Playing Games with God

How Games Play Us, Stories Tell Us, and Faith Lives Us

By Andy Shamel

May 2019 Issue

It’s all a game. These are not the words that the demands of our time might seem to merit. With the world on fire and political turmoil having become the constantly unsettling norm, we know that the church is being called to action in ways many of us had not imagined even ten or fifteen years ago. Sitting in my office in a suburb of Oxford toiling away at my studies, I look across the sea toward my home country and my home church, I look around at the paralysis of Brexit, and at the Church of England, riven as it is by dissension and old grudges. Is this really the time to speak of games? Perhaps.

In the midst of the second world war, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga undertook to studying the nature and dynamics of games, or more broadly of play. The result of this study, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, revealed that—contrary to much adult belief that play is something that is left behind in childhood—games abound throughout human culture. Huizinga was keen to point out that within the boundary of the game, rules apply, and meaning is conferred in specific ways. He wrote, “Inside the play-ground an absolute order reigns. … [Play] creates order, is order … The least deviation from it ‘spoils the game,’ robs it of its character and makes it worthless.”

The rules of the game are, as Huizinga put it, both the demand for order and the grounds of that order: in soccer, the players cannot handle the ball unless they are the goalie. If they do, they receive a penalty. If they insist on doing so, they are ejected—not precisely as punishment, but as a recognition that they have ceased playing the same game as the rest of the players. In this sense, the game’s sense of order prescribes and proscribe the behaviour of the players. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer observed how the game, in effect, plays the players. The game itself takes on the status of a subject. “All playing is a being-played,” he writes. “The real subject of the game … is not the player but instead the game itself.”

"The game, in effect, plays the players. … The same is true of our life in faith."

Just as artists and writers will speak of losing themselves in the form of their art, seemingly becoming a vessel for the art to produce itself, so, too, will athletes and chess masters speak of “losing themselves” in the form of the game, so that it plays itself through them. The greatest chess players have noted that unlike novices to the game, they do not waste energy contemplating bad moves: chess masters only see good moves. Through a discipline of formation, their apprehension of the world has been transformed such that they do not perceive the board in the same way as someone just learning the rules of the game.

According to Gadamer, the work of art and its interpretation involve the viewer or interpreter’s participation in a game structured by the work of art’s self-presentation. For example, appreciation of a stage play requires that the viewer participate according to the rules of the game the play represents. The actors are to be taken for the characters they portray; the set is to be taken for the setting of the story; and the world of the play itself is (usually) to be taken as entirely distinct from the world outside the theatre. The game of “play-watching” is the necessary condition for understanding what the play means and what it is saying. The rules of the game of play-watching shape our senses and discipline our imaginations. While enraptured by the art, we do not see actors on the stage, but rather characters in the story.

The same is true of our life in faith. Priest and theologian Graham Ward has written of the way in which we encounter the world through these kinds of structures as “seeing as.” That is, we do not see just an assemblage of wood, but rather it can be seen as a table, or an altar, or a workbench. A congregation of people can be seen as a rock concert, or a brawl, or an initiation. This seeing as becomes enriched with value in part through the stories by which we live.

Having been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, having allowed that story to shape the way that we see, the other is seen not as other, but cherished as Christ himself. Having lived for one’s life in the sacraments of the Church, all bread and wine become imbued with more profound significance and are seen to be at least potentially holy. One way of speaking of this kind of game—this holy play—especially when it appears in narrative form is to speak of “myth.”

This is in no sense to denigrate the content of Christian hope or to suggest that Christian faith is “merely a myth” or “just a game.” In no sense is the game of a myth not real. In fact, as far as our apprehension of the world goes, nothing could be more real. The game, its rules for encountering the world, are the very means by which we encounter The Real.  The game, the myth is not a layer to be taken away to access what “truly is,” but is the human way in which we encounter the world as meaningful at all. In fact, it is the core claim of the Gospel that it represents the most faithful account of The Real to which we creatures of clay and divine breath have yet been made aware.

I never remember a time when two, perpendicular, intersecting lines did not speak of sacrifice and resurrection. I cannot not see it any more than I can fail to see the shapes of letters as letters, even though I may not know the meaning of the words they spell.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has reflected on myth (another, narrative kind of game), and on its givenness—the experience of encountering its presence as a gift and as something received. This is part of what we mean by the “divine revelation” of scripture. The rules of the game are written before we are born. For those of us born into Christian families, we may not be able to remember a time when our imaginations were not shaped by the narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I never remember a time when two, perpendicular, intersecting lines did not speak of sacrifice and resurrection. I cannot not see it any more than I can fail to see the shapes of letters as letters, even though I may not know the meaning of the words they spell.

Myths are many, however, and not all are shaped for the freedom and life of the people to whom they are subject. Dangerous myths of power and oppression are familiar to us all, and it is the hope of the Gospel that it might be the myth that unwinds the myths of the world, that transforms them from within as Christ changes water into wine. Huizinga raised up the counter-spirit, the “spoil-sport,” who “shatters the play-world itself.” The spoil sport is the one who observes the game and demands that the other players recognize it as only a game, as just a game. The spoil-sport loudly points out bad special effects in the cinema and heckles the actors at the play. The spoil-sport kicks the soccer ball over the fence when his team is losing.

The spoil-sport is also, however, the pacifist who spoils the game of the so-called glory of war and is the socialist who refuses to play the game of infinite and impossible acquisition of material goods. The spoil-sport is the one who says to a violent culture, “No, I will not play,” who sits at lunch counters marked “Whites only,” or stands bodily in the way of an oil pipeline that would pollute the reservation’s water supply. As political scientist James C. Scott observes, the spoil-sport is also the activist, the movement-maker, the one whose disobedience to the rules of the game as it has been handed down change the rules of the game. Scott’s studies of marginalized and oppressed people and their successful resistance to the myths and games that oppress them suggest a response to an oppressive mythology much in line with Jesus’ own instruction to turn the other cheek and to offer kindness in the face of a hostile and uncaring power. As Walter Wink famously observed, in doing so, the absurdity of the game as it has been given to us is revealed, and by increments, from within, it may be changed.

In the Gospels, Christ speaks of a pinch of yeast transforming a mass of dough into nutritious and delicious bread. The Gospel itself—the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God—spoils the game of human cultures built on sacrifice and scapegoating. By acts of spoiling the games which bring exploitation and death, with acts describing a game which reveals the world more truly, perhaps we might speak of the emergence and in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven.


Photo Credits:
Featured Image: Robert Collins, "Four Boys Playing in the Green Grass" ( ). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 License.
Body Image 1: Damian Patowski, "Person Playing Board Game" (. Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 License.
Body Image 2: Leo Rivas, "Girl Holding Bubbles" (August 22, 2015). Via Unsplash. CC 2.o License.
Body Image 3: Nadya Spetnitskaya, "Untitled" (February 3, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 License.