Monday, June 24, 2013

The Glory of Play

Toy Story 3 is a fantastic movie, but its opening is very surprising for followers of the series. Instead of taking place in Andy's bedroom, it takes place in a desert. Instead of friendship, there's a struggle between good and evil. Instead of low-key play, there's high-stakes action. Spaceships! Force fields! Car chases! Children in peril! A race against the clock!

Then the scene changes, and you realize that it was Andy's room all along, and we were simply seeing the same toys and the same play that we've seen the whole series. In fact, many of the scene's details (“Force field dog! Dr. Porkchop!”) are identical to Toy Story 1. The difference is one of perspective. Previously, we've had the perspective of uninvolved observers; now, we see what it's like to be a kid.

As an opening scene, it's undeniably effective. It's exciting and high-action, and the unexpectedness of seeing the toys outside of the “real world” grabs your attention as you wait to see how the situation is explained. More than that, though, the opening scene is a celebration of childhood enthusiasm and wonder and imagination and of the friendship between Andy and his toys – a celebration of play. It's particularly appropriate for Toy Story 3 to open by showing the toys at their best, exulting in play, before the story moves along and Andy necessarily grows up and passes into another stage of life.

My children are fairly typical 21st century American kids. They like to watch TV, sometimes a bit too much. They like their video games. They have more toys than they strictly need. Sometimes they bicker with each other. For the past month or so, though, they've been playing a game they made up called Pokétown, based on their Pokémon toys. They play for hours, almost without argument, collaborating on the story and universe that they're creating. Although it started as a game involving their Pokémon toys, the Pokémon have since made allies with MegaBloks, Littlest Pet Shop, Happy Meal toys, and more. There have been plenty of battles, since that's what Pokémon do, but that's not all. The characters have bought homes and started businesses. They've met creatures ranging from space pirates to a community of sewer bugs (all named Fred) to the Council of Dragons. They've explored land, sea and space and have survived plane crashes and shipwrecks. There have been shifting allegiances and heroic sacrifices. Their home city was destroyed in an epic battle, and they've recently finished rebuilding. They've battled the Big Bad, who just last week was revealed to be a renegade Guardian of the Universe. In our suburban house's bedrooms and playroom, the kids have played out a storyline every bit as epic as a Pixar animated blockbuster. And I know that my kids aren't the only ones who play this way; similar stories of enthusiasm and wonder and imagination are made up and played out in playgrounds and basements and bedrooms across the world.

I'm often invited to join my kids' games. I've often said no: either I'm too busy, or I'm too tired, or I'm too stressed, all from the other commitments that I've allowed to enter my life and the worries that I've allowed to wear down my mind. Like Andy in Toy Story 3, I've moved on, and play – the freeform, imaginative kind, as opposed to plopping down in front of a video game – no longer comes naturally to me, and because of the decisions I've made in the commitments I've accepted and the respite I've neglected and the stressors I've permitted, it's too hard to do what comes unnaturally.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes,

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Chesterton is reacting against the naturalistic worldview that was popular in his day (and to some extent in ours): the belief that all of nature and humanity follows deterministic scientific laws, so that every event is predetermined by the cause and effect of what preceded it, so it's as if “nothing ever happened since existence had happened.” (Some grown-ups' daily routines seem almost as monotonous.) To counter this, Chesterton suggests that maybe the earth rotates every day and seeds grow into flowers every time because God thinks it's fun, because he approaches the entire cosmos with the enthusiasm and wonder and imagination and creativity that Andy shows in Toy Story 3 or that my children show in Pokétown.

Of course, it's more accurate to say that Andy and my kids reflect the enthusiasm and wonder and imagination and fun of God. Chesterton's idea at first seems rather whimsical – fanciful words from a master writer, but little more – but then I read about how Christ actively sustains creation (Col 1:17, Heb 1:3) instead of winding it up like some cosmic watch eons ago and leaving it to run, and I read about how happy God is with the universe he created (Gen 1:31) and the people he formed (Zeph 3:17), and I read about how the universe celebrates God (1 Chron 16:31-33), and I think that maybe Chesterton is on to something.

I want to celebrate God's creativity in the universe with the same joy that Chesterton shows. I give thanks for the reflection of this aspect of God's nature in my children's play. I want to reflect more of that enthusiasm and wonder and imagination in my own life. And I want to accept their invitation the next time they ask me to join them.