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A Serious Theology of Play by David Naugle

Sardonic newspaper columnist and social critic H. L. Mencken once quipped that “puritans,” referring to serious-minded Christians, are “people who have a deep, foreboding fear that somebody, somewhere, might be having a good time.” Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once observed that Christians “have no joy.” He also said, should he ever come to believe in God, he would only believe in a “God who danced” (40). Sadly, he was never able to locate such a God.

These acerbic comments by two of Christianity’s most notable critics suggest that it is frequently perceived that play, generally speaking, has little if any place in the experience of committed Christians. It seems, unfortunately, as if serious saints are straight-laced, sober, sad, and cold, with a few actually frozen. They have been infected by a kind of religious leukemia in which the white blood cells of gravity and sobriety have overtaken the red blood cells joy and celebration.

Play, defined quite broadly as any legitimate and moral activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation (including sports), is an essential part of our divinely created humanity as the image of God and is therefore an intrinsic good.

Attitudes of Suspicion Toward Play in the History of the Church

Though there are exceptions (see endnote #1), dispositions toward play in Christian history have been mostly negative. Early Church Father Tertullian and 16th century Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola both held negative attitudes toward play and leisure. It is no wonder that historian Edward Gibbon accused the medieval church of “Angelism,” as it has been called, in his classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He writes these telling words: “ …vainly aspiring to imitate the perfection of the angels, they [our Christian predecessors] disdained, or they affected to disdain, every earthly and corporeal delight…” French poet and literary critic Charles Baudelaire in his brief, but classic essay “A Philosophy of Toys” offers criticisms similar in substance to Gibbon’s when he speaks of Protestant Christians as “ultra-reasonable and anti-poetic people,” some of whom refuse to give or allow their children to play with toys.

These unenthusiastic references to play, admittedly impressionistic and a bit sketchy, nevertheless represent what is undoubtedly a considerable portion of the story about play that has been told to countless numbers of Christian believers throughout the ages. It often seems like Christianity has no place for play or for the joyous celebration of life. It’s no wonder, then, that play seems out of bounds for many believers. It’s no wonder that Tim Hansel would pen a relatively recent Christian book on the subject of leisure provocatively titled with When I Relax I Feel Guilty.

These historic attitudes of suspicion about play, however, are unsupported and even contradicted by a keen observation of human nature and certainly by significant biblical themes which establish a framework within which a robust theology or philosophy of play may be developed.

Insights on Play from Natural Theology

The universal and transcultural fact is that children are natural born players. This well-attested observation is sufficient in and of itself to establish the idea that play is an indelible characteristic of human beings which persists well beyond childhood, though in different forms. Though some feared if children played as children, they would also play as adults, the reverse is undoubtedly wiser: if children don’t play as children, then they won’t be able to play as adults (see endnote #2).

The riotous and uproarious play of animals also teaches us something about the authenticity of play as a vital part of natural life (see endnote #3).

The question, of course, is “why” do animals play? What, if anything, do they gain from play; or, do they just do it because they enjoy it? No certain answers to these questions are yet available, but to naturalists who spend their lives observing and describing the behavior of animals, one thing is certain: animals of all kinds, young or old, whether mammals, birds, and reptiles, play.

What is significant about this phenomenon to our present discussion on the play of human beings? Surely the animals tell us something about the playfulness of the God who made them … and about ourselves as made in His image. If the heavens tell of the glory of God and show forth His handiwork (Psalm 19), then so do the merry gambols of animals (Psalm 104: 24-26) and the play of people, too!

That God has ordained and inculcated the activity of play into the whole of creation can be seen from another vantage point as well. According to Johan Huizinga, play is one of the most fundamental categories of human life and is intimately bound up in the whole enterprise of human culture. In his book, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950), this Dutch philosopher seeks to demonstrate the nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon. He means to show “how culture itself bears the character of play.” For Huizinga, the social sciences had laid far too little stress on the concept of play, and on of the supreme importance of the play factor to civilization. Far from being irrelevant, play is a function of culture proper, and not just a thing within it or apart from it. Cultural development itself is a form of play, which saturates the whole of cultural life.

Insights on Play from Biblical Theology

Importantly, the Bible supports this argument about play as well. The coalescence of the Scriptural themes of the Sabbath, of feasting and festival, of dance, and the lifestyle of Jesus lay a foundation for a solid theology of play.

First, the Sabbath grounds the notion of rest and leisure in God’s very act of creation. The Sabbath sets a limit to work and grants us not only the opportunity but also the obligation to rest. The Sabbath means that we can alternate our mastery of the world through work with a thankful enjoyment of the world as we experience its beauty in rest, worship, and godly leisure. Also, the cycle of six days of work plus one day of rest in the Old Testament, and continued in the New Testament, is to be remembered and reenacted by the people of God each week. The very rhythm of every day life, therefore, is meant to be a liturgical practice in which we are called upon to adopt a God-ordained and graciously upheld rhythm of work and rest. Insofar, then, as the Sabbath limits labor, and opens up a window for rest, this biblical theme creates space in our lives for play and leisure in which we eucharistically enjoy the works of God and the life He has given us.

The biblical conceptions of food and festival contribute to the same. Food and festival have several traits in common with play. Both are deviations from the regular routine of life; both are characterized by joy and mirth; both are fun. This connection between the two, among other things, leads to the conclusion that food and festival, in biblical perspective, support a theology of play! Human beings, by divine design, are also homo festivus!

Perhaps the clearest support for a biblical theology of play comes from the Scriptural teaching on the topic of dance, as one of the purest forms of play. Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word for dance is also the Hebrew word for play. The wisdom of the writer in Ecclesiastes could not be clearer in his affirmation of this activity when he writes in chapter 3 that there is “a time to mourn, and a time to dance (or play).

Last, but not least, there is Jesus, himself. Did He say or do anything that contributes positively or negatively to our argument? Jesus was the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Did He ever laugh or play? The answer is absolutely. There is a playfulness and humor in the sayings and deeds of Jesus, as Elton Trueblood has shown in his book The Humor of Christ. Trueblood rejects the assumption that “Christ never joked” and suggests that the sayings and parables of Jesus show continuous humor. Though He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, He was also a man of humor, acquainted with laughter.

When we add to the evidence from Jesus’ friendships (“a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners”—Luke 7:34), His frequent celebrations and dinner parties (“the Son of Man has come eating and drinking”—Luke 7:34), and His attendance at a festive wedding where He turned water into wine (John 2: 1-2), we cannot but help get a fresh impression of the festive nature and delightful personality of Jesus. His convivial lifestyle contributes significantly to a biblical theology of play.

Conclusions

This study on a biblical philosophy of sport and play contributes to self-knowledge. I am able to recognize and rejoice in the fact that I am, as God’s image, made to play—homo ludens. An equally important, if not more important, conclusion from this study is what it tells us about God Himself. That He—the God of creation, and the God of redemption—is a God of play, divinitas ludens.

If God is a God of play, and if human play is, indeed, rooted in divine play, then we, as humans, ought to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness. This is both our gift and our responsibility in a often-serious world. Whatever forms of “play” you may pursue—whether it be music, reading, sports, furniture restoration, gardening, photography, or drag racing—do it heartily unto the Lord, as a reflection of a rarely recognized aspect of the divine nature. Your life will be an answer to H. L. Mencken’s stereotypical puritan who worries about people having fun, and your example will testify to the Friedrich Nietzsches of the world that, indeed, there is—and that you know—a God who dances.

Endnotes

  1. Happily, there was some improvement in Christian thought on such matters under the influence of Martin Luther and John Calvin during the Reformation and post-reformation eras (as in John Milton, for example, who argued for the Christian legitimacy of “delightful intermissions”).
  2. Antonia Fraser, in her interesting and entertaining book, A History of Toys, demonstrates the relationship between play, toys, and human psychological development. They have “deep importance in the psychological development of a child and therefore presumably of the human race throughout its history” (11).
  3. Stuart Brown, “Animals at Play” … the December 1994 cover story of National Geographic Magazine).

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