“Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics” by Samuel Wells

Posted: May 31, 2013 in Book and Article Reviews
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Samuel Wells believes that Christian ethics is much like a drama that is to be enacted. He begins his book by discussing three types of approaches to ethics: universal, subversive, and ecclesial. To understand Wells’ connection between ethics and drama, it is necessary to trace the various approaches to ethics.

First, the universal approach to ethics believes there is a meta-narrative that is applicable to all. It is a one-size-fits-all tactic to life. However, Wells notes that this approach is typically governed and enacted by those in power and positions of influence. Thus, it is really only the voice of a powerful minority rather than the voice of all. This is connected with an “objective” approach to the world, which ignores the “subjective” element of life.

The subversive approach to ethics notices this inequality within the world and counters those claims, sometimes by simply replacing the existing meta-narrative with its own meta-narrative. This “subjective” approach might be understood as an “ethic for the excluded.” (33) It is an attempt to allow equal representation for other voices in the conversation. But, the subversive method also meets a similar end as the universal approach.

Wells then constructs a hybrid approach that values both the universal and the subversive elements of ethics. In a sense, it melds both the “objective” and “subjective” components of Christian ethics into a unified whole. To put it another way, the universal ethic is like an epic poem that observes reality from the outside in an “objective” manner without real personal engagement. The subversive ethic is like lyrics that are “subjective” renderings from person experience but which neglect or are difficult to assess the “objective” qualities of the content. Christian ethics, on the other hand, is more like drama that combines the two, meshing both mind and heart in the composition of embodied practices.

Wells contends that this drama is best understood as a five-act play, not simply a one-act play. The “acts” are: Creation and Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton. To understand ourselves in the wrong “act” renders us incapacitated in understanding the story and our role in it. Despite some congruency on this point, Wells neglects a vital connection between acts three, four, and five. Each of these acts bleed into one another. Thus, Jesus preaches that the Kingdom has come and the Church is understood as the first seeds of that Kingdom. Yet, the eschaton is a now-and-not-yet reality. The “acts” might not be a hard and fast division as a play might otherwise suggest, as if simply moving to an entirely different scene! Despite this hesitation, drama does provide an interesting playing field in which to connect ethics.

Wells also distinguishes between two types of ethics. One is a type of situational ethics that is based upon decisions made in the moment of crisis. Wells, however, says that this is a failure to see ethics in a holistic light. Ethics, he suggests, is not simply concerned about what we do but about who we are. Thus, ethics is about our “being” or character. Thus, he supplies formative practices as a way of developing habits that shape character for those moments of decision. Yet, because those practices have intimately, integrally shaped our characters, the decisions are made based on what we “take for granted.” In other words, our habits shape our decisions because we have been trained to be certain types of people.

The framework for ethics has generally been conceived as two possibilities: blocking (saying “no”) or accepting (saying “yes”). Thus, it is either about going along with the greater culture or totally rejecting that culture and not engaging in it at all. Either way is not a very Christian response. Wells opens up a third possibility: over-accepting. This neither blocks nor accepts, but rather “out-narrates” the prevailing narrative of the culture. It is opening up imaginative possibilities for a future that God has already redeemed. Thus, one looks at each moment as a “gift” to be received, not a “given” to be maneuvered through or around.

It takes the formation of creative imagination informed by the practices of the Church which empower us to make imagination ordinary in the moments of crisis. In other words, the practices of the Church train our characters through habits. As those habits become ingrained in our very person, it takes little to no “effort” to make decisions in difficult moments because our character calls for specific action. Beyond this, however, the creative imagination makes it possible to see God’s larger story at work over and against the smaller stories that the world puts before us. New possibilities open up because we are empowered to live our lives in light of the story that God is weaving. Thus, even the broken, sinful moments can become gifts through which God might display God’s glory, power, and mercy.

  1. […] “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics” by Samuel Wells (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com) […]

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