Why Leadings?

Not to lead, but to be led            -- by the Holy Spirit.

See Leader, Servant, or Slave? in the section below, "Walking the Walk".

Jack in Denali National Park, 2012.

God's Wrath

Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: "This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, full-ness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

That's also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy".

"Strengthen the hand" is the King James wording. Modern translations say "help the poor and needy." And there's a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That's charity. It's doing for, not doing with.

My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, "Wooooh, colder than charity."

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That's risky. You're vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches -- which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we're afflicted with the Ameri-can curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe -- a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us "the Israel of God" -- the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, "The poor you shall always have with you." He didn't mean that as a curse -- the notion that the poor are an inevi-table nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, "You shall always be among the poor."

When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: "However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . ." It's a glorious responsibility and promise.

And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor -- and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, "God save the United States of America..." 

Monday
Jan022012

STAGING BIBLE IMPROV

In 2008, I attended an evening of "Christian Improv" at a Cincinnati mega-church. The improv was well done – fast, funny, unscripted, unrehearsed. But, was it Christian? No way. The group did standard short-form improv games, but left out the usual raunch. This sanitized improv is usually known as "Family-Friendly", but there was no spiritual content.

The experience, however, jogged my imagination. Could there be improv with a solid Biblical message? Not knowing any better, I began writing Bible improv sketches. Writing improv? That's theatrical heresy. At a Christian theatrical conference, an experienced improv actor/director commented, "I admire what you're doing, Jack, but don't call it improv."

But, it is. Bible improv works like this. As I read through the Bible, I look for gaps -- events and conversations which must have happened, or should have happened, or could have happened.  Most sketches feature a conflict of two roles – one God-infused; the other a 21st century skeptic. But, the Bible is a mother-lode of plots, and together the sketches make a glorious, ever-changing tapestry.

Along with this article, I have three Bible sketches on this web site, and all are in the section "Bible Improv Sketches".

     Aaron and Moses

     Isaac and Abraham

     Mary Magdalene Provokes Peter

My stylistic model for these sketches was the tetrology, Joseph and His Brothers, by the 1929 Nobel prize-winner, Thomas Mann. In his four novels, Mann covered the last half of Genesis – some 30 pages – and used every line, every incident. He wrote backstories. What actual events might have produced the writings in Genesis? Mann created hundreds of events, thousands of conversations – but none conflict with Scripture. Rather, they illustrate it, and enrich our Biblical experience. That's what I try to do in Bible improv.

Bible Improv Is Rehearsed?  Then It's Not Improv

Several times, professional actors have objected that these Bible sketches are not improv. Not so. Improvisation is an integral part of our lives. Three examples: (1) When you have a heated conversation, you're improvising. Do you rehearse dialog in your head before a scheduled verbal battle? Of course. We all do.

(2)  Jazz – which is improvised – is one of America's great cultural contributions to the world. Jazz bands rehearse. If any jazz band in the world plays a standard – Take the A Train, for example – you recognize the first four bars and the last four. What comes in between is what makes the difference – and that's the structural pattern for Bible improv sketches.

(3)  American men spend hours watching improv on TV – but it's not Whose Line Is It Anyway. We call it football -- which at its best is wildly improvised. Like any sport. Teams rehearse, and coaches write scripts, called game plans. As Mike Tyson said, "Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth." Different sport; same reality.

Why Do Bible Improv?  Our congregation doesn't need it.

Many pastors and some devout Christians do not welcome Bible improv.  For good reason. They want their Bible straight. It's OK to add 10% to a Bible story -- as the clergy regularly do in sermons -- but for them, it's not OK to add 80% to the story as I sometimes do. They're offended by hearing new words from Bible characters.

However, their objections overlook two great advantages of Bible improv:

Our churches, even today, tend to make plaster saints of Bible people. For many, it's a revelation to experience Bible characters as people with real human reactions. Example: On the morning of Jesus' birth, Mary and Joseph are sleeping beside the feed trough. Two shepherds come on stage -- grandfather and grandson. The teen runs to the feed trough to see baby Jesus.  Mary wakes to see him leaning over her, so she screams, "Hey, you, get away from my baby!"

Does that shock you? Consider: The angels spoke to the shepherds, not to Joseph and Mary.  They didn't know the shepherds would visit.  Mary and Joseph would have no reason to welcome them. Socio-economically, shepherds were close to the bottom of Judean society. On waking, Mary would be astonished at seeing this shaggy, smelly teenager who might steal her baby and sell Him. So, her violent reaction is understandable. But, that's not the "Mary" we've heard about in church.

Second, American churches today have an epidemic of Scriptural illiteracy. And we can learn from church history how to counter the illiteracy. The Christian churches – which had killed off Greek and Roman drama – started modern theater again in the high Middle Ages. They staged plays on church steps – mystery plays of Bible stories; miracle plays of the lives of the saints.

Bible improv sketches are modern mystery plays. Because they're exciting and often funny, viewers remember them. We do the sketches, both to enrich peoples' appreciation of the Bible and to introduce them to Jesus. But, we do it in a fun way. Like the rest of society, congregations now cater to our national entertainment addiction. So, Bible improv can fill a yawning need.

A New Form of Theater?

When I began writing Bible improv scripts in 2008, I thought I had developed a new theatrical form. Nope. I discovered that I was doing Commedia dell'arte applied to the Bible. Commedia dell'Arte was the dominant type of Italian theater from the 1500's throgh the 1700's. It featured stock plots and characters -- Scaramouche, Harlequin, Punch, Pierrot and Columbine. The plays had script outlines, but were wildly improvised with current events, local references, high-jinks and slapstick.  (The slapstick was a Commedia prop.)

The British counterpart was the Punch and Judy Show. Our situation comedies on TV are successors of the Commedia. So, it makes sense today to bring Bible improv into our spiritual experiences and conversation. 

Also, the sketches are a different type of theater. In four ways: (1) They violate the standard play-production rule of an hour of rehearsal for each minute on stage. We've done several lauded performances with one or two brief rehearsals. (2) The sketches go back to the roots of theater.  They can be done anywhere, anytime, in any setting. We've done sketches during worship, at a backyard picnic, a ski lodge, an executive office, and a community dinner.

(3)  The Bible sketches require no stage, no lighting, no makeup, no costumes, and few props. (4) Also, the productions require no financing – just a troupe of actors who want to have fun and dramatize Scripture.

Fifty Sketches

Three years ago, I began writing with the goal of a sketch for every major character in the Bible – 50 sketches. Right away, I realized that we should not try to do the Trinity or the Devil. Of course, God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are the prime movers or the subjects of every script – but they're off-stage.

Writing has been done with the expectation of forming a Bible improv troupe, which can challenge an audience to name any major character in Scripture – and the troupe then does the sketch. Well, I soon realized that 50 was too big a chunk to start with, so I wrote a booklet of eight sketches – Bible Teens – in which teens had the lead roles. (E.g. Jeremiah, Esther, Mary the morning after the Birth.)

Of course, improv is great theater training. We all do improv daily, all day. Improv is not life, but life is improv. Few of us can do it on stage, but it's a fun challenge for actors who find the stage a safe place.  And improv teaches the basic acting skill:  Don't act.  React.

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Purpose of this blog is to compile a book for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.

Copyright © 2010 by Jack Towe

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