In a well-known verse from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts his disciples with the following: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Sadly, few theologians have followed the Lord’s advice; and theology has grown old, taking the visage of stodgy, European men—dominated by reason and Western ideology—rather than the joyful play of children. This has brought global Christianity to a state of crisis, for Christianity has rapidly expanded around the world, while theology has remained static, dominated by Western orthodoxy, ethnocentrism, and reason.
In response to this crisis, Vondey suggests that theology must return to the playground so that it may be renewed and flourish in its current global space. Inspired largely by Gadamer and Suurmond, he applies the metaphor of “play” to the theological crisis, painting a unique way forward for theology, in which the stodgy ways of performance are traded for childlike play. Thus, theology becomes an “activity done for the joy of doing it and not for any performative, competitive, functionalistic, rationalistic, or utilitarian reasons. Theologically speaking, play is the joy of God in which we participate” (13).
Particularly essential to Vondey’s quest is introducing classical Pentecostalism into global theological play. He recognizes Pentecostalism as a particular manifestation of the contemporary crisis, because its transitional nature challenges established social, cultural, and religious forms of thought and praxis. Consequently, each chapter consists of three parts: the examination of a specific aspect of the crisis, an analysis of classical Pentecostalism as a manifestation of the particular attribute, and a proposal for global Christianity, offering resources from the Pentecostal tradition to overcome the particular element of the crisis.
This is far from a mere call for a Pentecostal revival though. Vondey’s vision is much grander. In fact, he notes that play “seeks to transform everything that existed before and apart from play into something that now exists due to its absorption into the reality of play” (76). Thus, by bringing Pentecostal tradition into play with global Christianity, Pentecostalism is transformed and absorbed. Hence, Beyond Pentecostalism suggests “both that Pentecostal faith and praxis are significant beyond Pentecostal circles and that Pentecostalism, as it engages the global Christian agenda, is in the process of going beyond its own historical, theological, sociocultural, and institutional boundaries” (7).
This is precisely what makes Vondey’s proposal refreshing. The performance-oriented methods of theologians such as Vanhoozer fail to liberate theology from the cognitive-linguistic level of Scripture. This focus continues to favor competition for “right” interpretation and performance, perpetuating the battle among Christian communities for the singular title of “church.” In contrast, Vondey calls for a shift from cognitive performance to imaginative play, allowing orthodoxy and orthopraxy to integrate with orthopathy. Subsequently, theology transcends orthodox structures dominated by reason, challenging them to change, expand, and grow. Therefore, revelation expands beyond the textuality and performance of written text, doctrine beyond the creed as a rule of faith, liturgy beyond its identity as a product of the church, ecclesiality beyond the structures of Western culture, and classical Pentecostalism beyond its own self-identity. Hence, rather than a Pentecostal revival—which often contains separatist tendencies and an interest in self-growth—Vondey desires for a change in agenda to that of renewal—a globally focused agenda emphasizing “changes in religious life, institutions, structures, liturgy, catechesis, worship, preaching, ecumenical relations, and theological parlance” (193).
While Vondey’s proposal for an imaginatively playful theology of the heart maps a joyful and restored Christian theology for the global sphere, his offering does raise a few questions as well. These primarily center on the nature of play and the exclusivity of the Christian message. For instance, he recommends that there be play between culture and the church, wherein spiritual discernment comes from both sides. However, one wonders how global Christianity protects itself against syncretism and a loss of its exclusivity? Moreover, one wonders if play is a sufficient metaphor to deal with more serious issues such as sin and judgment. While play invites areas of nonplay into play, what is to be done with those areas which refuse to play? In the same vein, is it possible that combining elements of performance and play will address these concerns?