Introductory Note:

In this vintage interview we get a glimpse behind the scenes of Eugene’s pastoral goals in writing the book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, which looks at the practical aspects of living out the Christian life in our modern world. He says, “Theology without spirituality is dead, while spirituality without theology is mushy. I was hoping to get them together, wed them, get them integrated, correlated.” May this conversation between two old friends steady us and guide us in the way of Jesus.

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

Richard J. Fos­ter: Would you share why you chose the title, Christ Plays in Ten Thou­sand Places, from a poem by Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins, and what you’re try­ing to con­vey by it?

Eugene Peter­son: Hop­kins, who uses lan­guage in a very fresh, earthy, Celtic way, has meant a lot to me. This phrase is from a son­net that begins As king­fish­ers catch fire, drag­on­flies draw flame;/ As tum­bled over rim in roundy wells/​Stones ring …” and so on, pick­ing up a num­ber of images. The last few lines then focus on 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.” That’s been in the back of my mind for years as a text for the inte­gra­tion of the out­ward cre­ation and our inward spir­i­tu­al­i­ty: Christ with­out us, and Christ with­in us, Christ before the foun­da­tion of the world, Christ lov­ing us and Christ redeem­ing us. So I had a title long before I wrote a book.

RJF: Can you help us get a sense of why you wrote the book, and what you feel it might add to spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion or discipleship?

EP: I’m not the first to be con­cerned about this. Oth­ers have done it also. I’ve been a pas­tor most of my life, and it’s dis­tressed me that the peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in the­ol­o­gy aren’t very much inter­est­ed in spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. They tend to be aca­d­e­mics or stu­dents or love to have Bible stud­ies. On the oth­er hand, the peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and prayer, small groups, or retreats have no inter­est in the­ol­o­gy. And the split — and this is not recent; this is his­toric — has become more and more appar­ent with the high, grow­ing inter­est in spir­i­tu­al­i­ty in our time. I don’t know that it’s any wider; it’s just more con­spic­u­ous. The­ol­o­gy with­out spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is dead, while spir­i­tu­al­i­ty with­out the­ol­o­gy is mushy. I was hop­ing to get them togeth­er, wed them, get them inte­grat­ed, correlated.

Through­out the book I empha­size and shape and ground every­thing in Scrip­ture. Every­thing is shaped in a Trini­tar­i­an struc­ture with a sharp focus on the keryg­ma of Jesus — Christ in his birth, Christ in his death, Christ in his res­ur­rec­tion. Spir­i­tu­al the­ol­o­gy is very specif­i­cal­ly focused in Jesus as the Christ — Jesus born, cru­ci­fied, raised — and not Jesus as a gen­er­al­ized figure.

RJF: So, the title com­mu­ni­cates a very high Christology?

EP: Yes.

RJF: Can you help us under­stand what you’re hop­ing peo­ple will gain from the book, the take-home value?

EP: I think Christ Plays in Ten Thou­sand Places has been out a year now, and I’ve had a lot of con­fir­ma­tion that what I hoped is in fact hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple are real­iz­ing that every­thing is inte­grat­ed in this Chris­t­ian life. You can’t spe­cial­ize: you can’t spe­cial­ize in Moses or in Paul or in Jesus. This is one big sto­ry. It’s not only a sto­ry of faith, it’s a sto­ry of the world in which faith takes place. So what I’m hop­ing to do is tear down all these walls that we erect between dif­fer­ent depart­ments — his­to­ry, bib­li­cal stud­ies, the­ol­o­gy; laity and cler­gy, sec­u­lar and spir­i­tu­al — so the read­er not only gets a sense of the the­o­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty of every­thing we’re doing, but also dis­cov­ers a con­sis­tent, organ­ic uni­ty. So if we put our fin­ger on any part of the spider’s web, every­thing is affected.

RJF: Won­der­ful. Since this is the first book in a series on spir­i­tu­al the­ol­o­gy,” maybe it’s best to help us know first what you mean by that phrase. Then, maybe you could say a word or two on what the oth­er four books are going to be about.

EP: Spir­i­tu­al the­ol­o­gy is not a new con­cept. I think the phrase occurred for the first time in the late Mid­dle Ages. For the first thou­sand years [of the Church] there was not the­ol­o­gy or wor­ship or litur­gy; it was an inte­grat­ed Chris­t­ian life. The­ol­o­gy and Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty weren’t divid­ed up. With the rise of the uni­ver­si­ties in the twelfth cen­tu­ry, things became divid­ed. The cathe­dral schools took care of the­ol­o­gy and the monas­ter­ies took care of prayer, and we’ve nev­er quite got­ten them back togeth­er again.

Ellen Char­ry has the won­der­ful phrase sapi­en­tial the­ol­o­gy” — the­ol­o­gy for liv­ing as opposed to a more sci­en­tif­ic focus where you learn the facts. It’s wise liv­ing, it’s whole liv­ing, it’s healthy living.

