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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.

Chapter One: Play: A Problem for the Contemporary Person

It has become almost a truism to speak of present-day American culture as leisure-oriented. While leisure itself is not new, modern social critics have widely observed that leisure in America has taken on a uniqueness and increased relevance because it is no longer a luxury allowed only to the social elite. In medieval times, tournaments were limited to the nobility. In 1541, Henry VIII restricted bowling to aristocrats and property-owners (not beer-drinkers!). 1n Virginia in 1674, a tailor was fined for racing his horse against a gentleman's. But things have changed. Having become a part of the lives of the masses, leisure presents Americans with a situation that is historically new.

There are many indicators of the increase of leisure time in America. For example, Joseph Zeisel has studied American industry during the period from 1850 to 1956, and has documented the continuing long-term decline in the industrial workweek.1 Whereas in 1550 the average worker put in sixty-six hours a week (i.e., eleven hours a day, six days a week), in 1956 the average worker in non-agricultural industries generally worked about forty hours (i.e., eight hours a day, five days a week).

Staffan Linder questions the conclusions often drawn from such statistics, however. If we look at the figures since 1929, he says, the average workweek has changed little. Furthermore, "the spreading practice of part-time work among women and teen-agers is causing a reduction in the average workweek as statistically measured, without this reality signifying any decline in work input. . . ."2 Linder's rejoinder has proven itself valid, as more recent studies confirm the stabilization of the workweek at about forty hours. Nevertheless, for most Americans the introduction and continued development of vacations with pay, paid holidays, and sick leave have meant an increasing number of hours spent outside the workplace. In 1956 the average worker had twenty such days a year 3 Marion Clawson, a contributor to the study Leisure in America: Blessing or Curse? has projected that by the year 2000, paid time off the job will be almost five times what it was in 1950 4 This prediction is already a reality for some factory workers with high seniority, who receive up to thirteen weeks off with pay.

Perhaps even more significant than the increase in fringe benefits is the changing time span of people's working lives and the ratio of working to non-working years during the life cycle. Whereas the typical worker at the turn of the century began his life task early in his youth and died while employed or soon after retiring, the worker of today begins his or her vocation later in the life cycle, after an extended period of education, and retires earlier, with the prospect of many active years still ahead. Thus, according to a Congressional report made in 1973 entitled Work in America, "in 1900, two-thirds of American men who were 65 years of age and older were working. By 1971, the figure had dropped to one-fourth, with a smaller proportion on a year-round, fulltime basis."5 These statistics take on even more significance when combined with the following two. Whereas in 1900 America had only 3 million people over sixty-five years of age, in 1980 the figure had risen to 25.5 million people, nine percent of the entire population. Moreover, whereas in 1900 the average life expectancy was 47.3 years, in 1978 it had risen dramatically to 73.3 years.

As time off from the job increases, so, it seems, does participation in various forms of recreation. In fact, leisure-time activities have become the nation's leading industry as measured by people's spending. Whereas in 1965 roughly 58 billion dollars was spent on leisure pursuits, that figure had grown to an estimated 244 billion dollars in 1981, 77 billion more than was spent on national defense. This was an increase of 321 percent in just sixteen years, an increase that far outdistanced inflation's gains. Leisure accounts for one of every eight dollars spent by the American consumer, and even increased inflation and tightening monetary conditions have changed the pattern little. When people cut back, vacations are usually the last budget item to go. During the recessionary period of 1979, for example, sales of sporting goods increased from $8 billion to $8.6 billion. Attendance at sporting events rose 45 percent-to 314 million people-between 1966 and 1976. Forty percent of all Americans are involved in some craft; fifty percent are amateur gardeners. Participatory sports are booming: swimming (105 million), bicycling (70 million), and camping (60 million) lead the way, but jogging is up from insignificant participation in 1973 to over 36 million runners today; 28 million more play softball. More passive leisure activities are increasingly popular. too: American sales of home electronic equipment totaled 25 billion dollars in 1981. Americans are spending more time and money on nonwork activities than any other people. And the boom shows no sign of slackening.

New opportunities for recreation, as well as for travel, education, and entertainment, have become available chiefly because of the continued increase in the average American's purchasing power. From 1950 to 1979 the actual purchasing power of the average American family rose by 97 percent. Using a constant dollar pegged to the 1979 inflation level, one notes a steady rise in consumer purchasing power as the median family income increased from $10,008 in 1950, to $13,774 in 1960, to $18,444 in 1970, and to $19,684 in 1979. It is true that the average annual percentage increase in family income since 1970 (0.8%) has not kept pace with the growth of that income in the 60's (3.0% yearly). Nevertheless, Americans have more to spend than ever before, a fact that has encouraged a wide range of leisure pursuits.

Observers of work and leisure in American life often note that in conjunction with the increase in purchasing power, paid holidays, leisure time, and recreational activity, and with the shorter workweek, there has also been for many an unfortunate decrease in the meaningfulness of work itself. Many people are turning to leisure activity in an attempt to overcome the anonymity and routine associated with their jobs. Millions perceive work as too supervised, too compartmentalized, or too insecure. For them it is just a job that involves marking time. The Congressional study Work in America concluded:

And significant numbers of American workers are dissatisfied with the quality of their working lives. Dull, repetitive, seemingly meaningless tasks, offering little challenge or autonomy, are causing discontent among workers at all occupational levels...

