Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology Eugene H. Peterson

This month, our column shall feature a book that I am insisting is one of the more important books to be released in recent years. It is a wonderful, wonderful book, loaded with luscious sentences, sober denunciations of immature ideas and wrong-headed practices and profound (I do not now use the word loosely) insights. I refer to the new Eugene Peterson volume, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, which is the first in a series by Eugene to be published over the next years by Eerdmans. It is a solid hardcover, selling for $25.00.

It is no secret that spirituality is a hot topic these days. From weirdo cult movements in the postmodern culture to the rediscovery of monastic theology to recent evangelical emphasis on formation (Dallas Willard, Gary Thomas, John Ortberg, Richard Foster, etc.) there has been an explosion of interest in spirituality. Retreat centers are booming with renegade bands of Christians seeking to rediscover ancient practices like praying with icons, walking labyrinths, learning Sabbath-keeping, reading the Scriptures with lectio divino, doing spiritual self-discovery using the Enneagram, praying the Daily Offices, and learning other skills that can deepen our relationship with God.

Even those engaged in zippy youth ministry are getting in on this–just as I predicted in this column years ago with the publication of the seminal God Bearing Life: The Art Of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Kendra Creasy Dean (Upper Room; $15.00.) Popular youth worker Tony Jones has recently given us a wonderfully useful guide to embodied and concrete spiritual practices called Soul Shaper: Exploring Spirituality and Contemplative Practices in Youth Ministry (Zondervan $19.99), which briefly explains a handful of disciplines and shows their history, their theological substance, and how they can be adapted or appropriated for youth or young adults. We think it is a wonderful example of this important shift and a very useful resource for those who need help in applying these ancient practices. Mr. Jones has written an even newer book called Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life (Zondervan $12.99) which is, again, an extraordinary clear and practical guidebook, full of deep insight and stuff to do to put yourself in the place of experiencing God more fully. Along with a newly re-issued edition of Marjorie Thompson’s wonderful Soul Feast (Westminster/John Knox; $19.95) which was itself a rather bell-weather, we are again noting a trend: the release of experiential guidebooks that could truly revolutionize one’s prayer life, devotional experiences, and sense of the Spirit’s work in our midst.

Central to this recent rediscovery of contemplative spirituality has been the hunger—a soul-hunger– for just this kind of deeper experience of God, for growing beyond the shallow foibles of evangelical moralism or liberal mainline blandness. There is little doubt that this is one of the more important shifts in the religious landscape of the new millenium and certainly one of the largest, recent trends in the publishing world. It is something that we feel we have been a part of”¦

When Beth and I opened Hearts & Minds over 20 years ago, we were criticized for our largely stocked section of Thomas Merton titles, for promoting early Henri Nouwan, for recommending Howard Thurman, for stocking Quaker writers, for pushing Richard Foster. Our shelf section on medieval spirituality, devotional classics, and contemplative formation has only grown; happily, the condemnation and controversy–not that we ever suffered like Julian or Madam Guyon, of course—has melted away. Books like Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water or Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy have reminded us to be thoughtfully ecumenical and open to the best writers the church has to offer across the spectrum of theological traditions. Our love for the Puritans as well as Catholic mystics, for evangelical theology and socially engaged activism, our appreciation of charismatic renewal and higher church liturgy—and we’ve promoted books in these traditions for decades–is finally catching on. Call it, as Robert Webber does, ancient-future theology or just plain old ecumenism; we are glad for the diversity of views that seem to be congealing into a new tradition of faithful devotional practices.

And so, alongside more typical Christian books, we’ve studied the classics with the help of the Renouvare anthologies, meditated with the poetic devotionals of Joyce Rupp, learned spiritual direction with Margaret Guenther and Gerald May, experienced centering prayer with Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington, journeyed into silence with Thomas Merton and Ruth Barton, studied the Jesus prayer with not only the anonymous classic, but recent Orthodox star Frederica Mathhews Green, experimented with healing ministries with leaders such as Francis McNutt or Brad Long, and celebrated friends with important writing oeuvres and spiritual formation ministries such as Kent Groft , Russell Hart and Graham Standish, all who have been at this longer than we. Regardless of your praying styles or reading tastes, doctrinal tradition or academic level, we have got books that can nurture your spirit, help your faith, guide you towards deeper and creative contemplative experiences. Just email or call us for further conversation or suggestions.

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There have been two huge concerns, though, that have haunted us over these years of exploring the inner life. The concerns are simple: how can the renewal brought by the rediscovery of contemplative spirituality stay rooted in solid theology and, perhaps more foundationally, in the authority of the Bible? The mid-twentieth century evangelical suspicion of overly subjective mysticism is, perhaps, more important now than then. (And, oddly, that suspicion is rarely voiced nowadays, as evangelical publishers all rush to release books on spiritual disciplines and the inward journey.) It is a concern that Richard Foster himself acknowledges as threatening to “seriously undermine all the gains that have been made.”

