Play in Les Miserables and Isaiah

Some of the themes about fun I have been drawing out of the Bible are illustrated in a great work of literature. If you have seen the movie, you will remember that the orphan Cosette lives with the swindling Thenardier family, and is mistreated by them until she is adopted by the repentant criminal Jean Valjean. This story as told in the original novel demonstrates the goodness of play, the potential of sin in play, and the prerequisites of play; and it illustrates why we can play in the Kingdom of God.

The Goodness of Play

Among the great cruelties of the Thenardiers is their refusal to give Cosette a doll. Cosette gazes into a shop where an expensive doll is for sale, and to her it looks like paradise. The doll “was joy, splendour, riches, happiness.” Cosette is rarely allowed to play with a toy sword, and she dresses it up and sings it to sleep. The narrator explains:

The doll is one of the most imperious necessities, and at the same time one of the most charming instincts of female childhood. To care for, to clothe, to adorn, to dress, to undress, to dress over again, to teach, to scold a little, to rock, to cuddle, to put to sleep, to imagine that something is somebody–all the future of woman is there. Even while musing and prattling, while making little wardrobes and little baby-clothes, while sewing little dresses, little bodices, and little jackets, the child becomes a little girl, the little girl becomes a great girl, the great girl becomes a woman. The first baby takes the place of the last doll. A little girl without a doll is almost as unfortunate and quite as impossible as a woman without children.

Play is inherently “charming,” and is also useful for preparing a child for the important work of adulthood. It practices and displays the good functions of humanity, including the creativity that imitates God (see Theology of Fun: The Play of Creation). The Thenardier girls further demonstrate their creativity by dressing up their cat and enacting a story in which one girl is surprised at how hairy the other girl’s baby is. As we reflect God’s creativity and display the goodness of humanity, we bring glory to our Creator.

Finally, play brings happiness. When Jean Valjean meets Cosette, she is ugly because she is unhappy. When they move into a convent together, one of the best results is that Cosette is allowed an hour of play every day.

At the hours of recreation, Jean Valjean from a distance watched her playing and romping, and he could distinguish her laughter from the laughter of the rest. For, now, Cosette laughed. The gloomy cast had disappeared. Laughter is sunshine; it chases winter from the human face.

The result of this joy is that, when Cosette is fifteen years old, she is remarkably beautiful. The sunshine of laughter causes the rose to bloom.

The Potential Sin of Play

While the Thenardiers beat Cosette and force her to work, there is a group of drinkers constantly having a lot of fun. They laugh and sing an obscene and blasphemous song while completely ignoring Cosette’s plight. Rather than enjoying and displaying the goodness of creation for the glory of God, they pervert creation and dishonor Jesus; and their complete lack of seriousness prevents them from helping Cosette.

The Prerequisites of Play

Unlike the drinkers, Jean Valjean is determined to bring joy to Cosette. There are three related things that prevent Cosette from playing. First, she is terrified of Mrs. Thenardier. Second, she is forced to work with few breaks. Third, she does not have a doll. Jean Valjean has the means and the desire to overcome these obstacles. As Mrs. Thenardier makes Cosette knit stockings, Jean buys the unfinished stockings at an outrageously high price so that she will be free to play. After Mrs. Thenardier kicks Cosette for touching the girls’ doll, Jean buys the doll that Cosette had dreamed of from the shop. Unlike the drinkers, Jean Valjean is serious about letting children play.

Play in the Kingdom of God

Jesus, through his seriousness and suffering, buys His people the freedom to play. When we were slaves to fear, sin, and poverty, he bought our lives at the cost of his. By creating perfect peace, He frees us to play:

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,

and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.

Isaiah 11:8, ESV

Today we can play because the security, righteousness, and wealth of the new creation are already ours. And yet we are serious, because Jesus has called us to follow his example of laying down our lives to bring others into the joy of His kingdom. We are playful in our seriousness because nothing can take our eternal joy, and we are serious in our playfulness because our present joy is a foretaste of God’s eternal kingdom, bought at the high price of Jesus’ blood. The church must have fun, praise God for its freedom, and welcome the world into its joy.

Theology of Fun: Fun and Romance

Romance is more than fun, but fun is part of romance.

Abimelech knows that Rebekah is Isaac’s wife when he sees them laughing together (Genesis 26:8). They let the cat out of the bag by having more fun than siblings should have together. A husband and wife can laugh, play, and enjoy each other with an incomparable intimacy.

