Review of David F. Ford, The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit

David F. Ford. The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014. 216pp.

Kirsten Laurel Guidero
Southwestern College

Reading David Ford’s The Drama of Living (hereafter Drama; all parenthetical citations hereafter refer to this text) is like sitting down with an old friend to share meaningful conversation over a pot of tea. There is much to savor; the time should not be rushed. Familiar themes and recognized patterns give way to new insights and mutual discovery, which then flow back to grant an added layer to what was previously known. This sense of being comfortable yet continually growing in mutual company does not depend upon the reader actually holding acquaintance with Ford’s other writings. Rather, the quality of exchange nurtured throughout the book demonstrates Ford’s willingness to invite the reader into his reflections upon his life in such a way as to suggest fruitful avenues for the reader to contemplate her own. Ford displays generous breadth in exploring possible ways the reader may find resonance with his perspectives, including in places of distinction. Indeed, throughout this offering, the attentive reader will be encouraged to consider ways to build upon Ford’s analyses—a rare gift to find as an author’s explicit posture!

Drama offers a sequel of sorts to Ford’s earlier The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997, 2004). Whereas Shape had taken as its jumping off point the common experience of being overwhelmed by life, Drama focuses on living life in and with wisdom, particularly through the lens of improvisation, of being always on stage in the drama of one’s life. Shape proposed ways to integrate the rush and tumble of the various overwhelming components of daily life with intentional choices. Chapters were organized by different elements common to most lives: relationships, vocation, character, discipline, time, suffering, and celebration. Drama circles back upon some similar topics but adds additional considerations, touching on public vs. ordinary living, wisdom in and between traditions, repetition and habit, loving, aging and dying, and the need to continue finding and defining wisdom. Shape gave specific practices that serve as lifelines cutting through the overwhelming nature of modern life; Drama reflects an author standing a bit beyond some of that intensity and able to acknowledge that in addition to certain guideposts, topsy-turvy improvisation plays a role as well. Drama’s organization around the Gospel of John and Michael O’Siadhail’s poetry, which looks back upon and assesses his own or others’ lives as expressive of a forty-plus year friendship with Ford underlines this slightly different angle. Their different approaches suggest that Shape may more directly connect with those in early adulthood juggling children, developing professions, facing pain, and engaging questions about life directions,while Drama may more naturally suit that same audience twenty years down the line continuing to mull over the question of how best to live—now with a different set of needs and opportunities. In this review, I summarize Drama’s seven chapters and highlighting some of what I consider to be the stand-out aspects of the book as a whole; I also mention a few of the book’s potential drawbacks.

Drama begins with Ford placing himself at the juncture of improvisation, poetry, and Scripture as doorways into his autobiographical revelations on wisdom. At the heart of the project lies a concern to display “the desirability and wisdom of reading and rereading, alone and with others,” and the formative power found in the “savoring of deep, generative texts” that prepares one for life in both private and public aspects (Drama, xvii). Chapter one introduces the reader to life as a drama undertaken with wisdom through the dual reality of the final scenes of John’s gospel: the public dimension identified with Peter as a “knot-tier” and “hitch-maker” of Christian history (Drama, 2, quoting O’Siadhail’s words in “Traces”) and the private or “ordinary” arena imaged by the unnamed disciple whom Jesus loves. Both ways of living shape us, in the heroes we choose for ourselves, in the large-scale events—both glorious and horrific— that we pay attention to, as well as in the little “knots” of actions decent, gentle, and faithful that we observe and carry out in the day-to-day (Drama, 6-18). Any consideration of how we wish our future to look must then involve consideration of both public and ordinary forms of drama. For Ford, the figure of Jesus takes the central role, although he closes this chapter by noting the significance of the Spirit that Jesus leaves with his followers for their continual discernment.

The centrality of Jesus’ wisdom for his own tradition leads Ford to an exploration of the wisdom found in other traditions that also provides direction, for one’s own steps as well as for walking with the many others populating the drama of existence. With an extended quotation and meditation on a selection from the Wisdom of Solomon, Ford highlights how wisdom entails recognizing truth within and beyond one’s tradition—acknowledging one’s inability to master truth, knowledge, or God and renewing one’s understanding in the company of others (Drama, 25-31). The pursuit of wisdom takes long-term commitment akin to that nurtured between two lovers; this hard labor of love, of faithfulness enacted over a lifetime, generates the extended perspective wisdom grants her devotees (Drama, 32-5). Ford arrives at the interplay of creativity with the reception of what has come before, illustrating the possible generativities by recounting the history of Scriptural Reasoning as well as four of its practitioners’ current endeavors. Ford distills five principles animating the varied projects clustered around this search for wisdom between the three Abrahamic faiths: (1) going deeper into one’s own tradition, (2) learning the traditions of others, (3) pushing further into joint commitments for the common good, (4) advancing relationships with the others so engaged, and (5) improving both places of agreement and disagreement that naturally come to light (Drama, 45-6). The chapter closes with Ford suggesting that as wisdom creates community across previously erected boundaries, these face-to-face encounters represent the next area in which to search for wisdom.

