Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

Review: Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places
Author: Eugene H. Peterson
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005
368 pages
Reviewer: Leonard Hjalmarson

Eugene Peterson has been a pastor, a professor, and an author. He is well known for his titles in pastoral theology, and for some years was James Houston professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver. This latest title is the first in a five volume series on spiritual theology. His self-appointed task in the series is to overcome the centuries old separation between what we think about God and the way we live before Him. (p 4)

Peterson's approach is not systematic. Rather, his theological exploration of the three spheres of God's work--creation, history and community--weaves in, around, and through God and life more like a melody or a sonnet. The rhythms are those of life, the sound when read aloud evokes not just concrete images but color and texture. Perhaps the better image is a dance.. where rhythms recur and become familiar even as the territory changes. We become partners in the dance as Peterson spins us through the OT and NT, through the great themes of salvation history.

I had originally intended to read the book over two weeks. Instead, I read it in a day. The experience was not unlike a retreat. I lived with Eugene and with Jesus and in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses for a single day as I reflected on my life, the God life, the life with Christ in community and the mighty acts of God in history. It was a rich day because Peterson's own life with God has been rich, and because he has been gifted as an articulate spokesman of Christian experience, at once literary, theological, learned, poetic, and prophetic.

The book consists of four chapters, though the formal structure lists only three. The first section is titled "Clearing the Playing Field." Here Peterson sets out his goals and the definitions and limits within which he intends to work.

I was intrigued that Peterson described this work as a "conversation" (4). This is something of a buzz word in emerging church circles, but it's a good word. It's a word that evokes community, participation, process, dialog and invitation. (Writers like Raschke -The Next Reformation- make much of the idea of dia-logia; that it is the essence of the divine drama and even the essence of Scripture. We are always invited to participate in the larger story of redemption.)

Peterson then sets up the discussion by relating two stories from early in the Gospel of John. The first story is that of Nicodemus: the religious bureacrat. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, respected in the community of Israel. He is a teacher and keeper of the law and the sacred traditions. He is male, educated, probably wealthy, and has status and power.

The second story is that of the Samaritan woman. She is uneducated, poor, female and not even a Jew. The contrast between these two stories is the contrast between privilege and power, wealth and poverty, and almost between being and non-being. The more striking contrast is between one who understands and receives the Gospel (the woman) and the one who does not.

One of the messages here.. whatever spirituality is, it has nothing to do with the way we humans measure things. Whatever spirituality is, it seems genuinely clearer and easier for those who have little to lose. The good news of the Kingdom seems tailor made for the poor (see also Luke 4)

That is a worrisome assessment, because for the most part the western church believes itself to be rich and in need of nothing. We have many fine buildings. We employ well educated and well spoken clergy. We drive fine automobiles. We are well versed in the religious, sociological and psychological discourse that drive our efforts at kingdom building. Could it be that we have become addicted to the rewards of this world, while neglecting the things that truly matter? Could it be that we have become.. well.. spiritual technologists?

But surely we are busy working for God. Look at how much we do! Peterson comments,

"The Christian community is interested in spirituality because it is interested in living. We give careful attention to spirituality because we know, from long experience, how easy it is to get interested in ideas of God and projects for God and gradually lose interest in God alive, deadening our lives with the ideas and projects. This happens a lot. Because the ideas and projects have the name of God attached to them, it is easy to assume that we are involved with God. It is the devil's work to get us worked up thinking and acting for God and then subtly detach us from a relational obedience and adoration of God, substituting our selves, our godlike egos, in the place originally occupied by God." (31)

Peterson is clearly concerned that much of what we do is really for ourselves, and much of what we do is dependent on our own abilities. One of the recurring themes, though the term itself does not always appear, is idolatry.

Peterson works with four terms in chapter one, in order to provide a vocabulary for exploring the dynamics of the Christian life. Those terms are: Spirituality, Jesus, Soul, and Fear-of-the-Lord. He cheats by adding a final phrase to close the chapter.. "and a dance." This latter term is a tip of his hat to the Trinitarian framework that guides his thinking. He writes,

"The dance is perichoresis. Karl Barth asserts that the divine modes of existence condition and permeate each other mutually with such perfection, that one is as invariably in the other two as the other two are in the one.... Trinity is the most comprehensive and integrative framework that we have for understanding and participating in the Christian life."

Incidentally, Peterson's familiarity with and approval of Barth is evident throughout the volume. It appears in his constant and repeated insistence that salvation is entirely the work of God, and that humans contribute nothing to that work. Instead, the Scriptures attest again and again to the failures of humankind, and the faithfulness of God. It appears more specifically where he attests to Barth's theological work, and in the section on history and salvation when he notes that salvation as revealed in Jesus "requires appropriate and discerning employment of both words, the yes and the no." (195)

Peterson's non-systematic but highly structured exploration of spiritual theology proceeds in a methodical manner. While the sections are formally titled "creation," "history," and "community," they could as well be titled "creation," "redemption," and "the work of the Spirit." For each section Peterson chooses an anchoring text, one each from the Old Testament and New Testament, sometimes a chapter and sometimes an entire book.

With "Christ Plays in Creation" the texts are Genesis and John 1. With "Christ Plays in History" the texts are Exodus and the Gospel of Mark. With "Christ Plays in Community" the texts are Deuteronomy and Luke/Acts. In this manner Peterson not only takes us on an intense journey of theological reflection, he takes us on a tour of salvation history. For some this will be a vivid journey of discovery of the relevance and relatedness of the two testaments, a sweeping epic that contrasts the glory and failure of humankind, and the glory and faithfulness of God. As the story plays out again and again, one can only marvel at the patience and compassion of our God.