Many workers at all occupational, levels .feel locked-in, .their mobility blocked, the opportunity to grow lacking in their jobs, challenge missing from their tasks 6


Apparently many people view work as merely a means to an end. It is a way of acquiring purchasing power, but it is not, as it was for many in previous generations, the center of one's intimate human relationships nor the primary source of one's feelings of enjoyment, happiness, and worth. When one reads Studs Terkel's book, Working, a series of interviews with more than 100 workers published in 1974, one gets the impression that most people keep working for lack of alternatives, not because they get much fulfillment from their jobs. As Terkel himself writes,

For many, there is a discontent. The blue-collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan. "I'm a machine," says the spot-welder. "I'm caged," says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. "I'm a mule," says the steelworker. "A monkey can do what I do," says the receptionist. "I'm less than a farm implement," says the migrant worker. "1'm an object," says the high-fashion model?7

As one worker explained it to Terkel, " `Most of us ... have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.' "8

"The auto industry is the locus classicus of dissatisfying work," according to the Congressional study cited above; "the assembly-line, its quintessential embodiment. But what is striking is the extent to which the dissatisfaction of the assembly-line and blue-collar worker is mirrored in white-collar and even managerial positions."9 Rather than developing the person, modern-day employment has often turned the worker into a mere functionary. In 1971 Joseph Dumazedier studied the industrial worker in American society. His conclusion: "The majority of workers and employees (blue collar and white collar) in American society do not sense fulfillment of their personality in their work (sixty-two percent of the blue collars and sixty-one percent of white collars). "10 His findings are in line with those of Richard Pfeffer, whose book, Working for Capitati$m, paints a bleak picture indeed. Ffeffer writes:

If work in America is as destructive as it is portrayed in this book, and if the quality of work in any society is indicative of the true nature of that society, then life in America in some substantive sense must be destructive, like work in America. . . . The undeniable and generally accepted truth concerning work in the United States today, is that, on the whole, it is extremely confining, dehumanized, and meaningless for those who perform it."

How Leisurely Is Our Leisure Time?

In truth, for millions of Americans -hard-working Americans -leisure has come to mean little more than an ever more furious orgy of consumption. Whatever energies are left after working are spent in pursuing pleasure with the help of an endless array of goods and services. This is "virtuous materialism" par excellence. It offers men the choice of either working themselves to death or consuming themselves to death -or both.
Gordon Dahl12

One can catalogue fairly easily, as I have done, such things as the shorter workweek, the earlier retirement age, the increase in vacation time and paid holidays, the greater consumer buying power, and the lack of fulfillment in work. These factors make seemingly impressive evidence that American society is moving from a work orientation toward a leisure orientation. But before any conclusions are drawn, several qualifications should be noted, because complications arise in the otherwise straightforward trend toward increased "play" in America. Any negative evidence has often been ignored by advocates of leisure, who have reported only half the story. We heard for years that the rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, with their traditional six-hour day, were in the vanguard of a more general movement toward reduced working hours. What was often not mentioned was that almost sixty percent of these six-hour-a-day workers took either another full-time or a second part-time job. Extra work (or was it just extra money?) was more important to them than increased free time.

The first major qualification of the apparent "leisure revolution" is the difficulty in defining the word leisure itself. The issue is complex. What is leisure? How is it related to play? Does it imply idleness or passivity? The questions can go on and on. And in the next chapter we will in fact deal in some detail with the problem of defining terms. But at this juncture two preliminary distinctions are necessary. Francis R. Duffy defines leisure time as "that part of a person's daily life which is not devoted to or absorbed by economic activities. In simple terms it means a period during which one is free from labor."13 But such a definition needs further qualification. Leisure is not just time free from one's vocation but time free from all non-job duties. In this light, eating, sleeping, and shaving are not usually leisure activities, though they can become that (you can eat or shave in a leisurely fashion if you like).

Secondly, leisure is not the inevitable result of spare time or a vacation. As Josef Pieper suggests, "It is, in the first place, are attitude of mind, a condition of the soul.... "'14 Marion Clawson notes this qualitative distinction regarding leisure by recognizing that within one's discretionary time (what we have called merely "leisure-time"), some activities are what might be labeled "unfun," i.e., "those undertaken out of boredom, or for escape, or because of lack of better opportunities."15 Other activities are undertaken positively and "in fun" because one wants and enjoys them. The term leisure (and the use of other related words yet to be defined, e.g., play, festivity, games, etc.) might best be limited to refer only to Clawson's "fun activities," with a more neutral term such as discretionary time being used to indicate those moments or hours free from subsistence activity.

A further qualification, one already alluded to, emerges from the above discussion. Because leisure involves one's attitude, leisure that is coerced or enforced is not really leisure at all. As Charles Brightbill observes in Education for Leisure-Centered Living, "Real leisure is never imposed.... It is the time we use to rest, reflect, meditate, or enjoy a creative or recreative experience."16 During the Depression in America, for example, the word leisure was not popular. It was too often equated with unemployment and implied frustrating hours to seek new employment, days to reflect on failed dreams, and time to worry over one's family and its future security. From this historical vantage point, we can perhaps understand Ralph Abernathy's observations:

It is a misnomer to think that poor people have leisure time. Their total existence is for survival.... While poor people do have their moments of escape from the reality of being poor, their escape pattern usually turns toward the continuous attempt to break out of the trap of despairing poverty.

There is no leisure time for poor people. It is difficult to have a leisurely existence when you are unemployed, when you see your children sick, when you live in rat-infested homes and when you see the administration taking careless attitudes toward your plight. Many poor escape this kind of existence for whatever solace can be found in the whiskey bottle and in hard drugs. But they know all of us know-that is not leisure. 17

To have leisure time, the larger concerns of life must be temporarily suspended. If issues of survival, or even of mortality, intrude, one's leisure experience is aborted.

