Fathom Mag

A Conversation with Courtney Ellis

Her new book establishing a theology of play and playfulness

Published on:
August 2, 2021
Read time:
9 min.
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A certain lightness attends each of Courtney Ellis’ words.

This isn’t to say the author, pastor and Fathom columnist is an unserious person. Ellis never wears a pasted-on smile, the countenance of a soul wishing reality away. Rather, her good humor and abiding encouragement—on the page or Twitter, and in conversation—resembles Wendell Berry’s posture: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

Ellis gently dares readers to believe God is actually a God of delight.

Ellis’ new book, Happy Now, takes a serious step toward establishing a theology of play and playfulness. Uniting authentic—and downright funny—anecdotes, a thoughtful treatment of Scripture and suggestions for life-giving, right-this-minute practices, Ellis gently dares readers to believe God is actually a God of delight. 

Ellis—who I count a dear friend—and I traded emails about her book (which I eagerly endorsed). Here, we discuss playfulness in the time of COVID, the work of the author in community, and why reading Scripture out loud might increase our love and lighten our load. 

DANIELSEN: I know you were deep into this project before COVID came along and changed almost everything about daily life. You touch on this a bit throughout, but how did the pandemic affect your perspective on the themes of the book? How do you think the past year-and-a-half might change the way an audience receives its message?

ELLIS: I turned in the first draft of the manuscript on March 1, 2020. Then everything happened and, after a few months, my publisher told me the publication date would be delayed (we weren’t sure for how long at that point) and asked if I wanted to make any changes. 

Purchasing from the links for Happy Now may earn Fathom a small commission.

It’s funny because the bulk of the book didn’t change much—the principles and practices hold true. But I lived them out more deeply in the pandemic, and was able to write from that place and sharpen some of the chapters with an eye to my own lived practice. For instance, it’s easy to write about childlike joy in a season of abundance or comfort, but when thrust into a global pandemic where my husband and I also ended up as (surprise!) homeschooling parents to three young children while discipling a very politically-mixed congregation … Well, that’s where the theories get tested! 

But I’m convinced that play and Jesus saved me in this season. I lean toward seriousness very quickly, and without the lessons of playfulness I took in while writing the early manuscript, I don’t know how things would have shaken out for us. God was incredibly kind that way—knowing what I’d need and steeping me in it long before COVID even existed.

As to how an audience might receive it, my hope and prayer is that the book comes as a balm and an invitation. Being told “Play more!” when you’re exhausted isn’t grace—it’s burden. But this isn’t a “how to” book. It’s a gentle invitation into the land of delight. Almost every person I’ve spoken to as we’ve started to come, blinking, back into the sunlight after this strange hibernation is so hungry for joy. Playfulness is the fastest, surest path back there that I know.

One aspect of your books that I love is the wide scope of the sources and research. Here, you touch on everything from psychology to Hobbes' Leviathan and poets like Jane Kenyon and Ross Gay. As you worked on the book, how did you think about where to open up and where to limit your research? How does this book reveal your particular philosophy about the way the dots of life connect?

There is such wisdom found in community. As a writer, I’m constantly thinking, “What don’t I know? What am I missing? What am I failing to understand?” and then the corollary question: “Who can I talk to about it?” or “What research would help?” 

Folks were so gracious with their time when I called them or stopped by to chat about the book. You’ll find my senior pastor—Jackson Clelland—quoted more than a few times, and his brilliant wife Malaika, who is a Registered Play Therapist. 

But it isn’t all about talking with experts. Poets may not be “experts” in any traditional sense, but they see things we don’t and explore how to tell about them. And the fathers and mothers of the faith—people like Irenaeus and Julian of Norwich and Augustine—their words are as wise as ever.

Yet there comes a line where the writing needs to be my voice, my lived experience, my own understanding. Other voices chime in to add expertise, to enhance, and even to help me adjust my thesis but, at the end of the day, I’m the narrator, and trusting my own words and telling the story from the perspective I have. I am blessed to work with a wonderful team of editors who sometimes nudge me and ask, “Does this quote add to the momentum? Or are you just shying away from making a claim and sticking to it?” 

A final part of cracking through the barrier of seriousness is to remember that God isn’t serious. Sin is serious, and part of its brokenness is its unhealthy seriousness.

You write at length about how we are prone to making our faith overly serious, then show elements of playfulness in the Scripture—even discussing Jesus like a top-flight, improvising jazz musician. How can we crack the former to enjoy more of the latter? That is, what little tweaks can we make in our approach to Scripture that will make its inherent playfulness jump off the page?

I am a huge fan of reading Scripture out loud. It’s so easy to gloss over the hilarious, the strange, or the startling when we read silently. Since so much of Scripture began in the oral tradition, it’s meant to be spoken and heard, and it comes alive that way. 

Beyond that, studying the culture of the ancient near-east can be so helpful for understanding the jokes, the allusions, and the references. Humor doesn’t always translate easily from one setting to the next, even if that’s just Wisconsin to California, and when you throw in thousands of years of distance, different languages, and unfamiliar cultures, it can be easy to miss the playfulness of Jesus. Even Shakespeare’s jokes often need explaining, and he’s incredibly recent when we’re thinking on a Biblical timeline.