My meager contribution to this matter is simple: read Eugene Peterson. Too humble to shout it himself, he does, it seems, ache with the burden of this concern, and thinks he has something helpful–even urgent–to say. In all of his many books, Peterson has sounded these themes: our experience of God is always mediated by words and The Word, the actual Biblical story and the real gospel accounts, which has the effect of grounding us. His new, major work, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology is typical in this way, rooting spirituality in the reality of a life lived before God in the real world, rooted in scripture and placed in real history. It is magisterial, a cry of the heart, a truly important call to resist unbiblical impulses, trendy techniques, and to stay the course. To keep on, slowly and faithfully, learning the joys and graces of a fear-of-the-Lord spirituality, not through new age meditation or heterodox speculations or inner imaginings, but by classic practices like worship, prayer, Bible study, enjoying the wonder of God’s creation and reading mature books (a proposal so at odds with much of the recent writing about formation that it seems, well, novel.)

Christ Plays”¦ is an invitation to deeper discipleship based on serious spirituality, the kind that expresses itself, though, in ordinary, common-place ways, smack dab in the middle of the typical work-a-day world. (And oh how I enjoy his rendering of these kind of moments—he routinely lists mundane duties or typical jobs to illustrate this utterly non-spectacular arena of and for formation, making for very vivid reminders and a very fun read.) Peterson calls his work “spiritual theology” but he would not mind it being called “Biblical spirituality.” The Bible stories are endless, with good Scriptural explication on every page; the detail of the exegesis is refreshing and, in some cases, breathtaking with helpful insight. This is the pastor-scholar, you’ll recall, who spent a decade of his life immersed in the ancient languages of the Biblical texts crafting the colloquial paraphrase The Message. He would most likely not want to claim a more scholarly mantel or take credit for exegetical skills that aren’t known by any good working pastor who uses her Greek and Hebrew weekly, but Peterson has logged the long hours of a life-time being a man of serious reading and careful breaking open of the Word. His attention to poetry and novels (a bookish habit he routinely commends to preachers and all serious Bible readers) is legendary. It clearly shows in this new book (the title itself a wonderful line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem), helping him see the nuances of language, the texture of a story, the major themes in Exodus or Mark, say. It is a gift to all of us who read along with him.

Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places is extraordinary, truly fabulous, and very important. Not only is it a crowning achievement of this beloved, consistently good writer, it addresses the very concerns I’ve raised above. It is delightfully interesting, meaty, literate. Peterson can tell a good story—you’ve got to read the one of his first convert, a young bully in the Montana hills who Peterson (to the dismay of his mother) pummeled into submission, and perhaps into Christian faith. His descriptions are robust, his naming of things is impressive (especially when talking about the out-of-doors or telling bird watching stories). He regularly grounds his call to Christian living in the stuff of daily life. Indeed, this is his forte, his charism, his gift to us all: he roots good theology in ordinary experience, always and everywhere aware of the concreteness and peculiarities of place. His imagination–and ours if we follow him–is God-drenched, informed by Biblical texts (as I’ve said) but always seeing real life: the Bible and life, Christ and culture, spiritual renewal and ecological care, prayer and politics, worship and work. As always with Peterson, it is all there. Here. Now. Indeed, Christ plays in ten thousand places.

The book may seem a bit sprawling, even imposing, but just a few focused minutes with the table of contents will allay that wrong hunch. Whatever you’ve heard about this being Peterson’s long-awaited magnum opus, his life work, the first important volume in a major five-volume series, is all true, but this does not mean it is overly difficult or arcane or only for the deepest among us. While it may be a bit more demanding than his popular (and excellent) Long Obedience in the Same Direction (on the Psalms) or Run With the Horses (on Jeremiah), Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is for everyone. Work through it slowly and you will be wiser, more drawn to God, built up in Christ, aware of the Spirit working. It is, I believe, a must-read for our times.

The format of Christ Plays”¦ is easy to describe. After a long introductory chapter explaining key words and notions that permeate good Biblical spirituality, he offers three large sections. The three sections are “Christ Plays in Creation”, “Christ Plays in History”, and “Christ Plays in Community.” In each of these sections he grounds his teaching in a thorough study of an Older Testament text and a New Testament text. He offers a particular way the good news is proclaimed in this field (Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ resurrection, respectively) warns of a particular danger that threatens faithful understanding in this area (gnosticism, moralism, sectarianism, respectively) and shows long-standing Christian practices that have opened God’s people to experience maturely the presence of God in faithful ways in these fields (he lists two in each respective arena, disciplines such as Sabbath-Keeping and wonder, Eucharist and hospitality, baptism and love.) With routine reference to the important work of cultural critic Albert Borgman (see his Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago Press; $26.00) a book I not long ago heard Peterson extol as one of the most important books for pastors in our time) Peterson reminds us of renewed practices that seem counter-cultural, that are counter-cultural. But they are sane. They are true. Such practical attention to this kind of grounded, Biblical discipleship is just what the renewal movement of contemplative spirituality now most needs.