Thirdly, any discussion of the increase in leisure time in America must note the counter-trend of women moving prominently into the paid work force. The traditional ethic of women staying in the home is crumbling. Despite continuing low pay and high concentrations of women in certain "feminine" occupations, many women are opting to work in the marketplace. As Daniel Yankelovich points out, "By the late seventies a majority of women (51 percent) were working outside the home. By 1980, more than two out of five mothers of children age six or younger worked for pay. In families earning more than $25,000 a year, the majority now depend on two incomes: the husband's and the wife's."18 Given the fact that these same women still dominate that major field of unpaid work-homemaking-and are most often perceived as primarily responsible for child-rearing, there exists an increasing number of Americans who have decided, whether because of economic necessity, personal goals, or a desire to break free of sexual stereotyping, to have less leisure time.19

Fourth, many have thought that discussion of leisure should center on what to do with our free time and how to make it meaningful. Staffan Linder takes an opposite tack, believing that the leisure problem can be understood by taking into account the fact that "the pace [of life] is quickening, and our lives in fact are becoming steadily more hectic." We have committed ourselves as a nation and as individuals to working for a still higher economic growth rate. In the process, we have forgotten that time is a "scarce commodity." As Linder says, "It is important to realize that consumption requires time just as production. Such pleasures as a cup of coffee or a good stage play are not in fact pleasurable unless we can devote time to enjoying them."20

Linder suggests that traditional pleasures, such as eating and contemplation and sex, will be given increasingly little time in the future as consumption time squeezes them out. Thus, although our age is characterized by its sexual orientation, Linder provocatively suggests that we are actually "devoting less and less time to it":

People have not stopped making love any more than they have stopped eating. But-to extend the surprisingly adequate parallel with the joys of gastronomy-less time is devoted to both preparation and savoring. As a result, we get an increasing amount of frozen nutrition at rapid sittings-the time, on occasion, being too short for any effort to be made at all at stilling the hunger. A pleasure has been turned into the satisfaction of a basic need -- "a grocer's orgy" - - a maintenance function -- a conjugal duty.21

Many Americans have joined "the harried leisure class" (this phrase is the title of Linder's book). In the process they have turned the possibility of leisure time into a problematic issue.

Fifth, the increasingly strong push toward "leisure" in America is largely the product of the needs of industrial life. Consumption is replacing production as the central organizing principle of the economy, and thus industry has found it necessary to create a larger and larger leisure market. Most men who retire, for example, do so not because they desire increased leisure time but because industry dictates it. A study of persons drawing Social Security benefits showed that only seventeen percent of those retiring in good health said they did so to enjoy leisure.22 Even before retirement, "leisure" is increasingly necessary to business. Business executives take up golf because it gives them good opportunities to pursue business relations. Large corporations promote all sorts of sports activities, musical groups, and theatre productions, not primarily because these provide opportunities for leisure but because of their cash value for the business. As the head of employee relations at General Motors said, "Many of these off-the-job or after-hours activities have not only a therapeutic value, but can actually sharpen or increase employees' skills."23 In other words, leisure-time pursuits are often encouraged for distinctly non-leisure ends. The frequent result is that participants lose the attitude necessary for true leisure.

A sixth and final qualification of the "leisure revolution" is this: what time Americans do spend away from their jobs is often best described as idleness. True, we cannot prove this observation strictly from what Americans do not do in their free time. But its validity was suggested as early as 1969, when a Gallup Poll revealed that 58 percent of all Americans had never finished reading a book other than a textbook or the Bible, and only 26 percent had read a book in the previous month .24 One reason for this near-illiteracy is America's addiction to television. The average American in 1981 watched over six hours of television a day. Moreover, in order to stimulate these idle viewers, programs have made sex and violence the staples of the television diet-along with instant replays to show us what we miss in our semi-stupor and Howard Cosell to titillate us with locker-room gossip. This inertia has some just cause, as Staffan Linder points out: "The mental energy and internal concentration required to cultivate the mind and spirit adequately are not easily mobilized after a hectic day. When one goes to a concert [or reads a book or even watches television] to relax after a busy day, the result can be a mild drowsiness-in itself pleasurable enough-rather than any spiritual uplift."25 The personal effort needed to play adequately, even as a spectator, is not easily made after a busy day or week.


Although the amount of discretionary time available to the average American continues to grow every year, Americans are having difficulty learning, as a society, how to play meaningfully. Some are clamoring for recognition in the marketplace, others are frenetically seeking out every new leisure fad. (Video arcades were a five-billion-dollar industry in 1981.) And when we can no longer jog, or we need to escape, the ever-present television set provides us hours of mindless companionship. What is wrong? Why is the increased time for leisure in contemporary America "a problem rather than a collective celebration"?26 Why is it that with the potential for play increasing, and the need for play present, our practice of play remains so questionable?

I agree with the growing number of critics who suggest that what is wrong is our continuing attitude as a people. We have yet to understand the value or significance of our play. Rather than viewing it as an opportunity, a cause for celebration, most of us consider our increased leisure a threat. As Lawrence Greenberger notes, ". . . mentally and emotionally we have not fully accepted our new leisure for what it is-an opportunity to do and enjoy, a chance to realize the full benefits to be derived from the leisure we now have and will have in even greater abundance. "27

The sources of our current unrest are certainly many, but if we oversimplify somewhat we can reduce them to two: (1) America's present inability to escape her compulsion about work, and (2) the continuing distorted value structure that has developed in our contemporary technopolis.28 These are the chief roadblocks confronting the individual (whether Christian or not) who would seek to play authentically. They also constitute the backdrop against which our further discussion of a theology of play must be viewed.

The Leisure Problem: A Matter of Attitude

I. "The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands"

1 regard the five-day week as an unworthy ideal ... more work and better work is a more inspiring and worthier motto than less work and more pay. ... It is better not to trifle or tamper with God's law

,John Edgerton President, National Association of Manufacturers (1926)29


For Mr. Edgerton, work was not a part of life but life itself. It was the way of progress and prosperity -- yea, of God himself! To a lesser degree, this has been the prevalent stance in America, and still is today. In his humorous but pointed book Confessions of a Workaholic, Wayne Oates has summarized much of our modern belief in these words: "The workaholic's way of life is considered in America to be at one and the same time (a) a religious virtue, (b) a form of patriotism, (c) the way to win friends and influence people, and (d) the way to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. "30 Hard work with sufficient time off for diversion and recreation has been and remains in America the basic formula for a meaningful life. There is some difference of opinion, however, about the basis for this belief. Some, taking their cue from Max Weber and R. H. Tawney, see our work ethic as stemming from our Puritan background."31 Others have found its basis in the pragmatic and competitive philosophy of secular America. Neither explanation excludes the other. In fact, it can be demonstrated that they are opposite sides of the same coin: both our Protestant and our competitive world-views support our continuing obsession with work.