Of the five, Christ Plays in Ten Thou­sand Places is the foun­da­tion­al book. In it I’m try­ing to intro­duce this whole con­cept of the organ­ic uni­ty inte­grat­ed with the ground­ing of Scrip­ture, this Trini­tar­i­an struc­ture and the keryg­mat­ic focus. Actu­al­ly, I’m call­ing these con­ver­sa­tions. These are not dog­mat­ic pro­nounce­ments. Spir­i­tu­al the­ol­o­gy — or maybe I should just say the Chris­t­ian life — requires dialogue.

So I tried to keep a cer­tain ele­ment of infor­mal­i­ty in my writ­ing — tell sto­ries, use poems, what­ev­er helps to invite a con­ver­sa­tion­al read­er­ship. The sub­ti­tle of this first vol­ume is A Con­ver­sa­tion in Spir­i­tu­al The­ol­o­gy.

The title of the sec­ond book is Eat This Book. It’s a con­ver­sa­tion on read­ing Scrip­ture, the spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of read­ing, which again requires par­tic­i­pa­to­ry action. It’s like St. John eat­ing the book, eat­ing the scroll of Scrip­ture, get­ting it inside of him. Then it explodes in these incred­i­ble visions in the book of the Rev­e­la­tion. Not only in the visions, but in the life of the people.

I think my title for the third vol­ume will be The Jesus Way. And I take the metaphor of Jesus as the way and explore it in every dimen­sion I can fig­ure out.

We can’t say Jesus is the way — I’m going to fol­low Jesus” — and then use all the devil’s ways. All the I like to do” or have a tal­ent for” or have an apti­tude for” or have a spir­i­tu­al gift” lan­guage is pop­u­lar in our church­es, but we have to do it Jesus’s way. The way Jesus did it is as impor­tant as the way Jesus is. I’m just try­ing to con­nect ways and means. The means by which we do some­thing can destroy what we’re doing if they’re not appro­pri­ate. And I think the Amer­i­can Church is very con­spic­u­ous for destroy­ing the way of Jesus in the ways we do church.

My title for the fourth vol­ume is Tell It Slant, a phrase from poet Emi­ly Dick­in­son. Orig­i­nal­ly it was to be on spir­i­tu­al direc­tion, but it’s expand­ed now or it’s changed focus to con­sid­er the way we use lan­guage, the spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of lan­guage. I’m tak­ing two foci: Jesus and his sto­ries, which is basi­cal­ly the para­bles, and Jesus in his prayers. What I’m try­ing to deal with is con­ver­sa­tion, the way you and I are talk­ing right now. We some­times think of spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion as talk­ing about God or the soul, but in real­i­ty it is the way we use lan­guage when we’re talk­ing to our kids — Pass the pota­toes” — and when we’re talk­ing with God — Give us this day our dai­ly bread.” We’re using the same lan­guage, deal­ing the same words.

Spir­i­tu­al direc­tion is an inten­tion­al form of pay­ing atten­tion to the every­day­ness of our lives. But I’d like to expand the imag­i­na­tion to include the way we talk around our sup­per tables, the way we talk to a clerk in the check-out line at a gro­cery store, the way we talk to our chil­dren or spous­es or friends when we’re not aware of talk­ing about God or our soul. Jesus is con­spic­u­ous for doing that in the parables.

The final book … by the way, Jan, my spouse, very immod­est­ly I think, has been call­ing this The Peter­son Pen­ta­teuch” … will be on spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. I’ll use the book of Eph­esians as my text, and the empha­sis will be on spir­i­tu­al matu­ri­ty: how we become whole, how we become well devel­oped, how we grow up in Christ. Eph­esians is Paul’s most mature let­ter and is per­fect­ly designed for this. I think all of Paul’s oth­er let­ters are ad hoc. They were sparked by some con­tro­ver­sy or some mis­un­der­stand­ing or some­thing local that was going wrong. But Eph­esians is dif­fer­ent. There’s no prob­lem in the church at Eph­esus; only the issue of Chris­tians grow­ing up, of becom­ing spir­i­tu­al­ly mature.

RJF: What do you hope this series cul­ti­vates in indi­vid­u­als and the Church at large?

EP: I hope I make at least a mod­est con­tri­bu­tion toward devel­op­ing an imag­i­na­tion that is less sec­tar­i­an, less sub­jec­tive and more bib­li­cal, more Trini­tar­i­an so that we get out of our tiny ghet­tos where we’re fight­ing for and try­ing to defend all these lit­tle caus­es and doc­trines. I would like to intro­duce peo­ple into a world that’s inte­grat­ed, that’s whole in which Christ is the def­i­n­i­tion and the pres­ence of this wholeness.

We are at a cri­sis in the Amer­i­can Church. I don’t know enough about the rest of the world to speak about it, but our rhetoric is loud­er and more abra­sive. Our rela­tion­ships are shal­low­er, more super­fi­cial. We have an enor­mous amount of ener­gy in church­es in this coun­try, and I would like to do with my read­er­ship what I’ve tried to do as a pas­tor: get them to take their lives seri­ous­ly in the whole­ness of Christ, not for what they can get out of Christ. I would like to make a dent in the debil­i­tat­ing con­sumer men­tal­i­ty that has beguiled reli­gion and faith in this country.

Inter­view edit­ed by Court­ney Cohen

Pho­to by Jr Kor­pa on Unsplash

· Last Featured on Renovare.org November 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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