The lovers in the Song of Songs run together (Song of Solomon 1:4), not because of danger or urgent need, but from joy and excitement. Solomon leaps around like a gazelle, peeking through windows and lattices at the most beautiful woman, and invites her to join in his frollicking (Song of Solomon 2:8–10). Later, the play becomes more intimate:

Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit.

Song of Songs 7:8-9, ESV

The final verse of Song of Songs ends just as playfully:

Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices.

Song of Songs 8:14

Among the many joys of romance and marriage is a unique, playful intimacy. Lovers are swept by powerful emotions to laugh, run, and play together. Safety, joy, and desire overflow into active enjoyment. Romantic fun is a gift from God, and should be enjoyed for His glory.

Theology of Fun: The Play of Creation

O LORD, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom have you made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

Here is the sea, great and wide,

which teems with creatures innumerable,

living things both small and great.

There go the ships,

and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.

Psalm 104:24-26, ESV

Creation as Play

In chapter 3 of Theology of Play, Jürgen Moltmann compares God’s act of creation to play. Like play, creation is unnecessary, because God does not need anything. God’s creation is a theater in which He displays and enjoys His glory. He shows off His abilities by making a variety of creatures with unique appearances and abilities. The ocean especially is full of bizarre creatures, and every one glorifies God in its own way.

The Play of Creatures

God’s creation glorifies Him by playing. When animals play, they show off the abilities that God gave them. A deer leaps, a bird swoops and sings, two dogs wrestle, a humpback whale does a cannonball, a gorilla steals something from a silverback and runs. A boy balances on a ledge, a girl takes care of a doll, a woman moves her hips to music, a man throws a 40-yard pass. In all of these actions, we see the goodness of God’s creation.

Play as Creation

As God’s image-bearers, humans imitate God’s act of creation in their play. Whether we are imagining, doodling, role-playing, or playing a game, play creates a little world with its own facts and rules. This can be seen in the games the children are playing in Matthew 11:16–17. They may pretend to be dancing at a wedding, or mourning at a funeral. A good playmate would enter the imaginary world and feel emotions appropriate to the story. Jesus condemns his generation for being like the spoilsports who won’t play any of these games.

Theology of Fun: Fun is Good

“Theology of fun” is a phrase you might hear from a youth pastor, but what does it mean? The importance of the subject is clear, because fun and play are naturally an important part of our lives. If the Bible does not approve of fun, then everything from watching football to playing with our kids is a “guilty pleasure.”

And yet there is surprisingly little written on this subject. My initial Google search was not very fruitful, though I’ll link to two helpful articles at the end of this post. Some articles are about “why you need a theology of fun,” and others are about “my personal theology of fun.” The confusion that exists on this topic is hilariously epitomized at the end of an opinion article in Baptist News: “Fun needs to be a part of our Christian lives. I’m pretty sure it’s in the Bible — somewhere.”

So I hope this post will be my first of many contributions to this subject. The point of this post is that play, dancing, and laughter are blessings from God.

Play is a Blessing

Thus says the LORD of Hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.

Zechariah 8:4-5, ESV

The kingdom of God is marked by the blessings of old age and joyful children. This is a picture of peace, joy, and abundance– the children can play because there is nothing to fear, and their lives are not consumed with labor. Childrens’ play is not only a means to an end, but is itself a blessing to be enjoyed.

Dancing is a Blessing

Their bull breeds without fail;

their cow calves and does not miscarry.

They send out their little boys like a flock,

and their children dance.

They sing to the tambourine and the lyre

and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.

Job 21:10-11

Job complains that the wicked are blessed by God. The verses cited here are an expansion of the blessings described in of Deuteronomy 28:4, and give a beautiful picture of the abundant life that God can give. The word translated dance here literally means leap around. These children are bursting with joy and energy, and the result is a fun dance.

Laughter is a Blessing

And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; and everyone who hears will laugh over me.”

Genesis 21:6

Sarah praises God for giving her laughter. The unexpected joy in ironic circumstances climaxed with laughter at God’s unusual providence. This creates a memorable story that is still fun to read. Isaac is a gift from God, and so is the laughter he brings.

Recommended Resources

https://joeiovino.com/2011/07/08/a-theology-of-fun/

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/holy-play

Hannah’s Song and Jesus’ Power

Jesus is often depicted as powerless, or as seeking to give up his power. Representative is this quote from a recent article:

One of the things that defined Jesus’ ministry was that his authority never sprung from an (earthly) title he held, nor did he cling to power. In fact, he gave it up at the cost of his life, which of course, changed everything. Real authority doesn’t spring from an office, a title, or power. It springs from humility, love, and a clear sense of how the Kingdom of God is advancing in the world.