The Puritan, or Protestant, work ethic has certainly played a prominent role in American life. Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and "The Village Blacksmith" by Longfellow are but two of countless indications of its pervasiveness. An even better example is John Wesley's "Money Sermon," in which he preached that one should earn a11 he can, save all he can, and give all he can. Ministers in Methodist churches across the nation echoed these words for generations. The glorification of work as a calling of God, the belief that success can be equated with meaningfulness in life, the universal prohibition against idleness, the drive toward activity, industry, frugality, and efficiency as religious ideals, the belief that poverty is a sign of sin, and the emphasis on self-discipline and individualism -- a11 became part of the American ethos. And while the religious foundations for such an orientation are crumbling, the ethical superstructure has remained. Thus Canadian journalist Pierre Berton argues in his book The Smug Minority that "a mystical belief in the value of work still has a firm hold upon the cultural unconscious of North American society, Work seems to be the one thoroughly acceptable way that a man can demonstrate his worth to himself and his peers ."32

Such an evaluation is today being challenged in some quarters, but industry, individualism, frugality, ambition.. and success are still considered primary virtues by the majority of Americans. (A case in point is Richard Nixon's Labor Day Message, September 6, 1971: "Let the detractors of America, the doubters of the American spirit, take note. America's competitive spirit, the work-ethic of this people, is alive and well on Labor Day, 1971. The dignity of work, the value of achievement, the morality of self-reliance-none of these is going out of style."33) Arnold Green has noted that the Protestant ethic can and will continue to wane in America without being accompanied by a weakening of the work effort, i.e., of the superstructure?34 It is this corpse -- the spiritless remains of the Protestant work ethic -- that largely explains the modern worker's attempt to overcome the lack of quality and meaning in his work by substituting increased quantities of work time. Even potentially non-work situations are given their raison d'etre by being brought under the work umbrella. Thus we justify our reading as "homework" and our exercise as "working out." Like the Puritans, most of us still consider work to be the criterion by which a life is judged successful or unsuccessful. As the Congressional study Work in America concludes: "Doing well or poorly, being a success or failure at work, is all too easily transformed into a measure of being a valuable or worthless human being. . . ."35 This is the work ethic.

Other critics have attempted to explain America's preoccupation with work as a reflection of her basic pragmatic, or utilitarian, outlook. In The Decline of Pleasure, Walter Kerr takes this tack. He criticizes those who say we are haunted by a Puritan mentality. We abandoned Puritanism long ago, he claims. We twentieth-century Americans work because it is useful for us to do so. By working we get more money, and thus more opportunities for pleasure and happiness. But this drive carries over: we feel that even those activities that provide no financial remuneration must be useful. Thus, Kerr says,

We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contacts, lunch for contracts, bowl for unity, drive for mileage, gamble for charity, go out for the evening for the greater glory of the municipality, and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house. ... In a contrary and perhaps rather cruel way the twentieth century has relieved us of labor without at the same time relieving us of the conviction that only labor is meaningful. 36

Eric Hoffer would argue that it is not utilitarianism so much as America's penchant for activity that lies behind her preoccupation with work. He says, "The superficiality of the American is the result of his hustling ... people in a hurry cannot think, cannot grow nor can they decay. They are preserved in a state of perpetual puerility. "37 According to Hoffer, we work in order to remain occupied. We cannot as a people endure life's pauses.

While both Kerr and Hoffer have recognized important aspects of America's national character, their insights seem to be helpful primarily in indicating two facets of a more basic drive that motivates the modern American. This primal force, I would submit, is America's commitment to a competitive spirit. We do :everything possible to "win," both as individuals and as a people. And the pursuit of success too often enslaves us. Competition is the reason behind much of our otherwise random activity and is the basic criterion by which we choose what is useful. If this thesis can be maintained, what we have is a secularized version of the Protestant ethic -- -one that glorifies success, preaches sacrifice in order to get ahead, understands work as a "calling," and emphasizes individualism.

David Potter has perhaps most forcefully argued that the competitive spirit has been the major determinant of America's national character. In his book People of Plenty, he analyzes the writings of Margaret Mead, David Riesman, and Karen Horney. All three have attempted to show within their own disciplines that uniformities of attitude and behavior in America do exist. Potter concludes:

Drawing these three interpretations together, then, we have three treatments which agree, or may be construed as agreeing, that the American character is in a large measure a group of responses to an unusually competitive situation. Competition may be factored out time and again as a common denominator. . . . 38

Potter would not necessarily agree with me that competition is but the secular version of the Protestant work ethic. He would posit economic abundance as the causal agent of competition. While not denying the impetus that abundance gives to the spirit of competition, I think it is more enlightening in this context to stress the similarity of focus in both the religious and the secular versions of America's national character. In both instances, work becomes a primary means of evaluating success and worthwhileness.

In his recent book, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down, Daniel Yankelovich documents an apparent shift by some Americans away from a work mentality: ". . . far fewer Americans now than in 1970 judge their own fulfillment in life by the standards of competitive success. "39 Some, that is, have abandoned their commitment to the traditional work ethic. A variety of reasons might be given to explain this shift, but the chief one, according to Yankelovich, is the fact that many people have achieved the work goals of previous generations and yet have not experienced the self-fulfillment they thought would follow. This has produced a growing suspicion among the young. After "almost thirty years of the greatest prosperity the world has ever known," after an extended period when hard work and sacrifice have paid off and when private goals have resonated with public virtues, there has been a shift inward, especially among the younger, better-educated members of the population. The old ethic of self-denial has been turned upside-down. "Creativity," rather than competition, has become the hallmark of their life-style. Yankelovich documents the fact that for seventeen percent of all Americans the search for self-fulfillment has become an obsession.

