Review of Christ Plays in a Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson

I recently finished reading Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson and I find myself with the same feeling after watching one of the Lord of the Rings films, “That was bigger than I thought it could be.” I’ll get to why in a moment but a bit about the author. Eugene Peterson is regarded as one of our modern day church fathers (I’d add N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard and Richard Rohr to that conversation but that’s for another day).

A quick overview from the publisher:

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places reunites spirituality and theology in a cultural context where these two vital facets of Christian faith have been rent asunder. Lamenting the vacuous, often pagan nature of contemporary American spirituality, Eugene Peterson here firmly grounds spirituality once more in Trinitarian theology and offers a clear, practical statement of what it means to actually live out the Christian life. Writing in the conversational style that he is well known for, Peterson boldly sweeps out the misunderstandings that clutter conversations on spiritual theology and refurnishes the subject only with what is essential. As Peterson shows, spiritual theology, in order to be at once biblical and meaningful, must remain sensitive to ordinary life, present the Christian gospel, follow the narrative of Scripture, and be rooted in the fear of the Lord – in short, spiritual theology must be about God and not about us. The foundational book in a five-volume series on spiritual theology emerging from Petersons pen, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places provides the conceptual and directional help we all need to live the Christian gospel well and maturely in the conditions that prevail in the church and world today.

What makes Peterson special? Great writers have a way of making difficult concepts relatable. Peterson, who gave us “The Message” translation, may be among the best at this. I would not say that Peterson makes things simple, but instead relatable. He brings you in, invites you to sit down, encourages you to take a bite, asks you “What do you think?” You probably haven’t thought of it in this way before. 

Christ Plays is not easy reading. It’s rich and complex like coffee made in a Chemex. or like drinking Guinness, or enjoying dark chocolate velvet cake … all at the same time. You are reading it because you want to grow deeper and by the first 50 pages, you want to join Peterson in reclaiming  the word “spirituality.” 

At first glance, your snarky self thinks you got ripped off. The title clearly states Christ is playing in “ten thousand places” but Peterson only covers three of them (Christ Plays In Creation, In History, and In Community. You’ll love what he does with this).  Not including introduction and the monster-size epilogue, the book is broken down in four large chapters and then further into more digestible sub-headings. Again, we’re not talking  easy or simple, but it’s rich and relatable. 

One might be caught off guard with the idea of “Jesus playing.” In the onset he explains what he means by this. “Play catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived by necessity, beyond mere survival … It is the task of the Christian community to give witness and guidance in the living of life in a culture that is relentless in reducing, constricting, and enervating this life.” Yes, I would like to play through life like this (and would love to experience this in community).

Each chapter has a rhythm which he covers in the first section. He begins with a setup, then a “Kergyma”(more like an exhortation than a sermon), then a threat to the idea, then a few grounding texts. My only complaint is that I wish he would have expanded more on the threats (his handling of gnosticism is worthy of its own book. Does anyone know if he has done this?). I know the book is already 360 pages but what’s another 20,30, or even 40. Anyway, Peterson unpacking the grounding Scriptural passages is what he really wants to show you. 

This Lent our church is going through the Farewell Discourse (John 13-17), and one of the grounding texts is the entire book of John (which he contrasts against Genesis 1-2 – it’s impressive). He helps you appreciate certain features in the original languages, he ties in (and contrasts) Calvin and Barth and weaves in illustrations and various themes throughout. And he does all this with this sage, friendly voice, at least that’s what I imagined as I read along.

Here’s an example: 

“One of the severe handicaps under which the church operates is the cover-up of the glory with respectable substitutes such as acceptance and honor, success, and “relevance.” Over and over again, we miss it. The Greeks missed it. Tourists at the holy sights, cameras at the ready, guidebooks in hand … But Jesus wouldn’t pose for their photographs. Jesus was alerting praying his way to the cross. Jesus had been giving hints of the glory that was about to be displayed fully (“The hour has come for the son of God to be glorified”) but in a way that no one anticipated, death – a most horrible but freely chosen death.

Tell the Greeks to go back home and take pictures of the Panthenon (103).”

It gets even better after that as he continues to unpack what is real glory.

