Theology of Play

Most of Christianity that I've come into contact with has a well developed theology of work; sometimes called the Protestant Work Ethic, it is summarized in the verse, "Whatever you do, do it heartily, as if unto the Lord." (Col. 3:23). A mature Christian is characterized by hard work, and I do not wish to detract from that, but there is a counterpart to theology of work: theology of play.
Jonathan Hayward | 08 November 2011

Most of Christianity that I’ve come into contact with has a well developed theology of work; sometimes called the Protestant Work Ethic, it is summarized in the verse, “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as if unto the Lord.” (Col. 3:23). A mature Christian is characterized by hard work, and I do not wish to detract from that, but there is a counterpart to theology of work: theology of play.

It would probably be easier to defend a point of doctrine involving great self sacrifice – that a Christian should be so loyal to Christ that the prospect of being tortured and killed for this devotion is regarded as an honor, that a Christian should be willing to serve in boring and humiliating ways, that a Christian should resist temptation that takes the form of an apparent opportunity for great pleasure – but I will still state and explain this point: a Christian should be joyful, and furthermore that this joy should express itself in play and celebration.

When Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, the first word he uses is love. Love will certainly apply itself by hard work. He goes on to describe it as patience, faithfulness, self-control. Patience, faithfulness, and self-control all have important application to hard work. But the second word is joy. If the fruit of the Spirit will yield hard work, it will also yield expressions of joy.

C.S. Lewis said that the greatest thing that the Psalms did for him was express the joy that made David dance. Doctrinal development is one of the reasons that God gave us the Bible‍, but it is not the sole reason. I would not by any means suggest that omitting Paul’s epistles would improve the Bible‍, but there is a lot of the Bible‍ that I read for the sheer joy and beauty as much as anything else. Psalm 148, one of my favorite, beautifully embellishes the word, “Halleluyah!” That alone is reason sufficient to merit its placement in the Bible. When the Psalms tell us that we should sing unto Yahweh, it is not telling us of a dreadful and terrible duty that we must endure because God says so. By contrast, it is encouraging an expression of joy. I try to show myself to the world primarily as a person of love, but I have also had a strong witness among the unbelievers as a person of joy; one of the stereotypes of a Christian that I have been glad to shatter is that of a repressed and repressive person. The stereotype says that a person who tries to live by the Bible‍’s moral standards will have a somber life devoid of joy; I thus try to let the deep and inner joy “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me…” that the Holy Spirit has placed in my heart show itself to them. Satan likes to take and twist pleasure into enticement for his evils; that does not make pleasure an evil thing. Yahweh made pleasure – the idea that Satan could imagine such a thing on his own is risible (for Satan cannot create; he can only mock) – and pleasure is intended for Christians to partake.

Celebration is something that can certainly come from things going well, but it is not a grave evil that is justified only by exceptional cause; it is a way of life. Some of celebration, some expressions of joy and thanksgiving, are in response to an event we are pleased at and thankful for, and rightly so, but celebration is not something to be reserved for rare occasions. I may be celebrating an event, but Christ is reason well sufficient for celebration; consequently, it is appropriate to celebrate, even when you can’t point to an exceptional event. There is a time to mourn, but a Christian does not need extenuating circumstances as reason to celebrate.

King David Dancing Before the Lord

I am not going to attempt to provide an exhaustive list of expressions of joy, and most definitely do not wish to provide commands which must be successively fulfilled to the letter and verified in triplicate, but I think that a few suggested variants of “stop and smell the roses” are in order:

Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

Read a children’s book.

When it’s warm, take off your shoes, close your eyes, and feel the grass under your feet.

Stop and remember five things you are glad for; thank God for them.

Drink a mug of hot cocoa. Slowly.

Go go a local art museum.

Hug a friend.

Climb a tree.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself somewhere else.

Sneak up behind a friend who is ticklish…

In addition to these that I’ve pulled off the top of my head, I’d like to look at three recurring, decidedly Biblical expressions of joy, and how many Christians have reacted to them.

Singing. The Christian understanding of music is summed up in the words, “Make a joyful noise unto Yahweh.” While it can also be solemn, music was created as a beautiful expression of joy. When Paul encourages the believers to sing to one another, he is not really appealing to a sense of duty, but rather encouraging a celebratory and joyful pleasure in this good gift of God. The jail warden was astounded to find that Paul was happily singing when he was imprisoned; this joy expressed itself in so powerful of a manner that it opened the warden’s ears so that he, too, would gain this welling up of life, flowing into joy. Most Christians sing (even if some of the music has room for improvement); this is good. believe that Yahweh is pleased when he listens. This is Biblical.

