Tuesday 29 June 2010

The Adult and Play

I wrote a post on 'Children's loss of play' a month ago and I continue to reflect upon my central thesis, could the failure of adults to understand the nature of play and its importance, be depriving children of play, and at the same time offering them models that might just shape their own use of time when they grow up?

In the last post I cited Kenneth R. Ginsburg's work that suggests play is critically for children and fulfils many needs:
  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
  • Play is important to healthy brain development.
  • Through play children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
  • Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
  • They can also conquer their fears while practising adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
  • As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
  • When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
  • Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.
But as well as being important for children, play is important for adults. I have been reading one of the few books on the topic that I mentioned at the end of the previous posts, 'The Christian at Play' by Robert K. Johnston.  While Johnston wrote this book nearly 30 years ago and the world of work and leisure have changed since he wrote it, much of what he has to say still has relevance.  He argues that play is part of life and hence should be part of our consideration of what it means (quoting Thomas Oden) "to live self-consistent and intelligible [lives] of faith in Christian community".

He has many interesting things to say.  As someone who has a spent a lot of time as a researcher observing children at play, I have become conscious that I know less about play as an adult and not much more about 'rest' with which it is clearly related. Johnston's definition of play has given me further pause for thought and further biblical study. Here's how he describes play:
I would understand play as that activity which is freely and spontaneously entered into, but which, once begun, has its own design, its own rules or order, which must be followed so that the play activity may continue. The player is called into play by a potential co-player and/or play object, and while at play, treats other players and/or "playthings" as personal, creating with them a community that can be characterized by "I-Thou" rather than "I-It" relationships. This play has a new time (a playtime) and a new space (a playground) which function as "parentheses" in the life and world of the player. The concerns of everyday life come to a temporary standstill in the mind of the player, and the boundaries of his or her world are redefined. Play, to be play, must be entered into without outside purpose; it cannot be connected with a material interest or ulterior motive, for then the boundaries of the playground and the limits of the playtime are violated. But though play is an end in itself, it can nevertheless have several consequences. Chief among these are the joy and release, the personal fulfillment, the remembering of our common humanity, and the presentiment of the sacred, which the player sometimes experiences in and through the activity. One's participation in the adventure of playing, even given the risk of injury or defeat, finds resolution at the end of the experience, and one re-enters ongoing life in a new spirit of thanksgiving and celebration. The player is a changed individual because of the playtime, his or her life having been enlarged beyond the workaday world (p. 34).
I'm challenged by his comments. Might play have a different human value to rest and leisure? Is it a distinctive part of the life of the adult as well as the child and how is my use of it to bring glory to God and help me to live well the life of faith?
We Protestants have always been suspicious of play and idleness, trusting instead in the worth of work and diligence in all that we do. But in the process we have often failed to understand the biblical sense of 'rest' and have been just as confused about 'work and its purposes. Play is an added complexity because it isn't the same as rest, but it may be pursued as part of rest. Understanding work, rest and play is made even more difficult because in the modern era the place of play and rest, relative to work, has become confused.  Johnston cites some of the following trends:
  • As the amount of leisure time has increased, for most people the meaningfulness of work has decreased.
  • Opportunities for leisure and play have increased for many, although there has been a reverse trend for many women with paid work adding to many of the previous responsibilities at home.
  • For many, work has become simply a means to an end; primarily, a way to increase purchasing power for life, with leisure increasing dramatically as an area of expenditure.
  • Free time does not necessarily mean rest, leisure or play for those who Staffan Lindner labelled "the harried leisure class" in 1970; those for whom consumption dominates non-working time.
  • What people do when they have time away from their jobs can often be simply idleness.
There is much that could be added to Johnston's list some 30 years later. For example, today I suspect that Christians, like people in general, have a tendency to binge on rest and play. This then becomes something that simply separates what for many is the inconvenient but dominant place of work, where money is earned to allow insatiable consumption in all parts of life. As I continue to explore this topic for myself, CASE will be producing Issue 24 of Case magazine that will focus on 'Work and Life'.  This should be out in September.

I will share more thoughts on this topic later in the year as I continue to read and reflect on the topic.

Monday 21 June 2010

The 'inappropriateness' of death

There is quite a fight going on in a sleepy little village where I once lived with my family for 13 years. The fight is over the location of a proposed crematorium in Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. The proposal is to modify an old car sales yard and buildings on a major highway, that has a motel and houses on two sides, some shops and restaurants and the local primary school a few hundred metres away. It seems a pretty silly place to put a crematorium, and there are obviously environmental issues with any crematorium, but one reason for the local opposition caught my attention.  The following extract from the Daily Telegraph is one of several references to the problem of children being confronted with death:
"Building it so close to schools was inappropriate and insensitive, Faulconbridge Public School P&C member Barbara van Kessel said. The kindergarten and play area face directly on to the school's purpose-built bus bay, which would be used for funeral processions under the plan."
While I don't like the location for the crematorium for many reasons, confronting children with the idea of death isn't one of them. In fact, I see it as important for children to learn about death as they grow up. No, I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to worry young toddlers about the prospect of death, but I certainly wouldn't want to hide this truth from them as opportunities come up to talk about it. It seems to me that seeing a hearse or driving past a crematorium might be just the right opportunity for children of school age to be able to discuss death with their parents.

