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The New York Times has been, one suspects, doing very well these days through its Games/Puzzle division. Of course for almost as long as the Times has existed it has been known for its crossword puzzles. I have no idea how many people have played the daily crossword over the years but no doubt it is a lot. Still, crossword puzzles are tough and lots of folks I know, including me, have never quite gotten into crosswords and deciphering the various double entendres and other quirks contained in the clues. Crosswords seem to have very nearly their own grammar.
But then along came a man named Josh Wardle who invented an online game that played off his own name called Wordle and it quickly became a global sensation. The concept was simple: you get six chances to guess the day’s five-letter word. Mr. Wardle also had the exceedingly good idea of encouraging players to post their scores to social media, and before you knew it the game exploded as Facebook friends asked one another “What is that game you post about every day?”
It was so popular that the NY Times bought the rights to it for a sum somewhere in seven digits. The newspaper has kept the game free (whereas you need a special Puzzle subscription to access most of their games) and it sounds like they have had a lot of collateral wins as people have decided to subscribe to play other games like Spelling Bee and the recently launched Connections. Spelling Bee gives you a hive of seven letters and the middle letter of the hive has to be in every word you can find four letters long or longer. Each day there is at least one pangram that uses all seven letters. You advance along until you reach higher levels of daily distinction like Solid. Nice. Great. Amazing. Genius. And then there is Queen Bee if you find every word the game’s editor determined was possible and allowed for that day.
The new Connections game gives you sixteen seemingly random words from among which you need to find four sets of connections of four words each until all sixteen words are in one of the groups. But you can make wrong connection groups only four times before you are finished. And most every day they supply words that can easily fit in more than one Connection group, increasing the odds you will start to mess up. For instance, yesterday one connection group was clearly related to the Old West. But wait, the sixteen words included Lasso, Cowboy, Sheriff, Frontier, Outlaw, Drifter. Which four are in the Old West group? Turns out the right grouping was Cowboy, Sheriff, Outlaw, Drifter. Frontier was in another group of airlines and Lasso was in the category of last names for TV characters. Clever stuff.
Why do we like puzzles? Well of course they are simply fun and—most of the time—relaxing. And let’s not deny that we all enjoy the little buzz we get from hitting it right. Word games and also the Connections game (and yes, yes, crossword puzzles most certainly too even though I don’t usually play them!) have got to be good at keeping your brain nimble and engaged.
But let me give this a theological twist (this being the RJ after all). If you thought about it long enough, you might see that a lot of this treads into the territory of so-called “games of chance” and in the past, there was great Christian wariness where such games were concerned. This was partly behind the one-time ban in the Christian Reformed Church against playing card games. Gin Rummy, Poker, Blackjack, etc. were frowned upon. (Though somehow eventually a game named Rook was baptized as being oddly okay). Were we temping fate by playing random games of chance? Were we putting a highly sovereign God through too many providential paces in keeping up with determining the outcome of every single hand that was played? Or was playing such games tacitly acknowledging something Reformed folks in the Calvinist tradition were loathe to acknowledge; viz., there seems to be a decent amount of randomness built into the world.
Indeed, does some of our larger theology mean we must believe that in God’s hyper sovereign providence my success or lack of success in Spelling Bee, Wordle, or Connections every day was pre-ordained before the foundation of the world? Or might it be the case—as quantum physics has been suggesting for the last century or so—that a degree or randomness is part of the fabric of the cosmos? Is so-called “chaos theory” correct that with everything affecting everything else (think “Butterfly Effect”) many outcomes are neither predictable nor certainly foreordained? Can Christians believe God has allowed what maybe we could call “controlled randomness” such that our every card game and word game, every shuffle of the card deck, is not something God is wasting his efforts on by tinkering with the works?
Let’s be clear: I am a Reformed Christian in the Calvinist lane and do share with John Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession a robust doctrine of providence. I don’t think God can be blindsided nor is there any situation in which God could not intervene even if God so desired. What’s more, even if quantum physics is right about a degree of randomness in the cosmos, God really does have the whole world in his hands and can and does shape all events and outcomes in ways that will make God’s ultimate plans for the creation come to fruition.
All true. But I worry sometimes what we do to God’s larger purposes and to the majesty of God when we say every Wordle success, every Connections win, every close-to-the-door parking space we find is “a God thing.” We don’t need to make our every card game or word game out to be some grand achievement of divine providence in order to keep God in Christ in charge as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Or so it seems to me just now. Hopefully you won’t think that in framing things this way that I am–what’s the phrase?–“taking a chance.”