Obviously I could go on, but to cut to the chase: I think this book is for those not messing around and are truly craving a deeper grasp of spiritual theology. Maybe you’re bored by the pop-theology books (which have a place mind you), maybe you’ve read Willard and need a breather from Wright, I happily recommend (re-)investing in Peterson. It’s worthwhile slow-reading and every page is worth the time. It would make a great Lenten reflection, would be a great book to read through the summer or when you have been buried by over 100 inches of snow like we have in Boston this year. 

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Christ Plays in a Thousand Places is the first of Petersons’ five volume spiritual theology series. You can order them though Amazon here.


Why Did Judas Take the Bread?

I gave the message this past Sunday on the rich passage of John 13. It was entitled “Loyalty Tests and Dirty Feet” (you can listen/watch it here) and it’s the familiar scene of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples during their meal on the week of Passover. This is the night where he gives the “Farewell Discourse” (John 13-17) and shortly after will be praying in the garden where he will be arrested. This is the night that Peter will deny Jesus three times, the other disciples will also disappear and this is the night that Judas will forever be known as the betrayer of Jesus.

As you read the Gospels, Jesus keeps trying to prepare the disciples that this is coming. But it’s unimaginable to them. They know Jesus is a “spiritual guy” but they cannot get past the idea that this Kingdom he keeps talking about is not an earthy kingdom. I mean, who wants a spiritual kingdom?

One of the moments that has gripped me is after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he tells them that one [Read more…]

Ash Wednesday: 5 Quick Thoughts on Lent (Reposted)

Some quick thoughts for this new Lenten season:

1. Lent is about preparing our hearts for the journey of Easter.
It includes themes like brokeness, redemption, self-denial, forgiveness, death and life and many more. I have found that if focus on only one of these themes and neglect others that I miss out on part of the goodness Lent can offer. A Lenten journey that covers a lot of ground is the way to go.

2. Whatever you do, don’t become a legalist.
What to give up, what to add, which devotional, how much do I say or not say to my right  [Read more…]

My Review of Flipped by Doug Pagitt

Doug Pagitt is releasing his new book Flipped this Tuesday and I hope you check it out. I was able to obtain a pre-release (without any promise/payment of a review/endorsement). Like with any pre-release I try to get my hands on, I was hoping I would like it, but with high expectations sometimes comes disappointment. In this case, I’m happy to say Flipped delivered and I really liked it.

The basic premise (from Author/Publisher):

“We all have stories in our heads about God, humanity, life, and the meaning of it all. One of the most common—and misleading—stories is “If I’m faithful in doing this, then God promises to do that.” Jesus didn’t believe it and neither should you. God does not insist that you play by the rules before he will respond to you. A careful reading of the Bible will free all of us from trying to make a deal with God, inviting us instead to live in God.”

And a thought from Doug:

[Read more…]

Brian Williams, Preaching, and “Everyone Loves a Good Story”

Brian Williams is the cautionary tale of the week. As you probably know, he’s taken himself off the air and has admitted to being untruthful in his accounts such as his helicopter being shot down while he was covering the war in Iraq. Many of his other stories are now under suspicion as well and it’s likely going to be a long year for him. And of course, when you are found out today, you get made fun all over cable and flogged on social media.

There’s a lot in this story for me. One his actions represent to me why we cannot take the media to be a reliable source of information and truth. At best, it’s a system of partial half-truths. The news business is compromised with its competition for ratings, advertising dollars, reputations, status and more. In a world uncontrolled by business and status, could we get better news? I believe so but the question still remains, how well we can actually know something?

This of course sends me back to the posts from last week, “I don’t know what to believe” from the significant to the trivial, to current events, to the spiritual, etc. I used to think if I just had the right data, I could arrive to reliable conclusions. If I applied the right hermeneutics, and prayed just enough, I could understand this particular passage of Scripture. The experience of life has taught me (and probably you), that this is not a reliable strategy and being Spirit-led is more for the journey than the occasion. 

Back in college, there was this guest preacher who came and gave these messages filled with some amazing stories. On this particular night following the chapel service, the campus pastor invited me [Read more…]

I Don’t Know What (Or How) to Believe – Post 3 – Outsourcing Our Faith

To paraphrase philosopher Peter Rollins, there is a tendency to outsource our faith and have someone else do the believing for us. At first, I thought it was another one of Pete’s interesting conjectures but felt it was a bit of an overstatement. Then he offered this next thought: Imagine a pastor announcing to his congregation that he/she no longer believed in their Christian faith. Likely such a confession (or anti-profession) would shatter the faith of a significant number who identified that person as a pastor and spiritual leader in their life.

