A Feature Review of
Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Engaging Culture Series)
Reviewed by Ben Simpson
In the past week, I have exercised at my local YMCA, listened to Wilco’s new Star Wars album, watched Sporting Kansas City play the Houston Dynamo to a 1-1 draw, listened to Kansas City Royals baseball, and undertaken two home improvement projects. I have read books and enjoyed time with friends and family. That is a small sample of what I have done while at leisure.
In the latest volume of BakerAcademic’s Engaging Culture series, Paul Heintzman takes up that very topic. Leisure and Spirituality is an in-depth examination of the historical, contemporary, and biblical understandings of leisure, and is prescriptive of ways Christian people can comprehend and engage in leisure in a manner that is faithful to the gospel.
Leisure, as a general concept, is most often thought of as discretionary time. But as Heintzman notes, philosophical and scientific explorations of leisure have yielded a variety of meanings. In academic literature, leisure is represented as a state of being, a non-work activity, free time, a symbol of social class, a psychological state, an enjoyable or meaningful experience, or an all-encompassing posture that enfolds all of life. The definition of leisure, in the academic world, is anything but singular.
In order to present a cohesive and practical understanding of leisure, Christians must take these various strands and bring them together as a single, woven thread. Throughout his work, Heintzman stresses the need for theological reflection and pastoral wisdom with regard to leisure. He writes, “it is essential for Christians to begin any consideration of a philosophy of leisure with the recognition that leisure must be God-centered and God-directed” (5). With regard to leisure, the beginning and end for Christian people is the Alpha and Omega himself.
The Need for Wisdom
The vast majority of us experience leisure. We pursue hobbies, watch sports, play with our children, or take walks. Granted, some of us have more time for leisure than others.
Within the church, how often have we been given wisdom concerning how to best engage in leisure? As Heintzman notes, “Twentieth-century Christianity has tended to stress pietistic practices, apostolic action, the work ethic, and human effort, while neglecting the more contemplative, leisurely, and passive dimensions of life” (xxiv).
The scant amount of theological reflection and biblical instruction on matters of leisure presents an opportunity for the church to fill the void and equip all people with adequate skills to navigate the realms of work and play with spiritual depth and God-inspired creativity.
Heintzman explores the resources presently at the church’s disposal by providing biblical background and Christian theological perspectives that illumine and edify. The Bible presents a number of concepts that pertain to leisure, among them the Sabbath, the idea of rest, and broader concepts such as festivals, feasts, friendship, hospitality, and dance that can inform a robustly Christian philosophy of leisure.
The Relationship Between Leisure and Work
But talk of leisure–alternatively called rest, recreation, or play–often brings to mind the concept of work. Throughout the Scriptures, we find a relationship between engagement and disengagement, work and rest.
During the Industrial Age, Christian theologians and pastors utilized the resources of the tradition to infuse meaning into work, paint an optimistic vision of the future, and to instill values like service, industriousness, or thrift into their congregants. Increased economic scale and the divorce of production from the life of local communities resulted in disorientation, and gave rise to the need for practical wisdom in matters of work.
Our contemporary dilemma is quite different. In the opening pages of his book, Heintzman notes that in present society, particularly in many subcultures, we are transitioning from a work ethic to a leisure ethic. Heintzman quotes Gordon J. Dahl, who warns us of an idol swap, wherein modern people abandon their worship of work and instead “will be tempted to bow down before the gods of play.”
This is precisely where this volume is at its best. While Heintzman’s work focuses on leisure, he presents his research against the backdrop of work as it is understood within the current milieu, creating a relief. In this respect, Heintzman is like the sages of Issachar (1 Chron. 12:32) a person who knows and understands the times, offering the church knowledge that can equip us to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus.
Heintzman brings work and leisure together, calling us to balance. We have been given work to do, and our work should be done in a God-glorifying manner. But as we see in the opening pages of Scripture, and all throughout, human beings are called to rest before God. Living faithfully as Christians requires us to not only rely on Christ for our redemption, but to trust him as he graciously leads us to conform to the pattern of his very life. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, including our leisure, it is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).