What Is Fun, and Why Does It Matter? Toward a Theology of Fun

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I’m bad at fun.

“Workaholic” doesn’t do it justice. I am constantly haunted by the gnawing suspicion that I’m wasting my life. I can get up at 5am, drink a low-fat smoothie, have my quiet time, run three miles, shower, get to work on time, and still feel ashamed for wasting ten minutes reading memes over breakfast. I divide my every minute into infinite fractals of productivity, cramming work and childcare and chores and emails and side hustles into endlessly smaller and smaller and smaller units of time. The banner over my life is, “Not Good Enough,” and the only solution is to work harder, better, faster, stronger.

I’m very bad at fun. And most days, my religion only makes it worse. Seeing myself as a Critical Piece of God’s Ineffable Plan only heightens the anxiety, because now it’s not just my self-worth at stake, but eternity. I should be praying more, studying harder, serving better, evangelizing faster – people’s salvation is on the line here, for heaven’s sake! Fun is what we’re made to have, but fun is also what we’re made to be.

I’m very, very bad at fun. So I hope you won’t read what follows as the armchair musings of a layabout in search of philosophical justification for bunking off another workday. This is my attempt to find in God’s Word the permission I need to enjoy the life he’s given me.

Fun is what we’re made to have, but fun is also what we’re made to be.

What Fun Is

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper invokes some medieval terminology to delineate between two spheres of human life: the artes serviles and the artes liberales.[1] These “servile” arts are, as their name suggests, those activities which serve a particular purpose. They are the means to an end. I do my job in order to get paid. I run in order to lose weight. The “liberal” arts, on the other hand, refer to those activities which serve no purpose outside themselves. I play the latest Florence and the Machine album for the joy of it, or I ride a rollercoaster for the thrill of it. An art is liberal if it, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”[2]

But, the line between these two modes of activity is a thin and wobbly one. Play can, on a bad day, feel far more like work. I am, for instance, reminded of the grinding purgatory of Little League baseball, which I “played” (for the disgraceful lack of a better term) for many reasons, none of which being because I wanted to. By the same token, “liberal” elements can easily sneak into our “servile” moments. I can do my job for the enjoyment of seeing a well-laid plan come together. I can run for the pleasure of feeling my body move with confidence and power. A servile art can, in the right light, be experienced as a liberal one, and vice versa.

“Fun” is the word I would use to describe this spark that flashes between our work and our play, our labor and our rest. Leisure and service may be different things, but fun can run between them. And when a thing is enjoyable or desirable for its own sake (be it on the job or at the beach), we call that thing “fun.”

How Fun Happens

“Fun” can be found in an infinite range of activities, from football practice to origami. Moreover, what is fun to one might be pure hell for another – I would draw your attention once again to my thankfully truncated foray into Little League sports. And of course, what is fun in one context is misery in another – consider a shy and unassuming person who sings lustily in the shower but can’t bear to set foot on a stage. Whatever fun is, it contains multitudes. All fun, however, falls into one of two categories. It happens, if you will, within a two-beat rhythm: giving and receiving.

In research that would eventually become his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asked interviewees to describe their “optimal experience,” the best and most satisfying moments in their lives. Through this research, he discovered that, “Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”[3] The subjects studied covered an impressively diverse array: adolescents and senior citizens, Japanese and Native Americans, the very poor and the fairly rich, and so forth.[4] Moreover, the activities reported were equally as diverse: rock climbing, long-distance swimming, meditation, riding in a motorcycle gang.[5]

Across this constellation of various activities, however, was one consistent theme. These times, as reported by the subjects, constituted moments when their abilities were matched with a goal that challenged them and required the full focus of their abilities, yet where success was possible and attainable.[6] This state of being optimally balanced between boredom (too small a challenge) and anxiety (too great), Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”[7] Flow activities allow us to add something to the world of which we can be proud, to “give,” if you will, something beautiful to the cosmos, be it as complex as an original sonata or as simple as a completed puzzle. Indeed, I’m certain my toddler can experience flow in the plain act of opening and shutting a large door all by himself.

But of course, experience teaches us that we are also blessed with a parallel range of activities which cannot be described as “flow,” but are nonetheless undeniably fun. Eating an ice cream sundae, for instance, or riding a roller coaster, could conceivably be fashioned into flow activities, if we mentally framed them as a challenge to overcome. Perhaps we could focus intently on the flavors and textures of the sundae in order to identify and judge them. Perhaps we could attempt to ride the coaster without giving a single whoop of alarm. But for the most part, and for most people, these activities are not strenuous or challenging, either physically or mentally. We enjoy them as ends in and of themselves, in the same way we intrinsically enjoy a flow activity. But, while flow is an act of “giving” fun, these are acts of “receiving” fun. And we are receptive, mind you, not passive, and any stage actor can quickly tell you the difference between a passive audience and a receptive one.

Indeed, when we observe the phenomenon of flow in a community, as opposed to within the life of a singular individual, a state of “receiving” fun only makes sense. In flow, we pour out good and beautiful things into the world around us, so how strange and stagnant would that world be if no one were able or willing to drink them in. Imagine laboring for hours, even in a state of pure flow, to produce a stunning birthday cake, only to have no one attend the party. The chef needs the gourmand, the author the reader. And so goes the two-beat rhythm of fun: singing and listening, writing and reading, cooking and eating, running and applauding, giving and receiving. And this dual rhythm should not surprise us as Christians, for it’s exactly what we find in Scripture.

Fun is what we feel when life is, however briefly, beautifully and truly real.

Why Fun Matters

Small wonder humans are so exhilarated and satisfied by the prospect of a challenge suited to our skills, for that gift was one of the first our Creator gave us: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Indeed, before God broached the subject of matrimony with Adam, he gave him a job to do: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). What’s more, Yahweh presents the prospect of hard, yet fulfilling, work as not simply prescribed by our god, but essential to our being.

Our “dominion” over creation is an expression of our nature as beings created in the image of God: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion” (Gen. 1:26a, emphasis added). To be made in God’s image is to be somehow like him. And from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 1:25, we find a God who is, if nothing else, highly creative. He is busily pouring out good and beautiful things into reality from the first sentence of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created” (Gen. 1:1a, emphasis added). When we do likewise, we reflect his nature. As Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton put it in The Transforming Vision, “The primal command to subdue the earth (often called the creation mandate) is a cultural mandate. In all our cultural activities and affairs – that is, in all human actions, artifacts, relationships and institutions by which we interact with and develop creation – human beings provide evidence of their God-given rule of the earth.”[8]

The experience of flow, the sensation of “giving” fun, is pleasurable and desirable because when we make and build, when we face down challenges well suited to our abilities, we are doing what we were made to do. This is fun we were made to have.

But of course, God does more than work, for the creation narrative does not end in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 2: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3). There is an injunction here, however implicit, and the Book of Exodus makes an overt link between God’s rest after creation and his command for humans to rest on the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” (Ex. 20:8-11) Once again, we see God doing something and then bidding humanity do likewise. He has worked, and bids us work. Now he rests, and bids us go do likewise.

But what does it mean for God to “rest” as Genesis reports? It cannot mean that he has ceased from all activity, for only his conscious maintenance of reality holds it in existence. And if we scan forward to the Gospels, we find God the Son unequivocally reporting that God’s work is ceaseless: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17). Is God then playacting in Genesis 2, pretending to do something inconsistent with his character, in order to model it for humanity? Unlikely.

I would argue that the key to understanding Sabbath rest lies in the doctrine of the imago Dei. Observe the full stretch of the creation narrative: God creates, then he fashions a creative being, then he sits back, folds his hands in expectation, and prepares to watch what they will do. Like a mother watching her child building a block tower, he sets aside his own work and takes time to appreciate and enjoy what his children make. As David Atkinson puts it in his commentary on Genesis 1-11, “What is God’s rest? Is it not delight in his creation? Is it not looking with joy on his world and saying, ‘This is good!’”[9]

We are made in the image of a God who works, who creates, who scatters good, true, and beautiful things across the universe. We do the same, not only as duty but also as pleasure. But we are also made in the image of a God who rests, who applauds, who drinks in the good, true, and beautiful things his image-bearers make and calls them good. So naturally, gloriously, and with good pleasure, we do the same. This, too, is fun we’re made to have.

Fun is what we’re made to have, but fun is also what we’re made to be. Consider a staggering possibility with me: God made us…for fun. He made us “for fun” in the sense that he did not make us to serve any utilitarian end. We are, in Pieper’s terms, a “liberal art” project for God. We – humanity, creation, light, grandmothers, strawberry jam, the cosmos itself – are unnecessary. It’s true, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism reports, that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” but that is not to imply that God’s glory was somehow in need of expansion in the time before time, when all that was was He Himself, eternal. He was not lacking in glory, and our existence does not, in the mathematical sense, add to his glory, since one cannot increase what is already infinite. Nor was he lonely and looking for company, for he enjoyed the perfect friendship and love of the Triune Community as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We were not needed, we were not necessary, we served no greater purpose or plan, we were not a means to a required end. Our existence is a gift to be enjoyed, by us and by God. In our friend Josef Pieper’s words, “Think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of ‘Grace’…that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift.”[10]

Make no mistake, in this fallen world we will have troubles. There will be dangers, toils, and snares. Thorns infest the ground. The work that should thrill us is corrupted into drudgery. The play that should give us pleasure is mutated into gluttony. The people we hope will receive our gifts with joy instead ignore or reject them. So it goes. The world, quite frankly, does not work as it ought, and the rhythm of fun is no exception.

But there will also be shining moments where existence is, for a few breaths, a little like what it ought to be. These moments will happen at our kitchen tables, in our bedrooms, within our forests, and on our dance floors. Too often, we’ll ignore these moments as unimportant, even irksome, as distractions from the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do. “Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless,” Josef Pieper reminds us, “He can only enjoy, with good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to receive anything as a gift.”[11]

Fun is not a distraction from “real” life. Fun is what we feel when life is, however briefly, beautifully and truly real. Fun is a reminder of what we lost in the Fall, and it is a foretaste of glory divine. To receive the good gifts of God and creation, and to give our every available ounce of strength so that others may receive those good gifts, is to see, in some small part, God’s kingdom come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

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[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 37-8.
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 103.
[3] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 3.
[4] Csikszentmihalyi, 4.
[5] Csikszentmihalyi, 48.
[6] Csikszentmihalyi, 74-5.
[7] Csikszentmihalyi, 74-5.
[8] Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View, 55-6.
[9] David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11: The dawn of creation, in The Bible Speaks Today, Ed. J.A. Motyer and John R. W. Stott, 49.
[10] Pieper, 35-36.
[11] Pieper, 35-36.

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Jaclyn S. Parrish

Jaclyn S. Parrish is the Director of Marketing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter as @jaclynSparrish.

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