The Theology of Play


I start this post with a caveat, I have come to this understanding of the theology of play through my own discussions with learned people and thorough research, not through any formal theological training.


Let’s get started then! 


Playing is a vital tool for learning that as adults we often lose touch with. When we were children our primary means of learning about the world came about through play.  The first thing a child will do when meeting you is see if you are open to playing with them, my 13 month old waves at anything she doesn’t recognise in order to see if it or they will wave back, and if they do then she’ll try and play peek-a-boo with them to get them playing and to figure out if they are friendly. If they are satisfactory in their game of peekaboo then she will see them as friends for life, and start smiling, chattering and trying to share food – which usually means trying to steal theirs.  


This is because in playing together we can learn so much about one another.  I have often noticed that whilst playing games together people will often start talking about themselves more and their experiences, and asking you about yours.  Then they will actually listen to what you have to say and think about it carefully before responding.  It isn’t just general politeness; it is a genuine wish to get to know their fellow player better. Di Gammage writes in her book Playful Awakening:


If we are able to play, we bring a lightness and softening that allows for a loosening around how we perceive ourselves, others and out own thinking.  Play allows us to open up and question concepts, beliefs and assumptions that we perhaps were not even aware we held, offering us opportunities to deepen our understanding of ourselves, others and the world we share together. (1)


Play drops the barriers we have to protect ourselves because we instantly feel more comfortable around those we are playing with.  This has been documented in all kinds of situations.  In his TED Talk Dr Stuart Brown (2) talks about how play is so important for healthy development and that as humans we have a high level of neoteny which is the keeping of juvenile features into adulthood.  Through play we quite literally become as a child again, and by doing so we become more empowered and more invigorated in all aspects of our life.


It is important though to remember that being child like is very different from being childish. Childish things are often immature and utilise simple reasoning to understand things.  Being child like however is more about approaching things as a child would – seeing the world with wonder and allowing ourselves to trust one another.  The two should not be conflated with one another.  CS Lewis had strong words for those who said his love of fantasy and fairytale was childish:


To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But the on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. (3)


This leads nicely into Scripture.  In the Bible it is suggested we should put childish things behind us (1 Corinthians 13:11). We are also told very clearly by Jesus that it’s only through approaching Him like a child that we can gain entrance to God’s Kingdom (Mark 10:15).  We need to have a faith which is not immature and easily shaken when things come up that can shake it, but a faith that is child like, trusting in the Holy Trinity to guide and protect us.  In his book This Way to Ministry Duffy Robbins has a great chart to give some examples of childish faith versus child like faith (4):

This really helped me to understand the difference between being childish and being child like. Childish means you think you have all the answers, everything is black and white and that’s that. Child-like means you know the rules, but they can mean all sorts of different things in different contexts.
Not only that but you become more aware of the world around you. In his book Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yaconelli focuses intently on recapturing a child like approach in your faith. He talks about how children seem to feel God’s presence far easier than we as adults do. He says

When we reclaim our childlike-ness we stumble upon the presence of God – and we are amazed to find the place all children know about: the place where we once again can hear the whisper of Jesus. (5)

By recapturing our child like approach to the world and reopening our mind to that sense of wonder through play we can reconnect with Jesus. It’s immensely powerful, but that’s not all he goes on later in the book to link this thought into play.

Play is an expression of God’s presence in the world; one clear sign of God’s absence in society is the absence of playfulness and laughter. Play is not an escape; it is the way to release the life-smothering grip of busyness, stress and anxiety. (Playfulness is a modern expression of hope, a celebration of the flickering light of the gospel that plays with the dark by pouncing on the surrounding darkness like a cat toying with a mouse.)… (6)
…God does play with our souls. He hides and He seeks and His laughter heals our hearts. When God plays with us before we know it, we are playing; playing with our neighbours, our church members and even our families. (7)


Not only does play allow us to be child like it also allows us to meet with God, our playful creator God. I know deep down that my Father God is playful; I only need look in the natural world to see it. Particularly at the platypus, to me that embodies God’s playful nature right there! (8)

Our God is our creator, he made us in his image and that means we also yearn to create. When playing games you are creating new stories and allowing your imagination to run wild. You aren’t necessarily creating something groundbreaking, but for you and your friends you are creating a shared experience you will be able to tell stories about at a later date. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories’ (9) has an interesting point of view on this which is far too long to write out here, so here is CS Lewis’ abridged version of what he said:

the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator’; not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life’ but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. (3)

Substitute fairy story for table top game and it still makes sense. In fact it probably explains why so many games have a fantastical setting to them. It is that wish to be a subcreator being fulfilled and therefore bringing us joy.