As a pastor, I’ve often thought about this, not because I am on the brink of abandoning my faith and overwhelmed by the guilt of ruining the faith of others but for two reasons: One is what the pastor represents and two, the fragility of faith.

There are pastors who abandon their faith, there are those who have done so quietly but keep on pastoring (this is scandalous) and of course, there are those that truly believe despite the madness of the world. Further, whenever I hear of a pastor publicly renouncing their faith, I feel more sympathy than threat. My faith is more troubled by the evil and suffering we encounter in this world. All this said, when I imagined what I might feel should my favorite theologians/thinkers abandon their faith, I was bit more bothered.

What if N.T. Wright came out and stopped believing? What if his next book was Simply Atheism, Why I No Longer Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus? What if Ruth Haley Barton started to teach that prayer is not actually transcendental, merely psychological for incremental self-improvement? What if Tim Keller preached his last sermon and it was entitled, “Richard Dawkins is Right”? I’ll admit, it would stun me.

The previous post discussed the issue of spiritual laziness, in this one I’m aiming to confront it. When framed this way, it feel like the first question then is asking, “Who is doing the work of believing for me?” or “Have I outsourced my faith?” and the second is “What is it that I actually believe (and/or trying to figure out)?”

Similar to the first post, it’s tempting to just yell out, “Jesus!” and while this is true in the big picture, this doesn’t actually help that much in the local and immediate. Yelling “Jesus” at your billers, or in the middle of a conflict or at Isis does not solve the problem. It’s who Jesus is to us and what this means to the situation that makes the difference. Thus, this unpacking, believing and practicing requires work and diligence.

For some, believing is outsourced to a particular media outlet (or a defined ideology), or to the consensus of their friends, whether be trusted friends or people they aspire to be or be accepted by. For some, believing is outsourced to their tribe, whether it be familial or occupational or some other marker of identification. Lastly, some outsource belief in a number of different directions, held together by what is most convenient or alluring to them in the moment.

While I believe we must hold our convictions with an open-hand, we must be careful that our beliefs are not whimsical and superficial. The great revealer of weak belief is how it endures during times of testing and the storms of life which brings to mind Jesus’ parable of building your house on rocks versus sand.

Who is doing the believing for you? That’s a harder question than it first appears to be. It’s in exploring how I come to my beliefs that cause me to wrestle.

Can I disagree from your favorite authors and thinkers? For me, I need to remind myself that N.T. Wright, Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis are not infallible. Not only that, I’m finding that not only can I disagree with them but I must on some level so I can preserve my own thinking. Further, as great as certain minds are, there all contain blindspots and weaknesses. Apparently C.S. Lewis was terrible at math, Luther was a racist, and I’m not sure that N.T. Wright knows any music outside Bob Dylan and the Beatles, which isn’t bad, but there’s certainly much more.

Wright probably has the better handle on soteriology, Pauline studies and historical Jesus, but is it possible that you might have a better understanding of say, the doctrine of creation? Is it possible that in heaven, you might have tea with C.S. Lewis and help bring clarity to his understanding of the atonement? And it’s safe to understand that many in the church have a better understanding of multiculturalism/multi-ethnicity that the great reformer Luther (but we certainly have a ways to go).

To avoid outsourcing our faith does not mean that we practice belief in a self-contained vacuum. But not just the brilliant minds of those whom we read but we also need each other’s presence to have dinner, wine and coffee with and  to gather in each other’s living rooms. We need different forms of community. Not so the community thinks for us in some sort of tribal group think, that’s unhealthy as well. Thinking in community means we contribute to each other, listen to each other,  process our confusion together, correct, rebuke, reform, reframe, create, and continue walking together.

