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The Christian at Play by Robert K. Johnston

Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This book was originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 1983. Prepared for Religion Online by Rev. Herbert F. Lowe.


In addressing the topic of the Christian at play, one risks inadvertently writing another "Pop Theology." American theology of recent vintage can perhaps best be described as "movement" theology. In the last twenty years, we have had theologies of the death of God, of secularity, of revolution, of culture, of hope, of process, of story, of human potential, and so on. One of the most interesting of these theological fads has centered on the human as player. Each avant-garde trend has raised important issues, but all have proven ephemeral, including theologies of play. Too often they have mistakenly baptized current opinion and made it identical with the Christian faith.1

Commenting on this trend in American popular theology, Thomas Oden concludes:

Bandwagon "wave-of-the-future" theology has proven to be a very hazardous occupation in an era of accelerating change, especially when the continuities of history are not as evident as its discontinuities, and when the media focus the public eye upon society's distortions rather than its solidities?2 

Oden goes on to ask, "What is the appropriate response to such developments?" And he answers, "The same as before. The task of theology still remains to make self-consistent and intelligible the life of faith in Christian community."3 Theology today must attempt to reappropriate Christian tradition and biblical faith in terms of our contemporary situation and language. Theology can be faithful to itself only as it fully takes into account both Scripture and tradition as well as humankind's present predicament and possibility.

Like Oden, I do not share the belief of some of my contemporaries that constructive Christian thinking -- that is, theology -- -is no longer possible, and that play is all that is humanly supportable.4 Nor do I care to become "deliciously irresponsible" and merely produce fantasies about fun and frolics on the beach or in the bedroom, of leisure filled with ecstasy and laughter5 Rather, my concern in this book is to inquire on behalf of the Christian community about the significance of play. What is there that is theologically important about the person (both Christian and non-Christian) at play?

From the time of Augustine down to the present era, Christians have often been suspicious of play. For Augustine, conversion to Christianity meant a conversion from a life of play. To him, even eating was sinful if done in a spirit of pleasure.6 The only enjoyment Augustine allowed for was the enjoyment of God. In varying degrees, such an assessment of play has plagued Christianity down to the present. It is often thought that in play one risks being uninvolved and irresponsible. The evils of play's misuse have been judged more severely than the perversions of work. It is safer to spend one's time in "serious" activity than to enter into "frivolity."

However, Christians today are rediscovering the need to play. In a world in which our work gravitates toward the extremes of ulcers or boredom, play becomes the possibility for discovering our common humanity. In a world that has become objectivized and routinized, play offers freedom to the human spirit. In a time when the richness of play (from recreational activity to the arts) is available to an increasing number of Americans, and when some are finding sources of pleasure, meaning, and power within such experiences, Christian theology is being challenged to reassess its suspicions of play. Is there an alternative both to the traditional work ethic that has dominated Christian thought and to the hedonism and narcissism that characterizes much contemporary discussion of play? A theology of play need not be the latest outbreak of the fad syndrome. Instead, it might better be understood as the Christian community's serious attempt to develop a fuller understanding of one of life's possibilities: the person at play.

A brief description of my methodology is appropriate as we begin. How do I understand the theological task, particularly as it relates to the phenomenon of play? Theology always originates from a given tradition; it also emerges within a particular historical context. As such, it is never merely the repetition of biblical ideas alone, even for those holding to the sole and binding authority of Scripture as God's revelation. The work of theology consists of an ongoing dialogue between biblical, traditional, and contemporary sources. For the evangelical theologian, this dialogue will ultimately be submitted to the final authority of Scripture, but a spirited interaction between all three of theology's sources can never be cut short.

As I have argued in a previous book, Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice, there is no set procedure or program for controlling this theological dialogue. One does not always begin from the biblical text, for example; "theology remains an `art' in that the proper valuation and interaction of its sources demand a wisdom that defies a comprehensive codification."7 Sometimes new biblical data will provide the occasion for theological reflection. Such has been the case in recent discussions about the role of women in the church and the family. Sometimes a confrontation between competing Christian traditions will raise the challenge for theological reassessment. The Christian's rightful role vis-a-vis the state would seem one recent subject for Christian reflection where differences in traditional formulations have proven decisive. And who can dispute the fact that pressure from our wider culture has been the major catalyst behind continuing Christian discussion about the Church and the homosexual?

