Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The way we play is a mirror of our values

I don’t think Christians have done very well in the realm of ‘play’. We have very poor theologies of art, entertainment, leisure, and representation. A reformation inheritance has tended to downplay the importance of ‘play’ in life, and so relegated it entirely to the realm of childhood, which has meant it’s not a topic for serious discourse, and it’s something we want children to give up and grow out of.

However play is very important. Ask some developmentalist-types and they’ll tell you that. But what I want to ponder today is how play is important to social development and social normalisation. My hunch is this: the way we play, or what we play, is often an idealisation of cultural values. Now, I’m not trying to draw a very straight line, as if every act of play is of deep significance, that cruelty to animals or violent video games are automatic producers of serial killers. Read a few research papers and those links are tenuous at best. No, rather the imaginative worlds people regularly inhabit, have a formative effect on their values.

This is why I’m opposed as a Christian to violent games on the whole. Actually, I think a distinction needs to be made between representations of violence and simulations of violence. It is simulations of violence that I’m opposed to. Not because I think simulating violence produces violent people, but because simulating violence helps build up a mindset in which violence is normalised and legitimised.

If the Christian vision of the world is one of the ingathering of the nations into the church, the body of Christ which consists of a new humanity not riven by ethnic and national divisions, why would I want to uphold and honour the professional soldiery of nation-states, whose basic allegiance is to defend the sovereignty of nations by means of killing others, when the whole gospel is subversive of nations by declaring them and us both equal and in solidarity in Christ? If the pattern of Christ is submission even unto death, why would we model our play on self-assertion to the point of death?

The core of the Christian gospel is that Christ came to die to accomplish our redemption and reconciliation, so that the pattern of his life has become the pattern of Christian life. Conflict, within the NT, such as it is, is never about force of arms. Not from Christians. So why would we inculcate the values of a foreign belief system about violence, in our leisure and play, especially for our children?


Nathan said...

Thanks for your thoughts here Seumas.
Did you catch this post I wrote on play (and Al Bain's essay on Biblical play that it links to).

I wonder how and where we draw the line on violence - is it a question of how the art treats the violence (whether it's incidental or condemned or essential to the narrative).

How does one read Judges (which seems to be written to be entertaining), or can you enjoy the Lord of the Rings? Is it ok to kill zombies in computer games but not people?

Also, thought you might enjoy this post about a Modern Warfare player who is determined not to kill anybody.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Nathan.
I do recall reading your post, but I will revisit it as well as Al's essay.

Incidental/condemned/essential are, I suspect, some good diagnostic questions. Legitimisation and normalisation are others I would include.

I'm sceptical of attempts to over-sanitise our world for children too. Much of human history and life is ugly and full of sin, I suspect to some extent we actually shouldn't shield children to this, but grow them into a mature understanding of sin.

As to your specific questions:
Judges is wittily entertaining, but it doesn't glorify violence per se. It deals with something already normative in the ANE, and depicts the ironic, satirical victories of a faithful God over the upstart follies of idols and idol-worshippers.

LotR is interesting. It's, at its heart, not a tale of redemptive violence as such, but self-sacrifice. It gets away with things that our modern context squirms at: orcs are evil and to be killed outright. I think this imaginative context and the world that Tolkein develops make LotR excellent. A separate question might be asked about the film adapatations.

Computer games are another aspect to consider. I personally think they are less problematic than embodied-games of violence. There is more of a disconnect. It also depends upon the nature of the virtual world created in which the story of violence occurs. No problems with killing virtual zombies.

Nathan said...

A friend up here is toying with putting together a theology of sport - and I think there's a nice overlap between discussions on play, on sport, and on violence.

Sport also seems to have a bit of the overlap I tried to capture in my Venn diagrams.

I think your "hunch" here is another interesting string to the bow.