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Lessons in the gospel of Lego

04 April 2014

A children's toy teaches us about the value of creativity, says Peter Graystone

MY EARLIEST memory is of Lego. It is what my father and I were playing while my brother was born upstairs. Its attraction was its immediacy. It required no glue or tools. My fat fingers needed no special skills.

At a recent church-run event, I found myself alone with a box of bricks in a room the children had left, and discovered that the allure has not gone away. They returned to find a waist-high tree, and an absorbed man pleading with them to tiptoe in case it fell over. Lego takes you wherever your imagination wants to go. It's a 3-D pencil.

The plastic bricks with distinctive interlocking studs were the invention of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter whose business struggled during the Depression. He stopped building luxury houses, and started making affordable toys. In 1934, he formed the Lego company tosell wooden bricks, and, in 1947, recognised the potential of plastic. Since then, the principle is unchanged, and so is the name. In Danish it is short for "play well".

In 2004, Lego made huge financial losses. Onscreen entertainment was providing formidable competition. As sales dropped, the company responded in an inspired way by appropriating the tools of the enemy. A series of Lego sets based on popular movies and video games proved irresistible. Now you can recreate in Lego the Batman films, Star Wars, and The Hobbit. The success has been extraordinary. Yet the company, still run by its founding family, refuses to create military-themed sets. Christiansen was adamant that war must never seem like play. Although a Polish priest, Fr Slawomir Kostrzewa, referring to its Monster Fighters range, has declared that Lego can "destroy children's souls, and lead them to the dark side".

Generally, however, the biggest criticism that Lego faces is that inviting children to follow instructions to create models identical to a million others turns them from participants in a boundless, creative adventure into consumers of a branded product. They respond to someone else's imagination instead of unleashing their own.

Once again, the company has responded in kind. The Lego Movie has been the year's most successful film. In stop-motion animation, aLego figure, Emmet, gathers a community of independent minds to take on Lord Business. The villain plans to use glue to fix the Lego-made buildings of the planet in permanent conformity. In his world, creativity will be impossible.

What can save the world from this rule-bound wretchedness? Why, grace can! Our hero sacrifices his life for his friends by flinging himself off the edge of the universe. In a twist that it would be unkind to reveal, not only is the animated world saved, but so is the real human world, bringing harmony between the Man Upstairs and those with the imagination to understand.

This is the Lego gospel. Conformity, no matter whether to consumerism or religious legalism, is imprisoning. But inclusive community, reconciliation, and, above all, creativity will make you special.

It is a typically post-modern gospel, which refuses to name a particular faith; but to those with eyes to see it, it is law and grace. It is Roman and Celtic Christianity. It is rules and spontaneity. It is £17.99 if you want to reconstruct one of the movie locations out of Lego. Play well!

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for Church Army.

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