Several recent theologians have written on the “theology of play,” where play can roughly be defined as “participating in an activity for its own enjoyment without concern of success or failure.” Play is having fun, but more than that, it is participating in the side of life that many moderns think of as “time wasting.”
I am learning to be a language teacher everyday I am at work, because, well, I am a language teacher. I have learned that a hospitable environment is absolutely essential for adequate language acquisition, but also I have learned that play is necessary for the language student to flourish. Hospitality often leads to play because hospitality is giving someone space to be themselves not what you want them to be,. Most people who are not putting up a protective front will engage in play. When protective fronts are down, what applied linguists (especially those who follow Krashen‘s input hypothesis) call the “affective filter,” the learner will begin to pick up the target language.
This is anecdotally proven on my school’s campus when English Language Learners pick up the vocabulary, syntax, and intonation of their American friends long before they will ever speak academic English. They enjoy being able to communicate in the fashionable way with their American friends, so their affective filter is turned off! School language tends to be much more work than play, and language learners are always very aware of evaluation, so the filter is up. Therefore, it is important for language teachers, who truly care about the language acquisition of their students, to create an environment where evaluation is secondary to play.
This leads me to wonder about how play should affect the Christian life. Hauerwas says something like (paraphrase here) “a preacher’s job is very similar to a high school French teacher’s job. They both attempt to teach people with little language experience how to speak.” How do we talk about God? How do we pray? What do we call our religious experiences? It is the preacher (and in the Anglican tradition, the prayer book) who helps us to acquire and understand that language.
Therefore, I think churches need to incorporate places where:
-People are free to dialogue without judgment. All things theological or secular, serious or irreverent are welcome. It needs to be a place where people are not trying to have a competition over intelligence or wit, but an exchange of ideas.
-People are free to flourish and play by participating in, and enjoying music, film, fine art, etc.
-Games are encouraged, both traditional sports and inventive games.
-People share a common table without prejudice.
If such places exist in the church, or in the Christian home, then Christian language will thrive. People will begin to acquire much more the language of how to talk about God and how to talk to God. If a hospitable environment is created, then play will occur naturally, and so will language acquisition.