I stood in Piper’s Alley, in the hallway of the Second City Training Center in Chicago, and looked at a photo of Stephen Colbert. It was taken twenty years ago, when he was a student there. He looked very young. His hair was in a messy part, and there was something unruly about his jacket and tie. His grin was manic but his eyes were shy, the same expression that he often wears now that he’s very, very famous. I was staring at his photo because I admire him and what he represents. For a segment of the population, he is America’s most public Christian. And he’s very different from other media Christians, because he combines deep faith with a sense of play.
I enrolled in a week long intensive at Second City because I wanted to learn how to live this combination. I thought that I was bringing the faith with me, and wanted to learn the play. Kevin Reome, our instructor, didn’t talk about faith, and I don’t know if he has any religious belief at all. But he taught us an ethic that compliments and amplifies the ethics that the church has taught me, a social ethic based on mysterious and interpersonal graces. “Improv is love,” he told us. Its tenants work best when its practitioners love each other.
I had read Sam Wells book, “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics,” and was already familiar with many of these tenants. I’d been trying to live them for more than a year, but without a spiritual practice to sustain me. Could actually doing improv be that practice? Sam Wells had taught me not to block, to accept other people’s ideas without automatically thinking that they wouldn’t work or, more usually, that they’d take too much of my time and energy. This has been immensely helpful in my church work, which is all about trying new things and not worrying about the possibility of failure. But I still find myself slipping into the negative mode, automatically rejecting other people’s ideas or pitting my own ideas against them in a kind of interpersonal contest. I wanted to learn how to let this go, how to accept the gifts that other people offer through their passions and their hopes.
I was worried that we’d be asked to explain our reasons for being there, and that when I told my classmates, who were mostly improv-loving college students, that I was a priest, they would either start censoring themselves or try to shock me. But Kevin didn’t have us do any traditional kind of introduction – he got us up and moving around and learning the techniques right away. The trust and intimacy that we developed throughout the week emerged from the practices of improv. “Be the person who everyone want to play with,” he told us, meaning that the people who would do best were the people who were most able to set their egos and their need for attention aside, and give gifts in a scene. He cautioned that this didn’t mean editing away our ideas or being shy about contributing, but instead meant bringing whatever we had and sharing it without fear, letting someone else take it and play with it and change it. This was a grace-filled process. “Don’t try to be funny,” he told us. “Trust that the funny will come.” Funny, in other words, is a free gift of improv practice, and grace is like it, something that we can’t work for, but which appears anyway in the midst of Christian practice.
The class ended on Friday, and that evening I went with my family to a Taize service at Fourth Presbyterian church in downtown Chicago. There was time built into the service for personal meditation, and there were icons set-up in a corner of the room. One of them was the icon of Christ Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. It’s the oldest known icon of Christ. The two sides of the face are painted differently – the left side has a drooping eye that looks away from the viewer, and a shadowed cheek; the right side stares straight ahead and the cheeks are clear of shadow. I’ve always been more attracted to the drooping, shadowed left side. I used to joke that I wanted to belong to the Church of Eternal Lent. I appreciated the sorrowful, mourning part of the church. I trusted it because it fit my nature. But looking into the right eye of Christ, I realized how much I’d changed, how ten years of serving the church had taught me joy and a spirit of play.
Which brings me back to Stephen Colbert. He uses his improv training every night on The Colbert Report. Sometimes his guests are trained in improv and know how to accept his gifts and say yes to his suggestions, lifting his interviews with them into the realm of absurd, joyful abandon. But often his guests refuse the game. They block ideas and remain self-serious. Faced with this, Colbert doesn’t give up the practice of improv – he continues to offer gifts, to accept the other person’s ideas and spin them out into hilarious, delirious webs of humor. I believe that by doing so he isn’t just practicing improv, but also practicing his Christianity. A Christianity that plays, that waits for grace, and that constantly invites others to join in the game.