The 2020 Christmas release of Soul seems, if you believe rottentomatoes, to be a film which caught the imagination of the audience. With a deep story line, and clever sub plots, the story is a ‘multilayered experience of the musical dimension’…which touches…’our humanity’ (Heltzel, 2012, p.2). Heltzel, is obviously not writing about Soul per se, but his description of jazz holds true of the storyline of Soul. In fact, Soul is based within the world of jazz, and both, offer ‘a new way of experiencing life – life together’ (p.2, 2012).
The story of Soul is one of a burnt out middle school teacher, Joe, who has dreams of making it as a jazz musician. In search of his “big break” Joe experiences a life changing situation, falling down a manhole and ending up in the “Great Beyond”, where soul counsellors – all named Jerry – manage the intersection between life and death.
At the heart of Soul is the moment of improvisation. The movie pivots and turns as Joe tries to live out his dream, even in the face of death. Many people think improvisation is all about the experimental, about the new and the bold. I have found it to be the opposite. In fact, the best improv comes from those who truly know their art form. Improvisation does not come from picking up an instrument and giving it a go but from practice. It take time to learn the appropriate scales or discover how to give permission and always say yes. To be good at improvisation you need to be faithful to the process. Or, to put it another way, the journey.
Soul, I propose, raises two interesting points for those who are Christian. The first relates to our faith and the second looks at how those who minister, mentor, and enable others.
We cannot deny that 2020 was a year of improvisation. No-one was trained to minister in a pandemic. There was no handbook of expectations. No tick list of tasks to complete. We were improvising. Using the tools given to practice our faith in new ways. But, this was not simply improvisation for the sake of improvisation it was what Cameron defines as faithful improvisation – ‘of finding out how to say the same thing in a different language, different context, to different people’ (2018, p. 60) and it was hard. Just like saying yes can be hard on stage to the other actor or using the skills at your disposal to respond to the musical overtones. Improvisation is not easy but neither is faith.
As already mentioned Soul is set within the world of jazz and there is much we, as Christians, can learn from jazz to help enrich our faith. Hetzel (2012) puts it like this:
‘Like jazz, Christianity is a dramatic and musical performance. Like jazz, Christian thinking and acting are improvisational, creative, and hopefully forward-looking. Like, Jazz, they exemplify a dynamic of constraint and possibility.’
Christianity is all about creative witness. It is about taking the gifts we have and improvising. That is what we did in 2020. We, as a church, took the gifts God had given us and improvised. We used the deep wells of faith to improvise. We came up with creative ways to reimagine faith and to offer witness to the world. We did not shrink into the darkness but we embraced the possibility and shone. We used our faith and we improvised.
To do this though we needed to develop one particular muscle, we needed to learn to trust. Wells argues that that improvisation ‘is not about being spontaneous and witty in the moment, but about trusting oneself to do and say the obvious,’ (p.13, 2004). Trust is a key skill that any improvisation involves and it is central to the story of Soul. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, notes that because of our insecurities and our desire to be strong we can often miss forming strong relationships. Brown writes that “trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement’ (p.53). Just like it takes time for the jazz musician to learn the needed skills to improvise it also takes time for Christians to learn to let go and trust God. To trust that God has the rudder and will take our permission giving and the skills we have gained and use them to make something beautiful.
Faithful Improvising is all about improvising our faith. It is about using the skills that we have sharpened in prayer and being a witness in the world. It is not about being perfect or performing well. It is about taking what we have learnt and using it creatively in the performance that God has put us in. It is about trusting God and letting go, it is about being vulnerable and saying yes. Nothing more, nothing less. It is about saying yes to God’s amazing plan.
Permission giving – a way to mentor others into their full potential
An important part of any improvisation is permission giving. It is about saying yes to the other person. In drama it is about not blocking the other and enabling the show to go on, it is hard. It is hard because it demands trust and vulnerability. At its heart this is what Soul is all about. It is about two lost souls giving each other permission to become themselves and to share in each others vulnerability. It is something that Christian leaders tend to struggle with.
Soul is a story of two lost souls coming together and gaining trust. By cleverly using skills from jazz the Disney production team demonstrate how trust is won and relationships are formed. This is something that Disney understand intrinsically as it is in their ethos. In Creativity Inc. Ed Catmull demonstrates that the Disney model is based not simply on skill but also on ethos. They create a culture of buy-in and community, something later fostered by both Facebook and Google. Catmull acknowledges that before the ideas are formed the team needs to be right. Before the musicians can improvise they need to trust, and before the mentee can grow the mentor needs to have gained the others trust.
To do this mentors need to be willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses and strengths. Miroslav Volf (2019) suggests that to do this we need to embrace not exclude the other but to do that we have to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities. We need to be attentive to what is going on in our own lives and welcome people into that. We need to be drawn into communities of sacrifice not gain. For it is through our own sacrifice that we can move closer to the cross. It is only when we are willing to sacrifice our place at the table that others will grow.
Returning for a moment to trust. As leaders we often demand respect due to archaic ties and positional power. So often the minister exert power explicitly. It is only as Joe and 22 come to trust each other that a relationship is formed. It is only when Joe begins to show vulnerability that 22 begins to understand what it might mean to be human and that is to trust. It wasn’t because of Joe’s power but because of his vulnerability that their relationship changed and this is something all leaders need to be mindful of, especially those within the church. Helen Cameron (2012) puts it like this ‘those who do hold authority need to foster imagination, empathy and humility to remain aware of how powerless and vulnerable others may feel.’ Rather than trying to exert dominance, or rely on stature, the leader, or mentor, needs to come alongside the mentee, or team member, and try to understand how to say “yes”. How to enter their life and make them flourish. How to use the gifts they offer and turn those gifts into something for God.
Improvisation is all about permission giving. It is about enabling the other to trust in themselves, and you, enough to respond. It is about offering your gifts, and weaknesses, even if this makes you vulnerable in the hope that the other person will respond. Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet’ (John 13, 4 – 5). This moment is the perfect example of the intersection between vulnerability and trust. Jesus, in showing his vulnerability, asks the disciples to trust him. In taking a position of service Jesus demonstrates his vulnerability and asks for permission to show the disciples a better way. How often does our ministry do that? How often do we look to give permission to think outside the box? How often do we ignore the one who may flourish because they do not fit the criteria for ministry? How often do we fail to promote amazing leaders because we fear that they are better than we are? How often do we serve our own aims and forget God’s?
Soul offers a specific moment in the life of a man who had one dream. A dream which he comes to realise was limiting his very existence. He was so caught up in that dream that he could not see what was going on around him. He failed to give himself permission to let his yes be yes. He could not see a different way. As we move into 2021 we will need to come up with new ways to live out our faith. We will need to be creative in enabling budding leaders to flourish. Fear not however for God has already given us to the tools and the permission, I think it is up to us to say yes and that’s the hard part!
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