When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
—C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”
What does Lewis mean when he rebukes the fear of childishness? Is there really something wonderful in the childlike state that should remain as we mature, but that people seem to hide from because they want to look “grown up?” Unfortunately there is.
Lewis is tapping into a lost and crucial element of the human experience and Christian culture care—Play. This ever-present, but little discussed activity, along with its associated character trait of playfulness, is foundational to the human experience. In this article, we don’t have the space to dive into the sociological and philosophical principles behind play. Instead, let’s initiate a conversation about this topic by discussing two points of the Christian experience that would benefit from future investigations into play.
What is Play?
First let’s establish what I mean by “play.” By its very nature, play is resistant to formal definition. Defining the word is like locking a cartoon character in a cage; eventually it’s going to force itself out of the confines and make you look silly. So we will have to settle with a working definition. Play is when someone opens herself up to re-engaging familiar experiences in order to create something new and fresh. Play engages the world in new and creative ways by refusing to settle for what simply is and embracing the potential of what the foundational rules of a context could create.
For example, wordplay is taking the established rules of language and bending them in order to have new experiences with the way humans communicate. Thus, playful activity offers us an opportunity to truly delight in life and the world, not only as it is—but as it could be.
With this working definition, let’s highlight two main avenues of life which would benefit greatly from a revived conversation about playfulness.
Play and the Creative Life
When we were kids, play enlivened every aspect of our lives. As we explored the wonders around us, had make-believe adventures in imaginary worlds and enjoyed silly nonsense games with our friends, we encountered the world anew, delighted in it and sought to understand it. However, as we grew up, we assumed that we ought to relegate play only to particular aspects of life, like games and parties, in order to be serious people.
Yet without play we are not capable of truly taking life seriously, at all. For the human experience was meant to be lived in a creative state. God created humans to take the world they lived in and guide it to greater expressions of creativity and beauty. The very foundation of culture care is found in recognizing that God calls humanity to dream about what the world could be, to see it with fresh eyes and to create something new.
Likewise, being playful means believing that the everyday parts of our lives have incredible potential to become something new and wonderful. Playfulness means seeing the potential in our everyday experiences like work, emotions and nature and imagining what they could become with a little applied creativity on our part. It is out of this creative vision that humanity re-shapes our world as co-creators with God. In fact, the very manner in which people create cultural expressions, such as art, is through some vision of playfulness. By training herself to see something familiar as if for the first time, the artist can draw wonder from the most mundane and commonplace of experiences. And this ability to draw wonder from the familiar is a vital part of culture care, for human creation simply involves taking the same old materials presented and rearranging them to make something new. So, if we are going to make disciples who are passionate and skillful at culture care, we have to make disciples who are free and equipped to be playful.
Play and the Moral Life
Morality is not a game, to be sure. Ethical questions are painfully real, and discussions such as murder, abortion and sexuality should never be made into games themselves. However, playfulness is where art and morality meet. Particularly, the narrative art forms such as literature are being playful with morality in the human experience by telling stories. Through these stories we can step out of our world and into a universal moral situation. By attempting to look at this situation in a playfully unique way, the artist forces us to distance ourselves from our everyday biases and presuppositions. We then can re-encounter the foundational moral laws and have a personal experience with them.
This is a great and wonderful gift that Christians can offer the world by guiding them to re-encounter morality at a foundational level in the world. And we can share this gift through the art we create. But we can only do so when we develop our mental muscles of playfulness in order to properly and compellingly interact with the sacred rules of reality.
I recognize I have not settled this discussion about play, but I have hopefully helped us think through something that has been painfully ignored as party of the discipleship process. Christian maturity is a great and wonderful thing, as men and women leave their childish ways and seeker greater heights of behavior. However, I don’t think that being a dull, humorless curmudgeon is a sign of maturity before a God who is wonderfully creative and joyful. We are in fact missing much of the full experience of maturity by holding back our playfulness. I wholeheartedly believe that to disciple the next generation towards a robust view of maturity will require digging deeper into developing women and men of play.
Brandon Terry is a part of the Center for Faith and Culture’s mentorship program. This year’s theme is faith and the arts.