Last night I received the latest electronic newsletter from Speaking of Faith, a program on public radio produced by American Public Media. It is a program that I have found very helpful from time to time as it touches on various topics related to religion and spirituality. The current program is titled "Play, Spirit, and Character," and if you're wondering why the topic of play is being explored by a program dealing with religion, then like many, you suffer from a lack of appreciation for what may be one of the most significant theological topics for the twenty-first century.
This program involves an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute of Play, and in this discussion Brown "says that pleasurable, purposeless activity prevents violence and promotes trust, empathy, and adaptability to life's complication. He promotes cutting-edge science on human play, and draws on a rich universe of study of intelligent social animals."
Play is becoming an increasingly significant facet of life in those parts of the world where economic factors allow it to be so. This is particularly the case with the continued popularity of professional sports, and a new dimension of play has arisen with the increasing numbers of people spending time in various virtual worlds in cyberspace, such as Lineage, Gaia Online or Second Life. In his book Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), Edward Castronova believes a "fun revolution" is underway that will change the way in which we behave in the "real world." He says that, "An understanding of fun will become integral to understanding why the real world is losing people [to virtual worlds], and what to do about it."
But as interesting as this may sound from the perspectives of psychology, medicine, anthropology, and sociology, the reader may be struggling with how this is understood to have any theological significance. If you're having trouble connecting the dots you're not alone. During my research for my graduate thesis on Burning Man Festival, as I considered the significance of play theology to an understanding and appreciation of this alternative cultural event, I found very few theologians who had explored the topic. A few had engaged it in connection with the counterculture of the 1960s, but with the counterculture's morphing and absorption into other aspects of the mainstream culture theologians seemed to have lost the impetus to consider play. Robert Johnston, now at Fuller Theological Seminary, is one exception, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic, which was later modified and published in book form as The Christian at Play (Eerdmans, 1983), but beyond this, so far as my research has been able to determine, theologians, particularly of the Protestant persuasion, have tended to neglect play as a theological topic worthy of reflection and experimentation.
This is curious given the prevalence and significance of play in human experience. It might naturally be assumed that play is involved in an expression of the imago Dei. Beyond this, in Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis refers to moments of play during childhood that he recognized as experiences of transcendence that provided windows into the Divine. Lewis transferred this notion to his storytelling which he believed included a mythical dimension, and in this way the reading of Lewis's stories could function as vehicles for experiencing the Sacred Other. Another significance thinker, the noted sociologist Peter Berger, in the little classic A Rumor of Angels, argued that play involved should be understood as one of several "signals of transcendence." For Berger, this was a "phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our 'natural' reality but that appear to point beyond that reality."
Given the centrality of play to human experience, and the millions of people seeking play as an increasingly important part of their lives (as evidenced by the growing popularity of virtual worlds and alternative cultural events like Burning Man), perhaps play needs to find a place on the agenda for a practical theology of the twenty-first century.
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