19 April 2018

Games, sports, comedies...

About ten years ago I was talking with a Russian Orthodox believer who had grown up in a Russian Baptist family. Why had she left the Baptists and joined the Orthodox? "The Baptists were always in each other's business, judging and gossiping," she explained. "Orthodox Christians aren't afraid to have fun."

A few days ago I was working on edits for the Russian edition of Barclay in Brief, Eleanore Price Mather's masterful abridgment of Robert Barclay's Apology for the True Christian Divinity. We're near the end; I've finally reached the Fifteenth Proposition, for which the original unabridged English-language text is here: "Concerning Salutations and Recreations, &c." As I worked on the section entitled "Gaming" in Mather's abridgment, I couldn't help but remember my conversation with my Baptist-turned-Orthodox friend.

I also thought about the Baptist students I had the joy of teaching at the seminary in Moscow. Some of them are in my Facebook circles. I had the impression that many of them would score well on Barclay's list of suitable "recreations" in the list in the excerpt below, but they certainly seemed to know how to have fun.

As for most Quakers I know, Barclay's limits would probably strike them as very severe.

OK, so here is Mather's version of Barclay on recreation:

(Mather uses only Barclay's original words, but she makes no use of ellipses or other devices to show evidence of her surgery, even within sentences.)

Fourthly, let us consider the use of games, sports, comedies and other such things, commonly and indifferently used by all the several sorts of Christians under the notion of divertisement and recreation, and see whether these things can consist with the seriousness, gravity, and godly fear which the Gospel calls for.

There is no duty more frequently commanded, nor more incumbent upon Christians, than the fear of the Lord, to stand in awe before him, to walk as in his presence, but if such as use these games and sports will speak from their consciences, they can, I doubt not, experimentally declare, that this fear is forgotten in their gaming; and if God by his Light secretly touch them, or mind them of the vanity of their way, they strive to shut it out, and use their gaming as an engine to put away from them that troublesome guest.

But they object, that men's [sic] spirits could not subsist, if they were always intent upon serious and spiritual matters, and that therefore there is need of some divertisement to recreate the mind a little, whereby it, being refreshed, is able, with greater vigor to apply itself to these things.

I answer, though all this were granted, it would no ways militate against us, neither plead the use of these things, which we would have wholly laid aside. For that men should be always in the same intentiveness of mind we do not plead, knowing how impossible it is, so long as we are clothed with this tabernacle of clay. But this will not allow us at any time so to recede from the memory of God and of our souls' chief concern, as not still to retain a certain sense of his fear; which cannot be so much as rationally supposed to be in the use of these things which we condemn. Now the necessary occasions, which all are involved into, in order to the care and sustentation of the outward man, are a relaxation of the mind from the more serious duties; and those are performed in the blessing, as the mind is so leavened with the love of God and the sense of his presence, that even in doing these things, the soul carrieth with it that divine influence and spiritual habit, whereby, though these acts, as of eating, drinking, sleeping, working, be, upon the matter, one with what the wicked do, yet they are done in another spirit, and in doing of them, we please the Lord, serve him, and answer our end in the creation, and so feel, and are sensible of his blessing.

There are innocent divertisements, which may sufficiently serve for relaxation to the mind, such as for friends to visit one another, to hear or read history, to speak soberly of the present or past transactions, to follow after gardening, to use geometrical and mathematical experiments, and such other things of this nature; in all which things we are not so to forget God (in whom we both live and are moved, Acts 17:28) as not to have always some secret reserve to him, and sense of his fear and presence, which also frequently exerts itself in the midst of these things, by some short aspiration and breathings.
Lying on Mather's cutting room floor are the specific dangers behind Barclay's warnings -- such spiritual hazards as "lightness and vanity, wantonness, and obscenity." But the general point comes through clearly: all of these worldly recreations threaten to crowd out the awareness of God. Not that Barclay is against rest and relaxation, but I suspect he feels that rest and relaxation are a concession for our weakness, and if we were not in vessels of clay we would be at maximum reverence and sobriety 24/7. Just think of what passes for relaxation in Barclay's sight: geometry!!

So here I am, reading detective novels, getting massages, listening to blues, and grieving the death of Harry Anderson. Are my recreations evidence of the degradation of society (or of Friends) in the centuries since Barclay? Or am I uniquely corrupt? Or is there a way I'm actually honoring his cautions despite the greater freedoms I claim in choosing ways to relax?

To be fair to Barclay, I admit that I have absolutely no idea how much violence and vulgarity dominated life on his city streets, or whether he interpreted the noise around him through filters of social class and conventional piety. My contemporary parallel, maybe: I can enjoy films and novels that are full of uproarious nonsense and colorful language, but if there is no evidence of faith in a story or in any of the characters, things seem two-dimensional and I soon get very bored.

I also don't know whether Barclay made his own temperament the measure of true sobriety. Could he laugh at a good honest pun?

What redeems my recreations, whether Barclay would agree or not, is that I love observing how the mind works -- mine and others'. I believe that God built this capacity for recognition, analysis, synthesis, and joy into our minds. Maybe that is what Barclay meant when he talked about minds being leavened with the love of God and the sense of God's presence. Just as Eric Liddell feels God's pleasure when he runs ("it's not just fun"), I feel great pleasure watching ideas, creativity, stories being born, whether it's happening in myself or in others. Would it truly be impossible for a modern Barclay to appreciate the sight gags in Night Court? Even at moments of exasperation and outrage, I'm grateful to be participating, finding my place, and sharing observations with others who are on a search for faithfulness. Yesterday I spent most of a morning talking with a friend about the Trinity, and about the difference between George Fox's Christology and Robert Barclay's -- and then we had the most delicious cream of broccoli soup!

OK, next on the translation list will be the section on "swearing." I pray that the Russian audience for all this work will not see us Quakers as offering yet another matrix to conform to, but a reorientation to a life of transparency to God -- a life that Barclay exemplified but did not define for all time.

More on Christian asceticism: from Orthodox Christianity for Absolute Beginners; from Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, chapter 4

Frida Berrigan on growing up with the threat of pervasive violence.

Martin Marty, the "Francis-friendly Protestant," on the tensions around the Pope.

Todd Dildine on Anti-Community Forces (ACF) and the decline of the church. Part one. Part two. Two more parts to come.

Ivan Krastev: Russia haunts the Western imagination.

Extended version of "She's Tuff."

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