Producing the Proper Produce: Theology as Play

Here’s a thought experiment.  In improvisational theatre there is a game used to generate ideas and sometimes to warm up performers called ‘Word Association’.  The gist of the game is this: one person says a word and another person says the first word that comes to her head in response to the first word.  Let’s try it now.  When I say, ‘theology’, what’s the first word that comes to mind?  For many of you it might be, ‘God’.  That would be good.  Maybe it was scripture.  It’s possible some of you thought, ‘church’ or ‘morality’.  These all would make sense.  But, how many, I wonder, thought, ‘lively’, ‘playful’, or even ‘fun!’?  I would guess very few.  Particularly if I had said ‘theologian’ rather than ‘theology’!

One of the hallmarks of the weekly seminars for the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews is the generous reception given to those who present their work.  Introductions are often playful and inviting, and the lectures are always followed by a time of questions.  Rather than utilize the question and answer period as an opportunity to either unsettle or undermine the presenter, most questioners ask thoughtful, probing questions borne out of curiosity and a desire to learn rather than a desire to promote oneself or test the mettle of the presenter.  This is not to say it is an uncritical time of reflection and questioning, but the tenor of the discussion is marked by collegiality rather than competition.  Happily, this kind of tone was still present earlier this semester even when someone as esteemed as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Reverend and Right Honourable The Lord Williams of Oystermouth (aka Rowan Williams) delivered an incisive lecture and then graciously fielded a broad range of questions.  Based on anecdotal evidence, such an approach in the realm of academic theology does not appear to be common.  And I believe this is a problem.

So, what is the root of it?  Is there something about theological study that draws theologians away from a sense of play?  This brings me back to improv.  Drawing on improvisational theatre as a theological model for Christian ethics, Wes Vander Lugt suggests Christians, in keeping with improv performers, should cultivate ‘disponibility’, a word derived from French which means, ‘availability’ or ‘openness’.  This disponibility is what allows theatrical improvisers to take the suggestions of their fellow performers and incorporate them into the scene at hand.  When applied to Christian life, it allows for a felicitous responsiveness to the leading of the Holy Spirit which results in faithful action whatever the circumstances.  If put into practice amongst theologians, this disponible way-of-being should allow for a kind of playfulness which lends itself to gracious encounters with others engaged in theological study and, perhaps more importantly, with those outside the academy.

Given the all-too-common reputation of theologians as dusty, unresponsive living anachronisms, it seems to me those of us who pursue theological truth, both within the academy and within the church, would be wise to cultivate the kind of openness and availability Vander Lugt calls for.  While the study of theology is ‘serious business’, its ultimate subject is a God whose Spirit bears fruit in the lives of those united to Christ.  And among the glorious fruit granted by the Spirit, is joy.

 

This post was written by Dave Reinhardt who is pursuing a PhD at the University of St Andrews with a focus on the theological significance of embodied expression.

2 Comments

  • Katie Munnik says:

    Thank you for this – I am so glad to hear that ITIA seminar participants are still enjoying the same joy and generosity that I valued during my time there. It is a very special academic space – a new and gracious model of the rigorous academy.
    Play is about freedom and permission, too. When we have the space provided to us, we can expand and explore in beautiful fruitful ways. To this conversation about play and theology, I’d like to add this article about play, hospitality, and the church. It isn’t just the seminar room that needs a new perspective on play, is it? http://godsmindinthatmusic.com/2013/10/15/jazz-hospitality-what-the-church-could-learn/
    All the best, Katie Munnik ITIA 2002/3

  • Dave Reinhardt says:

    Katie, thank you so much for your comments. It is encouraging to me to know that the ethos which seems to mark the ITIA seminars of today echoes the ethos you experienced during your time here. It strikes me that, since this was your experience (and one you clearly valued), you undoubtedly help to facilitate a similar ethos in seminars/classes/conferences in which you lead or teach.

    Which leads me to thank you for the link about hospitality in the church. What a beautiful (and for me, moving) account of the ways musicians are welcomed and nurtured, and what an appropriate and helpful analogy regarding the approach of the church. Yes. If we saw loving and discipling people in a similar light, it might help to develop in us a sense of eager anticipation that, as members of the body of Christ, we have an opportunity to participate in the growth and development of others as they are formed in the image of Christ. If this is what play looks like, play on!

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