For Christ-followers we must be rooted in Scripture as well. This blog often critiques the shallow Christian thought and cliches that we hear. This series of posts has taken special aim to “Jesus is the answer” (which He is). But it’s been my experience that some Christians have used this excuse to refrain from being a student of Scripture. After all, if it all comes down to a revered, five-letter name, why read the 66 books? In short, we need to study the 66 books, we need to read the books about the 66, we need to hear sermons, study privately, and study in community. This is part of the tradition of “Sola Scriptura” that the Reformers (including Martin Luther) fought so valiantly for.

Lastly, we need to depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit. Inevitably, our best minds will fail us, even the best of our communities will bring hurt at one point or another, and our own understanding of our God-given Scriptures may even impair us. We need to be people committed to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we pray, serve, learn, unlearn, gather, and worship in general. This latter point, is the only one that is exclusively divine, and unimpaired by our own personal/collective deficiencies. And it’s through this process that we confront our spiritual laziness and construct a robust faith for belief and practice.

There are a couple other drafts of thought regarding “being informed,” seeking the balance of worldly matters and having your head stuck in the clouds and being manipulated/brainwashed or lied to. Would welcome feedback on what’s connecting and/or what could use some fleshing out. Feel free to comment or private message me via email, text or Facebook.

Grace and peace, Tim

 

I Don’t Know What (Or How) to Believe – Post 2 – The Spiritual Laziness Issue

It happens every day. I hear something, I read something online, is it true? Then see its immediate rebuttal. “It’s not a true story!” He’s lying, “The media is making it up for the gullible.” or “It’s factually inaccurate and empirically unverifiable.” Statistics, study findings and a touching anecdote to reply to the posters. I find myself thinking way too long about what is true and if relevant and what should be done. For me, this results in a stalling in what to think, and therefore what to do.

The previous post described the frustration of trying to buy a burr coffee grinder on Amazon and how this simple experience illustrated the decision-making process and belief formation in countless other things. The post concluded with the idea with the idea that Jesus may be the ultimate answer but what if you’re not actually asking the ultimate questions? What about all the normal, everyday things that range from extremely important, fairly significant, important but temporary, all the way to trivial and fleeting? Merely shouting “Jesus!” to such things may not actually help our faith or bring clarity and instead, may actually be a form of spiritual laziness. 

Spiritual laziness can be seen in many forms. Perhaps the most common is moving through life in this heavenly-minded, cruise-control. It’s the consumer-Christianity, the going through the motions, the mindless easy-believism,  “If it feels good, do it” and “just give my piece of heaven” sort of thing. This is the type of spirituality that slips away from sacrifice, refuses to answer the door commitment and avoids suffering at all costs. Think of the religious leaders who cross the street to avoid caring for someone. I loathe this type of spirituality because I know first-hand how easy it is to slip in and out of it.

Another aspect of spiritual laziness is the “quick to arrive at conclusions.” Some might call this efficiency and encourage me to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (I did read it, this isn’t what he means). I’m criticizing going with the first decent answer, insert convenient, somewhat workable philosophy here, and settling too soon if you will. While I am not suggesting that we agonize over every decision, the opposite process proves to be unwise as well. There is a temptation to cut to the chase and “just believe.”  There is a satisfaction to it, there’s closure, no more wondering, wrestling and at times, no more worrying.

And while there are probably more versions and aspects to spiritual laziness, one of it’s biggest problems is that it deludes us and those around us into feeling more Christian and loving than we really are. It disguises itself in a piety that when examined or challenged, false apart fairly quickly. Further it sabotages opportunities for growth because it prefers never to struggle, suffer or grind – again, because it’s lazy.

For example, a few weeks ago someone posted a status update that contained tragic news. Many wonderful and sincere people offered their support and sympathies (the situation did not call for condolences at this point). One person chimed in with a “Chin up – God’s in control!”

I assume this person was a fellow Christian, probably a wonderful person. I’m certain this person will track me down and I’ll hear all about how she single-handedly saved their church nursery ministry, led the entire congregation to Jesus, including the pastor, and then later foiled a terrorist plot. Indeed, this person is a saint, in the tradition of Jack Bauer. That said, on this particular day at that particular moment, the saint acted umm, to put it politely, less than saintly and more insensitively and flat out lazy.  The triteness of the update was not encouraging, it felt more like, “Get over it, keep you eyes pointed to the heavens (literally), your pain is of little cosmic significance and God is still alive and good.” 

