The Spirit of Play

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Playing games and living playfully is good for you. It helps you live longer, can improve your memory and skills and make you happier. It is also foundational to learning and it can create community.

Frankly, life without play would be a bore.

Yet despite all its benefits play suffers in the PR department when compared with its apparently more industrious sibling—work. Work has a reputation as the real deal. Work is productive, profitable and powerful…and it was given to us by God!

Play has never been able to claim such an illustrious heritage. The general attitude seems to be that it snuck into life as a result of more selfish attitudes and perhaps even as a result of the influence of you-know-who. After all, it is widely known that the devil finds mischief for idle hands. The moral then is: keep busy!

Indeed, where I live the most common greeting, especially among Christians, seems to be “How are you doing? Keeping busy?” as if it was a sin not to be completely run off your feet! Some people wear their busy-ness as a badge of honor. And that’s probably no surprise given that our culture has largely been born out of a ‘work ethic’ that, since Max Weber, has been applauded as being the basis of our economic system and the spirit of capitalism.

But approving of work should not mean disapproving or downgrading play. The opposite of play is not work but depression. A culture which defines people solely according to work will be productive, ordered and rational but lacking in imagination, creativity, joy and pleasure.

Perhaps its time to develop a ‘play ethic’ to go along with our work ethic. After all, everyone knows that a work ethic is not really about ‘the ethics of work’—no, it is more like a general attitude towards life as a whole. Having a  ‘work ethic’ means that life is interpreted in terms of work. People even play with a work ethic!

Similarly, play can be more than just playing games, it too can be an approach to life. Indeed, I think we ought to see play as a God-given, human activity which, along with worship, work, feasting and other activities is both a present participation in the goodness of creation and an anticipation of the playful life of the future kingdom of God.  Play reminds us that life is not justified by works but is a gracious gift.

And remember that the six days of work at creation are followed by the most holy day of non-work which is a time of appreciation and enjoyment of the created order.  Play creates friendship and community and enables people to be happier. It stresses freedom and spontaneity and it allows for testing, exploring and learning in a safe environment. It develops the creativity and imagination that are essential to art, music, problem solving and forming scientific hypotheses. In short, play is essential to on-going human re-creation and a healthy life.

Of course, play can be distorted and abused through self-indulgence, unhealthy competitiveness, violence or immorality, and it can be time-wasting and obsessive.  But it need not be that way. Play can be an expression of the new creation which is pictured in terms of song (Rev. 14:2), dance (Jer. 31:4), feasting (Rev. 19:9) and, as Zecharaiah 8:4-5 says, play:

“This is what the Lord says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the Faithful City, and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain… Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age.  The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly play can also be an image of the kind of relationship that we have with God. When an ethic of work dominates our lives then our relationship with God can easily become controlled by the belief that we are justified by our work. And there can be a tendency to relate to God in terms of concepts such as duty, obligation, responsibility and the need for productivity—influencing both our prayer and our discipleship.

On the other hand, a spirituality influenced by a playful attitude enables one to spend un-productive, playful time with God—just being together because its fun! Of course, this attitude too could be distorted and become captive to hedonism or triviality, but it need not be like that. And the idea is not to reject either work or play as dimensions of life but to give each of them their proper due.

What would it mean for you to develop a spirituality of play along these lines?  Please write and tell me about your thoughts and you experiences—especially those that bring play and God together.
Now, having done my work by writing this and—hopefully making you think—I’m off to play tennis!

Brian Edgar is Professor of Theological Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is married to Barbara and has two daughters and sons-in-law. He lives in Melbourne, Australia most of the time teaching in the on-line seminary program but travels to Asbury each year to teach intensives. See Brian’s Public Theology web-page

See also Brian’s article on “play” in the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics. Joel B. Green (Gen. Ed.). Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2011.

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