Dance. One of the expressions of celebration recorded in the Bible‍, as well as song, is dance.

In Exodus, after Israel passed through the red sea and Egypt didn’t, Moses’s song is followed after a couple of verses with the words, “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after with tambourines and with dancing.” In Samuel, it is asked, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands?'”, and recorded, “David danced before Yahweh with all his might.” The psalms jubilantly sing, “Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.” and “Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!” In Ecclesiastes, dancing is identified with joy: “…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” Jeremiah issues words of comfort, saying, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of merrymakers.” In Lamentation he also identifies dancing with joy, saying, “The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.”

It is not without reason that dance is a part of the worship services of Messianic Jews. It is not without reason that a song that has come to us from Africa states, “If the Spirit of the Lord moves in my soul, like David the victor I dance.” The shaker hymn very beautifully states, “Dance, then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.” Throughout, the hymn describes the walk of faith as a dance. Dancing is a good thing, an act of joy, that has been given to us by Yahweh himself for our good.

There are a few forms of dance that are essentially sex with clothes in the way, and should be avoided outside of a marital context. Because of the existence of these dances, some Christians have attacked dance as demonic; “Dance before Yahweh” necessitates an interpretation of “Dance alone before Yahweh.”

This is silly. Celebration is meant to be enjoyed in community; its nature is not a selfish “I like this and I’m going to keep it all to myself,” but a generous, “This is so good that I have to share it with you as well.” This is the mark of a child fully enjoying a lollipop. When holidays and other times of celebration come, people want to be with friends and family, and it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that this is the whole reason that believers come together for worship services.

Dance, also, should be enjoyed in community.

Proper use of wine.. In Judges, the vine refuses an offer to be the king over all trees, saying, “Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?” The Psalms likewise describe material blessings by saying, “You cause grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.”, and Ecclesiastes, “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life…” The Song of Songs, in its description of the erotic, says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine… How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! how much better is your love than wine…”, comparisons that would mean little if wine were not understood to be a good thing. Isaiah accuses Israel of apostasy in the words, “Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water.” He Israel to a vineyard created so its master may enjoy its wine; elsewhere appear the words, “On this mountain Yahweh Sabaoth will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Jeremiah contains Psalmlike words of celebration: “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of Yahweh, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” Hosea, in sadness at apostasy, makes it clear that wine is a gift from above: “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal.”

Mosaic of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Photo © Dick Osseman.

Going from the Old Testament to the New, it is seen that Jesus was accused of being a drunkard; for his first miracle, he turned water to wine, thus permitting a celebration to continue.

Now, it should be mentioned that alcohol is something that merits an appropriate respect and caution; consumed in excess, it is a deadly poison. It has been said that we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them. Our culture has largely cast aside the virtue of moderation and the belief that a sin could be sin because it takes a good thing to excess (gluttony is not mentioned as a sin very often, and a great many people would be healthier to lose some weight). Not everybody thought this way. The ancient Greeks accorded moderation a place as one of the four cardinal virtues, and Paul named temperance and self-control as the final of the virtues listed as the fruit of the Spirit. Liquor, like most good things, should be consumed in a temperate, controlled, and balanced manner. And, like most good things, it becomes a bane if it is taken out of proper context. It was not without reason that Solomon wrote that wine is a mocker and beer a brawler. This country has age related laws pertaining to alcohol, and they should not be violated Granted that those laws be obeyed, it would be wise to consider to the advice to Jesus ben Sirach, who in his writing said, “Do not try to prove your strength by wine drinking, for wine has destroyed many. As the furnace tests the work of the smith, so wine tests hearts when the insolent quarrel. Wine is very life to human beings if taken in moderation. What is life to one who is without wine? It has been created to make people happy. Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.” Elsewhere comparing wine to music, he regards wine as a good part of celebration.

There are many things that should be made manifest in the life of Christians; community, freedom, and celebration are important. Paul writes in Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”, in Colossians, “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink…. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?”, and in I Timothy, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.”

So let us enjoy the gifts that God has bestowed.

(scripture quotations generally NRSV)

Source and copyright: Jonathan Hayward

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