If a sweeping agenda could be discerned, it would be the agenda to escape from the Gnostic and dualistic framework of Christendom. To Peterson spirituality is not about intimacy, but about following Jesus. He stands against the triumphalism prevalent in western churches with the reminder that for Jesus to be glorified meant to embrace the cross. Most of us don't think of glory in terms of suffering for Christ. Peterson reminds us that there is a personal, bloody sacrifice at the heart of redemption.

If a single weakness could be discerned, it would be Peterson's reluctance to "name names." One reviewer writes,

"Readers would benefit if he were more explicit about the social implications of his longing for fully enfleshed and engaged Christian faithfulness. He is disappointingly coy about taking on prevailing American idolatries, such as the identification of Christian faith and priorities with the business and security interests of American empire. This ought to be at the heart of his work because, in his words, "a major concern in spiritual theology" is "the critical passage involved in the transition from one sovereignty to another." (A. Boers, professor of pastoral theology at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Christian Century, Aug.9, 2005)

Alas, that task must be left for the moment to other works, such as "Colossians Remixed" by the Canadian couple Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat.

I appreciated Peterson's discussion of "place" (71). It would be difficult to pursue a holistic and messianic (non-Hellenistic, in the words of Frost and Hirsch) spirituality apart from that emphasis. A truly incarnational and materialist (in the best sense) religion must emphasize both place and particularity. We must continue to hold divine immanence and transcendence in tension. Recently Mark Scandrette of ReIMAGINE! in San Francisco wrote that,

"Our assessment was that our culture tends to polarize between transcendent and immanent awareness. We saw many irreligious people concerned about social justice, earth keeping and aesthetics, and personal spirituality, while many devout Christians seemed consumed only with personal piety and the afterlife. We asked ourselves, "What kind of person was Jesus?" (Emerging Churches, Bolger and Gibbs, Baker Academic, 2005, 306)

Peterson sets his task at dismantling any such superficial theological system, and upholding a truly incarnational theology, with a Chalcedonian legacy: fully human and fully divine, united in one flesh, never intermixing the two.

I also appreciated Peterson's discussion of "sabbath." Truly, we are an activist people. We are particularly tempted to constant activity as leaders. By definition, leaders influence others to cause movement, and to bring change. That requires activity. Surely we have never been more desperate for leadership than we are in these days!

But while once the essence of leadership may have been activity, our times require a different kind of leader, one who leads from both head and heart and one whose very essence can be described as spiritual. Too much activity, particularly that on the part of leaders, has been shaped because there was a drive to succeed.. a need to be successful.. a hunger to be seen as effective, to feed the ego. But the biggest egos are usually fed at the expense of others. In the new world that kind of oppression is seen for what it is.. self-serving, manipulative, oppressive. As we clearly see that kind of activity as the antithesis of Christ's kingdom, we are waiting for a new kind of leadership.. one that is essentially spiritual.

Tonight I watched as my usually busy wife sat down on the couch. Within minutes of her resting her body there, one of our cats came and curled up on her lap. There is something irresistibly hospitable about a warm and restful person.

When I intentionally seek quiet and restful space, I encounter the Spirit of God. When we separate ourselves from busyness and distraction, He comes to brood over us. In that place of shared rest we have nothing to prove, no one to influence, no way to "succeed" except to be loved. Restful people become a welcoming place for the Spirit of God, and in turn can offer peace and rest to others.

The only way forward to a new kind of church is to become people of restfulness and contemplation. So long as we are driven to bring change, driven to be effective, we will only recreate the driven, oppressive, addictive and compulsive systems we have always known.

The greatest hope of influencing change is not our compulsive activity to shape a world different than the one we know, but to become the change we seek. I am gradually learning that this is a completely impossible task. But for God..

I think Peterson would agree. In the epilogue he writes that two things are basic to the Christian life, and are absolutely counter to all things North American. Christian spirituality is not a life-project for becoming a better person. We are not the subject, nor are we the action. God with us, God for us, Christ in me.. the prepositions that join us to God invite us to participate in what God is doing. (p 335) Furthermore, ways and means must be appropriate to the ends they serve.. the ways and means of God alone lead to His kingdom.


This book, like most of Peterson's life, is a wonderful gift to the Body of Christ. Peterson has sharpened my own vision of God's tender and compassionate sovereignty. His love and intentionality is always particular and personal. I am comforted in hearing once more that salvation is God's work alone. It is always His faithfulness, and His activity, that is the foundational fact.

That is important for me, because my context is very fluid and unpredictable. Increasingly things that I thought were certain are unclear. Even my vocational direction is less clear than I would like it to be. In such a fluid and insecure environment, one needs a sure anchor, one that holds within the veil. Christ is that anchor for me. Guides like Peterson remind me of the sure foundation, and the certain mercy and grace of God in Christ. He encourages me on the most essential journey.. toward Christ.

As I continue to reflect on the theme of "presence" as a paradigm for ekklesia, and as I reflect on formation as God's work in creating a new community of His loving presence in the world, Peterson's volume assists me in placing God's work in the larger sweep of history. Truly, Jesus is Lord! The confession of that reality is a reminder of my need to worship Him.

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on January 14, 2006