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Playing the Kingdom of God

July 5, 2010

Last week, I wrote a post on Buren’s Columns, and I said that this installation of striped pillars in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal has something to add to the way that Christians think about and practice church.  Now it is time to make some connections.

I said that Buren’s Columns delineates and defines the space in the Palais-Royal courtyard; it brings this space to the viewer’s awareness and it helps us to orient our bodies within that space.  Then I observed that this space is transformed and brought to life by the many people playing in it.  In a similar way, I want to describe church as a space in which Christians play.

Allow me to (briefly) deflect a knee-jerk reaction to the combination of church and play.  By play, I do not mean an absence of seriousness.  Indeed, as I observed about Buren’s columns, none of the solemnity of the sculpture was sacrificed by the play.  Play can be a very serious affair: ask any 3 year old or any world cup soccer fan.

Now, in order to see how “attending church” can be described as play, we need to be a little clearer about the nature of the space that we call church.  First, like Buren’s columns, church occupies a space that is shaped by works of art (think music, albs, collects, images, drama, architecture, etc.), which aid us in our worshipful activity.  These works of art delineate and bring to our awareness the space of church, which is the anticipation of the fulfillment of all space: the coming of the kingdom of God.  Second, and this is harder to see with Buren’s columns, church occupies a time that is shaped by ritual, if by ritual one means an intentional regularity and rhythm of action.  People generally go to church on the same time and day each week, and our worship often takes on a kind of pattern that we come to expect.  Ritual delineates and brings to our awareness the time of church, which is the anticipation of the fulfillment of all time: the coming of the time when we will dwell with the One who was, and is, and is to come, world without end.

So, here is my proposal: the art and ritual of church defines the particular space and time of church, and play actualizes this time and space.  In other words, the play of the worshipers brings the time and space of church to life. So what is play?  Here is a definition that Emily (my wife) suggested, and I think it works quite well: play is the work of the imagination seeking understanding.  Play involves our imaginative participation: church only comes to life when its worshipers jump into the time and space of church and start playing the kingdom of God.  Perhaps the connection between church and play appears closer when we consider that costumes, singing songs, and acting out stories are features that church and children’s games of make-believe hold in common.

The principle that unites play, art and ritual is something that Ellen Dissanayake, in her book Homo Aestheticus, calls “making special.”  Art and ritual serve to make special (to set apart, frame, define, and lift up) the space and time of church.  Art and ritual raise church to a higher level of human significance: they are our way of saying, “hey, something special is going on here!”  And play is a second “making special.”  Unlike art and ritual, which establish the space and time of church, play is the Christian’s active “jumping into” this time and space that brings it to life.  Ultimately, the playing of the kingdom of God is characterized by the following of Christ, who is the first player: the one who jumped into our time and space to show us the kingdom of God.  In our play, in our churches, we use our imaginations (as Jesus did) to anticipate the coming of the kingdom of God when we shall play forevermore in the presence of the one who shows us how to play.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 2:12 pm

    I love these reflections, Jim, especially since the idea of playing the kingdom of God resonates with seeing the Christian life as participating in a divine drama in which we are “players.” Also, I love the idea of play as imagination seeking understanding!

    I was a little confused, however, because you use the word “church” to designate both an activity and a space. Therefore, you talk about playing church and practicing church while at the same time being in a church. Did you mean for this word to carry both meanings, or are you primarily identifying church as a space? And if church is a space that is brought to life by play, does that mean that church is dead without the playful act of worship?

    Thanks again for the post.

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