Reconsidering Politics, Revisiting Columbine, and Rediscovering Fun

By LeRoy Lawson

The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America
Jim Wallis

New York: HarperOne, 2008

Columbine
Dave Cullen
New York: Twelve (e-book), 2009

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
Stuart Brown, MD
New York: Penguin Group, 2009

I didn’t read Jim Wallis’s The Great Awakening when it came out in 2008. My “must-read” stack was pretty high then, so I opted to skip the Sojourners founder’s sequel to God’s Politics, his opinion of—and this is the book’s subtitle—Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. In it, Wallis ticks off a long list of the sins of the spiritual/political leaders on the religious right. He is pretty hard on the left, also.

In this sequel, Wallis takes pleasure in what he thinks is the diminishing clout of the right and the growing numbers of conservative-progressive Christians who rise above partisanship, swallowing the party line of neither the left nor the right. He published before the 2008 election. If time had stopped there, we might have been applauding his prognostications.

But then came the elections of 2010 and the Tea Party and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. The religious right seems anything but a tamed tiger and Wallis’s assessment seems pretty dated, even wrong.

And yet, it was good for me to read The Great Awakening post-2010. While the religious right does claim to have all the answers, Wallis deals with questions that won’t go away: abortion, gay rights, creation care, social justice, American militarism, and immigration, among others. These are questions that, for many of my young friends, won’t be brushed away with political platitudes.

It has always been hard for me to read Wallis, not because I disagree so much—and I often do—but because I appreciate his heart. He anchors his arguments in Scriptures that make me squirm. I don’t feel comfortable with this man but I suspect I’d have had the same trouble with Amos and Jeremiah. And Paul. And Jesus. Especially Jesus.

Wallis aims at three targets. First, he calls for a personal commitment to the ethics of Jesus. Second, he urges the church to assist hurting communities as only the church can. And third, he appeals for a global response to global crises. You may disagree with his politics and some of his proposals, but, as I said, he knows his Scriptures; he also knows his statistics, pointing out that 30,000 children die in poverty each day, and 3 billion people live on $2 a day or less.

This ought not to be.

Here is what he thinks of Christians: “Jesus being the Son of God does not mean that Christians are better, more righteous, more moral, more blessed, more destined to win battles, or more suited to govern and decide political matters than non-Christians. . . . Those who believe that Jesus was the Son of God should be the most loving, compassionate, forgiving, welcoming, peaceful, and hungry-for-justice people around—just like Jesus, right?”

Right.

 

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

A good friend told me I had to read Dave Cullen’s Columbine. Like the rest of America, I was captivated by the shootings at Columbine, glued to the television set, simultaneously horrified and fighting to disbelieve the horror. I really did not want to return to the scene of the crime, even in a book.

But I did and I am glad. If Cullen is right, I have been very wrong since 1999, when two high school seniors unleashed their terror on the students and faculty of Columbine High School in Colorado. Until now I thought the boys were typical loners, snubbed social misfits just getting even. They were not. Surely they must have been from broken homes. They were not. Of course they were poor students. No, these boys earned A’s. They were taking aim at their enemies, then. No, their killing was random.

There’s more. I thought this mass killing came without warning. It did not. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were already registered in the judicial system. They had been arrested their junior year for theft and had been through a 12-month juvenile “diversion” program that included community service and counseling. Their reviews were glowing. They finished the program 10 weeks before the massacre.

I had thought very little about the suffering of their parents. I should have. I believed the media reports and the speculations of the reporters. I should not have.

National polls following the massacre blamed lots of culprits: “violent movies, video games, Goth culture, lax gun laws, bullies, and Satan.” The polls didn’t blame Eric or Dylan. “They were just kids. Something or someone must have led them astray.” The Gallup poll found 85 percent of the population faulted the parents. They should not have.

Fortunately, Eric and Dylan were clumsy. They hoped to kill at least 500 (they wanted more to die in Columbine than in Oklahoma City, where 168 were killed), but their homemade bombs failed to explode. Still, they killed 12 students and a teacher. Thirteen too many.

Columbine is not G-rated reading. You will not enjoy this book.

 

Embracing the Fun

It’s a relief to turn from heart-wrenching Columbine to Play, a serious look at lightheartedness. This is a book you can enjoy, if for no other reason than it strengthens a long-held conviction.

That was my reaction, anyway. My life’s motto, I love to tell people, is simple: “You can’t help growing older, but you can remain immature indefinitely.” For years I’ve enjoyed reminding friends that “in every man there’s a boy, and if you kill the boy the man dies.” Self-justification? I suppose so, but I still find that nothing is as much fun as fun.

Well, thanks to Dr. Stuart Brown, researcher, psychiatrist, and founder of the National Institute of Play, I now know science is on my side. “Lifelong play is central to our continued well-being, adaptation, and social cohesiveness,” he writes. “Neoteny [that is, the retention of juvenile features into adulthood] has fostered civilizations, the arts, and music.”

Contrary to popular opinion, work and play are not polar opposites. Play and depression are. “Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul.”

He quotes with approval James Michener’s autobiography: “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body. His information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both.”

Research has discovered that highly successful people have a rich play life. On these pages you’ll find evidence that people who play well are healthier, happier, brighter, more daring, better socialized, more empathetic, more concerned about justice, more productive and efficient—well, there hardly seems to be a downside. They certainly are a lot more fun to hang out with.

This column is read primarily by church ministers and leaders; most of us take our calling very seriously. Play is a good reminder that, as gospel songs have it, we really can be “happy in the service of the king.” “There is joy in serving Jesus.”

Happy service, joy in serving, playful work. These are brain-shapers, not oxymorons.

 

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

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