Leonard Sweet in The Well-Played Life second’s this view with

The universe is not God at work. But God at play. There is no creation without play. Play is oxygen for the imagination, which sparks creativity, which ignites innovation, which combusts in paradigm shifts. All human creation is recreation. God did not create us to work at life, but to play and find joy in living. When Jesus sais “I have come that you might have life,” he didn’t then spend his time on Earth showing us how to work harder to attain life by our own means; he showed us how much God wants to walk with us in the Garden…and how playing in our relationships, both divine and human, can make life “joy unspeakable and full of glory”. (10)

We were created to be beings of play, not to be stuck hard at work all the time. There’s a reason work can often be seen as ‘soul destroying’. It isn’t fulfilling our need to be like our creator, our playful God. God created us to walk alongside Him in the Garden of Eden, to be those whom He could play with. We messed it up, but it doesn’t mean that He doesn’t want us to play. He wants us to be His children and to freely play as children do, to explore ourselves and Him with child-like awe, wonder and glee.


This concept is supported in Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Play:

Like the creation, man’s games are an expression of freedom and not of caprice, for playing relates to the joy of the creator with his creation and the pleasure of the player with his game. Like creation, games combine sincerity and mirth, suspense and relaxation. The player is wholly absorbed in his game and takes it seriously, yet at the same time he transcends himself and his game, for it is after all only a game. So he is realizing his freedom without losing it. He steps outside of himself without selling himself. The symbol of the world as God’s free creation out of his pleasure corresponds to the symbol of man as the child of God. (11)

By playing games we experience the joy that God intended for us all along, able to recognise the freedom that God intended for us and realising what it means to be child like in experience and faith.


Play is massively important for us all. It returns us to that child-like state where we are more open to asking questions, to being open to new ideas, concepts and innovations. To being closer to our playful creator God. As Christians we can recognise this, and see the importance of playing together, doing so is effectively worship! Hopefully you can already begin to see why it is so important for us to include those who are not Christians within our play as well.


In the above quote from Tolkien he talks about the power of fairy stories. Stories in general are massively powerful because it is how we process the world. Daniel Strange in his book ‘Plugged In’ is deeply aware of the importance of story to him

…the unit our minds and hearts operate in is stories…These stories are all the experiences, feelings, imagination and ideas that we communicate from one human being to another. (12)

His whole book is about how to connect our faith with the culture we find ourselves in and his definition of culture is

Culture is the stories we tell that express meaning about the world. (13)

People listen to stories, people engage with stories in a deep and meaningful level. There is a reason Jesus didn’t just read pre-existing scripture and instead used parables – it was all to connect people’s every day cultural stories, those of farms, weddings, feasts, fishing… to the greater story – the story of God’s amazing grace, and ultimately our salvation through Jesus’ impending sacrifice upon the cross. If we return to Leonard Sweet’s The Well-Played Life we can see what it is Jesus tells us through this:

Jesus also tells us to look for specific signs of our times. He calls us to exegete the images and metaphors of our culture, to pay attention to what God is doing in people’s lives, and to deconstruct the scenarios in which we live, move, have our being and engage without mission.

He then goes on to show how Paul demonstrated this:

[Paul] immersed himself in the field, or grid, of the people to whom he was sent. He learned their language, plied their trades alongside them, studied their culture and their customs, and got a sense of their economic-political milieu. Paul approached people where they were, not where he wished they would be…He did not plop the gospel story from on high, like a prefabricated box. He walked the grid until the gospel came to consciousness in the context of the culture. (14)

This is what we are called to do. To walk the grid, to be a part of the culture and speak into it, bringing the gospel with us as we do so. In this case the culture is tabletop gaming. All you need to do to be part of the culture is be willing to play the games with people. You don’t have to be good at them. You don’t have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of them. All you need to do is enjoy playing them with other people, and be willing to talk about yourself and your own faith journey when questioned.


Gamers and geeks are wonderful people, though often they feel like outcasts. It may sound like I’m generalising there and I am a little bit, but from personal experience and from the experiences of those I know, it’s very close to the truth. There is a lot of stigma towards people who willingly call themselves geeks or nerds still in the mainstream world – often times the enjoyment of playing games is derided as lazy childishness (though now you can retort and explain how it is being actively child-like, and ask what child-like things they engage in to maintain closeness to God). There is also an awful lot of ‘gatekeeping’ in the hobby – where people deride you as ‘not a real geek or nerd’ unless you know the intricacies of a certain fandom, its particularly bad for women and minorities. So there can be a strong sense of isolation and loneliness. The feeling of being a cultural outcast.


