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