Carey Nieuwhof, 12 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2022 and the Post-Pandemic Era

You can see that Nieuwhof tries to be nuanced, saying that Jesus had real authority that came from a heavenly title, and that his death changed everything; but his use of the word “power” is imprecise at best. What does it mean to say that Jesus’ authority did not come from power? What kind of power did Jesus give up?

A better way to describe Jesus’ releationship to power is to say that he does not need inferior forms of power, because his power comes directly from God. He has the power to calm storms, raise the dead, feed thousands, and forgive sins. His earthly titles (e.g. son of David, king of the Jews, rabbi) carried real authority because they were backed by God’s power and authority. And because of his humble obedience to God, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). Today he is seated at the right hand of God with all authority in Heaven and on Earth, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He rules the nations with a rod of iron, commanding the rise and fall of empires, guarding his church with legions of angels, killing and bringing new life.

Hannah predicted a king like Jesus. Her song teaches that the Lord has the power to undo any inferior form of power: bows (1 Samuel 2:4), bread and children (1 Samuel 2:5), life (1 Samuel 2:6), wealth and positions (1 Samuel 2:7). His power is greater than anything else in the world, because He created the world (1 Samuel 2:8). Those who are faithful to God will be guarded by His power, and the wicked will be destroyed by it; and this is more important than human strength (1 Samuel 2:9). This is the power that will allow God’s anointed king to defeat all of his enemies and judge the ends of the earth (1 Samuel 2:10).

Jesus is not the first king anointed by God and strengthened by His power. Samuel anoints Saul, turning a coward into a warrior until the Spirit leaves him. Samuel anoints David, and the Lord sustains him when he appears to be powerless. Hezekiah is saved by the angel of the Lord, and Josiah is commissioned to bring repentance and judgment. Their earthly titles carried real authority to the extent that they were backed by God’s power.

Jesus fulfills this pattern to the greatest extent possible. As the sinless Son of God, there is no doubt that the power of God will guard him and strengthen him. He receives the nations as his heritage (Psalm 2:8) and waits for God to make his enemies into his footstool (Psalm 110:1). He has no need for earthly wealth or friendship with Caesar, because God’s power is more than sufficient.

In the kingdom of God, the righteous are blessed by the power of God. By the power of God the poor receive the kingdom of heaven, those who mourn are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied (Matthew 5:3–6). Receiving hardship for Jesus’ sake is a blessing because of the reward that God will give (Matthew 5:10–12).

Application

I write this, in part, to avoid the bad applications that some make from Jesus’ apparent powerlessness. Nieuwhof’s point in the passage quoted above is that it is okay if people do not respect the office of pastors or of other leaders, because our authority comes from our character. I could agree with this if I qualified it enough, but what Nieuwhof seems to be saying is that leadership positions do not carry inherent authority, and I think this is wrong. Kings, pastors, and CEOs are appointed by God, and rule with some of His authority. Even bad leaders like Saul or the Pharisees should be respected because of their position (1 Samuel 24:6, Matthew 23:2–3). Jesus did have positions and titles, and they were no less powerful when they were not respected by the world. When Jews did not obey the King of the Jews, it was their loss.

Should Christians seek earthly power? Yes, but not as an idol. The blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1–14 are all forms of power, and God blesses us with them in this life and the next. It would be wrong to not desire these good blessings from God, and it is equally wrong to seek them apart from God’s blessing. Power usually only comes to those who seek it, and there is no reason to leave most of the world in the hands of the devil when Jesus is reigning from heaven. Christians should gladly receive “earthly” forms of power from God and use them for His kingdom, and they should also rejoice when they are persecuted by the powers of the world. Though we do not need bread, land, children, money, or political power, it is good when God puts these things in the hands of the righteous. They will all be ours some day, so we can gladly receive them or patiently wait for them. God shows his power both by giving these blessings and by working in their absence. Hannah celebrates that God powerfully takes the powerless and makes them powerful in every way. Jesus does this as he casts out demons, heals the lame, and gives his Apostles the keys to his kingdom. God’s power doesn’t stay in Heaven, and avoiding power does not makes us spiritual. God made man and told him to take dominion of the earth, and the Son of Man has been fulfilling this mission for 2000 years.

