Monthly Archives: January 2012

Play on!

Play ball! Play a musical instrument. Act in a play. Play fair. Word play is essential both to humor and to many forms of learning. Don’t play favorites.

Play shows up in all kinds of human experience. Often it is discouraged, regarded as time-wasting, frivolous activity. “Stop playing around!” we might say in exasperation at another’s deviation from our own serious – and perfectly reasonable – agenda. More positively, play might be seen as a reward for hard work. We may play a game, play cards, play some music or play with a puzzle as a form of relaxation, after we have done the tasks required of us.

Maybe we should not be so quick to dismiss play as merely a diversion, an unimportant activity. One of the signs of the promised Messianic age, according to Zechariah 8:5, will be children playing freely in the streets of the New Jerusalem. Job 40:20 alludes to the play of the hippopotamus and other animals in God’s good creation. Leviathan, a mighty sea creature, God created to play in the ocean depths, notes Psalm 104:25. Add the numerous references in Psalms to playing music in joyful praise to God, and elements of play gain stature as part of God’s design.

The essential role of play in human activity is the subject of the book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Written in 1936 by Dutch philosopher and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, the seminal book traces pervasive qualities of play in every aspect of life. For Huizinga, play is a primary means of expression, learning, and organization of human society. All forms of play share three characteristics. First, play is a voluntary, free activity. Second, it interrupts normal, everyday activity, and stands outside the immediate satisfaction of physical (and many psychological) needs and appetites. Third, play occupies a special time and place, involving an interplay between the ordinary routines of life and the special rules ordering the play. Huizinga finds that human beings achieve new insights and express deeper understanding of life in the many forms of play. The action of playing frees an individual or group from the limits of ordinary life to experience transcendence, expressed through language, myth, and ritual. We are homo ludens, “man, the player,” in our endless quest for deeper understanding of all human experience.

Building upon the notion of homo ludens, the contemporary academic discipline of game theory continues to investigate diverse aspects of life. Harvard professor Martin Nowak applies game theory to study fields as varied as economics, cancer biology, linguistics, and theology. He plays out certain carefully constructed games to gain insight into structures of nature and of human behavior. Through game theory, he wants to understand one of the most puzzling yet fundamental features of life: cooperation. Most forms of play involve cooperation. For Nowak, ” Cooperation is what happens when someone or something gets a benefit because someone or something else pays a cost.” He is searching for the reasons that individuals choose to cooperate for the common good.

Concepts of play as a universal human experience and applications of game theory can focus attention on vital elements in our life of faith. God, who created the playful spirit evident in many creatures, and who invited cooperation from Adam and Eve and all their progeny to care for his creation and each other, is revealed in every discovery of truth. If concepts of play and game theory’s insights into cooperation lead to genuine understanding of life and creation, then the wonder of God’s design can be more fully appreciated by anyone living in faithful relationship with God.

We speak of play in relation to our experience of God perhaps more than we realize. Many churches print in their orders of worship the “Prelude” and “Postlude,” the typical instrumental musical pieces played at the beginning and at the end of the worship service. Homo ludens is derived from the Latin word, ludo, “to play.” The Latin root also is found in prelude and postlude. Literally, they are “before the play,” and “after the play.” Soren Kierkegaard observed that worship can be thought of as a play, in which the worshippers are the actors, the minister and worship leaders are prompters, and the audience is God. Worship meets Huizinga’s three characteristics of play. It is entered into voluntarily and freely by the worshipper. Worship interrupts ordinary life, fulfilling more than a craving for physical needs in an encounter with the Spirit of God. It most often occurs with the assistance of a specified place and time, the positive sense of ritual. As we are brought into the presence of God in the play of worship, we may have moments of new insights and expressions of response to God – interludes, “within the play” – reflecting with awe on the nature of God, or responding in personal confession, praise, or thanksgiving, or quietly listening for God’s voice.

Worship can be played one-on-one with God, and private practice of worship enhances one’s ability to experience worship in all its fullness. For most of us, however, cooperating with other followers of Jesus is essential for developing strength for living a life of faith. To cooperate in worship often requires one worshipper to bear some cost in order that a fellow worshipper can know the benefit of closer relationship with God and God’s people. Maybe it means singing a hymn or chorus that is not my favorite, but speaks volumes of God’s grace to another. It could mean adjusting my expectations for the order of worship, admitting different “rules” or rituals that allow another to draw closer to Christ. The preacher in the book of Hebrews addresses our cooperation in worship directly: ” Let us think about each other and help each other to show love and do good deeds. {25} You should not stay away from the church meetings, as some are doing, but you should meet together and encourage each other.” (Hebrews 10:24-25a NCV) In the context of encouraging elders in the church, who assist believers to grow stronger in faith and join in the work of Christ, Paul grieves over any who do not cooperate in the life of the congregation: ” There are many people who refuse to cooperate, who talk about worthless things and lead others into the wrong way.” (Titus 1:10a NCV) To the believers at Corinth who had a track record for lack of cooperation, Paul wrote: ” So, brothers and sisters, what should you do? When you meet together, one person has a song, and another has a teaching. Another has a new truth from God. Another speaks in a different language, and another person interprets that language. The purpose of all these things should be to help the church grow strong.” (1 Corinthians 14:26 NCV) A body of believers truly “on their game” will exhibit a high level of cooperation that results in mutual benefit in drawing closer to Christ. Paul describes how this cooperation is played out: ” Don’t act thoughtlessly, but try to understand what the Lord wants you to do…. {19} Then you will sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, making music to the Lord in your hearts. {20} And you will always give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. {21} And further, you will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:17, 19-21 NLT)

Play has a multitude of nuances. Are you just playing at being a Christian? Is God’s justice, mercy, and grace playing itself out in your life, providing blessings and strength for others? Are you voluntarily interrupting your everyday routine in order to create a time and place for having an interlude with God? With whom are you cooperating to grow closer to Christ? Play on!

J. Edward Culpepper

Want to receive Blind Faith each week by e-mail? Send a message with the subject “Subscribe Blind Faith” to: