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No. 5: Arts & Play, Part 1

Open Book: Views & Reviews, No. 5
September, 1991
Copyright (c) 1991 Biblical Horizons

Most modern people regard the arts as essentially decorative. They are hardly very important, as compared to business, politics, or religion. Yet, from a Biblical point of view, the arts lie close to the heart of human life. The universe that God created is itself an artistic masterpiece by the Master Artist, and since man is called to "think God’s thoughts after Him," surely part of man’s privilege is to learn to appreciate the artistry of God’s world.

Moreover, since everything is made by God, everything reflects God’s personality. Just as the music of Beethoven reflects Beethoven’s personality, and the music of Elvis Presley reflects his, so everything in the universe points to God and reveals Him. In that sense then, everything in the world is a symbol or pointer to God. Because of sin, however, many of these symbols or pointers have been twisted. Thus, a symbolic and artistic view of the world lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.

In addition, man is the very image of God. This means that man, as the crown of creation, is the special symbol of God. Man reveals God more fully than does any other aspect of creation. And, as God’s preeminent symbol, man is himself a symbol-making creature. As he thinks God’s thoughts after Him, man thinks symbolically and artistically. Thus, men are always formulating their most cherished beliefs, for good or bad, in artistic and symbolic terms.

To a great extent, life imitates art. First comes the conception, the design, the pattern — then comes the outworking, the realization in all of life. Humanistic art sets patterns and reinforces humanistic beliefs, thus orienting society away from God. Christian art must set patterns that communicate and reinforce God’s truth.

The center of man’s artistic life is the art of worship, that art which God has most fully revealed and guarded, and which man experiences at the center of his spiritual life. Accordingly, the art of liturgy is all important, though much neglected in modern Christian discussions of art.

We can do no more than merely touch the surface of these things in these short essays. My hope is that these few paragraphs will introduce the reader to a better and more profound view of the arts than perhaps he or she has previously seen, and thus will serve to "stimulate the brethren to good works."

Since American Christians especially tend to regard the arts as entertainment, as a form of play or recreation, it may be helpful to address the question of a Christian view of play first of all, before moving to the matter of the arts. The arts are indeed a form of play, but play in its highest form.


Sports and games appeal to several different human desires: the desire for fun, the desire for glory, the lust for violence, and the desire to evade judgment. Let’s look at each one.

The Christian plays for fun. This is because he is in tune with God and enjoys life. The Christian knows where to be serious and where to relax. He is serious about serious things, such as judgment, and he relaxes with things that are not serious, such as who wins the game.

The Bible says, "Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity" (Ecclesiastes 11:9, 10). (The last point is not that youth is empty, but that it is fleeting.) With the Bible as our guide, we know what things are serious, what things God will call into judgment. Thus, we also know where we can play and have fun.

The Bible gives its philosophy of play in Proverbs 8:30, 31, which literally reads, "Then I was beside Him, a master craftsman; and I was daily His delight, playing always before Him, playing in the creation, His organized world, and My delight was with the sons of men." This is Wisdom, the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ, speaking. Christians play because God plays. He takes sheer fun and delight in His creation; so do we.

God commands His people to rest one day in seven. The primary purposes of the sabbath day are worship and rest from labor, but moderate fun and festivity are not excluded. Indeed, in the Old Testament at the annual Feast of Tabernacles, each family was ordered to bring branches and build a shelter in which to live for seven days (Leviticus 23:40-43). Try doing that with your children without having fun! God intends for His people to relax and play in His presence. It gives Him pleasure.

So, there is nothing Christian about a sad, dour attitude. Christians have always been a humorous, fun-loving people. Even the Puritans were, despite all the lies told about them in later years. Spending a moderate amount of money on fun and recreation is important for a healthy Christian lifestyle.

The non-Christian has a problem playing just for fun. This is because he is also motivated to play for glory and honor. Periodically, people are injured by mobs at sporting events. A few years back, two nations in Central America put their armed forces on stand-by after a particularly intense soccer match; fortunately, war was averted. (Of course, there were pre-existing political tensions, which the soccer match only intensified.) Fistfights break out in bars during football games. International politics is all tied up in the Olympic games, to the grief of the kids competing. Famous athletes command incredible salaries.

