The Wisdom of the Body – Les Carpenter’s Gospel According to Improv

This review appeared on the great Englewood Review of Books site. It is republished here with permission.

Photo by saeed karimi on Unsplash

Is the key to discipleship locked in a book or a body? That’s one of the questions Les Carpenter, an Episcopal parish priest, tackles in his new book The Gospel According to Improv: A Radical Way of Creative and Spontaneous Living. He’s a steward of the Word but he credits improv with saving his priesthood, integrating his mind and soul, and finally teaching him “to make visceral sense out of what I learned about God in church and seminary”(3).

The fruit of his transformation is in this stimulating book that opens the door for churches and church leaders to gain their own insights from improv, which has entered a new heyday in our culture thanks to prominent improv comedy groups like Kids in the Hall and TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Carpenter uses his own experience of joining an improv group to lead us into the improv essentials. In addition, (because reading about improv is like writing about dancing), he includes exercises to get the reader moving and trying out some of the lessons learned.

The practice of improv and the exercises affirm Carpenter’s conviction that there is wisdom in the body, waiting for us to pay attention. Similarly there is wisdom in the body of communities of faith if we allow ourselves to see it. The starting point is to face others with trust and openness. “Empathy rarely can take root in the mind before it has taken root in the body,” Carpenter says (17).

This is part of the “Yes, and” that we associate with improv.

‘Yes’ is about positivity, and even more fundamentally it is the choice to share the reality of another. When we talk about saying ‘yes’ in improv, we are really talking about two different things. The first and most obvious is the power of positivity. The second is the power of the choice to share the other’s reality (22).

–Les Carpenter

Carpenter connects this insight with the logic of the incarnation. “‘Meeting people where they are’ isn’t just a good strategy,” he says. “It is salvation’s root” (48). It is the way that God chose to enter the world.

The theological underpinnings of this book are one of its real strengths. Throughout, Carpenter is not just enthusing about his side hobby, he is discovering a powerful connection with a neglected side of Jesus’s way of being in the world. Jesus took delight in being with others and in engaging in conversation. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost forced the early church into a similar methodology. Reflecting on that scene, Carpenter says, “What a hilariously, frustratingly fantastic miracle that the first gift of the newborn church is the supernatural ability to talk to people they don’t care about” (120).

In the latter two sections of the book, Carpenter makes the connections to church life and discipleship much more explicit. He offers tips for collaborative leadership and staff development that churches will undoubtedly find beneficial. Carpenter translates the faith in your improv partners to a belief that “a supportive, loving community making their theology together in real time can form a true disciple, and in fact it is probably the only thing that ever has” (111).

Another through-line to the book is the conviction that action leads to transformation. Where the body leads the spirit will follow.

“Maybe,” Carpenter says, “becoming a true disciple is not about learning a specific set of things, wearing the right kind of clothes, listening to the right music, and hanging a cross around your neck. It is about finding the character of a true disciple and choosing to play that character until you don’t have to think about it anymore” (180).

Sounds like the premise for a good scene.

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