The very moving closing chapter–starting with his story of meeting Paul Tournier as a frustrated young pastor– is mostly a reflection on the need for a patient, daily, ordinary experience of congruence, centeredness, integrity. The gospel life, Peterson reminds us, is being misunderstood, reduced, sold, hollowed out, at an alarming rate. He invites us passionately and carefully to live back into the Story of God. This book is wise counsel, eloquent and full of charm, kindness, modesty, and grace. It might, if I may be coloquial, “knock your socks off.” But, as Peterson bluntly and regularly reminds us, this is not about us. Christian spirituality is not a self-help project, it is not a means to an ends. It is about God. God. It is about God, God known in the person of Christ, experienced together in the details of life.

To read just a few brief excerpts of Peterson’s wonderful prose in this important book, please click HERE.

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The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (New Revised Standard) edited by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Walter Brueggemann, Eugene Peterson (HarperSanFranciso) $39.95

Because it is brand new, I am not yet qualified to talk much about what could be one of the more exciting publishing events this year, the long-awaited Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (HarperSanFrancisco; $39.95.) This hefty NRSV Bible, currently only available in hardback, is a study edition that has numerous notes, sidebars, word studies and the other helps one expects in a good study Bible, offered with a focus on spiritual formation. Interestingly, the large team of scholars who worked on this was directed by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Walter Brueggemann, and Eugene Peterson. The international team included wonderful folks as diverse as Glandion Carney, Marva Dawn, Bruce Demarest, Emilie Griffin, Chris Hall, Walter Kaiser, Tremper Longman, Thomas Oden, Virginia Stem Owens, Earl Palmer, Andrew Purves, Bonnie Thurston, Ben Witherington, and William Willimon and numerous others. Who wouldn’t want a Bible resource that brings together these thoughtful, solid, experienced folk? Brennan Manning, a kindred spirit with many of these writers, has called this Bible “unrivaled.”

The promoters have suggested that The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible combines the “depth of a study Bible with the warmth of a devotional Bible” making it a unique resource unlike any currently available. The introductions to each book of the Bible look splendid; the extra spiritual exercises that are included are marvelous and the meditative essays help develop what they call “the with-God life” for ordinary folks. The typeface is happily a nice size so the many serious notes are not too small, either. We are pleased that it is now available, having had a waiting list for over a year, and we are now eager to commend it. The publisher warns us that the price will go up later this fall (and next winter a duo-tone leather-like edition may come out.) For now, the solid hardback is the only edition available. Please help us spread the word—buy “Ëœem as gifts, put one in your church library, tell your pastor or spiritual director. This is a good, good edition, perhaps a strategic gift to address the very concerns many feel about keeping spirituality and the contemplative movement grounded in serious Biblical study. Thanks be to God!

Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis David C. Downing (InterVarsity Press) $17.00

And this just in: just today as I am typing this post, our staff opened a big box from InterVarsity Press, still one of our favorite and defining publishers— often really smart, culturally engaged, evangelically reliable, good covers. Here, today, is another long-awaited new book, one about which we will surely tell you more another month. It fits so nicely with this month’s theme, though, that I had to mention it. Into the Region of Awe is the wonderfully literate title (it should be a well-crafted line: it is from the pen of none other than Jack Lewis.) Yes, our near neighbor from Elizabethtown College, David Downing, who previously wrote a splendid book on Lewis’ space trilogy (Planets In Peril), and a recent one on Lewis’ conversion (The Most Reluctant Convert), has just released Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis. Who knew that the left-hemisphered brainiac Mr. Lewis was such a contemplative? The only other really great book that explores Lewis’ spirituality is the splendid Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis by Lyle Dorsett (Brazos Press; $12.99.) Downing pays close attention to the broader Lewis work ““essays, letters, poetry, fiction–and draws us into “the region of awe.”

In light of this month’s column and the Peterson book I described above, listen to the description on the back cover: “Exploring Lewis’ sense of the mystical can help us safeguard ourselves from false mysticisms even as it opens the way to a full experience of God’s very presence with us.”

James Sire says that it “shows convincingly that the cast of Lewis’ mind is not exhausted by his brilliant intellect and his fertile literary imagination. Deep within Lewis lies an appreciation for, and engagement with, the mystical way. Downing offers a wonderful corrective to a Lewis we are tempted to cut down to fit our own mental, spiritual and imaginative wardrobe.” He says it is “beautifully written, a joy to read.” Stay tuned”¦