Glory and honor are a peculiar thing. Glory is social in character. People who have never even held a football still share in the glory when their team wins. Glory is like clothing, and a persons feels naked and embarrassed when his glory is removed. He feels shame, the opposite of glory.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost their sense of security. They labored hard to recover themselves. (Note that word: re-cover.) When God exposed their nakedness, they turned to a form of violence, passing blame (abuse) to those around them. This is the lifestyle of the unconverted. He labors hard to achieve glory and honor in the eyes of others. He becomes upset and even violent when his honor is shattered and his nakedness is exposed. We cannot understand the place of sports in the modern world apart from this.

The Christian has no need to get glory for himself. He knows that his purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him. The Christian gets his glory and honor from being a child of the King. The Christian gets his self-esteem from being a member of God’s household. The unconverted man has to get these things for himself. Thus, things that should be just plain fun and games, such as sports, are turned into big deals.

Very often, the unconverted man is most serious about his games because that is where he gets his glory. Some men get glory from rising to the top of their professions, but there is not much room at the top. For the masses, being on the winning side provides glory and self-esteem, whether it be the winning side of a futile war, or the winning side of a pointless ball game. Thus, all statist societies sponsor sporting events in order to provide the masses with artificial experiences of glory and honor, to divert their attention from the fact that they are in fact powerless. (A good film treatment of this is the movie Rollerball.)

For the Christian, it is just plain stupidity to care so much about a ball game. Play is for fun, not for glory.

Games of Violence

The Christian is not given to violence, nor does he enjoy it. Pain in the body is a God-given signal that something is wrong, and needs to be corrected. To take pleasure in pain, in misery, in violence, is perverse and Satanic. Yet, throughout history men have found enjoyment either in inflicting misery upon themselves and others, or in watching it done. The greatest of the Fathers of the early church, Bishop Augustine of Hippo, gives us a description of the religious power of violence.

Alypius went to Rome ahead of me to study law and there, strange to relate, he became obsessed with an extraordinary craving for gladiatorial shows. At first he detested these displays and refused to attend them. But one day during the season for this cruel and bloodthirsty sport he happened to meet some friends and fellow-students returning from their dinner. In a friendly way they brushed aside his resistance and his stubborn protests and carried him off to the arena.

"You can drag me there bodily," he protested, "but do you imagine that you can make me watch the show and give my mind to it? I shall be there, but it will be just as if I were not present, and I shall prove myself stronger than you or the games."

He did not manage to deter them by what he said, and perhaps the very reason why they took him with them was to discover whether he would be as good as his word. When they arrived at the arena, the place was seething with the lust for cruelty. They found seats as best they could and Alypius shut his eyes tightly, determined to have nothing to do with these atrocities. If only he had closed his ears as well! For an incident in the fight drew a great roar from the crowd, and this thrilled him so deeply that he could not contain his curiosity. Whatever had caused the uproar, he was confident that, if he saw it, he would find it repulsive and remain master of himself. So he opened his eyes, and his soul was stabbed with a wound more deadly than any which the gladiator, whom he was so anxious to see, had received in his body. He fell, and fell more pitifully than the man whose fall had drawn that roar of excitement from the crowd. The din had pierced his ears and forced him to open his eyes, laying his soul upon to receive the wound which struck it down. This was presumption, not courage. The weakness of his soul was in relying upon itself instead of trusting in You.

When he saw the blood, it was as though he had drunk a deep draught of savage passion. Instead of turning away, he fixed his eyes upon the scene and drank in all its frenzy, unaware of what he was doing. He revelled in the wickedness of the fighting and was drunk with the fascination of bloodshed. He was no longer the man who had come to the arena, but simply one of the crowd which he had joined, a fit companion for the friends who had brought him.

Need I say more? He watched and cheered and grew hot with excitement, and when he left the arena, he carried away with him a diseased mind which would leave him no peace until he came back again, no longer simply together with the friends who had first dragged him there, but at their head, leading new sheep to the slaughter. Yet You stretched out Your almighty, ever merciful hand, O God, and rescued him from this madness. You taught him to trust in You, not in himself. But this was much later.

