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Web Feature Posted November 20, 2012

At Play in the Scriptures: Revealing a Theology of Play

By Jeffrey Overstreet (

Adam and EveAdam & Eve in the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter [Austrian Painter, 1745-1829]

In the Autumn 2012 issue of Response, readers are introduced to Leif Hansen '94, who has made it his mission to help people find more fulfilling lives and fruitful work through the exercise of play. Play, he explains, can lead us back to our core passions. Supporting his observations, several SPU instructors share how play is integral to their own work.

But this raises questions for Christians. Is play part of a godly life?

Jeff Keuss, professor of Christian ministry, theology, and culture at SPU, believes that the Scriptures make it clear — humankind is called to live “playfully.”

It begins, like so many things, in the Book of Genesis.

The Scriptures, says Keuss, show us that God is pleased by play. “In the creation account in Genesis, part of God's lamentation for man is that man is alone. The word for 'loneliness' being used there has a sense of isolation (ironically the word in Hebrew is transliterated 'bad' – no connection to the English word 'bad' but certainly resonates with the meaning of loneliness). We can't have creativity in the world without someone to share it with.”

But isn't creativity about work? God made men and women for more serious purposes than “play,” didn't he?

Keuss says, “In the Calvinist reading of 'work,' there's a sense of dour seriousness. But if you look at the Hebrew at the naming activity that humanity is given to do, it has a spark of imagination to it and is transformative.”

Consider, Keuss says, the word bara that is translated “created” in Genesis 1:27 (“So God created/bara humankind in his image”) “This,” he explains, “is a word that not only calls us out of the dust and into life, but is also the source of our capacity to change and become transformed after sin. In Psalm 51 where David laments his sin and seeks redemption, it is his claim of bara that he recalls and gives him hope: 'Create/bara in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.'” (Psalm 51:10)

Keuss argues that when we lose our ability to create, we also lose sight of the truth of our creativity, which is the fact that we are created by a creative God. “Losing this occurs in part when we cease to find joy in our creativity,” he says, “and this loss means that in times of sin and brokenness we also don't remember that we can be remade again. In a sense, finding joy and fun in creativity is how find our path to redemption. We are supposed to have fun and be creative.”

He points to the example of Adam and Eve. “When the man and the women in the garden are given the task of naming, they are given a spiritual discipline of sorts – to be joyful in creating so that they too can be constantly renewed and remade. In this way naming is a divine activity, and naming is supposed to beget joy. C.S. Lewis says that 'The serious business of heaven is joy.'”

But it is Jesus, says Keuss, in whom we see most clearly the theological significance of play. “Jesus' parables are incredibly funny,” he says, “They're ironic. There's a playful use of language and rhyme schemes.”

He points also to the incident of the woman caught in adultery. When she is surrounded by the mob, Jesus steps in and does something amazing. He interrupts the chaos by writing something mysterious in the sand. “He breaks people's expectations by doing something creative in their midst. He essentially says to the mob, 'You're being so legalistic here that you're totally missing the point.' … That's what play can do. It creates an interruption that allows us to get back to what is most essential. It causes us to forget ourselves.”

We can also find Jesus' spirit of play in the language of the Sermon on the Mount. “We can read the Sermon on the Mount as serious ethical pronouncements,” says Keuss. “But in Luke 6, the way Jesus interprets those teachings — 'Blessed are they who are this, and this, and this…' — he is going against their expectations. His use of the word 'blessing' (makarios) has ties to the word 'charis' from which we get gift, joy and surprise. And the pronouncements of 'Woe to them' are directed at those are so fixed on wealth and accomplishment that they can't actually live their lives. If you want to think about playfulness as articulating a life worth living, the Sermon on the Mount is a playful engagement.”

“In the Jerome Berryman's revision of Christian education based on the Montessori tradition,” he adds, “we have something called 'godly play' in many churches focused on teaching children the wonder of the Gospel through acting out stories and asking them 'I wonder' questions that spark their imagination.”