Book Review: Christ Plays in a Thousand Places

“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stone ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: 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.”

Thus writes Gerard Manley Hopkins in his sonnet Eugene Peterson uses as a backdrop for his wonderful approach toward a spiritual theology. I have been working through this book for the better part of two months and have really enjoyed it. Written in a way that appeals to the layperson and the scholar both, Peterson does well in achieving his goal of intertwining disciplines and mixing academia and the every day life. Throughout the book the reader is reassured in references to history’s greatest theologians, but also comforted by parallel references of the birth of Peterson’s first grandchild, his project of handcrafting a cradle, and the church family that brought up Peterson.

From the outset, Peterson is clear to assign spirituality a place free of esoteric mumbo jumbo that often accompanies contemporary discussions, and root it where is should be rooted – practiced in every day real life. In the introductory chapter, Peterson addresses the cultural milieu in which the concept of spirituality has become bogged down in mysticism and consumeristic offerings. He spends time clarifying what exactly he aims to discuss. His approach to spirituality is thoroughly Christocentric, communal, and Spirit-driven.

Peterson takes a three-pronged approach to his discussion of spiritual theology. He begins in creation. I found Peterson’s appreciation and love for all of creation to be a refreshing addition that is often lacking in approaches to spiritual theology. He compares the childlike awe that we all have as children to what lies at the heart of spiritual theology – awe. His grounding texts for this discussion are Genesis 1 – 2 (of course!) and John 1 – 2 (of course!!) He begins where we often do not – the creation of ALL THINGS! God creates time, rhythm (there’s that word again, see how often that comes up in my recent posts over the past 12 months or so), place . . . and of course, the human. The wonder and awe of the things around us . . . they beg the question, “Why is there nothing?” That question, for Peterson, is the great jumping off place for his discussion. Stopping at Genesis 1 – 2 leaves us stunted in kind of a quasi-God-is-everywhere, God-is-nowhere theology. John roots meaning and purpose in the creation. Christ becomes the great clarifier of what this all means.

He ends each section with a connection between church practice and connection with the spiritual theology he is pursuing. With creation he expresses Sabbath as that practice. Sabbath and Wonder. Sabbath makes us stop and smell the roses . . . and it is a built in reminder of who makes the roses smell! It is a reminder of our place as creation . . . not Creator!

To stop at creation, however, is to leave too much in limbo. Peterson seeks to further express his spiritual theology in history. Focusing exclusively on history leaves one naive about the world’s reality. Even a brief jaunt into history reveals the misery of the current state of the world. There are problems here that creation itself is ill-equipped to answer. Peterson’s answer these to this difficult scenario is this: “We begin with the ‘what’s wrong with the world’ at the place where the gospel deals with it: Jesus dead and buried.” (p. 142). God always works in a specific time and a specific place. This is obvious, but its implications are great. God didn’t fix things outside of our existential world . . . instead it happened one day at a time, through one specific person, in a specific place . . .

There are two important grounding texts for Peterson here: the Exile (Exodus ) and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (Mark). These are the two instances in history where we are given insight into history for what history really is. We learn that world leaders are not in control (Moses is not killed as a baby, Jesus is not killed as a baby). We get to see the workings from behind the scenes. They ground us in the reality that is not what we see, but what we believe in Christ.

The church practice (sacrament) that grounds us in history for Peterson is the Eucharist proclaiming/practicing hospitality. It is that great celebration which, in small ways each week, reminds each of us of the great working of God behind the scenes. It is the place were worldly divisions do not divide (rich/poor/different races) everyone is welcomed at the table. It is the great jumping off place for the place of hospitality in the kingdom – a counter-cultural hospitality. (He has a great section about the current culture of meals in our world and how the idea of hospitality (and the inconvenience that is often hospitality) has been taken away in our world of stream-lining and fast food.

Finally, Peterson addresses community. We fall short in focusing on creation as it leaves us empty, and, while spirituality seen in the eyes of history is acknowledges place and time, without community it is but a dream. We cannot escape our communal nature. This section alone is worth reading the entire book. Peterson laments the fragmented world of the church – a place that should be more united than anything in the world. He pulls no punches in his laments: “Sects are termites in the Father’s house.” (p. 244).