How the Count of Monte Cristo Learns to Forgive

The Quest for Cosmic Justice

After unjustly being sent to prison for fourteen years, Edmond Dantes desires to see God’s providence in the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. When he suddenly acquires a fortune, he has the ability to bring this about himself. He finds his friend poor and his enemies rich, and begins a decade-long project of correcting cosmic injustice. Here is what he says after anonymously saving his most loyal friend from destitution and suicide:

And now, farewell kindness, humanity, and gratitude! Farewell to all the feelings that expand the heart! I have been Heaven’s substitute to recompense the good — now the God of Vengeance yields to me his power to punish the wicked!

He is single-minded in this quest, though he knows that divine justice will be accomplished even if he fails. When it appears for an evening that he will have to lay down his life before his project of vengeance is complete, he writes a note on his will about the nature of his death, and looks up to Heaven and says:

I do this, O my God! as much for thy honour as for mine. I have for ten years considered myself the agent of thy vengeance; and other wretches, like Morcerf, a Danglars, a Villefort, even Morcerf himself must not imagine that chance has freed them from their enemy. Let them know, on the contrary, that their punishment which had been decreed by Providence is only delayed by my present resolve, that although they may escape it in this world, it awaits them in another, and that they are only exchanging time for eternity.

This is not forgiveness, but it is an admission that human vengeance is not necessary, because the Lord will not leave any sin unpunished forever.

The Need for Forgiveness

Part of the count’s revenge against Villefort involved stirring up conflict in his family and putting the idea of using poison into Mrs. Villefort’s mind. This gets out of hand, and ends with Mrs. Villefort poisoning her young son and herself. When the count reveals his identity to Villefort, Villefort surprises him by taking him upstairs to see what he has done.

“Edmond Dantes!” he said, pointing to the bodies of his wife and child. “See! are you well avenged?”

Monte Cristo became pale at this horrible sight; he felt he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say “God is for and with me.”

The count fails to save the child’s life and then finds Villefort mad. He runs out of the house, “for the first time doubting whether he had the right to do what he had done.” This is the moment when he has a change of heart, crying “Oh! enough of this, — enough of this, let me save the last.” And so he saves his last enemy, Danglars, instead of letting him die of hunger:

“Do you repent?” asked a deep, solemn voice, which caused Danglars’ hair to stand on end. His feeble eyes tried to distinguish objects, and behind the bandit he saw a man enveloped in a cloak, half hidden by the shadow of a stone column.

“Of what must I repent?” stammered Danglars.

“Of the evil you have done,” said the voice.

“Oh yes! oh yes! I do indeed repent.” And he struck his breast with his emaciated fist.

“Then I forgive you,” said the man, dropping his cloak, and advancing to the light.

“The Count of Monte Cristo!” said Danglars, more pale from terror than he had been just before from hunger and misery.

“You are mistaken, — I am not the Count of Monte Cristo!”

“Then who are you?”

“Someone whom you sold and dishonoured, — whose betrothed you prostituted, — upon whom you trampled that you might raise yourself to fortune, — whose father you condemned to die of hunger, — whom you also condemned to starvation, and who yet forgives you, because he hopes to be forgiven. I am Edmond Dantes!”

Danglars uttered a cry and fell prostrate.

“Rise,” said the count, “your life is safe; the same good fortune has not happened to your accomplices; one is mad, the other dead. Keep the 50,000 francs you have left, I give them to you. The 5,000,000 you stole from the hospitals has been restored to them by an unknown hand. And now, eat and drink; I will entertain you to-night. Vampa, when this man is satisfied, let him go.”

The Count of Monte Cristo forgives because he also needs forgiveness from God. He sees the horror of his own sin, and loses his taste for vengeance. He takes these words of Jesus to heart:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:15

Perform Accurate Original Language Searches in Logos Bible Software

If you have a basic knowledge of Biblical languages, you can follow this guide to search the Bible for the exact phrase you’re looking for. Practice so that after a minute of typing you will be able to say with confidence how many times a phrase appears in the NT and in the LXX. I will use my recent search for the relevant passages in the “faith in Christ” vs. “faithfulness of Christ” debate as an example.

