Reading Project: interlude

A friend asked on Facebook:

“Granting the obvious value of reading these “classics”, are there any contemporary theologians who followed their track with respect to play?”


I asked myself a variation of that question: why read four books that are 50 years old, and a fifth that is almost 80?


Short answer: these are foundational to the field and to my personal development.


These are also works that stand at the intersection of play & game theory AND theology. There’s a lot of work that follows these play theories, but to my knowledge little theological work – and what does exist seems to build on the foundations laid by Cox & Moltmann. I’ll be testing that.


And, to my knowledge, there’s no other focused dialogical exchange at this intersection. Part of the interest in reading these specific works is to observe the conversation between Cox & Moltmann to better cultivate my skills in sustaining theological dialogue.


Longer answer:


Although I have not done a recent survey of the field, I do not know of any major recent works in theology and play. In the late 90s / early 00s there was a resurgence of interest in gaming that seems to have runs its course. There are individual articles and books I could purse, but not a major theological dialogue like the one between Cox and Moltmann.


But, by way of mapping the discourse, let me explain my larger goals in revisiting these works.


After Huizinga (and after WW2) there was a split in the field between play theory and gaming theory. (In very broad over-generalized and oversimplified terms: play is more free-form initiated by the player; games have structure established by a facilitator. Game theory is more about the cooperative activity, play about the individual attitude. Again, way over-generalized!)


As psychology ascended, particularly developmental psychology, there was a lot of literature regarding definitions of play and its role in psycho-social development. Most of these were attempts to identify empirical aspects to be measured. One of the driving interests was harnessing children’s play for more effective education – which actually is a shift toward game theory. In many ways the deschooling movement of the 60s and 70s in both general and religious education was an application of gaming theory.


In the 70s and 80s game theory ascended, especially with the rise of video games and the pursuit of artificial intelligence. The whole non-competitive games (of 70’s and 80’s) is an example of gaming theory. Flow psychology falls mostly into gaming, but there are aspects that are play theory. Whole-Language of the 1990’s was a gaming theory.


In that time frame (post-war well into the 90s) both Frankfurt School Critical Theory and the French deconstructionist were examining how social rules establish norms, particularly norms that are used to oppress and control. One outbreaking of that work was Freire’s dialogical teaching method: change the rules of interplay between teacher and learner to change the outcome of education. Augusto Boal did the very same thing in theater (in dialogue with Viola Spolin’s work with theater games / improv games): change the production process of theater and change its social role.


I think the Cox / Moltmann exchange comes right at the time when these two fields are distinguishing themselves from one another – something I need to test as I read. As I recall, Cox is more along games and Moltmann play – so there’s two potential pathways to map.


And their exchange comes as “adults” began to affirm the validity of the youth subculture. Within these writings are tools for assessing and understanding a different culture demarked by age / generation: while the youth cultures have changed, I think the investigative tools may be useful.


Cox and Moltmann both affirmed the potential for these counter-cultures to transform the larger culture – especially because of (but not limited to) their social and political commentaries. Cox’s books in particular examine sociologically and theologically the role of street theater and guerrilla theater. Yes, I have a shelf full of more contemporary street, political, and guerrilla theater resources, but only a few of them do the theological examination of these activities – and they use Moltmann and/or Cox as foundations.


But I anticipate following yet another road.


In the time between Huizinga and Cox/Moltmann, cultural anthropologist Victor Turner did his groundbreaking work in rites of passage and the importance of liminality; he then used liminality as a lens for examining all sorts of cultural phenomena. You’ll remember, Robert, one of my Henderlite projects was an introduction to cultural anthropology: that was because I was reading Victor’s work From Ritual to Theater. Because his descriptions of ritual are so different than sociological analysis, I needed to understand his methodological premises.


(Following that story line: I hold an EdD instead of a PhD for three reasons. First, when the total switch was made I was already writing my dissertation. Second, the PhD requires demonstrated fluency in a language, and I have always struggled with second languages. Third, I had already demonstrated competency in a research language: ethnographic research and design. My ethnographic instructor has been a protégé of Victor Turner.)


There’s been a lot of work using Turner’s liminality, especially related to festivals. In the past decade there’s been a lot of writing on using ritual, mostly in small groups tied to individual spirituality. I’m hoping to return to the work related to festive education (it’s lain fallow for about a decade) which heavily relies on Turner’s sense of liminal play-space for expressing shared religious identity. It’s a variation of ritual-as-game, exploring ritual (I think festivals are ritual activity) for its potential in shaping and expressing congregational identity. Again, I haven’t done a thorough examination of the field, but I don’t know anyone else approaching festivity & ritual that way, nor do I know of any sustained theological dialogue along those lines.


After so many words, it comes to this: these five are foundational to the field, and are setting up what I expect to be a much larger project related to multiple aspects of my work.

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