Peterson grounds his discussion of community in (perhaps surprisingly) Deuteronomy and (more expected) Luke/Acts. His section on Deuteronomy is great. He offers several pages discussion on the Ten Words (Commandments) and emphasizes that they are best understood as how they related to the community. The Law, Peterson contends, is most significantly communal. It is how the people are to live with each other. “The Ten Words are often individualized as a code for personal morality. That is a weak way to view them; these are conditions for community living, living as God’s people entire.” (p. 259) Seeing spirituality through creation and history are great, but without the praxis of living it out in community – that’s where the rubber meets the road.

His comments from Luke-Acts is more typical of what people think of when discussing community in Scripture: the early Christians in Acts moving forward with in their relationship with God as they have seen emulated through Luke in the disciples relationship with Christ.

This section ends with the sacrament of baptism providing the sacramental foundation for community acted out – love. What is the community if it is not love? I thought this quotation on love was very powerful: “In no other human experience do we fail so frequently, get hurt so badly, suffer so excruciatingly, and get deceived so cruelly as in love. Still we continue to long for love, dream of it, attempt it.” (p. 310).

Through the long journey in these areas Peterson ends where we tend to begin: love. What are the people of God if not a loving community committed to loving their savior and their Creator through the Spirit that is . . . love?

I think Peterson has provided the field of spiritual theology a lively and important work that may provide a new format and direction for future discussions.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Christ Plays in a Thousand Places

  1. Hey Adam,Good post. I have added this book to my (VERY long) Amazon wish list and hope I get the time to read it.I hope you can elaborate on his thoughts on “community” You say he “laments” the fragmented world of the modern church. I wonder, does offer a solution to that problem. I hear plenty of people with that same lament, but no one ever offers a solution…at least not one that is more practical than “we need to lover each other.” I think a solution has to be more practical than that.When we talk about the disunity of the church, you are talking about centuries of division that is ingrained in people’s minds and practices and is very hard to overcome. It’s especially hard to overcome when you take such a macro view of Christendom. The groups are nothing more than institutions…abstract “theys”. There is nothing I can do to create unity between the Baptist Church and the churches of Christ, for example.The only thing I can do is create unity with the Christians I know. Community can only start in person to person relationships. Which begs the question…how then will the unity ever develop across denominational lines? I’ve got to develop better community within the believers I worship with on a regular basis before I can worry about crossing ecumenical lines.I think the loss of community on an individual basis ties in perfectly with his thoughts on the Eucharist and I wonder if he makes the connection between modern practices of communion and loss of community (actually I believe it is even more rooted in the fact that we have allowed the idea that Sunday morning is the essence of Christianity to take hold in modern religious thinking and communion is just one symptom of that). I think we are missing something very deep in the way we do communion (although my experience is CofC, I imagine most churches have this same problem) and have stripped away so much of what communion is all about. (If you haven’t read Come to the Table by John Mark Hicks, I recommend it.) By moving away from a communal, fellowship oriented celebration of Christ’s death burial and resurrection, we have made it too easy to lose commUNITY in other aspects of spirituality.I think we need to get back to the model we see in Acts 2:42 ff. Learn together. Pray together. Fellowship together. Eat together. Those things will only increase in my life if I take action regarding them. I say all this to make the point that it’s great to “lament” the fractured nature of Christianity, but the fractures have to be healed at the individual level.

  2. Hey man, thanks for the comments, and I think your insight and question is very valid. Peterson does not seek to address practical concerns for his “lament” regarding the disjointed state of the church. I think he would approach it at the individual level. We each, as individuals, must strive to move beyond the factious nature of the churches from which we come. How much do we strive to understand and empathize with other denominations? We need to get on board here, because around the corner is a broader discussion already taking shape that goes beyond the intra-faction discussion within the Judeo-Christian tradition to the wider inter-faith discussion. There’s a real challenge – how we see other faiths and their place at the table of discussion and fellowship. I really appreciated Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy on this point. He expresses great appreciation for all Christian traditions. Each has its strengths (but equally it’s weaknesses.) The key to unity, in my opinion, begin with humility. We have got some things wrong. We just have to admit that and be willing to hear others out. Now, I am finding that this process does not happen easily. We must make it happen. Other denominations and traditions are as internally focused as mine. I have to go out of my way to include others in our events/discussions/happenings. Being sensitive to diversity and “the other.” Not an easy ambition to be sure, this will take a big dose of humility, creativity, and patience.

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