Wolfgang Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. xiii + 267 pp. $32.00 paperback.
Theology is serious stuff, is it not? After all, theology deals with the God and God in Christ, the necessity of salvation and impending judgment of the world. To define theology as a type of play seems counter-intuitive. Yet the possibility that a theology of play can address the crisis of current theological discussions is the task taken up by Wolfgang Vondey. He proposes that Pentecostalism’s global character is best interpreted through the lens of the theology of play and is therefore in a position to revitalize the ecumenical crisis of theology in late modernity.
Vondey’s concern is an ecumenical one in that he refuses to privilege Western theological perspectives, even Pentecostal ones, while minimizing global contexts. Vondey does not look to the origins of classical Pentecostalism as a golden age, but pushes beyond their boundaries to propose a global and ecumenical theology. Theology is in crisis because a paradigm shift has occurred where the majority of Christians are in the developing world and this shift is creating new theological insights and trajectories. Pentecostalism broadly defined is also a developing world phenomenon, which makes its transnational, transethnic, and multicultural voices important in theological discourse.
The theology of play captures the essence of global Christianity and especially Pentecostalism. Play is understood as an engagement with the divine in liturgical worship that through the subjunctive (“as if”) ritual envisions an alternate reality. Ritual play crosses the liminal boundary from the mundane to the sacred (V. Turner). Modernity however has truncated the “field of play” with its emphasis on the utilitarian use of resources defined by usefulness. The modernist theological project is thus defined by performance, competition, rationalism, and functional concerns. Vondey’s argues the root metaphor of “performance” succumbs to the modernist agenda. When theology is understood as performance, then God’s work is cast as useful, productive and ordered, and privileges purpose over existence.
Play rather than performance is a better metaphor for grounding global theology, argues Vondey, though the terms are related. Performance is a dramatic expression that attempts to correlate the narrative of Scripture with the church’s theological project. Performance gives priority to cognitive faculties in order to define the narrative and creedal boundaries of liturgy and theology. However, performance leaves little space at the margins for the theological imagination to contextualize the gospel in its various cultural situations. Performance also creates a divide between the enactors of ritual (i.e., the ministerial) and the laity who passively “observe” the performance. Conversely, the spontaneous improvisation of play allows for an active kinesthetic embodiment of the gospel though the free play of the Spirit and full participation of the people of God. In liturgical practice, Pentecostals “discern” with the Spirit in unexpected and transformative ways.
The opposition between performance and play is not as sharp however as Vondey suggests. Granted, performance can be co-opted for utilitarian reasons and used as a metaphor for market competition, but performance can also be seen as a subset of play. In Ritual and its Consequences,1 Seligmann, Weller, Puett and Simon propose a fourfold typology of play that either affirms or subverts social roles, and allows the player to either retain or lose self control in ritual: Agôn is a type of play that develops skills in competitive games through ritualized battles or games, such as football or chess, while mimicry is a type of play characterized by simulation or drama with rites of reversal and drama. Performance is a key characteristic of both agôn and mimicry. Alea is a type of play characterized by chance in which the player has no control over the outcome of the game, while ilinx is the pursuit of vertigo (i.e., spinning in circles or riding roller coasters) in acts similar to intoxification and spirit possession. Pentecostal liturgy is predominantly characterized by alea and ilinx with its kinesthetic and emotional expressiveness. Historic liturgy is characterized by agôn and mimicry with its formal mastery of liturgical practice. The point is that performance is a form of play rather than in opposition to it.
Despite this concern, Vondey offers an intriguing proposal for pushing Pentecostal theology beyond its own boundaries to dialogue in the ecumenical field as a prominent player in the theological game. Beyond Pentecostalism has far reaching implications for the negotiation of theology in the global context that liberates and gives voice to the margins.
1 Adam B. Seligman, Robert P Weller, Michael J. Puett and Bennett Simon, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay of the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 76-80