The key to creative Christian thinking is the willingness to live with theology's multiple sources while accepting Scripture's ultimate authority. Such an "evangelical" agenda rejects conservative methodologies that are content to recycle past truths without processing them afresh through contemporary sensibilities, alternative Christian traditions, and developing biblical understandings. It also rejects liberal methodologies that remain satisfied with adjudicating between competing theological sources according to the latest popular notion about what is reasonable. Christian theology must remain humble enough for its multiple sources to correct previous but faulty judgments. It must also remain faithful enough to trust Scripture to have the final word.

In approaching a theology of play in this book, we will begin with the problem which play poses to the contemporary person. For although our work-dominated values concerning the nature of humankind seem to be in transition, Americans remain curiously ill-prepared to play authentically. Either we work at work or we work at play -- this in spite of the fact that leisure is ours in ever-increasing measure. As a result, we compromise the place of play in our lives.

After exploring current attitudes toward and descriptions of play, we will turn to three representative theological positions in hope of clarifying our understanding of the human player. Is play to be the Christian's life-style, as Sam Keen argues; the Christian's mission, as Jürgen Moltmann suggests; or the Christian's opportunity, as C. S. Lewis describes it?

Dialogue between these competing theological options challenges one to take a fresh look at the biblical record in the hope of uncovering new insights concerning the shape God intended human life to take. Thus we will turn next to a reassessment of the Bible's notion of play. Although play is an incidental concern of those writers focusing upon redemption and covenant, it is central to the creation theology of the Old Testament (e.g., in Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs), as well as to discussions of the Sabbath. Moreover, in considering such biblical topics as festival, dance, feasting, hospitality, and friendship, new perspectives on play do indeed surface. Within the biblical text can be found a God-intended shape for human life which maintains a crucial balance between work and play. We are not merely workers, as some have insisted. We are also players who find life (including our work) both relativized and refreshed by play.

In the final chapter of this book, the discussion of the person at play will again be related to the world of work, this time within a biblical framework. In this way the beginning of a hermeneutieal circle will be suggested. As Rene Padilla has argued,

... the contextual approach to the interpretation of Scripture involves a dialogue between the historical situation and Scripture, a dialogue in which the interpreters approach Scripture with a particular perspective (their world-and-life view) and approach their situation with a particular comprehension of the Word of God (their theology).... 8

Theological hermeneutics should have a "spiral structure" in which there is ongoing circulation between culture, tradition, and biblical text, each enriching the understanding of the other. Thus contemporary attitudes and practices of play will not only direct our inquiry into theological and biblical sources; they will themselves be challenged and redirected by the insights gained by the Christian community in dialogue with 18-23.


1. Thomas Oden, Agenda for Theology: Recovering Christian Roots 5an Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 22.

2. Thomas Oden, "The Human Potential and Evangelical Hope,"The Drew Gateway, 24 (Fall 1972), 5.

3. Ibid., p. 6.

4. Cf. David L. Miller, "Theology and Play Studies: An Overview." Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 39 (September 971). 350.

5. William A. Sadler, Jr., "Creative Existence: Play as a Pathway D Personal Freedom and Community," Hurnanitas, 5 (Spring 1969),

6. Augustine, Confessions, trans. F. J. Sheed (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1942), X, 31.

7. Robert K. Johnston, Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), p. 150 .

8. C. Rene Padilla, "Hermeneutics and Culture-A Theological •Perspective," in Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture, lohn R. W. Stott and Robert Coote (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 1980), pp. 73, 75. Cf. Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: . Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980); C. Rene Padilla, "The Interpreted :Word:Reflections on Contextual Hermeneutics," Themelios, 7 (September 1981), 18-23.

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