I have a short (true) story, “De Profundis: Our Past is Prologue”, in the upcoming new issue of The Mockingbird, the literary magazine of the Mockingbird ministry. Issue 4 (Winter 2015) celebrates and reflects on the human world of “work and play”, and it seemed good to me to do likewise for a couple of posts.
The writer and columnist H.L. Mencken once famously defined “Puritanism” as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” (from A Mencken Chrestomathy). He was likely aiming his derision at mid-twentieth century Christians generally, who Mencken considered, as a class, to be killjoys who took themselves way too seriously. Mencken himself was a skeptic, a curmudgeon, and quite a sourpuss, at least in his writing. And I wonder if he would have the same opinion if he visited the recreation centers, yoga classes, rock concerts, retreats, festivals, and youth activities of today’s evangelical churches, where fun and play seem to be the attraction and the order of the day. If Mencken’s sarcastic remark was ever warranted (even for actual Puritans) it would seem to be no longer. Christians often seem as caught up in an entertainment ethic of pursuing escapist amusement and immediate happiness as the culture around us.
I’m not saying that play has no place in our lives—even lives of serious Christian discipleship. Writer, pastor, and theologian Michael Yaconelli (d. 2003) believed that “play is an expression of God’s presence in the world; one clear sign of God’s absence in society is the absence of playfulness and laughter” (from Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith). While pointing out that God is never actually “absent” even in the most serious, somber, humorless, or unhappy situations, I would agree that one set of effects of God’s presence with us, and of our delighting in the Lord (see Psalm 37:40), is to lift burdens, induce lightheartedness, and make us take ourselves a lot less seriously. And one can never laugh or play if one takes oneself too seriously.
Some theologians and philosophers have taken play seriously enough to write theologies of play. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote an entire book, Theology of Play, which I have not read. I did read David Naugle’s excellent, and much shorter, blog post, “A Serious Theology of Play” (http://qideas.org/articles/a-serious-theology-of-play/). Naugle, a professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, writes: “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.” That would seem to say as much about God as it does about us. If play is an aspect of the image of God in us, then God too must play. Consider the penguin … or the blobfish. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart—though he doesn’t state it exactly so—seems to imply that God’s creativity and even his very existence as a triune relationship of love, are essentially and primordially a form of “play”. He writes: [God’s] Being . . . plays peacefully in the expressive iridescence of its welcoming light, in the intricate weaving of the transcendentals, . . . which speak of God’s simple, triune infinity” (see The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, esp. pp. 241-249). Heavy stuff.
I don’t play as much, or in the same way, as I did as a child. As well as a lack of seriousness, play requires rest from one’s work, and I find that hard to do. I think I have gotten to the point where I believe the rest of the universe can carry on just fine without me, but I fret about taking my ease too much, believing my material and emotional welfare, and that of my family, would suffer as a result. And perhaps it would. But all work and no play isn’t just dull, it’s soul-crushing, and sometimes a sign of not trusting God enough. So, I think I need to balance things better. Time for a break. I think I’ll go throw a ball for my dog to fetch; he loves to play fetch. And it will be a good theological lesson for him.