In the third chapter, Ford explores relationships as “the heart of life’s drama” (Drama, 49). He discusses perspective as making most of the difference. Wide-angle views of life that give rise to sweeping overviews are not wrong, but they fail to do justice to the ways that life is lived person-to-person—in the interactions of characters rather than in bare assent to worldviews or conceptual frameworks (Drama, 53-4). A corrective could be to zoom in on personal internal ebbs and flows, the individual’s stream of consciousness or an omniscient narration of the inner life (Drama, 56-8). But Ford points out deficiencies here as well. Such privileged access remains lost on us in relating to each other as well as in fully knowing the self. Interior landscapes do hold significance, but the life of wisdom does not consist of being all-knowing—whether of the grand scheme of things or of the intricacies of the individual. Rather, the middle distance realism, focusing on people and events as they interact together over time, best suits the bill for forming wisdom (Drama, 57). Ford compellingly weaves together this priority on face-to-face living with the Gospel of John’s attention to the life of the community gathered around Jesus. Here, the large-scale relation of God with creation as well as the details of the individual’s inner life meet one another and find their fulfillment (Drama, 61-6). The last eleven pages of the chapter contain his analysis of the L’Arche communities’ practices of narrating life together and their commitments to embodying signs of the gospel, care in daily life, hospitality to the other, and discernment of organization for sustainability. This example offers the perfect illustration of wisdom’s middle distance relating.

Drama’s fourth chapter focuses on another element from chapter two’s description of the pursuit of wisdom: the repetition inherent to learning from and improvising upon traditions, events, and relationships. Crucial events, harmful and glorious, “become even more meaningful” upon their rememberings and retellings, even though such rehearsing also often involves revisions of understanding (Drama, 78). Attention to these repetitions can foster wisdom, particularly when acknowledged as bedrock of religious practices focused not on consumption but on slow, attentive, even erotic attunement (Drama, 83-5; here, Ford includes a glorious passage from Paul Griffiths’ Religious Reading detailing the difference between reading as an academic consumer and reading as a delighting lover). Ford returns to the Gospel of John for examples of such doubling and looping. The prologue famously repeats the opening lines and imagery of Genesis, but it also includes riffs on many elements from the Hebrew Bible. In another layer, John’s gospel appears to gloss aspects of the three synoptics. Finally, throughout the gospel, another kind of repetition, that of its own themes, often occurs (Drama, 86-90). Immersion in texts organized around such thematic and structural returns forms propensities in the reader to act in similar manners and to seek out additional practices that form such facility. Ford names this “rehearsing for life” and gives special mention to daily offices of prayer, weekly Sabbaths, and reading with those belonging to other traditions as key elements of his own habits of repetition (Drama, 90-102).

The importance of loving—of giving oneself over to the pursuit of wisdom within relationships—returns in chapter five. Ford speaks of the way companions add their voices to each other so that gracious polyphonies inhabit each one of us (Drama, 103-10, borrowing language from O’Siadhail’s “For My Friends,” “Voices,” “Overflow,” and “Widening,” among other poems) before addressing sex in both a “hot” and a “cool” sense. The hotter side of sex—its playful goodness, its passionate and amazed bliss—needs to be tempered with a cooler perspective that sets sexual life as one not-always-present aspect of the full currents of daily life, married or otherwise. This celebration alongside a more tempered view allows response to the ways sexuality goes wrong (Drama, 110-19). To complete this correction, Ford advocates getting “hot” again by placing marriage within other forms of loving in communal intimacy and flourishing. He particularly focuses on the vocation of love open to all people, as the Gospel of John depicts all of life resting in and reclining upon the love of God imaged in Christ: “The vocation of love is to be loved by God, to love God, to be in a community of friends, and to be called to love each person created in the image of God” (Drama, 120-32, quote from 132). Ford stresses that this vocation of love is not easily fulfilled; it requires entering into the messiness of the nitty-gritty with not only the others we find comfortable but also with those we might consider outside of our circles. Here, Ford exposes the claims of anti-Semitism often made of the Gospel of John, his central sacred text, and suggests that the vocation of love includes admitting the limitations within our traditions and improvising beyond them (Drama, 132-5).