Do these people who follow a set of "new rules" qualify the claim that America remains obsessed with work? Are these more "creative" types the harbingers of a new age? Yes and no. Although a work mentality might, at first glance, seem to be missing among this growing counterculture, on closer inspection it proves to be alive and well, albeit in disguise. Yankelovich labels those who follow the new rules "strong formers." His conclusion is this:

Strong formers stand squarely in the mainstream of the traditional American pursuit of self-improvement. Only when it comes to the object of self-improvement do they veer sharply from tradition. In the past the purpose of self-improvement was to better oneself in the tangible, visible ways associated with worldly or familial success. But for these strong formers the object of their creative energies is ... themselves 40

The seeming shift away from a competitive work ethic has been in reality merely a turning toward a new work object. In the words of Christopher Lasch, "the culture of competitive individualism with its focus on external achievement has been replaced by The Culture of Narcissism with its focus on internal accomplishment." 41 Or, to use Yankelovich's words, what we observe is "a nonrebel in rebel's clothing. "42 Those in the growing counterculture remain work-oriented; now, however, their goal is their own self-fulfillment. Self-help endeavors abound among this group: 43 percent join encounter groups, 48 percent meditate, 57 percent analyze their dreams, 34 percent would like to belong to a literary discussion group, 50 percent prefer health food, 71 percent exercise, and 27 percent eat yogurt. All of these percentages are significantly above the national norm. In all of this, Yankelovich says,

the continuity with the past is inescapable. The classic American theme of self-improvement stands out prominently, as does faith in education, and an evangelical streak of earnestness that runs throughout the American saga.... What is new is the shift in the object of all this energy, a shift from the external to the inner world 43

Regardless of whether it is framed in its religious or its secular context, regardless of whether the object of one's energy is external or internal, America's understanding of her national character continues to place work at the forefront. All other aspects of life tend to be formed and defined by their relationship to work. Here is the key to understanding leisure (play) in much of contemporary American life. Leisure is not viewed as an independent occurrence, or ever. a complementary activity. Rather, it is placed under the tyranny of a work mentality. It is indeed a tyranny, for viewing leisure with a basic work orientation results in an unfortunate diminishment of the leisure experience.

In American society, leisure has been reduced to what Walter Kerr calls an "incidental delight":

We are in the market-and a very limited market it is-for lazy delight, for incidental delight, for delight that need be only half attended to, for the fruits of the imagination made easy and unobtrusive. We insist that our pleasures be unobtrusive because we have no intention whatever of withdrawing our attention from our proper goals, from the profits to be taken from respectable employment. We do not mean to work for a while and then play for a while. We mean to work all of the time and let play come to us in passing, like a sandwich that is brought to the desk.

Thus television scripts must be written so that if the viewer is distracted by the need to answer the doorbell or perform some other chore, he will be able to pick up the plot of the program without difficulty on his return. Soap operas are perhaps the epitome of this phenomenon; viewers need to watch the serial only every other day or so to know all that transpires. Similarly, novels must be written so that they may be easily picked up or put down. They become the "small pleasures" we allow ourselves in our free time. Even Monday-night football becomes mere packaged entertainment, the drama of the game being submerged in a welter of personal interviews, sociological commentary, and mindless banter.

At worst such leisure becomes a great emptiness -a time void of any meaningful activity. At best it serves to fill in the blank spaces of a life of permanent busyness by providing sporadic excitations and diversions. But that which should be an extension of personal freedom becomes for most a mechanized response, one that escapes idleness but that has been so routinized by mass conformity to current moods and fads that its personal expressiveness has been lost.

It is my conviction that America's continued belief in a work-dominated value system has obscured her vision of life's possibilities. It has made it impossible for her to accept creatively the increased opportunity for leisure (play) which a growing amount of discretionary time provides. A little leisure time is quite acceptable, and the vice of idleness is not really even a "major sin" 4 kept in manageable (dare I say workable?) proportions. But too much free time without the opportunity for work is a threat to one's being. I am reminded here of the comment of a high-school football coach from Durham, North Carolina; when interviewed by a newspaper reporter, he compared his impending retirement with an automobile accident: "You always think of an accident happening to someone else but not to you."45 To this coach, the prospect of an increase in discretionary time was an unattractive one-one to be avoided if at all possible. The problem facing American society is this: it is increasingly difficult to avoid the "accident" of free time that cannot be justified within an individual's work-oriented world. Could it be that what is needed is an alternate attitude toward life, a different pattern of meaning by which to view the world, a new master image for human beings, a new theological orientation, one that would allow work its rightful place while at the same time finding intrinsic value in leisure and play?

2. Our Current Dis-ease: "Men Without Chests"

"The trouble of the modern age," writes TS. Eliot in On Poetry and Poets, "is not ... the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed. " Indeed, some of our assumptions are just as preposterous and superstitious, just as irrational and absurd. But the trouble is "the inability to feel towards God and man as they did. "
- -Gabriel Vahanian46

1'd rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.
-e. e. cummings 47

There is, in addition to our "workaholism," a second major factor contributing to the problem of leisure. If sociologists have tended to center on the foregoing argument and to single out work as the basis of their assessment of our present inability to play authentically, theologians and philosophers have tended to :focus upon a second area: America's distorted value structure that has accepted as true the "mindscape" of technology 48 This is Theodore Roszak's phrase, and his discussion can perhaps serve as a helpful starting point.

