When we think about play, we often think about leisure pursuits. We play tennis or Scrabble. We play the saxophone or video games. We play with words. We play with others. We watch plays. Such pursuits often engage us deeply, even if we only see them as diversions. Educator, author, and toymaker Frank Caplan said that play has been humanity’s most useful preoccupation.1
Play is universal. Everybody experiences play. All creatures play. William Shakespeare said that all of life is a stage, and we are all players. Louis Armstrong said that what we play is life. From these two creative geniuses comes the sentiment—possibly overstated—that life is play, having greater import than we normally believe.
Plato agrees. He famously said that “life must be lived as play.”2 So does G.K. Chesterton, who said that “the true object of life is play.”3 What other experiential phenomenon could garner such praise?!?
Many authors across time, space, and academic disciplines have written about play. It is not a new field of scholarship. Concerted scholarly engagement on the topic began in response to Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s 1938 publication of Homo Ludens, the first book-length intellectual study of play.4 Thirty years later, Christian theologians began their own concerted scholarly engagement with the concept of play. A list of books on play theology emerged from Hugo Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, Sam Keen, Harvey Cox, William Dean, David Miller, Robert Neale, Peter Berger, and Robert Johnston between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.5 Since then, scholarly engagement with the concept—Christian or otherwise—has increased exponentially.
Brian Bolt (Calvin University), Curtis Gruenler (Hope College), and I are adding to this body of work with the current Christian Scholar’s Review special issue on play. The irony of this entire enterprise is not lost on us. A great deal of academic work has been done on play even though these are two phenomena often understood as opposites, or at the very least, inverses (a relationship discussed but not supported in our special issue). One of our special issue authors reminded us of the complementary nature of this pair in the writing of his article. It was Labor Day, he said, a day the United States uses to honor American workers by giving them free time—an invitation to play. The author was hunkered down in his office working on a paper extolling the value of play when he should have been at play because it was a day set aside for play as a means of honoring work. How conflicted he felt!
Despite the mounds of academic work on play, intellectual engagement into the phenomenon persists because we continue to experience it. Play lives, at least to some extent, in all of us. Although, since well-known play scholars Brian Sutton-Smith6 and Stuart Brown7 argue that the opposite of play is not work but depression, maybe play is a decreasing experience to those on college and university campuses. To what extent, then, ought play be a part of the human experience, the good life, the Christian life? And what does this mean for those of us in Christian higher education?
These questions impact both how we think and how we live. Thus, we hope our special issue of CSR on play will be an exercise for the intellect and an inspiration for the soul. Read about play as part of your academic “work.” Wrestle with the ideas (wrestling is playful, no?). And live well, prioritizing play through newly enhanced understandings of the concept.
Here’s what to expect from our special issue:
An exploration of play in the most unlikely of settings. Curtis Gruenler discusses the value of play and community within the writings of Dante, the author who was so morbid as to parse out different levels of hell. What could be less playful than thinking about which sins will lead to the hottest levels of the eternally damning inferno? Gruenler argues that Dante identifies play within community as our route up and out of purgatory. How comedic!?! How divine!?!
A glimpse of grasshoppers in heaven. Remember Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant? Late philosopher Bernard Suits argued that humans ought to be more like the fablist’s grasshopper than his ant. Why? According to Suits, because playing games is the ideal human condition rather than prudently working to prolong our existence. Brian Bolt and I playfully (and somewhat eschatologically) consider Suits’ argument that game-playing is the ideal of human existence from a Christian perspective.
Theological motivation to exercise. Play and work are convenient complements but they’re not an either-or pair. In gym culture, the locus of Andrew Borror’s article, exercisers rely heavily on the phrase “working out.” What are the theological implications of going to the gym for intrinsic reasons—that is, as play—or for extrinsic reasons, as work? In discussing the givenness of the body, technological enhancements, and scientific reductionism in exercise, Borror might raise enough good questions to distract you from the pain you feel during your next workout!
Cross-cultural pneumatology. We believe that this special issue includes the first ever article combining the following three topics: pneumatology, play, and cross-cultural comparison. Not excited yet? Consider that author Advait Praturi shares how Hindu conceptions of play (lila) in worship can enhance Christian understandings of worship, worship experiences, and ministry expressions. As Praturi encourages us to create playgrounds of hospitality, the implication is toward a third cultural interface: the ancient Greek concept of xenia, guest or ritualized friendship.
An invitation to play at work. Let me be more specific. Margaret Diddams’ article is not license to play Candy Crush while on the clock. Instead, she encourages an integrationist approach: attaching play attitudes to work tasks, playing at one’s work (Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs were onto something—whistling while working can open one to play). Taking a play mindset into work just might present a likely vision of heaven. If nothing else, it will spur greater satisfaction at one’s job.
Putting this special issue together gave us great joy. We hope reading it will do the same for you. Just don’t read it on Labor Day…unless you do so playfully!
- This is a quotation generally and popularly attributed to Caplan. Its original use is unknown.
- Plato, Laws, 7.803.
- G.K. Chesterton, “Oxford from Without,” The Chesterton Review 31 (3/4), 27-31.
- Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Original publication in Dutch in 1938.
- For bibliographic information on the books written by these authors, see the introductory article in our special issue.
- Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
- Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery, 2010).