1. Find a Lemma

Start by typing “lemma:” to make sure you find all the variations of the word. Then type “g:” for Greek or “h:” for Hebrew, and start typing the transliteration of your word (e.g. pistis for πίστις). Logos will give you a few options to transform your transliteration into real Greek or Hebrew,

2. Use BEFORE to Connect Another Word

The search above means that Logos will look for “faith” before the word “Christ,” and the maximum distance will be two words. Examples of these being two words apart would be pistis Iesou Christou or pistis tou Christou. Instead of words, you can specify a distance of characters; Logos likes to use BEFORE 4 CHARS to find words right next to each other, but to me it seems better to specify words. (Why include the atricle o but not tou?) Instead of BEFORE, you can use WITHIN if you’re not picky about order.

3. Use @ to Specify Part of Speech

Above, I type “@” directly after Christos to select the genitive case. You can also use “@” by itself to select any genitive noun, for example.

Use OR to broaden your search

Here I want to also find the phrase “faith of Jesus.” If I want to be thorough, I can use OR to also look for the verb form of faith, pisteuo. You can also narrow your search by using AND.

Switch to the Septuagint

Once you’ve crafted your perfect search, easily switch from the New Testament to the LXX or Josephus or whatever else you want to search.

This step doesn’t make much sense for the example I’ve been using, but when I use “@” without a lemma I can look for any genitive after pistis; shot in the dark, but the 1 Maccabees verse looks relevant. Note that I switch to NRSV to translate this one.

How Thomas Aquinas Defines Theology

I have often wondered why theology covers so many subjects. Aquinas explains the boundaries of theology: it is always ultimately about God, and it rests on the Bible. The following quotes are from this Kindle version, pages 45-48.

Theology Studies God

“For it is called theology, as treating of God. Therefore God is the object of this science.”

Theology Studies Creation Only as it Relates to God

In sacred science, all things are treated of under the aspect of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end.

Scripture is the Sole Infallible Rule of Faith

Sacred doctrine… properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.”

Biden Sends Navy in Search of White Whale

Since his inauguration, President Biden has thought of little other than the white whale whom he calls Covi Dick.

Some doubt the existence of the whale, and others think it was genetically engineered by the Chinese military. Some see it as a divine judgment against humanity, and others think it is a force of nature that can’t be stopped. But the president is sure that this whale is a mask for Satan himself, and that it is his destiny to kill it.

Critics are questioning whether this is a proper use of the military, and whether hunting whales is an enumerated power of the executive branch. But the president will hear no dissent. “You can build more boats, you can have more sons, but there is only one whale, and one Biden to kill him.”

The Navy was hesitant at first, but Biden offered them plenty of money to head toward the whale at “warp speed.” Some generals tried commanding their fleets to stay and defend the United States, but Biden “got them out of the way.” Now, hundreds of miles from the coast, some sailors are questioning whether this is what they really signed up for when they joined the Navy.

The president assured the sailors that they are completely safe, and that he understands their anger at those who endangered them by refusing to volunteer for the Navy.

Fruit

Fruit is a product of labor that is produced organically instead of by a mechanical process. In the beginning, God gave fruit to man and animals (Gen 1:30). Man was made to work and keep the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:5), but not to assemble its fruit. Fruit is produced through relationships and health as well as by labor, and a farmer cannot completely control it. Literal fruit is a result of rain sent by God, soil with organic matter, animal pollination, and light. With these conditions, a healthy plant grows fruit according to its nature. A child, the fruit of the womb, is similarly a gift from God produced through relationship and labor.

God’s old covenant people are sometimes described as his vineyard which He works and cares for. The fruit which they are meant to produce is not only wine, grain, oil, flocks, and children, but also justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7). All of these blessings depend on being in right relationship with God by keeping his commandments, and they are especially threatened by idolatry. A great description of the Old Testament picture of fruitfulness is the blessings described in Deuteronomy 28:1–13.

While Israel and Judah are often judged for their lack of fruit, God’s new covenant people fill the whole world with fruit (Isaiah 27:6, Matthew 21:43). The New Testament continues to stress the importance of producing the fruit of righteousness (Matthew 3:8, Romans 6:22, Ephesians 5:9, Philippians 1:11, Colossians 1:10, Hebrews 12:11, James 3:17–18), and also discusses ministry in terms of sowing and reaping (e.g. John 4:35–38). The way that we produce all of this fruit is by remaining connected to Jesus in a relationship of faith (see What Does it Mean to Abide in Christ?), as our Father prunes us to make us fruitful. Like a healthy tree, the fruit we bear should multiply through ministry, so that others will bear the same fruit of righteousness.