We picked raspberries a couple of weeks ago — the free kind that grow along the edges of fields and in the company of thistles. They were succulent. I could wrap words around a description of raspberry picking: the gentle encompassing pressure that releases a perfectly ripe berry from its stem; the empty white cone that is left behind on the bush; the scratches on hands and forearms; the sticky red fingertips that carry home the smell of summer and bee-buzzing sweetness. But — there is no literary technique, no class in horticulture that comes close to the essence of picking raspberries. For this, one must go into the bushes and experience life in the raspberry patch.
This is the nature of knowing God as well, for Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, and to live from the heart what we know in our heads, we must go crashing into the bushes with the thistles, thorns, and mosquitoes. This is the message of this first volume (2003) of Eugene Peterson’s classic series of five conversations on spiritual theology. The term “spiritual theology” refers to “the specifically Christian attempt to address the lived experience revealed in our Holy Scriptures and the rich understandings and practices of our ancestors as we work this experience out in our contemporary world of diffused and unfocused ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.'” (5)
Peterson borrows a theme from Gerard Manley Hopkins and expands upon it with engaging examples and sharp Scriptural observations that argue for this truth:
“The end of all Christian belief and obedience, witness and teaching, marriage and family, leisure and work life, preaching and pastoral work is the living of everything we know about God: life, life, and more life.” (1)
He goes on to support his argument through beautifully detailed exposition of three of those “ten thousand places” in which Christ plays and in which we all go about the business of living our days.
Christ Plays in Creation
Creation’s Firstborn invites believers into a life of wonder. The Greek word kerygma, a “public proclamation that brings what it proclaims into historical reality,” (53) frames the impact of His miraculous birth and sends readers looking to the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 for help in shaping a Christ-following life. Firmly grounded in time and space, we find that the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are also gifts marked by the sacredness of creation. John’s Gospel affirms in “theological poetry” (87) that Jesus was indeed “at play” in the Genesis creation.
Christ Plays in History
As creation points our thoughts toward life, history outside the Garden of Eden has been characterized by a series of deaths. Even so kerygma — good news! — appears in the midst of the mess because the death of Jesus redeems the mess of history and takes the edge off the truth that one day death will come to each of us.
“This conjunction of death, Jesus’ and mine, is where I begin to understand and receive salvation.” (143)
Peterson takes his readers to Exodus as a grounding text, rich in the history of God’s people, but particularly in the action of a holy (and often wholly inexplicable) God. The Gospel of Mark also deals in history, for with his succinct and economical style, Mark pioneered a new genre in which Jesus is the subject, but the content — rather than focusing on the background, emotions, or internal dialogue of the main character — is all about salvation, the redemption of every part of history: the world’s and my own.
Christ Plays in Community
If the birth of Jesus and the creation of the world ground us in life; and if Jesus’ death has redeemed history from the stench of meaningless death; then the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for a life lived in community. “Jesus’ resurrection is the final kerygmatic ‘piece’ that, together with his birth and death, sets the good news, the gospel, in motion and creates the Christian life.” (230)
The spiritual formation that makes community possible is the work of the Spirit, and this is nowhere more clear than in Luke’s New Testament writing about the ministry of Christ and the early church with 17 references to the Holy Spirit in his Gospel and 57 in the book of Acts. In spite of persecution and imprisonment, Luke uses the word “unhindered” (akoluto) to describe Paul’s ministry under house arrest. This irony minimizes the obstacles and invites present-day believers, who are “constantly tempted to use the world’s means to do Jesus’ work,” (299) into the unhindered life of prayerful obedience, hospitality, and submission to the means and methods of kingdom living. Perfection is the enemy of community and love is the fuel, a I John 4:21-style love that “purg[es] [the] imagination of the barnacles, parasites, and grime that have accumulated around the word ‘love’ so that Jesus and the Jesus story becomes clear.” (328)
Eugene Peterson and Gerard Manley Hopkins harmonize in the challenge to seek Christ in creation, history, and community and in any of the ten thousand places in which He plays. Finding Christ in all of life is the single unifying experience that brings wholeness to our theology and moves us toward a faith that honors the risen Christ and puts His resurrection life on display.
This book was provided by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
If you are interested in pursuing the topic of spiritual theology through more of Eugene Peterson’s writing, I can recommend book five in the series, Practice Resurrection, through my review here. And his most recent book expands Peterson’s thoughts on the writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire along with a collection of Eugene Peterson’s sermons. I’ve shared my thoughts on the book here.
And . . .. . . stay tuned for details and a reading schedule for Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m looking forward to a discussion here each Thursday from September 7 through November 16.
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