(From the Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Section 8, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, published by Penguin Classics.)

* * * * * * *

Why is violence so addictive? The Bible tells us that man is created as God’s image and likeness on the earth. The Bible also teaches us that all the animals God made are pictures of men, so that the Bible constantly compares different kinds of people to various animals. Fallen man hates God, and hates to be reminded of Him. For this reason, men killed the prophets, the martyrs, and Jesus Christ. Since man hates God, and hates to be reminded of Him, he is motivated toward violence against whatever reminds him of God and of judgment.

Let’s see how this works out. First of all, men have a tendency to enjoy seeing other people suffer. For instance, there is something in the heart of every man that secretly rejoices when others are brought low, even one’s closest friends. We are secretly envious of those around us, who we think are doing better than we are. Something happens to bring a friend low, and for a brief instant our heart rejoices. How shocked we are at the filth that pours from our inward parts! Yet, when unrestrained, such tendencies will flower into horrible fruition.

Throughout the centuries, in every culture on earth, men have created sporting events that express this love of violence. We are horrified to learn that the Romans enjoyed watching gladiators kill each other, but how different are our boxing matches? Why do people enjoy watching boxing? Simply out of cool, objective appreciation of the skills involved? Why do people scream for blood at boxing matches? Did God create men and give them healthy bodies so that they could use their energy to beat each other’s brains out, for the pleasure of a mob? Is this man’s purpose on the earth? Does such activity bring glory to God, or give Him pleasure?

Prize fighting is not the only game of violence that has its following. Television wrestling is of the same order. The wrestlers are actors who pretend to do horrible things to one another, such as jumping high in the air and landing feet-first on the opponent’s skull. If they really did such things, they would kill one another. This is all a show, but why do people like it? Many people who follow entertainment wrestling convince themselves that it is all real. They get angry when a sane person ridicules it. Why do they want to believe it is real? It is because men enjoy the thrill of death and blood.

We could put in the same category certain kinds of racing, and other events that bring out the bloodlust in the audience. To some extent, this is true of football, but we shall defer discussion of football, which is all too often really one of America’s most prominent religions, until later.

Secondly, men tend to enjoy making animals suffer. Small children will sometimes torture animals to death. There always seem to be some mean kids around who catch cats and hang them, or who torture frogs, and the like. Children like this not only display their own depravity, they also reveal something of their parents. Such horrible sports as bullfighting (torturing a bull to death for the amusement of a bloodthirsty mob) are forbidden in the United States, because of the Christian influence here. As Christian influence wanes, however, we may see such evils as cockfighting and dogfighting revive. Bullfights have been shown in American television in recent years, and who knows what the future will bring? Christians should resist such trends.Third, because men hate whatever reminds them of God, each man tends to hate himself. God says, "All those who hate Me love death" (Proverbs 8:36). Men tend to hate themselves, and thus they tend to enjoy the thrill of death. Also, men like to thumb their noses at God and at judgment. The thrill of some daredevil sports is just that: Men flirt with death and with judgment, as if daring God to strike them down. The Christian, however, has found God, and "he who finds Me finds life" (Proverbs 8:35). Thus, the Christian loves life, and does not enjoy the thrill of death and daredevilry.

How about hunting? Here is a sport that involves death. Sometimes Christian object to it. We have to say, however, that God made the animals to provide food and clothing for man. And even in societies like ours, man still has the responsibility to shepherd the world and keep animal populations in check. Hunting is a skill and a sport that is enjoyable, but that also has a social utility. Clearly, however, hunting should be regulated (as it is today), in order to prevent the extinction of various species of animals. As long as deliberate cruelty is not involved, the Christian has no objection to hunting.


Let’s take an example now. Probably the most important sport in American life today is football. Football is a relatively violent game, when compared with baseball or basketball. The players are, however, protected by padding and helmets, so that we ought not to condemn football just because some physical contact is involved. How should we analyze football, as Christians?

