Religion, Improv, and Why Penn Jillette Gets It Wrong Again

Experimenting-with-your-own-life I'll be at Fondren Presbyterian Church (Jackson, Mississippi) at the end of July for four nights of study around the topic "The Improvising God: God's Work in an Imperfect World". I've been preparing these presentations for several weeks, and I'm feeling both excited and daunted to explore issues of God's providence, God's "will," and the classic question of why bad things happen to good people. You know, little things like that.

I'm captivated by this idea of life as improvisation, and God as an improviser. As I read the Bible, and as I try to discern the Spirit at work in a world that is full of suffering and even cruelty, I don't see things being governed by some divine plan from the foundations of the world. Purpose, maybe, but not plan. Rather, I see creativity within constraints; I see adaptation and fluidity. I see responsiveness. (Yes, I know the classic answer: God has a plan; we just can't see it. I can't get there. The misery is too great. As I read today, "There is more undeserved suffering in the world than faith can contain.")

As I wrote recently:

Things happen [in life] that you didn’t anticipate, and you have to adjust. With luck and grace, you “yes-and” the thing, accepting and building on whatever gets thrown at you. Accepting something doesn’t mean you have to like it, by the way. But a spirit of improvisation leads us to be curious, to ask, “Well, OK. Now what?”

We are made in the image of God, and God is a master of improv. This I believe. I don’t know what that means when stacked up against sturdy preacherly words like eternal, immutable, absolute, all-knowing, perfect. I just know that when I look at the sacred texts I see a God who iterates. Who pivots. Who encounters the world as it is, not as God planned it to be. Who yes-ands all over the place.

One place where I see yes-and: the book of Exodus. Remember, "exodus" literally means "a way out." Not THE way out. I like the idea that God might have liberated the people of Israel in any of a hundred different ways, but thought, "Hey, this will do: Moses... Ever-escalating plagues... Passage through the Sea... Forty years of kvetching. Bring it." That's a creative and interesting deity. I'm down with that God---way more than a God who wrote down everything that was going to be, hit Save on Microsoft Word and then commenced the Big Bang.

I'm still testing this stuff out, and the folks in Jackson will help me build and refine these ideas. (Or they will brand me a heretic, but eh, it wouldn't be the first time.) The presentations will explore some of this yes-and work. Jurgen Moltmann meets Tina Fey. Samuel Wells's book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics has been very helpful as I prepare.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with poor Penn Jillette, magician and atheist extraordinaire? (I've gotten on his case before, the big lug.) In my reading today, I ran across this quote from Jillette, who wrote in his first book, God, No!:

If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

As I think about the possibilities of an improvising God and an improvising church, I think Jillette is both wrong, and right but missing the point.

Wrong, because when you boil them down, there's a startling symmetry to the basic message of many of the world's religions and faith traditions.

Right and missing the point, because of course they'd be different, but so what? That's not a bug, that's a feature. Religion, God-talk, and philosophy are a response to the world we inhabit---a frame for our experience of both ourselves and that which is beyond ourselves. Religion is both the lens, and the thing being scrutinized through the lens. Taking the Exodus story as an example: God, or the Universe, or the Great Whatever, would not carry out the work of liberation the exact same way, because that world would not be the same. (And how boring a God would be who behaves the exact same way in every case!)

In a world full of rich possibilities---a world of creativity and improvisation---our sacred stories would not be created the same way again. But that doesn't make those stories any less valid as illuminations of deep truth.