomplete play by William Shakespeare. How could we produce it? If we discovered the first five acts and the last bit of the seventh, we could try to write the missing parts – but who could ever write as well as Shakespeare? Besides, Shakespeare is no longer alive for us to check out our attempts with him.

“Instead, we could go to Ashland, Oregon, which has one of the finest Shakespeare festivals in the world, and there we would secure the best Shakespearean actors we could find – people who have performed lots of his plays, who know his ways, his idiosyncrasies, his twists of language. They would immerse themselves in the acts that we do have, and then we’d let them improvise the parts that are missing. Since the audience would be different every time the play was performed, it would be improvised differently every day according to who is there and what is happening. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

“Similarly, the Christian community has passed on the unfinished drama of God. Act I of the play, the creation, teaches us that we are all created equally to bear the image of God, that we are responsible to care for each other and the cosmos. Act II, the fall, enables us to understand the world’s brokenness and destruction. Act III and V present the stories of Israel and of the early Christians, respectively, to offer us examples of both disobedience and trust and to demonstrate the consequences of our rebellions and our following. Act IV gives an account of the life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as the culmination of all God’s promises to Israel in Act III and the foundation for all the Holy Spirit’s work through the saints of Act V. Those five acts are complete, but Act VI is missing, and we have only a fragment of the drama’s end (Act VII) from the book of Revelation. What we know of the grand denouement of the world, when Christ comes again and destroys evil and death forever, is only a sketch meant to encourage us in the struggles and sufferings of the present.

“How do we apply the Scriptures? We immerse ourselves in the first five and partial last acts of the drama, in all the texts passed on as the grand biblical story of God and his people. By means of the commandments, speeches, narratives, poetry, warnings, promises, and songs of the entire Revelation, we are formed with the character of God’s people to imitate the virtues and deeds of God himself. All over the world Christians are improvising the biblical story – differently in each place because of the surrounding audience and circumstances…

“We need a lifelong immersion in the texts of the Scriptures – soaking ourselves in the language so that when we put down our Bibles we can improvise living our that language in whatever we encounter.”

10 Responses to “Improvising the Missing Act”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Interesting. This is, generally, the kind of thinking I was referring to in my last comment on the “emerging church” thread: narrative theology rather than systematic theology. The latter rigorously seeks answers to all the specific questions that arise in theology; the former seeks to tell a story, become part of that story and extend it. They’re both efforts at completeness, just different kinds of completeness: logical vs. big-h Historical.

    We need a lifelong immersion in the texts of the Scriptures – soaking ourselves in the language so that when we put down our Bibles we can improvise living our that language in whatever we encounter.

    This pushes the Shakespearean metaphor too far, and in the wrong direction. A) Christians don’t need to be soaked in biblical language, because B) their purpose is not to be able to continue talking in that language once they’ve read past the end of the page. Point B is the more important one, but I’ll address them in order.


    Unlike when performing a Shakespearean text, using the language of the biblical authors is not terribly important to Christian life. Nor is it even useful or helpful, in many cases. As CsofC and others have demonstrated quite well enough (and long enough), being soaked in biblical language doesn’t work. It erects marvelously effective barriers around the story community — both between insiders and outsiders, and between what happens “in church” and what happens in the rest of life. It renders both the community and the story artificial. Irrelevant. Hokey. It’s exactly the opposite of what’s supposed to happen. Becoming language-oriented is a mistake. It’s a blind alley.

    The idea is to perpetuate the story, not the language. Which brings us to…


    Christians aren’t called to “improvise living out [the biblical] language”; they’re called to improvise living out the story. Christians are called to get into the spirit of the story, become new characters in it, and participate in working it out. The goal is to progress, not to re-enact (with apologies to Restorationism, another blind alley).

    Also, the ‘Act VI’ of the Christian story isn’t one that’s been written and gone missing. It’s one that’s never been written. Christians — the community of the story — are supposed to write it. That’s the assignment for those who choose to participate in this story.


    All that said, I think Wright’s metaphor (or analogy or whatever it is) is helpful. It calls attention to the story-nature of what the church does, and it points out the incompleteness of the story and the necessity for improvisation rather than re-enactment. If churches could start thinking in those terms, they’d be a long way ahead of where they are.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Great thoughts, JU. Thanks.

    From the little bit I’ve read Marva Dawn, I think she’s like that – she seems to have a lot invested in the academic end of theology and thus projects the need for the rest of the world to be so inclined. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

    But I think she’s got a little more reasoning behind that than it might seem on the surface (and since you & I have been accused of gender-neutrality, we’ll appreciate…) 🙂

    As a woman, I sense she’s run into lots of folks whose unfamiliarity with proper interpretations of biblical language have led them to write her off because of her gender. I think this is her perspective (plus, I believe her original field was linguistics). So I appreciate that…


    Your analysis is simply a better analysis in my humble opinion. It communicates better, which is ironic given her emphasis on language.

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I would agree with her, insofar as she’s saying you have to pay close attention — much closer than is typical — to the language used in the story if you want to understand the story accurately. But I’d also agree with the sociology of knowledge folks that you have to pay close attention to the story if you want to understand the language accurately.

    Stories are composed of words, and words are defined by stories.

  4. Terry Austin Says:

    Al said: “As a woman, I sense…”

    Tee hee!

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    BTW, Al, as a woman, you should be aware that your buddy Hauerwas is often associated with narrative theology. Where he and I part ways on it, as far as I can tell, is that he seems to think the narrative is fundamentally about the church, while I think it’s fundamentally about people.

  6. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Bunch of smart alecks.

    I’m just trying to break out of my gender neutrality. Give me a break.


  7. Terry Austin Says:

    McGwire in the Hall of Fame?

    Really, Al, you should be careful what you post on the Internet. The wrong people read this wacky liberal stuff and the next thing you know, you’re looking for work.

    You should trust your women’s intuition more often.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I really thought there’d be more discussion of this post, Al. Durn.

  9. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Should I mention gay marriage? Or maybe pacifism? Or maybe the necessity of baptism?

    Those always seem to work…


  10. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I heard W had a secret first marriage to an unbaptized gay pacifist.

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