I’ve been thinking a lot about Board Games and Worship. Together. Yes, at the same time. This may seem like a strange intellectual intersection. It’s likely a consequence of me playing D&D on Fridays as a dwarf cleric named after a 4th century theologian. Nevertheless, please give me the benefit of the doubt and let me try to explain where my mind has been drifting…
In the summer of 1860, George Tapley invited his friend Milton Bradley to play a British board game, the Mansion of Happiness. Bradley’s new press was failing, and Tapley thought a little game play might brighten Bradley’s mood. The Mansion of Happiness was a puritanical race game, “where players rolled dice and moved counterclockwise around a spiral track while being sent backward or forward by special spaces along the way.”¹ The game was designed as a teaching tool, instructing players on morality. One rule stated bluntly, “Whoever becomes a Sabbath Breaker must be taken to the Whipping Post and whipt.”²
(No worries, I’m not in favor of instituting punishment for bad worship attendance.)
You see, Bradley was entranced by the game. And ultimately remade it in the image of the American morality of his day. He billed his version, The Checkered Game of Life as “a highly moral game…that encourages children to lead exemplary lives.”³ By 1959 one-hundred years after Milton Bradley was founded, the game was remade again. This time it was simply called Life—roughly the same version in print today. Reflecting the changes in the times, the goal was no longer the heavenly kingdom, but a very in-this-world Mansion. As one author put it, “Good deeds were out, greenbacks were in.”4
It seems that Life—in all its forms—was and is a sort of pedagogy, even a simulation with each version teaching the values of the age of which it was a part. With its limited choices and high degree of randomness, Life demonstrates both the significance of one’s choices (What career will I choose?) and the reality that not everything is within one’s control (as the plastic spinner bore witness). In an odd way the game reflects what Barbara Brown Taylor describes as, “an elegant order that underlies chaos.”5
At its best, community worship works the same way. The sanctuary is like a board, and the liturgical rules and structure open up a space for play—a space where new and beautifully unexpected things can and do happen. And what happens, what is read, what is said, and what is enacted are all intended to be a sort of pedagogical simulation of life, inculcating us into the patterns and habits of the reign of God.
In this pattern of play we encounter the promises of God, but also the reality that God doesn’t always behave exactly the same way twice. We find that our decisions matter, but that they alone do not determine who we will become. And in this beautiful game we discover that the God of the Cross would rather come and die among us than have us “taken to the Whipping Post and whipt.”
Like the game of Life and all its predecessors, worship is trying to show us through our play how to live well in the age and the world we inhabit. As a colleague of mine says frequently, “Sunday morning is practice for the rest of our lives.” My hope is that—sort of like ol’ Milton Bradley—we might discover joy and hope in this strange form of play, especially when there’s uncertainty about what our next move might be.
- Tristan Donovan, It All a Game (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2017), 53.
- Donovan, 54.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web (Lanham: Cowley, 2000), 71.