To approach the subject of Christian ethics as drama may not be unique but it is certainly refreshing. This is the stance taken by Samuel Wells in his Improvisation. He sees a parallel between the communal process of actors as they prepare for the stage and the work of Christians in the moral life. Both must trust their fellow actors as they engage in the play. Both must keep faithful to the script. For Christians this means participation and trust in the community of faith rooted in scripture.
Wells believes that, in trying to accommodate to the hegemony of Christianity in a heterogeneous Roman empire, the church in its ethical stance attempted to appeal not only to those who belonged to the Christian community but to all. "Ethics for everyone" refashioned the church's position by demonstrating that its moral stance was both reasonable and useful for everyone, and unfettered by connections to church. Against this egalitarian approach Wells argues for a frankly Baptism-centered ethic aligned to the common life of the Eucharist, and to community discernment of God's saving gifts. Echoes of Stanley Hauerwas are not absent in his treatment. For Wells the Bible is not a script for living but a "training school that shapes the habits and practices of the community" as a starting point for the moral life.
The book has three major sections. In "Plowing" Wells connects the dots from ethics to theology to narrative to drama to improvisation. He makes the case that a freedom to move beyond a moral script is not only appropriate but necessary. The "spaces" between the lines of the script allow the contrasting elements of faithfulness to the integrity of the original play and freedom to respond to contemporary moral dilemmas. For the Christian doing ethics the story remains the same, the community perseveres, but the context and moral challenges change.
The "Planting" section offers six practices which Wells links to theatrical improvisation and which, he says, can be adapted to the endeavor of Christian ethics. Habits that form the Christian—among others the practice of imagination, a state of relaxed awareness, an attending to worship—are preliminary elements from the field of drama, which may be transferred to ethics to help the (moral) actor prepare. This portion of the book focuses on the formation and attitudes of the Christian who would be ethical. It offers a strong challenge to evaluate both stance and action in the moral life. By itself it could be used profitably as spiritual reflection. It is arguably the best section of the book.
In the final section, "Reaping," the author applies his theory to several contemporary issues. He examines the situation in Chile under dictatorships of torture, the parenting of children with severe disabilities, cloning and its implications, and the genetic manipulation of food. His attempts to apply his theory are not as successful as are the other portions of the book. While he outlines extensively the moral arguments embedded in each illustration, there is some awkwardness in connecting the issues with the elements he has laid out. Ultimately his "answer" to serious problems is to be found in a return to the community Eucharistic celebration, where the "body" that is attacked, manipulated, exploited, or mourned is redeemed and transformed. His position on the various issues is clear, sometimes too clear.
A couple of small issues trouble the reviewer. It is not understandable, for example, why Wells titles his major sections "Plowing," "Planting," and "Reaping;" as these agrarian metaphors have little to do with drama. His use of the term, "blocking," is somewhat distracting; since that term has a specialized meaning to the thespian quite different from its (albeit very useful) application by Wells. On balance, however, the book is a good one. The author uses narrative well, generously illustrating his arguments with stories and examples. The backbone of the project is a solid understanding not only of traditional moral categories but of such more recent trends as a liberation perspective. While offering a basic and academically sound morals text, Wells at the same time calls the reader to generosity, to attention to worship and community, to radical conversion—themes usually found in less rigorous spiritual reading. This book could easily be used in an academic setting, but it could be equally useful for Christians wrestling with their own formation and the questions that present themselves in the modern drama of life.