In Stephen Weese’s ‘God Loves The Freaks’ the foreword by David Dellman says:

Time and time again in the Book of Acts, and indeed throughout history, when the church is willing to reach out to and embrace those of difference, the church grows and the people are filled with God’s love and with His Spirit. (15)

This is followed up by Stephen himself a bit further in:

What if churches began to think about talking to the freaks, the outcasts of society? Mostly these people’s experience with church and believers is one of rejection or condemnation. They don’t feel welcome. In fact, it has been my experience that when someone in that culture finds out I am a Christian they immediately get defensive. They expect Christians to judge them. What if, for once, a Christian didn’t pay attention to their weirdness, but just treated them like a person? Talked to them about what they like, about where they are in life? (16)

We should be actively trying to reach out to those who are different, those who are outcasts and showing them that they are filled with God’s love and His Spirit, as we are blessed to know ourselves. Reaching out in play works even better. Rev. Andy Gray said:

when we play together or tell our stories to one another, we create a liminal safe space in which personal truths, opinions and even faith, can be shared safely without fear of causing offence or being offended (17)

This calls back to the beginning of this post with play lowering barriers. When we come together in play we are creating a safe space for people to open up about themselves and listen to others. They are able to become part of a loving community.


Ultimately this is what people want, they are looking for communities to be a part of, which accept them for who they are. We know that God loves the real us, the parts of us we try to hide away as He knows us inside and out. God sent His only Son Jesus to be part of the world, to reach out to us and save us from our sins, He became part of our human community, He brought people together, especially the outcasts. Derek W. White The Geekpreacher says in his YouTube video on the A Theology of Tabletop Games

God entered into this world and God was embodied, and embodiment is important to us, we like to experience the world, we like to touch things, to move things about….Table top gaming is a way of being embodied and being around other people.


This incarnational, even sacramental element of being at table is where we learn to play, learn to talk, learn to be with one another. So as an embodied people this is important…people feel depersonalised in our internet world…people want to…be part of a community (18)

Let’s reach out and provide that opportunity through the medium of playing games, to help people rediscover their joy, community and hope, and recapture together our child-like nature in which we can begin to see God anew.

Bibliography

  1. Gammage, Di. Playful Awakening, Releasing the gift of play in your life. London : Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017. p. 26.
  2. Brown, Dr Stuart. Stuart Brown Says Play is more than fun it’s vital. TED Talks. [Online] 2008. [Cited: August 14, 2019.] https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.
  3. Lewis, CS. On Three Ways of Writing for Children. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. London : Geoffrey Bles, 1975.
  4. Robbins, Duffy. This Way To Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2004. p. 450.
  5. Yaconelli, Mike. Dangerous Wonder, The Adventure of Childlike Faith. Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2003. p. 17.
  6. —. Dangerous Wonder, The Adventure of Childlike Faith. Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2003. p. 79.
  7. —. Dangerous Wonder, The Adventure of Childlike Faith. Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2003. p. 84.
  8. Misa, Yuki Alm. Photopin. [Online] http://www.flickr.com/photos/25501326@N02/46831423904.
  9. Tokien, J.R.R. On Fairy-Stories. London : HarperCollins, 2008.
  10. Sweet, Leonard. The Well-Played Life. Carol Stream, IL : Tynedale House Publishers, 2014. pp. 6-7.
  11. Moltmann, Jürgen, et al. Theology of Play. New York : Harper & Row, 1972. p. 18.
  12. Strange, Daniel. Plugged In. Unspecified : The Good Book Company, 2019. p. 12.
  13. —. Plugged In. Unspecified : The Good Book Company, 2019. p. 23.
  14. Sweet, Leonard. The Well-Played Life. Carol Stream, IL : Tyndale House Publishers, 2014. p. 213.
  15. Weese, Stephen and Dellman, David. God Loves The Freaks. Unspecified : Lulu Press, 2006.
  16. Weese, Stephen. God Loves The Freaks. Unspecified : Lulu Press, 2006. p. 28.
  17. Gray, Andy. Facebook. [Online] 2019. https://www.facebook.com/Revandygray/posts/10157751701357018.
  18. White, Derek W (The Geekpreacher). A Theology Of Table Top Games. YouTube. [Online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bqh36RSUO84&fbclid=.

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