A final part of cracking through the barrier of seriousness is to remember that God isn’t serious. Sin is serious, and part of its brokenness is its unhealthy seriousness. God is profoundly good and loving and thoughtful and weighty and powerful and merciful and all of these things. But God isn’t serious. Seriousness includes a rigidity and joylessness that we simply do not find in the God of Scripture. I go back time and time again to a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached about the fear of God: “Only God is in earnest, entirely in earnest. Fear God’s earnestness, and give God the glory.”

I really struggle with, and frankly feel guilt over, my failures to own a childlike faith. How do you think the ideas in Happy Now might free Christians to come to Jesus as children? 

I once heard someone say—I don’t remember whom, so if someone else has heard this quote somewhere, let me know!—that Jesus welcomes children not because they are perfect and innocent, but because they are incompetent. I love this so much, because it takes all the pressure away. Your average 4-year-old is shameless. If they see a treat they want, they’ll ask for it. If they’re mad someone stole their toy, they’ll either tattle or grab it back. They are fully themselves. 

The connecting thread between grace and playfulness is that—at their best—both feel effortless.
Courtney Ellis

As a parent, this can sometimes be maddening and exhausting. But as a Christian it is so, so hopeful and heartening. God wants our full selves—messy, unencumbered, incompetent, striving, serious, exhausted. Wherever we are, God will meet us right there. 

As to the question of guilt, I think that goes to the root of this idea that God is expecting some performance from us, or some false grown-up-ness that we need to achieve. But the most mature Christians I know are those who can most easily own their flaws and their foibles. They are quick to apologize. They aren’t prickly with attempted perfection. They’re on a journey with God, and that open-handed posture toward God and the world allows for such delight.

So I guess I’d say if you’re doing it badly, you’re doing it right. But God would love to lift the guilt piece away. And even when we cling to it, God’s still right there pouring out grace.

The connecting thread between grace and playfulness is that—at their best—both feel effortless. It’s that groove a musician gets into when she forgets the world around because she’s so into the music. It’s the painter who loses all track of time because he’s so absorbed in color and light. It’s the sinner who pours out a flood of tears and then rises from the floor made new through no effort of her own.

Play primes us for other spiritual disciplines by fostering creativity and innovation and connection.

It seems like the spiritual disciplines overlap, at least to some degree. None of them exist in a vacuum. If playfulness really is a spiritual discipline, how do you think we can bring a bit of it into the others? And vice-versa?

Playfulness is absolutely a spiritual practice! We’ve been experimenting in this season with more playfulness at our church, and it has borne such wonderful fruit. We have Bible studies and small groups and all those usual church-y things, but we also have art classes, where people are invited to paint their prayers, and after-church ping-pong, where competition begets fellowship. 

Play primes us for other spiritual disciplines by fostering creativity and innovation and connection. I regularly go through dry seasons in my prayer life when the words simply won’t come; but if I pull out my journal or go for a walk or get out some colored pencils, the prayer is there once again. God understands our scribblings, our feet pounding the pavement, our paper-airplane prayers. If the Holy Spirit can intercede for us with groans too deep for words, you’d better believe God can parse a painting.

When we’re struggling with stagnation or motivation or exhaustion, approaching spiritual practices playfully can be just the ticket. And sometimes that playful exploration needs to begin with rest. There can be such wonderful, glorious delight in tucking in for a nap when that is what our souls need most.

This is such a pastoral book, threading the needle between vision and application. And I can sense your shepherding heart for readers on the page. As you've pursued pastoring and writing in parallel, how have you seen those tracks converge and influence each other?

I never intended to go into ministry. My career path was English lit professor all the way. I’m a storyteller at heart. But little by little God tugged me onto this path, and the best part is that the pastoral vocation really is about being a storyteller. Sometimes that’s in the pulpit, other times it’s on the page. Many of the poets and authors and theologians I quote in Happy Now find their way into my church ministry, and others landed in the book because I’ve been quoting them in my sermons for years. 

Playfulness is so often a sign of grace and healing.

Back before I even considered going to seminary, I asked one of my undergraduate professors if I should become a writer. A short story of mine won a few awards and I had stars in my eyes. He told me I should seek a vocation that would honor God and pay the bills, and that if I was supposed to be a writer, I wouldn’t be able to stop writing.

That’s held true, and I’m so grateful. I know there are writers out there who are hoping their books enable them to leave their day jobs, but for me the two vocations are so intertwined I couldn’t do one without the other. I thank my congregation in the acknowledgments of the book because they are the folks who have taught me so much about playful faith. Pastoring is a hard, heartbreaking vocation, but I also get to witness miracles on the regular. And I don’t use that word lightly.

A short but perhaps wide-reaching question: How would the world look different if Christians were among the most playful people in it?

Gosh, this question brings me to tears. It’s truly one of my heart’s greatest desires to see the church—particularly the church in America—let go of its culture wars and stop majoring in the minors and picking the wrong battles and instead learn to follow the playful, earnest, storytelling Jesus we find in the Gospels. Playfulness is so often a sign of grace and healing.

Tax collectors and “sinners” all wanted to have dinner with this guy. Would they want to have dinner with me? With us? 

You can purchase your copy of Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit today. The Fathom editors think that would be a delightful idea. 

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

Cover image by Matt Ridley.

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