Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:
A Conversation in Spiritual Theology
by Eugene Peterson,
Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, UK, 2005
I have often thought that Peterson’s natural metier is the essay rather than the sustained argument through a book. To some extent this is evident even in Christ Plays, a book of some 340 well-argued pages. It is true that the book is clearly structured but that structure is a framework which is soon explained and which then provides the space in which Peterson expounds scripture, comments on the waywardness of humanity, especially pastors, and converses on the grace of God and the gospel dimensions of Christian living. As the title implies, we are invited to a conversation.
The title of the book comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame:
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
… the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
In an extended introduction Peterson examines the world of spirituality and clarifies what he means by spiritual theology.
Spiritual theology is the attention we give to lived theology – prayed and lived, for if it is not prayed sooner or later it will not be lived form the inside out and in continuity with the Lord of life. Spiritual theology is the attention that we give to living what we know and believe about God. It is the thoughtful and obedient cultivation of life as worship on our knees before God the father, of
life as sacrifice on our feet following God the Son, and of life as love embracing and being embraced by the community of God the Spirit.
Consistent with a number of recent writers on Christian spirituality he stresses that it is not about us but about God. The ‘spirit’ in ‘spirituality’ refers to the Holy Spirit rather than the human spirit, as popular culture might suggest. (Gordon Fee has much to contribute here in his various Pauline studies of ‘Spirit’.) He identifies four key terms for comment: spirituality, Jesus (‘he name that keeps us attentive to the God-defined, God-revealed life’), soul and fear-of-the-Lord.
Fear-of-the-Lord is more than the sum of its parts, which is why he hyphenates it. It ‘is the biblical word of choice… for the way of life that is lived responsively and appropriately before God’. The primary way in which it is cultivated is in prayer and worship. ‘Fear-of-the–Lord’ is not studying about God but living in reverence before God. ‘The term returns in each section of the book.
Peterson takes Hopkins’s theme of Christ alive and working in a world where creatures fulfil their calling and then explores how Christ ‘plays’ in creation, in history and in community. These provide the three main parts of the book, each with an analysis, a theological theme, two grounding scriptural texts and a communal practice which enables Christian formation.
So creation should elicit gratitude an adoration. The danger is Gnosticism and the kerygmatic theme is the incarnation and the texts explored at some length are Genesis 1-2 and John’s Gospel. The practices which form fear-of-the-Lord in creation are Sabbath-keeping and wonder, especially in response to the resurrection.
In history, the kerygmatic theme is Jesus’ death and the threat is moralism, ‘constructing a way of life in which I have no need of God’. The grounding texts are Exodus and the Gospel of Mark and the practices which form us in the fear-of-the-Lord are Eucharist and hospitality. Again, Peterson’s use of words leads us forward: ‘There are no abstractions in hospitality – particular persons are involved, beds have to be made, parsnips peeled…’
In community, the kerygmatic theme is resurrection and the threat is sectarianism. The profound one-liner again: ‘Sectarianism is to community what heresy is to theology, a wilful removal of a part from the whole.’ The grounding texts are Deuteronomy and Luke/Acts. The formational practices are baptism and love. Speaking of how we are baptized into a mystery he explains, ‘..it is not a mystery veiled in darkness in which we cannot grope and guess. It is a mystery in which we are given to understand that we will never know all there is of God. It is a mystery that prevents us from presuming to use what we know to control or manipulate God… It is not a mystery that keeps us in the dark, but a mystery in which we are taken by the hand and gradually led into the light.’
His treatment of love, in which he explores 1 John, is robust but sensitive, theologically astute and pastorally nuanced. Love is context specific and generalizations cannot teach us how to love. ‘Instead of explanations or definitions or generalizations John settles for a name and the story that goes with it: Jesus… We learn how to love by being loved.’ Peterson concludes by returning to a motif which has kept emerging in the book – it’s not only what we do but how we do it. ‘Christ is the way as well as the truth and the life. When we don’t do it his way, we mess up the truth and we miss out on life.’
Pastoral and spiritual observations interact with searching expositions of the scriptural texts. The plethora of themes in this rich book make it difficult to critique them in a coherent way. So this review has been more of a summary. In the weeks to come I plan to review the remaining four books in the series. These are shorter and, I hope, will leave more scope for discussion – or at least conversation.