Improvisation is defined as the free performance of music or drama that conforms to particular stylistic norms. Ornette Coleman (pictured left) died recently, and for a while his music was simply free performance without much attention to anyone else’s stylistic norms, until free jazz established itself as a norm itself. The balance between the free performance and the conformity to stylistic norms was the metaphor for the second part of Paul Williams’ talk at the LICC last Tuesday. It reminded me of the definition of creativity that we used to use at St Mary’s Primary School when I was head there – unbridled imagination combined with well-rehearsed skills, and indeed, this theme emerged from the talk during the evening.
In each area of work, Paul argued, there are arena-specific stylistic norms to which conformity is required in order simply to function in that role. But there is also a range of arena-specific freedoms which can be exploited and developed to create new culture. We need the framework of the norms and the mastery of the skills which constitute and contribute to that framework (the “disciplines”, if you will), before we can fully utilise the freedoms. Both of these will vary depending on which line of work we are in, but we must find it, to be true to the nature of the work itself.
Paul started from this perspective and went on:
Being a culture maker flows from our identity in Christ first and foremost. We take the view of our work that “God has made this – it’s broken because of the fall, but Jesus has made provision for its redemption, and it can be re-created if I cooperate with the Holy Spirit”.
For this, it is the spiritual disciplines that are the rhythm of our lives. Are we doing them all? Are we practising prayer, solitude, service, fasting, study and the rest? These form the “rhythm section” of our lives, within which we play the instrument that God has given us to play in the arena he has called us. These spiritual disciplines build spiritual confidence, which we need when deploying our gifts. We need to be able to trust the work of God within us, because it is possibly only us who has been called to that work in our company, organisation, hospital or school. God wants to instil confidence in us for us to fan into flame the gift within.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter is given a sword, and Lucy drops for healing. There was information contained within the gifts themselves about the likely use of these gifts. What have we been given, therefore, that we will be required to deploy within the spiritual battle that we are called to in our workplaces? We practise these skills in church, as we should, but they are not given for deployment in church, but in the mission we have at work, where we use them with confidence. With the gifts, with the confidence, we go and practise. Skills practice is required before deployment. We aim not to be lazy but intentional in their use. As evangelicals, we tend to take the anointing of the Holy Spirit, wise and powerful, as an excuse for mediocrity – and it often shows. Rather, we submit the excellent, the very best we can, to God – using Daniel as our model, who in Daniel 1 excelled in the language and literature of the Babylonians.
The final part of Paul’s talk was about the way we view scripture as authority. Tom Wright has written about this in Scripture and the Authority of God, which covers the same territory. Paul’s perspective was that when it comes to reading the bible, we find it hard to relate it to the challenges of our workplace. That is often because we think about authority in a (perhaps too) deferential way. If we think of the bible as “the Word of God” and wholly authoritative, we read it for commands. We look to the scriptures for things to obey – I must remember to put that into practice today, we say. Paul’s view was rather that
Authority is conveyed in different genres – for instance there are commands, but there are also poems, full of authority, but whose authority comes from its evocation in us. A poet calls forth a response and that is the source of his or her authority. Different genres function like different music, and hold their authority in different ways. Paul regarded there as being 4 culture-making “standards” in scripture – wisdom, narrative, prophecy and law.
Wisdom – this is the standard that calls us to attend to the world, and includes a reflection upon experience and its meaning, empirical and observable. It asks “What do you see? And what does God say about that?” It is practical – “Go to the ant, sluggard!” and involves learning from looking. Our challenge is to ask ourselves: how much attention are we paying to the culture of our organisation? We need the Holy Spirit to open it up to us, as we read the wisdom literature. The book of the Proverbs of Solomon is full of insights that come clear once we have spent time absorbing them and absorbing the lessons of each day in our workplace. Literature and life become related and spiritual reality comes into sharper focus in people’s lives, including our own, and as what we see around us is interpreted in the light of what God might be doing in our experience.
Narrative – The structure of the biblical narrative Creation – Fall – Redemption – Fulfillment, is enormous, but it is always directed towards the purposes of God in the new creation he is bringing about (and has started to bring about since the resurrection of Jesus). Its authority lies in the strength of the story. Notice that whenever Jesus is challenged in debate he reverts to the narrative – In the beginning it was not so… In days to come, you will see the Son of Man…. Jesus puts his answers firmly in a historical context so giving integrity to the narrative. So, in looking to bring biblical authority to our workplace, our occupation, our industry sector or our school, we have to ask: What place are we in the story? What was the purpose in the beginning for the sales team? How has the fall affected my hospital? Can I see my marketing team as part of God’s creative purpose for human flourishing? What would redemption look like for the English education system? Or for the NHS?
We ask: What is the good to which this work or workplace is being directed under God’s creative purpose? Where in human good is it pointing? This is how narrative helps us be culture makers, by interpreting where we are within the overall narrative or “big picture”.
Prophetic authority in scripture comes partly from the fulfillment of earlier prediction, but principally from the forthtelling by prophets of what they have seen and what God has to say about that. Prophetic authority relates the character of God and his actions in history (on the narrative, it you will) to what he thinks about what is going on in our culture-making. And this often comes about in the form of metaphor. The prophetic authority is linked strongly to the ideating and creating that has flowed from our imagination. The prophet Amos saw the oppression that Israel visited on the poor as someone crushing grapes. This is a powerful metaphor that speaks of helplessness, the flow of blood, and the impossibility of restoration. The judgment promised as a result was consequently severe.
We too live by metaphor, and with the prophets we can seek to change that metaphor in the places we work. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Metaphors we Live By use war as a metaphor for love – what if we changed the metaphor from war to dance? The metaphor for economics is competition, a race. What if we changed that to pulling together, or pooling resources? When God judges businessmen at the end of their lives, he isn’t going to be asking “Did you win?” but rather “Were you fruitful? Did you bless others on the way?”
John Comenius (Jan Komensky) a 17th century educational thinker and Protestant priest, reflected on the text of Genesis 2 and realised that a good metaphor for human flourishing was a “garden of delights”. David I Smith, in an article on biblical imagination and metaphor, has this to say about Comenius:
…sometimes referred to as the father of modern education, Comenius’ reflections on the classroom, the teacher, and the learner as “gardens of delight” offer a rich case study of a biblically informed imagination at work.
He was responsible for play-based kindergartens and, unsurprisingly, zoos!
Metaphors are powerful tools in helping us ideate and interpret that which we see. Any writer is stuck without it. Paul Williams suggested that in any workplace, they are vital both to interpret and to imagine change.
Law – law has its authority from it being the design criteria for creation. The law says “it doesn’t have to be like that: it can work like this if you…” This works for everyone. So when you build a house, the law says you have certain safety features like a parapet to stop your neighbour falling off. It serves as a description of those things that interpret love of God and love of neighbour to our daily lives, and the sort of practices that honour both. It causes us to ask: If we choose this product for our company, who suffers? When I farm, how do I love the poor? It is not the law for its own sake, but for the sake of protection of the weak and the instillation of compassion in the strong. Martin Luther King’s famous quote: the law can’t make my neighbour love me, but it can stop him ill-treating me because of the colour of my skin is an aspect of this. The law facilitates attention to the user in its design for fruitfulness.
At that point, Paul realised he was short of time, but we could have happily let him go on! He finished with the final metaphor that culture-making is a team sport where the coach, the Holy Spirit, wants everyone on the team, open to love and life, well practised in skills, able to make a difference to what we see around us.
Lots to ponder.