The better to bet on a better question with

I really love having conversations, rejoicing when there’s time and space to indulge in them, to pick up a thread together and follow wherever it leads. Sometimes it gets twisted into a woeful tangle, especially when there’s failure of sensitivity to a mood or a mindset, but there are times the wind picks up and we’re lifted as high as the blue moon.

By the same token, I really love wandering through libraries and bookstores, luxuriating in the moments I have time and space to do so, letting the gleam on a spine here or the glimpse of a title there catch my eye. Sometimes I end up with a book that defeats me. (The first book claiming this hollow victory was V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now. It got too boring.) Then there are also times the mood is lifted by prose and purpose, a mental dialogue clicks in place, and I pick up a new perspective on the world.

So, here’s a windfall I picked up from Ron Martoia’s The Bible As Improv (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), where the historical-grammatical method of interpretation (requiring specialist knowledge and relying on theories riddled with exceptions), not to mention the “What’s in it for me?” approach to the Bible with its hidden principles and isolated verses, is only one of various possible lenses and may profitably be swapped with another:

How do we let an ancient text shape our life? … The new question looks at big contours; the old question — what is eternal truth and applies to our lives, and what is cultural and does not — examines the pieces and the parts. (73)

… if we admit that the Bible is a text that is entirely cultural, and that none of it was written to us now — but we still believe the whole of the Bible is useful for us (à la 2 Timothy 3) — then the question has to do with how it is profitable. (74)

… my quest: to figure out how an ancient text not written to me can shape, mould, impact, dent, contour, and mess with me — and ultimately have authority in my life. The old approach of fishing out the abiding truth and leaving the cultural stuff behind has served its time. (74)

What a great question, acknowledging posture (we let), perspective (an ancient text) and plan (how do … shape our life). Martoia proposes that we are to come “to know together the script we are supposed to be improvising together on the stage we call today“. (156) To this end, he suggests moving through three spaces for the improv conversation:

1. Do corporate readings of large blocks of Scripture aloud and ask new questions of the script

Arden Autry: “Can we agree that the context is a whole book and that it is up to you to read entire books of the Bible in one sitting so you can hear the author’s rhythm, cadence, and voice?”  (157)

The larger overarching question is, “Why am I reading this particular script-ure at all?” … These [new] questions [that lead to story reflection, to theological reflection] bring us to the subplots of the larger story. … If we have no idea about these little stories, then we will certainly be lost when it comes to the “story of stories” metanarrative. (158–159)

a. What does this book tell me about how God shows up in the world and about God’s workings with humanity?

b. How does the worldview unfolding in this story, which is part of the larger story of stories, create a worldview picture for those in the narrative?

c. What does this book tell me about God’s desire, purpose, and plan for the people of God?

d. How does what I am reading converge and diverge from the unfolding bigger story of the whole script-ure in which I’m becoming more and more immersed? What does this contribute to the larger script plot that seems new or unique?

e. How can we be the people of God today in our context in a way that would be continuous with the story I am reading?

f. How does the worldview in the script translate and shape our improvisation today?

g. What are the issues I face in my life today that can be shaped and contoured by reorienting my life around God’s larger story?

2. Invite people to articulate what they heard as you ask them questions about the story line, the plot, and the actions of key characters 

This is a sort of wiki-synthesis of the narrative — an open-source, community-developed understanding of the narrative. (160)

Instead of being the shamans and dispensers of gnostic truth — “the stuff only I can learn because I have the tools and you don’t” — we become reading facilitators. … We need to have teachers who understand the sweep of the biblical story, facilitate conversation around that story, and then help people connect their stories to the script-ure drama, helping them see how the future of their story will be shaped by that intersection. (160)

The role of the pastor can be to broker the historical communities’ reading of the drama. They can provide the resources of what current drama script-ure reading experts are saying these days (read, theologians) and what historically our tradition has understood. Pastors provide context and create containers for community but move out of the mythic role of walking answer manuals. Pastors also have to know how to model and facilitate genuine dialogue. (161)

In the church we must be masters of the art of dialogue and help each other learn the art. … Only out of a context of dialogue can we come to a durable and shared understanding of God’s story for us here and now, and only then can we head into improvising and bringing that story into reality today. … As we come together to read aloud or to converse about the script we have previously read alone, we need to design a creative space where ways of finding shared meaning exist. (161)

The basic idea in dialogue is that we learn to listen from a new and different place. … Dialogue shifts the location of listening from inside my models to somebody else’s point of view. … [Moving] from a place of needing to assert your point or correct her point to a place of broadness, a place of understanding, a place in which you were standing with her to hear and understand her instead of apart from her, over and above her. (162–163)

a. Step 1: suspend judgement — We put on hold the certainty we have about our viewpoint and allow others the airspace to voice their understanding. (162)

b. Step 2: redirection — When I hear something I don’t understand, agree with, or have cubbyholes for in my mental model, … I may pose a clarifying question, I may reflect back what I hear him saying, but I direct my attention toward him instead of doing the reflexively natural thing of crafting my ‘more intelligent’ response. (162)

As I have learned to really listen, I have moved from pretending to listen to allowing the empathy shift to happen. In those moments I sense greater integrity and integration. (164)

As a pastor the greatest learning for me was the realisation that while I have the degrees and commentaries and supposedly ‘right answers’, none of them were as life giving, applicable, and resilient as the themes that emerged from our conversation … the Spirit of God was energising improvisation, insight, creativity, and imagination — and yet with an intention to be in continuity with the script-ure we were reading. … We all noted a shelf life to our conversation far beyond the typical sage-on-sage experiences many of us were used to in our church settings. (167–168)

This is where it begins to feel dangerous to many of us. People wonder what we will do when people start spouting heresy during public readings and conversations and start putting doctrinal nonsense out there. (168)

• I can’t assume I have it all figured out. … Still, part of my job as a pastor and consultant is to be a step or three ahead of others on the journey, at least from the raw knowledge standpoint. It is important to me to help people see a picture of the drama script that is as whole, big, and clear as possible. (169)

 I find that well-placed questions that allow people to draw out conclusions on their own give people insights that stick. … The right answer is the secondary goal. Learning to read, process, and synthesise is the primary one. … Expert status was an ego trip. … I created and fostered dependency on the very questions I could have reflected back to people or could have given them resources to investigate themselves. (169)

I can’t assume that the community as a whole doesn’t have the insight to have self-stabilising features built into it. … We have to learn to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the community, and this is a perfect example. … when you are on a journey with other people, it’s the nature of the beast. (170)

3. Live out the basics of character development inherent in being an improv actor for the fifth act (the place of real life)

Help [people] learn how to think and respond appropriately in real time in continuity with the script-ure. … Information may be the starting point, but information injected into our heads will not necessarily bring about any change in our lives. (175)

The distance and boundary we create through our analysis need to be broken down. … Our goal is to move toward intimacy and empathy with the biblical material and with those we are in dialogue with. The breakthrough that happens when we move from knowledge to understanding paves the way for a deep change in me. At the understanding level, we are for the first time in the process moving from being the master of the script to allowing the script to master us. (178)

Understanding requires a fundamental shift in the way we know. It is more visceral and has deep emotive dimensions. The move to understanding is underway when we press into the script and the other actors, when we suspend our subject/object distance and separateness created through analysis. When we are willing to take this risk, the music flows through us, the script lives through us, the community improvises with us. In this new and risky space we find an appreciation and openness, and we begin listening from a new place and with a permeating love because of the environment created. (179–180)


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