The messiness of living a vocation of love leads to chapter six’s reflections on time, aging, and dying. Ford suggests considering time not only or always as linear, but also cyclical, rhythmically pendular, and made up of stillness. Time is not just concerned with control, routines, or machinations but also with narrative, music, imagining. Wisdom can hold all these senses of time together through three main keys: a sense of the larger whole, one’s own vocational drama, and living in time day to day (Drama, 142-53). The larger drama, as rooted in the vision of the Gospel of John, concerns God’s granting creation eternal life as not just life after death, but as a Godward and Godlike quality of life here and now. Vocational time gives us a sense of our place in this cosmic drama of God’s relation with creation, understanding our histories and contexts, as well as our unique choices of how we will spend our lives and to whom we will give ourselves. In John, this can be seen in the build-up to Jesus’ hour. Daily timings can be glimpsed in the small decisions made moment by moment: in John, Peter’s denial of Jesus and later reinstatement, or the beloved disciple taking Jesus’ mother into his own home. Ford crystallizes all three in a brief exploration of psychotherapy and Shakespeare in Broadmoor, where patients learn to be prompted forward in the plays and in therapeutic healing. For aging, Ford takes the reader into O’Siadhail’s poetry around the diagnosis and progression of his beloved wife Bríd’s Parkinson’s disease. Aging here couples with illness, yet wisdom still shines steadily. Not only do the strong serve the weak; the weak guide the strong. Ford shows how the mutual service and learning of L’Arche, amplified by the additional contexts of aging and illness, can expansively shift assumptions in endless arenas. “[T]he stronger and weaker are present in all” (Drama, 161), Ford writes, and the benefits of upending economic and social structures such that caring for and privileging those considered weak have yet to be fully realized. This last reflection brings him to the topic of death, as everyone, strong and weak alike, faces the end of life. Ford describes the final months of his dearly beloved father-in-law, a time when friendships coalesced, when a “fresh simplicity” (Drama, 166) was found, and when love became not just a manner of treating others but a horizon into which his father-in-law was walking. Ford connects the love Jesus describes in the Gospel of John’s farewell discourse with the life of being “gripped by the attractiveness of God’s love” (Drama, 170-3, quote from 173), which his father-in-law made his reality both before and after death. Here, too, lies wisdom. The extent to which a person may embody wise living in the dramatic vocation of love reaches an even fuller demonstration in the book’s appendix, Ford’s eulogy for O’Siadhail’s wife which combines O’Siadhail’s poetry, reflections on Bríd’s life, and discussions of her portrait. Near the conclusion, Ford explains, that even as Bríd’s life held its stronger and weaker elements, the whole showed loving and being loved—the most fundamental vocation for everyone.

Ford’s final chapter concerns “playing without end” in the same spirit of wisdom explored throughout the entire book. Here, he re-reads O’Siadhail’s poem “Only End” as well as selections from John’s gospel to illuminate the wise life as the life of improvisation beyond the “nothing buts” of dead ends and into “everything ands”; as the joining of mind and body, music, and the midrash or jazz of reading; as finding a way out of scarcity and conclusion into never-ending abundance; as the confluence of anguish and joy, old and new; as taking time to find ways forward past misunderstandings and wounds, to make friendships, and to indulge in the sweet nuisances; as loving the unspoken and understated. On this last point, and once more forging a connection with the Gospel of John, Ford lingers, pointing to the text’s lone I-statement near its end, its refusal to name Jesus’ mother, the pronounced role it gives a woman in announcing the resurrection, and the ambiguity it presents in naming God. Ford drives home some insights on how this gospel’s rethinking of God in light of Jesus gives rise to new possibilities for gender in theology before concluding the book with a remarkable crescendo identifying God as O’Siadhail’s “Madam Jazz,” where the only end of God is God in worship, adoration, praise, honor, delight: “To live like that with God, before God and dwelling in God, with constant, generous inspiration…is to be wise in the Spirit. God’s name is the highest stake in this drama of living” (Drama, 197).

Drama’s strengths lie in Ford’s ability to beckon the reader forward into this kind of understanding of a wise, Godward-moving life. Ford’s inclusions and discussions of O’Siadhail’s poetry, including analyses of technical form, imagery, language, and surrounding context unfurl sheer beauty within the pages. Perhaps most stunning are the sections on loving the labor of study for wisdom (ch. 2), loving another over the long haul (ch. 5), wisdom within the reversals of Parkinson’s disease (ch. 6), and the riffs on wisdom as playing jazz without end (ch. 7). At times, Ford simply quotes the poetry without commentary. This may jar the reader expecting discussion, but it may also serve to undergird Ford’s emphasis on the failure of analysis, pattern, or mere repetition to shape wisdom. Prose may fail, but the open-ended nature of poetry and its rereadings suggests the never-completed task of living wisely. In addition, Ford’s autobiographical vignettes add another layer of imaging ways in which wisdom may be sought and found, even in places or times considered inhospitable to such pursuits. Perhaps because of the unfinished, continually moving nature of the wisely improvised life, the most successful instances are when Ford explores one context in depth as a crystallization of a chapter theme: the L’Arche community (ch. 3), the death of Ford’s father-in-law (ch. 6), and Ford’s eulogy for Bríd O’Siadhail (appendix). These embedded examples of improvising on life in the company of others do more than tell the reader how to seek wisdom; they show. Eschewing platitudes, sentimentalizing, or the attempt to construct a one-size-fits-all wisdom template from these events and texts of great vulnerability, Ford exemplifies the patient diligence to work towards the wisdom that he promotes. Never forced but rather gently unfolded and left open-ended, Ford’s reflections thus bear returning to and improvising upon. In this sense, Drama earns a place within the tradition of creatively rereading that Ford describes but never claims for himself.

