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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.


Preface


It was the late Paul Tillich who, more than anyother modern theologian, introduced Christians to the need for a theology of culture. Writing from a liberal Protestant perspective, he attempted to show the religious dimensions of our varied cultural activity, to illuminate the spiritual lines that oftentimes lie hidden within our human creations. Evangelical Christians have been slow to follow Tillich's lead. Perhaps fearing another "social gospel," evangelicals have focused too exclusively upon humankind's sinfulness, overlooking its God-given creativity. The result has been a skewing of the Christian understanding of "man."

Play, as an event of the inventive human spirit, invites our most able Christian reflection. The person at play is expressing his or her God-given nature. Yet as Christians we have largely overlooked this aspect of our creaturehood. We will need to define "play" with much greater care as we proceed, but it is useful at the outset to note several of its chief dimensions. First, play is a comprehensive human experience. Involving not only the body but the emotions and the mind, play affords at least a momentary integration of life.

Play has a social aspect as well, its delight finding its center not in the player but in that with which he plays. Whether this be a co-player, a baseball, or a phonograph record, the value of play is located first of all in the other. Moreover, students of play have recognized that play's personal and social dimensions have consequences beyond themselves. The "other" which is experienced by the fully involved player is not merely the co-player or play object. Play oftentimes pushes the individual outward beyond his or her normally perceived world, enlarging that understanding of reality in the process. It is this "result" of play which some have found to have particular theological relevance and which this book will explore.

Prior to such investigation, however-prior to a discussion of play's basis in and witness to common grace-we need to allow play to be viewed as the "end in itself" which it is. Play is an activity with its own purposes and inner rewards. It needs no justification beyond itself. To move too quickly to play's consequences is to risk aborting the play activity, turning it into a disguised instance of work. The Christian is called to work; but he is also meant to play.

The Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire (1982) illustrates well the value of play for its own sake. The movie tells the story of two runners who competed in the 1924 Olympics, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Abrahams, a Jew among Gentiles, runs for his country in order to prove his worth to his English countrymen. Only by being a success can he overcome the anti-Semitism directed at him. When his girlfriend asks him if he loves to run, he responds, "I'm more an addict. It's a compulsion. A weapon." As he waits for the finals of the one-hundred-yard dash, he tells his friend that he is scared: "Ten lonely seconds to justify my existence." And Abrahams does just that. He wins the gold medal. Having proven his worth through running, Harold Abrahams can give it up, and he does. His job has been completed.

Eric Liddell, on the other hand, runs for the sheer pleasure of it, so much so that his austere, religious sister criticizes him. "I don't want his work spoiled with all this running talk," she says. In a poignant moment in the film, Liddell tells his sister that he has decided to return to China to serve as a missionary. She is overjoyed until he adds, "I've got a lot of running to do first. Jenny, jenny, you've got to understand it. I believe that God made me for a purpose-for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure ... it's not just fun. To win is to honor him." Liddell does win-the four-hundred-meter dash-and it does bring honor to his Lord. As the film ends, we are told that after the Olympics Liddell returned to China as he said he would. His season of play over, he is able to find a similar joy in his work, knowing that it, too, is a part of life's God-intended rhythm. Eric Liddell understood what many Christians do not: that we are called not only to work but to play.

This book is the product of several influences, Like Michael Novak, I too wonder how I can be almost forty and still care what happens to the Dodgers. How is the Christian to understand his love for handball? Or opera? Or stamp collecting? Or reading? It was Robert McAfee Brown, an instructor at Stanford University, who first provided some clues for me in a course entitled "Theology and Contemporary Literature." Could God use modern writers of fiction, or perhaps even baseball players, much as he used the Assyrians in Isaiah's day, to communicate his truth to us? My investigation of play continued at Duke University, where I wrote my dissertation, Theology and Play, under Thomas Langford. There I learned that we need to let our play remain just what it is-play. (Evangelical Christians in particular are so prone to instrumentalize everything.)

My investigation of the Christian at play might have stopped at this stage except for two factors: (1) there is little or no serious theological reflection currently focusing on our play (or our work!), and (2) Americans in particular continue to find it difficult to give themselves freely and/or authentically to their play. I am convinced that these two factors are related. Unable to understand our play as God-given, we remain inauthentic players. Thus, after a hiatus of eight years, I have returned to the topic of the Christian at play in the hopes of contributing to the well-being of Christ's Church. We are, as Christians, created to work and to play.

I have had several graduate students help with this project: Bob O'Connor, Webb Mealy, Scott Colglazier, and Bill Watkins. In addition, Arvin Vos and Robert Roberts have read the manuscript and offered helpful suggestions. In February 1982, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary kindly invited me to give the Day-Higginbotham Lectures on the topic of this book. I benefited greatly from my interaction with students and faculty at that institution, which is in the forefront of education in church recreation. Finally, I would like to thank my typists: Robin Wright, Lorie Poole, and Anne Stevenson.

 

Robert K. Johnston

North Park Theological Seminary
Chicago, Illinois
December 1982

 

 

 

 

My investigation of the Christian at play might have stopped at this stage except for two factors: (1) there is little or no serious theological reflection currently focusing on our play (or our work!), and (2) Americans in particular continue to find it difficult to give themselves freely and/or authentically to their play. I am convinced that these two factors are related. Unable to understand our play as God-given, we remain inauthentic players. Thus, after a hiatus of eight years, I have returned to the topic of the Christian at play in the hopes of contributing to the well-being of Christ's Church. We are, as Christians, created to work and to play.

I have had several graduate students help with this project: Bob O'Connor, Webb Mealy, Scott Colglazier, and Bill Watkins. In addition, Arvin Vos and Robert Roberts have read the manu script and offered helpful suggestions. In February 1982, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary kindly invited me to give the Day-Higginbotham Lectures on the topic of this book. I benefited greatly from my interaction with students and faculty at that institution, which is in the forefront of education in church recreation. Finally, I would like to thank my typists: Robin Wright, Lorie Poole, and Anne Stevenson.

'ROBERT K. JOHNSTON

North Park Theological Seminary Chicago, Illinois

December 1982

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