Roszak, in his book Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society, argues that the mindscape" by which our culture has been shaped over the past three centuries is a false and limited one. Having developed alongside modern science, this attitude toward the world cannot be equated merely with what people "objectively" know or say they believe. "What matters is something deeper: the feel of the world around us, the sense of reality, the taste that spontaneously discriminates between knowledge and fantasy."49 Although most of our society, at the popular level, is scientifically illiterate, we have accepted a scientific world-view as our paradigm. We have come to believe with Buckminster Fuller that it is upon inventing the machine that "man ... began for the first time to really employ his intellect in the most important way."50

Roszak believes the ideal of scientific objectivity has created a narrowing of our sensibilities, a diminished mode of consciousness. It is a "single vision" (the phrase is borrowed from William Blake) that can measure only a portion of what one can know. As Roszak states:

Yet my contention is that the universe of single vision, the orthodox consciousness in which most of us reside most of the time and especially when we are being most "wide awake" and "realistic," is very cramped quarters, by no means various and spacious enough to let us grow to full human size.

That we have narrowed sensibilities can be illustrated in many ways, suggests Roszak. We repress our dreams; it requires painfully bright lights to hurt our eyes and startlingly loud sounds to pierce our ears (one need only recall the light-and-sound shows of rock performers); and most of us take up exclusive residence in our heads, repressing our bodies. (I am reminded of a young woman I observed who, when asked by Sam Keen to draw a picture of herself, drew only her head and a pair of stick legs.) All of these are indicators of our personal alienation-our common disease. "Taken together," Roszak says, "they describe the major contours of the psychic wasteland we carry within us as we make our way through the `real' world of the artificial environment." Roszak recalls how Augustine described idolatry: " `Mankind tyrannized over by the work of his own hands.' "51

Roszak does not want to deny that science has any value. He only wants to challenge science's claim of providing "our only reliable access to reality," and to keep "first things first," i.e., to put the human first. For Roszak, a "culture based on [such] single vision is dehumanizing." Life has been robotized. "The well-focused eye may see sharply what it sees, but it studies a lesser reality than the enraptured gaze."52 The task of science is to increase what is known -- to accumulate facts, refine its methods of observation, and render its body of theory ever more abstract. Its intent is neither to deepen the personality of the knower nor to enhance the charm, autonomy, dignity, and mystery of the known. As Kathleen Raine puts it, our culture's dominant mindscape would have us "see in the pearl nothing but a disease of the oyster."53

Roszak is hardly a lone voice crying in the wilderness. He is one of a chorus of critics whose expertise ranges across the academic disciplines-philosophers, geologists, drama critics, literary men and women, students of law and of history, theologians, and so on. It is impossible to survey adequately this multi-disciplinary reaction to our "single-visioned" mindscape, but perhaps I can capture its spirit and breadth in what follows.

Gabriel Marcel, the French "neo-Socratic" philosopher, has said, "The dynamic element in my philosophy, taken as a whole, can be seen as an obstinate and untiring battle against the spirit of abstraction."54 Like Roszak, Marcel is not opposed to all abstraction, which is, after all, basic to thought and consistent action. Rather, he dwells on the adverse effects of the spirit of abstraction-that imperialistic fascination which betrays the :concrete reality itself. In his book Being and Having, Marcel uses a series of polarities to delineate two basic modes of relating to the world: being and having; participation and objectification; mystery and problem; presence and object; I-Thou relationships and I-It relationships; thought which stands in the presence of, and thought which proceeds by interrogation; concrete thinking and abstraction; secondary reflection and primary reflection.55 Marcel recognizes that both modes of relating to the world are necessary, but he feels the contemporary person is increasingly becoming a slave to the possessive orientation. Because of this our human spirit is in danger-it suffers "disease."

Martin Heidegger's view is similar to that of Marcel on this point. He believes that our penchant in the West for "calculative thinking" has caused us to miss Being. We cannot approach the world as a project to be tackled but only in the spirit of what Heidegger calls Gelassenheit (surrender, acquiescence). Only then will the voice of Being be heard. James M. Houston, an Oxford geologist for twenty years and a lay theologian, in an article entitled "The Loss and Recovery of the Personal," also questions "the all sufficiency of the technologist's empiricism and the intellectual posture of scientism." He believes "to avert the theory-centered and egocentric predicament of man, we must turn from the definition of man, `I think, therefore I am,' to the action-oriented stance, `I respond, therefore I am.' "56 Echoing Jacques Ellul, he says,

[Our society is] completely orientated toward technique as the instrument of performance, of power, of man's worship……. So.far.has this worship, or what .we .may call ."teehnolatry,".gone that there is a deep conviction that technical problems are the only serious problems of society, so that public opinion, the social structure and the state are all oriented towards technology. In consequence, man no longer has any means by which to subjugate technique to himself; rather he is demeaned so that man is subservient to technology. Man tends no longer to be a person; rather he is appraised by the techniques he represents in his training, as a scientist, philosopher, artist, mechanic, or typist.57

Those who study the arts register similar evaluations of our modern mindscape. Walter Kerr, a drama critic who speaks out of a direct interest in the play experience, bemoans the fact that when children today are given a choice between a road map and Robinson Crusoe, they will often choose the road map. The contemporary child, he feels, is a "factgatherer." "He does not long for greener, gayer hills. He is happy that his view of the universe is less `distorted' than mine was, and is; happy that he knows more about the moon and pterodactyls than I do."58 Literary critic Walter Ong makes a similar complaint: "It is no accident that the most strenuous corporate technological effort which man has ever made coincides in fact with the activity which earlier man often jokingly imagined to be the most playful ... shooting the moon."59

One can multiply such witnesses to our present situation. At this point it is perhaps necessary only to note that such criticism of modern America's mistaken value structure has not escaped her theologians. Thus Frederick Herzog in his Liberation Theology states categorically, "Our image of man must go" (italics his).60 He thinks that our present image, which is a fusion of the Puritan and the Cartesian, needs to be confronted by Jesus, who offers every person a new self. We need, says Herzog, to turn from the private, modern self to the corporate self.