First of all, we have to say that professional football on Sunday is wrong. The Bible commands Christians to rest and worship God on the Lord’s Day. We should keep our activities to a minimum. Playing football for money is fine, but it should be done on other days of the week. Christians have better things to do than watch ball games on the Lord’s Day, and the players have better things to do than play on that day.

Along these same lines, we have to say that for many people, college and professional football functions as a religion. Football has more religious overtones in our society than does any other sport. The weekly game is the center of a man’s interest. It is his primary time of relaxation. Yelling at the game, or boozing in front of the television, acts as a pseudo-regenerative catharsis that makes him feel refreshed and renewed — if his team wins. Obviously, this is not the case with many people, but the adulation in which star players and coaches are held, and the loyalty seen in certain fans, indicate that for many people football is a religion.

Third, we have to agree with the opinion of physicians that football is unhealthy for young men. The Bible tells us, as does medical science, that our physical frames are not fully set and mature until we are around thirty years old. Up until that time, severe physical stress can do considerable damage to our young, developing bones and cartilege. Thus, God said that the Levites had to be between thirty and fifty years old in order to carry the heavy golden furniture of the Tabernacle (Numbers 4; this is also symbolic, since a man should be at least thirty years old before taking church office upon his shoulders.) Physicians complain that football is too risky for high school and college age youth. Many Christian schools have taken this advice seriously, and have turned to other, less dangerous sports.

Fourth, in terms of the discussion above, we have to say that much of the appeal of football lies in its violence, if the behavior of the mobs who attend college football games is any indication. Also, the motivation to get glory for the school (or geographical area, in the case of professional football) is very strongly present.

Fifth, all the same, in and of itself there is no reason why a Christian should not watch and enjoy the skills and contest of a football game. He simply needs to beware getting caught up in sinful attitudes about the sport. Obviously, football is a lot of fun for many people, and fun is fine.

We can appreciate the skills. We can enjoy the fun. We can root for a team, provided we don’t let ourselves get caught up in glory-seeking.

This raises a final question. What about appreciating the skills in, say, boxing? Well, we might say that if the environment surrounding boxing were not so bloodthirsty, and if the sport were reformed further to do a better job of preventing injury, then Christians might appreciate it. As regards the skills involved in torturing a bull to death, appreciating these is like trying to appreciate the artful skills of a prostitute. There is no place for it in the Christian life.

Games of Chance

Some Christian thinkers have objected to games that use dice or cards. The objection is based on the idea that these are games of chance, and there is no such thing as chance. God is sovereign over all. They argue that to play with dice or cards is to pretend that chance is real, and thus to play with such things is ultimately blasphemous.

This has never been a very convincing line of argument. (The translators of the King James Version of the Bible did not have this hangup; see Luke 10:31.) After all, since there is no such thing as chance, we don’t need to worry about it. Also, while we know that all things are working according to God’s plan, the fact is that from our finite perspective, many things in life do seem to happen "by chance" as it were. God brings things to pass that we do not understand. For instance, God promises repeatedly in Scripture that those who obey Him will be blessed in every respect. Job was the most righteous man in the east, but one day all his blessings were destroyed. God did not tell him why. Job did not understand the cause and effect involved. His friends tried to figure it out for him, and said he must have committed some hidden sin; but they were wrong.

We know that such things are not really due to chance, for chance does not exist. There is nothing wrong, however, in playing a game that uses dice and cards to represent the God-ordained apparent randomness of life. Games that use dice and cards teach children to use their resources as best they can. Sometimes other people have more resources, but use them less well, and thus lose the game. Children can also learn to adjust to the seeming "unfairness" of life from playing such games. When children first play games with dice, they get angry when they lose. They need to learn to roll with the punch, laugh it off, and pick up and move on. As long as our attitudes are right, there is nothing wrong with playing so-called games of chance.

Open Book is published occasionally, funds permitting, by Biblical Horizons , P.O. Box 1096, Tyler, Texas 32588-1096. Anyone sending a donation, in any amount, will be placed on the mailing list to receive issues of Open Book as they are published. The content of all essays published in Open Book is Copyrighted, but permission to reprint any essay is freely given provided that the essay is published uncut, and that the name and address of Biblical Horizons is given.