Of course God is in control, in the sense that He is sovereign over all things, we believe this to be ultimately true but in the moment what we need to remind each other is that God is here in the midst of the pain. God being in control does not necessarily mean that our particular crisis will be solved. God being in control does not guarantee that our loved one will be cured or that there will not be another terrorist attack or school shooting or any other of our countless nightmare scenarios.  God being in control ultimately means that those who put their trust in Him will abide with Him but that does not mean we will win every battle until then. 

This I believe. Not only does none of this feel lazy to me, this feels anything but as the lazy thing would be to avoid any sense of pain and struggle and settle for a more optimistic sentiment. Still, there’s more to confronting the spiritual laziness issue which I’ll keep unpacking in the next post. Have a thought or pushback? Know that I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading.

I’m Not Sure What (and How) to Believe Anymore – Post 1

“I’m Not Sure What (and How) to Believe Anymore ” or  “How Buying a Coffee Grinder Can Ruin Your Faith” – Post 1

There I was trying to figure out which burr coffee grinder to buy. I was on Amazon, clicking through the options, I even had my Note application open. What was supposed to take e a few minutes turned embarrassingly longer as I became completely indecisive. I opened the browser wanting a decent black one and became overwhelmed with the many grind options, various designs, different capacities, significant price disparities (“You can pay that much for one – does it fly you down to Costa Rica and pick/roast the beans for you??”).

Then of course, frustration set in while reading the comment section. Customers were literally reporting the exact opposite experiences from each other. There was: “By far the best burr grinder on the market – buy this one – you’ll thank me!” followed by something in ALL CAPS like, “Don’t buy this one – broke within two weeks, customer service nightmare – do some more research!”

This happens countless times during my online reading of news reports, blogs, ezines and various sites. It could be theological, political, cultural or trivial. Recently, the posts have been about racism, millennials, Isis, and those worthless time-waster pictures. For some reason, I must know if that picture was fake or not and for some other ridiculous reason, apparently I think if I just scroll down long enough, someone in the comment thread is going to have the silver bullet answer for me … and no one ever does. 

Then when it comes to an important issue, I scroll and click and read and scan for intelligent [Read more…]

Reflecting on James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation

I was introduced to A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone in one of my seminary classes at Biblical Theological. Since then, there have been a number of titles I keep referring to including Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited and Justice For All and Let Justice Roll Down by John M. Perkins. But Cone was a bit more complicated (at least for me), and I remember thinking he needed more attention at a later point. That point came this past Christmas break where in the wake of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and the killing of two NYC police officers. I’ve written on some of this already here and here but as I read blogs my black men and women, I kept feeling that I was missing something when it came to their references to black theology. And so reading Cone’s A Black Theology felt more than due.

Here’s what I really appreciated. For a good while, I’ve felt conflicted about writing book reviews (described elsewhere), Cone brings up the same tension for me as the last thing I want to do is objectify. So instead of a review, here’s a bit of a reflection and an encouragement for those that can read Cone to consider adding him to their reading list.

A quick origin story: Cone creates/writes black/liberation theology as he tries to reconcile the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the Black Power [Read more…]

Just How Involved is God When It Comes to Evil? Pondering, Not Answering

One of our Sunday morning class offerings is focusing on evil and suffering and the Christian story. The material is working from N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. I appreciate Wright’s treatment on evil and God’s justice – highly recommend the book, and if you are local, check out the class. Here’s the link for more info.

What I’ve really appreciated about the class is the opportunity for conversation. From the class leaders to the church at large, Im grateful that there is space to dialogue about evil, not just discuss apologetical rebuttals on evil. Both are important but both have limits. Praying, thinking, talking, learning, living helps move us forward in this world of suffering and hope.

As I’ve been reflecting on the class, I’m struck that at any given moment, I can quickly create a list of grave atrocities. Charlie Hebdo, missing planes (again), the very brutal Boko Haram attacks (2000 civilian casualties in most recent wave of violence), all the conversations connected with Ferguson, and the personal things that only we know. It’s staggering to consider all the suffering that happens around us.

If it feels like I’m constantly thinking about evil and suffering, it’s because, yeah, I am. I imagine many of you feel this way too. It’s not our television consumption. You can cut your [Read more…]