Out of Ford’s stated expectation of creative return and reshaping, I now offer some suggestions of my own. Perhaps it is best not to consider these notes as declaring drawbacks of Ford’s project but, rather, as contributing my part to the long conversation he sets forth in Drama. My first continuance would be to ask for more upfront grounding of jazz and improvisation as key images for the life of wisdom that Ford promotes. Both improvisation and jazz as its supreme instance of riffing, rereading, and synthesizing multiple strands into wisdom turn out to carry much weight for Drama. How much more thick might some of the book’s conclusions be if these significances were signaled from the beginning—including with their resonances in O’Siadhail’s poetry as another instance of improvised wisdom?

Second, I ask for additional attention to be given to the reality of plural traditions so carefully examined in chapter two. Particularly in light of a review for the JSR in an issue devoted to interreligious engagement, and in recognition of Ford’s own lengthy and fruitful engagement with interfaith dialogue, it would be intriguing to match each of Drama’s main chapter themes with resources from additional religious traditions. Mentions are indeed often made throughout the full text, but at times a brief deeper exploration could take the place of primarily Christian-based reflections. What further insights on relating, reading, loving, dying, and the eternal quest for God’s company could be added, particularly from the other two Abrahamic faiths with whom Ford’s tradition shares many sacred texts and principles? Such inclusion may well have proven outside the scope of the current project, so this suggestion may simply mark out for Ford a direction for a succeeding work.

Finally, I bring to the conversation table a desire to sharpen focus on the Spirit—a theme shot through Drama and indeed making up the book’s sub-title. Focusing on the Spirit through the search for wisdom that animates Drama may forge together both the emphases on improvisation and multiple religious traditions. For instance, Ford’s lengthy excerpt from the Wisdom of Solomon in chapter two (Drama, 26-28) provides clear impetus to mark out the Spirit as the one granting and guiding the desire for wisdom as well as the processes of seeking and finding her. This wisdom consists of friendship with God greater than any wealth, for she comprises all of creation’s manifold varieties and enables discernment among them. Wisdom “is more mobile than any motion,” pervading all things as a “pure emanation” and reflection of God’s own glory (Drama, 27). Wisdom renews all while remaining within herself, holding together what will come with what has passed before. Identifying the Spirit with this description of wisdom provides many consonances with Drama’s overarching themes of constantly renewed understanding found within the multi-faith community of wisdom seekers. More explicit connections to the Spirit could animate Ford’s conversation on relationships: the Spirit connects the wide order of God’s dealings with creation with the person’s own thoughts and actions as the Spirit constitutes and leads forward the beloved community of the middle distance. In rereading, the Spirit can be identified as the one guiding the retrieval and improvisation of traditions resourced through lovingly attending to the text and to the fellow reader of whatever religious persuasion. A Spirit who inspires all knowledge, all truths, can guide their reception and development in multiple contexts. In loving, the Spirit enables joy in passion as well as thoughtful reasoning. In dying, the Spirit safeguards the person’s wise ascent into another aspect of God’s own company. In the wide open spaces that remain to be tracked in the ongoing pursuit of wisdom, the Spirit plays, rejoices, and reveals herself as Madam Jazz, beckoning forward, ducking in and out of view, gathering all strands of creation together. In all of these places and quests, the Spirit identified in Christian traditions as the Spirit Jesus gives his followers can be seen shaping the improvisations of that community within itself as well as in relations with other faiths. This calls whole other vistas into view. As interreligious dialogue and common cause continue to be sought, how far can the Spirit of Christianity, the spirit of wisdom, be identified as working in the world, in multiple traditions, in all the intricacies of the universe? Ford’s book suggests that true wisdom lies in acknowledging and following this Spirit wherever the hallmarks of her presence may be found—and in this sense, Drama’s role may represent only the beginning of this significant conversation.[1]


[1] My thanks to Jacob Goodson for reading and insightfully commenting on an earlier draft of this review.

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