Harvey Cox, the theological popularizer and prophet who wrote The Secular City in 1965 in celebration of the new freedom given to us by secularization and urbanization, has since that time shifted his emphasis to deploring the threat of technological imperialism.61 He believes that technology and its artifacts currently "release emotions incommensurate with their mere utility," i.e., they "arouse hopes and fears only indirectly -related to their use." In short, technologies are becoming religious symbols and are in the process of destroying the cultural and anthropological balance between energy and form, spirit and structure. Religion must seek to restore the balance, Cox believes, by being partisan toward the playful. "We have contracted the cultural and religious equivalent of leukemia. In leukemia, the balance between white and red blood cells is lost. The white cells first outnumber, then begin to cannibalize the red ones. In time the victim invariably dies."62

Much of current scholarship renders the same diagnosis our contemporary "dis-ease." The inroad into the discussion is very often dependent upon the academic discipline in which the critic has expertise, but the overall shape of the argument is similar across disciplines. There is, first of a11, a recognition of the overweening influence and authority of scientism and its outward manifestation, technocracy. The contemporary Western -person has falsely valued objectivity, refusing to recognize that it is in reality what Rubem Alves calls the logic of "the dinosaur." threatening the ongoing vitality of life.63

Secondly, as Wesley Kort summarizes, our present conceptual system "is a system based on the ruthless exclusion of the personal, a systematic skepticism which renders the `I' an eye measuring mathematically the relations to one another of phenomena in the objective world. "64 Such depersonalism necessarily carries with it a denial of the person's full humanness. As Harvey Cox states:

The tight, bureaucratic and industrial society-the only model we've known since the industrial revolution-renders us incapable of experiencing the nonrational dimensions of existence. The absurd, the inspiring, the uncanny, the awesome, the terrifying, the ecstatic -- none of these fits into a production- and efficiency-oriented society.65


Self-enclosed in a tiny, windowless universe, the individual mistakenly assumes his creation to be the only possible one. The result is, in C. S. Lewis"s phrase, "the abolition of man."66

Thirdly, recognizing our grave situation, many critics of American society have nevertheless realized that there is no going back. Although technological thinking must be challenged, a romantic escape to a pre-industrial age will not do. Not everyone has avoided this trap; theologians of play seem particularly susceptible to it, as we will observe in Chapter Four. It is nonetheless helpful to assert here the importance of avoiding both an a-historicism that would fail to take our contemporary context seriously and a truncated anthropology that would escape one danger to our humanness (a denial of the spontaneous, the individual, the free) by fleeing to another (a denial of order, community, destiny).

Lastly, while recognizing the need to take our present context seriously, we must also realize, as Rubem Alves does, that we need "a fresh start."67 Our basic attitude toward life-our master image by which we have attempted to integrate life's various facets, our stance toward reality, our metaphor of contemporary meaning, our paradigm by which to view the world, our world view, or mindscape (one can pick the expression that best suits his or her interests and/or academic discipline, for these terms are all roughly equivalent) -is in need of reworking. As Alves has declared, we need "a new paradigm for understanding the conditions of human life. In the beautiful phrase of Paul Lehmann, our problem is to find out `what it takes to make and to keep human life human in the world.' "68

It is this goal that has led most of the critics mentioned here to explore the possible relevance and importance of play as an antidote for our technological dis-ease. They have asked what there is of human value in play-"play" both as the experience itself and as a possible master image for making and keeping human life human. Thus Herzog and Heidegger both believe we must become poets; Alves sees the creative imagination as the key to our rebirth; and Roszak argues romantically for the visionary and rhapsodic.

Whether we look at the dislocation of our leisure caused by continuing compulsion about work, or whether we focus upon i .the loss of the fully personal to the imperialism of a single-visioned mindscape, we are led to entertain the possibilities that human life is larger than currently conceived, and that the experience and concept of play might provide the contemporary person with a way into these larger realities. As a Christian church, we are being addressed on these issues by our surrounding culture. Our concept of the image of "man" is being challenged Moreover, we are being told that play is a possible way out of our cultural and spiritual malaise. This book is directed to the question, How can we understand this new impulse theologically? What can we as a Christian church learn from these cultural prophets? And what, if anything, can Christian theology. from its own unique position, offer in return?




1. Joseph Zeisel, "The Workweek in American Industry, 1850-1956," in Mass Leisure, ed. Eric Larrabee and Rolf Meyersohn (Glencoe, III.: Free Press, 1958), pp 145-153. It is interesting to note that when Thomas More published his Utopia in 1516, his "radical" vision called for a nine-hour workday and a sixty-hour workweek.

2. Staffan Burenstam Linder, The Harried Leisure Class (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. 136.

3. Zeisel, "The Workweek in American Industry, 1850-1956," p. 151.

4. Marion Clawson, "How Much Leisure, Now and in the Future?", in Leisure in America: Blessing or Curse?, ed. James C. Charlesworth, Monograph 4 (Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1964), p. 13.

5. U.S. Cong., Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, Work in America, report of a special task force to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, 93rd Cong., lst sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1973), p. 54.

6. Ibid., pp. x-xi.

7. Studs Terkel, Working (New York: Random House, Pantheon Books, 1974), pp. xi-xxiv.

8. Ibid., p, xxiv.

9. U.S. Cong., Work in America, p. 31.

10. Joseph Dumazedier, "Leisure and Post-Industrial Societies," in Technology, Human Values and Leisure, ed. Max Kaplan and Philip Bosserman (New York: Abingdon Press, 1971), pp. 194-195.

11. Richard M. Pfeffer, Working for Capitali$m (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p. 2. Cf. pp. 232-236.

12. Gordon J. Dahl, "Time and Leisure Today," The Christian Century, February 10, 1971, p. 187.

13. Francis R. Duffy, "Looking at a Leisure-Time Society," Leisure Living, Duquesne Community College Lecture Series I (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University, 1959), p. 46.

14. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Random House, Pantheon Books, 19(4), p. 27.

15. Clawson, "How Much Leisure?", p. 16.

16. Charles K. Brightbill, Education for Leisure-Centered Living (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1966), pp. 15-16.

17. Ralph Abernathy, "Leisure Time for the Poor," Spectrum, 48 (January/ February 1972), I1-12, 14.

18. Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (New York: Random House, 1981 ), p. xv.

19. Cf. Betty Friedan, The Second Stage (New York: Summit Books, 1981).

20. Linder, The Harried Leisure Class, pp. 2-3.

21. Ibid., p. 88.

22. Lyle Schaller, The Impact of the Future (New York: Abingdon Press, 1969), pp. 84-85.

23. Quoted in Russell Lyrics, "Time on Our Hands," in Mass Leisure, p. 347.

24. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Implications of Leisure," in Technology, Human Values and Leisure, p. 77.

25. Linder, The Harried Leisure Class, p. 101.

26. Max Kaplan, "The Relevancy of Leisure," in Technology, Human Values and Leisure, p. 22.

27. Lawrence F. Greenberger, "The Impact of More Leisure in a Capitalistic Economy," Leisure Living, p. 12.

28. Cf. M. Douglas Meeks, Introd., Fest: The Transformation of Everyday, by Gerhard Martin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. xi.

29. John Edgerton, quoted in Harvey Swados, "Less Work-Less Leisure," in Mass Leisure, p. 354.

30. Wayne Oates, Confessions of a Workaholic (New York: World, 1971).

31. Although R. H. Tawney in his book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Magnolia, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978) is somewhat critical of the methodology and implications of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978), Tawney does agree with Weber that the Calvinist-Puritan ethic gave impetus and sanction (sanctification?) to economic endeavors (p. 12).

32. Pierre Berton, The Smug Minority (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968), reported in William A. Sadler, Jr., "Creative Existence: Play as a Pathway to Personal Freedom and Community," Humanitas, 5 (Spring 1969), 58.

33. Richard M. Nixon, Labor Day Message, September 6, 1971, quoted in Gordon Dahl, Work, Play, and Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), p. 50.

34. Arnold W. Green, Recreation, Leisure, and Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 171.

35. U.S. Cong., Work in America, p. 4.

36. Walter Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962),pp . 39-40, 48.

37. Eric Hoffer, quoted in Brightbill, Education for Leisure-Centered Living, p. 164.

38. David M. Potter, People of Plenty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1954), p. 60.

39. Yankelovich, New Rules, p. xvi

40. Ibid., p. $1.

41. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979).

42. Yankelovich, New Rules, p. 63.

43. Ibid., p. 81

44. Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure, p. 136.

45. Quoted by Richard Soles, "I'm Still Not Used to It," Durham (N.C.) Morning Herald, November 5, 1972, p. 4C.

46. Gabriel Vahanian, Wait Without Idols (New York: George Braziller, 1964), p. 42.

47. e.e. cummings, quoted in Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), p. xiii.

48. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. xix.

49. Ibid.

50. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1969), p. 91, quoted in Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 13.

51. Raszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, pp. 70, 71, 91, 125.

52. Ibid., pp. 232, 159, 381, 175, 233.

53. Kathleen Raine, quoted in Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. 242.

54. Gabriel Marcel, Men Against Humanity (London: Harvill Press, 1952), p. 1; also published as Man Against Mass Society (Chicago: Henry Tegnery, 1962), quoted in Sam Keen, Gabriel Marcel, Makers of Contemporary Theology Series, ed. D. E. Nineham and E. H. Robertson (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1967), p. 13.

55. Cf. Keen, Gabriel Marcel,, p. 14.

56. James M. Houston, "The Loss and Recovery of the Personal," in Quest for Reality: Christianity and the Counter Culture, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Downers Grove, Ill.: lnterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 27.

57. Ibid., pp. 23-24. Ellul is incisive in his criticism of contemporary society. However, as Harvey Cox points out, his writings are incomplete because he fails to suggest a way out of man's social dilemma. Ellul wants us to disassociate ourselves from both "technique" and the "City" rather than seek to transform them. Ellu1 sees the present situation as hopeless. In this regard, he is at odds with those who see play (however broadly defined) as a possible means of cultural renewal and regeneration. Cf. Harvey Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People's Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 69-78.

58. Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure, pp. 23-24

59. Walter J. Ong, Pref., Man at Play, by Hugo Rahner (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967), p. xiii.

60. Frederick Herzog, Liberation Theology: Liberation in the Light of the Fourth Gospel (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), p. 137.

61. In an article in 1970 which appeared in Psychology Today, Cox was asked how he reconciled what he said in The Secular City (1965) with what he later wrote in The Feast of Fools (1969). Cox responded: "So Feast is not a recantation of Secular City; it's an extension, a recognition that the changes we need are much more fundamental than I thought five years ago, and that the method for achieving them must be more drastic. Man actually took charge of his own history back in the 19th Century. In City I was trying to help us face that fact -- defatalization -- on the conscious level and work out the consequences. In Feast the point is that we can't handle the burden of making history if we are ourselves buried in it, unaware of the timeless dimension that we touch only in fantasy and festivity." From "Religion in the Age of Aquarius: A Conversation with Harvey Cox and T. George Harris," Psychology Today, April 1970, p. 62.

62. Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit, pp. 300, 282, 17, 11.

63. Rubem Alves, Tomorrow's Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 1.

64. Wesley A. Kort, Shriven Selves: Religious Problems in Recent American Fiction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 10.

65. Cox, "Religion in the Age of Aquarius," p. 47.

66. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York; Macmillan, 1965).

67. Alves, Tomorrow's Child, p. 64. 68. Ibid., p. 72.

68. Ibid., p. 72.

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