Episode 37

A Theology of Play Retreat

Your Hosts

About this Episode


  • Held at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs, next to Garden of Gods
  • 5 days and 4 nights
  • Sponsored by Office of Congregational Excellence of the Missouri Annual Conference of United Methodist Church
  • About 33 participants - mostly clergy, but some lay persons as well
  • The fourth of a series of spiritual formation retreats known as “Soul Connections” - this one was on the theme of “Enchantment”
  • Stayed in a lodge, ate meals in the castle, hiked through surrounding hills and mountains
  • Asked me to lead three 2-hour sessions on “Theology of Play”

Day 1 - Introduction to Play

  • Bernard Suits’ definition of game – “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”
  • Talked about my own journey into gaming
  • Research into gaming
    • Games and play are essentially the same thing
    • Play has been an essential part of the human condition (including adults) since the beginning of history
    • Theologians interested in play too! Play as salvation
  • Played “Just One”
    • Reflect on how games help us be present to each other, gives us sense of agency
    • Play as grace
  • Parker Palmer - Play as sign of calling - asked folks to reflect

Day 2 - Barriers to Play

  • Told them Monopoly history
  • If play is so good for us, why are we resistant to it?
  • Told story of Bernard Suits' The Grasshopper except for the ending - including haunting dream
  • Historical roots of barriers to play
    • Reformation, Age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution
    • “Earning” salvation was replaced with “proving” salvation
    • Being productive was sign of virtue; being unproductive was sign of immorality
    • “Morality of achievement” - Moltmann
    • Turns human into cogs in machines
    • “Pushback on idea of play as work which we want to do. Someone shared story of “workaholic” who said “my work is my play.”
  • Played Wits & Wagers - reflection
  • Reflection on Genesis 3:1-6 - Adam & Eve & serpent
    • Sin was thinking we didn’t need God or anyone else. We could prove our worth through our achievement.
    • The greatest barrier to play is “practical atheism” - the belief that we can’t rely on God, not really. We have to prove our worth and value by achieving and producing.
  • Ending of the Grasshopper - everything is unnecessary from a utopian point of view (or cosmic scale), so all is play

Day 3 - Toward a Playful Life

  • 2 tools to help us move toward a playful life:
  • Sabbath - Looked at the book The Sabbath by Joshua Abraham Heschel
    • Sabbath hallows time like temples hallow space
    • Just as a Sabbath is the end unto itself (not to “recharge”), so too is play. It is not in service to work.
  • Jane McGonigal - Reality is Broken
    • The opposite of work is not play, it is despair, hopelessness.
    • Work is about having agency.
    • So work is just play we want to do.
    • So how can we make work more into something we want to do - gamification of life!
  • How will world view us if we move toward a playful life? 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
    • Holy Fool Tradition
  • Filling out “Character Creation Sheet” - make your own Holy Fool Self (Mandi Hutchinson)

General Reflections

  1. Made me wonder whether it would be helpful to lay out 3 terms, not just 2:
    1. Play - voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles
    2. Work - obligatory attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles
    3. Rest - refraining from both of the above
  2. More barriers to play for women than men
  3. Character sheets - some were reluctant. Maybe pass out the day before to get people time to work on it.
  4. Wits & Wagers didn’t quite work as well as I hoped. Would replace next time with the Mind.
  5. What seemed to resonate with people:
    1. Suits’ definition of games
    2. Ending of Grasshopper - everything is unnecessary
    3. Play as calling

WE WANT TO DO THIS MORE! If you would like Kevin or Daniel or both to teach about the theology of play on your context, or serve as a resource in any other way, please let us know!