There of course many ways for children to become aware of death. Religious celebrations offer one public place where death might be mentioned; Easter being an example, as we speak of Jesus' death and resurrection. We speak of death when we remember military battles, and children's books can address death in various ways (I wrote a post on this as part of my blog 'Literacy, Families & Learning' HERE). The death of a relative, the awareness of disasters around the world, overheard adult conversations or television reports are other sources of information on death.

Interestingly, in many other cultures children are not spared the sight of death in all its most grizzly forms. While I'm not wishing such confrontation on the children of Australia, it might well be that as more parents reject God and place their hope in this life that death becomes the ultimate inconvenient truth. But as a Christian I think I'd want to think a little more seriously about death, teaching my children what the Bible has to say about it and the fact that it teaches that death is the expectation of all living creatures, but that it is not the end for those who turn to Him and place their hope in Christ (Hebrews 10:22-24).   Perhaps as Gordon Cheng wrote in the 'The Briefing' a few years ago, we've gone a bit soft on things like death and hell (HERE).

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph

Friday 11 June 2010

Horror and the truth of God

From the CASE Vault - Justine Toh on Horror

CASE has lots of resources online, many of which are available via the side bar on this blog. I thought I might do a regular post that reminds readers of the resources that are available on our webisite.

In her short article for CASE Justine Toh reviews the 2006 version of the horror movie The Omen and reflects on the way Horror movies depict God, the devil and the supernatural. In short, she suggests that it typically does it badly, but even so, she suggests that:

"Horror is unique as a genre because it accepts the existence of a supernatural realm implicitly, as Christian filmmaker Scott Derickson has maintained. But the spiritual essence of The Omen is weighed down with material concerns and the occupations of this world, rather than the promise of the next, whether that is salvation or judgment. This hinders and, strangely enough, helps the film’s usefulness in communicating ideas about a Christian worldview."
She concludes her piece by pointing out the obvious; people won't necessarily flock from horror movies straight to a church, but by portraying such a dark and dismal picture of man separated from the Creator, the horror movie might just inadvertently offer a testament to the need for God, "...the image of man absent the guidance, love and mercy of his Creator is pitiable indeed. There’s no need to frighten people into obedience. The sorry state of humanity absent God is testament enough."

You can read the whole article HERE.

Thursday 3 June 2010

The Influence of Music on Hearts and Minds

Social and cultural movements often have associated music that contributes to identity and helps to define who the individuals and groups think they are. For example, in the 1970s Punk Rock burst onto the music scene with loud, simple and repetitive beats and at times 'dark' lyrics. The music often spoke of rebellion and a desire to reject mainstream thinking. With any musical movement we find associated cultural practices - the things people like, the experiences they share, the topics that become the focus of conversation, the rules of social engagement and so on. The Sex Pistols quickly developed a cult following as much for the anti establishment views as for the group's music. They often opposed mainstream cultural and social practices and beliefs. Their infamous song 'God Save the Queen' was no doubt intending to offend with lyrics like "God save the queen, She ain't no human being, And there's no future, In England's dreaming". When Johnny Rotten belted out the song in 1977 (in the Queen's Silver Jubilee year!) many were outraged at the attack on the Queen, not to mention the British people, whose conformity to the crown and respect for the monarchy was being belittled. There was widespread outrage, some radio stations stopped playing their songs, parents stopped letting their children go to their concerts etc. Of course, as is often the case, the group's infamy brought many new fans. 

Music is clearly an important way in which people express their views of the world, their own allegiances, hopes, desires, loves and so on. But is it also a way in which we are shaped and moulded to understand and share the ideas, truths and falsehoods of songs? Could the very lyrics of a song shape one's thinking and view of the world? While I might just sound like another old bloke lamenting the dangers of popular culture, stay with me. I want to ask the question: Does it matter what we sing? This is a much-debated topic in any church - do the words matter?

In an article to be published in the next issue of Case Magazine that focuses on music (due out late June), Dr Steven Guthrie writes about our reasons for singing. He bases much of his paper on a letter written in the 4th century by the Bishop of Alexandria Athanasius  (c. 295-373) to a friend, Marcellinus. In it Athanasius spoke of the Book of Psalms and the importance of singing them. Surprisingly, the first reason Athanasius offered for singing is not expressing ourselves in words and sound, but taking words in, im-pression. The psalms for Athanasius were a way not just to express our emotions, but also to understand and express the emotions of others. Guthrie reminds us that singing is an act of imitation not just expression. Athanasius wrote:
"He who recites the psalms....sings them as if they were written concerning him, and he accepts them and recites them not as if another were speaking nor as if speaking about someone else. But he handles them as if he is speaking about himself. And the things spoken are such that he lifts them up to God as himself acting and speaking then from himself."
While the above thoughts of Athanasius to a friend have great relevance for those of us who want to consider the value of singing Christian songs, they also seem to raise other questions about the impact of music on those who sing it. If we accept what Athanasius says (and I am persuaded at least in part), then what implications might this have for all of us as we immerse ourselves in secular music? Parents also might well want to ask themselves, does it matter what music my children listen to and sing? I think it does. Rather than our singing being just an opportunity for us to articulate words that we express to music, might they also shape us?

These thoughts have positive and negative implications for music.  If you'd like to read all of Steven Guthrie's thoughts on singing the psalms as well as wonderful articles by Jeremy Begbie, Peter Dart, Rob Smith and Andy Judd look out for the next issue. Why not become an Associate of CASE so that you can receive Case Magazine quarterly.