The ambition to ‘form a movement’ is one I have heard expressed by many leaders over the years. Movements are perceived as exciting, purposeful expressions of collective will and spiritual energy. They often stand in contrast to the more mundane task of managing an organisation.
Pete Greig is one of the few contemporary Christian leaders who can legitimately be credited with starting a movement. 24-7 Prayer has had a huge impact in fusing prayer, mission and justice, especially with younger people.
And it is easy to see the qualities that Greig has brought to the movement. He is an inspirational communicator, brim-full of stories, infectious energy and positivity. His exuberance is contagious.
This book, Dirty Glory is packed full of stories, provocative theology and challenging teaching. Take this as an example when he discusses ‘dirty glory’ of God’s incarnation in Jesus:
“We believe in the blasphemous glory of Immanuel; ‘infinity dwindled to infancy’, as the poet once said. We believe in omnipotence surrendering to incontinence, the name above every other name rumoured to be illegitimate…The creator of the Cosmos made tables and presumably he made them badly at first.” (p15)
A key strength of the book is the way that Greig fuses the spiritual wisdom of previous ages with the energy of contemporary evangelicalism. Greig quotes Augustine, Teresa of Avila, John Donne, St Benedict, as well as Karl Barth and Oscar Romero, in a way younger people will be able to connect with and appreciate.
Another strength is the continual emphasis on the integration of prayer and action:
‘Prayer must outwork itself in action…it is about the saying of prayers for sure, but also the becoming of prayers in a thousand practical ways’ (p7)
And there is a strong challenge for anyone who wants an other-worldly spirituality which is detached from the struggle for justice:
‘Down the ages, it has always been the tendency of the rich to reduce salvation to a purely spiritual experience…the consequences of the gospel are profoundly structural as well as spiritual’ (p278-9)
In these ways, Dirty Glory expresses an inspirational form of radical orthodoxy – challenging readers to integrate spiritual practices with a vibrant and activist faith.
Greig is a brilliant story-teller. Lengthy expositions of the journeys of a handful of activists inspired by 24-7 Prayer make up a large chunk of the book.
But as I read these I could not get away from a nagging concern about whether the reality behind the stories truly measured up to the way they are presented. I tried hard not to be cynical but I could not ignore a growing hunch that the stories being told are over-done: that too much was being made of the events and activity described.
Stories are a like a currency. And for writers and speakers, they are a fundamental way of trading ideas and inspiration. But like financial currencies, stories can be liable to a being inflated beyond their true value. Stories can be injected with a significance that they cannot bear.
Over the top
I know one person who is referred to in the book, so I got in touch with them to ask them about their view on how they are presented. They replied as follows:
‘It is highly dramatized. Enough truth in it to remember it happening but quite a lot of OTT stuff. And a fact or two at variance with the truth. It has left me scratching my head a little.’
I think this sums up my main concern with Dirty Glory. I am not saying there is outright deceit but there is too much of what the essayist William Hazlitt defined as ‘cant’:
“Cant is the voluntary overcharging or prolongation of real sentiment.”
The curse of evangelical sub-culture
The ‘over-charging or prolongation’ of stories is the curse of evangelical sub-culture. Too often, inspiration is valued over all-else.
Time and again I have seen the damage caused by the disconnection between the stories shared by inspiring leaders and what is actually done in reality. It is rooted in a dangerous temptation among charismatic communicators to over-hype what they are involved in. It is a key reason for the growth of disillusionment and cynicism within the church.
Honesty and humility
The best antidote to hype is the counter-cultural example that Jesus gives us. He went out of his way to downplay what he was doing, avoiding big crowds and consistently not doing what his supporters wanted him to. And the Bible is littered with commands for us to be humble.
We need to have faith that humility and honesty increase the power and integrity of our message. This is truly the dirty glory that Jesus has shown us and the life God calls us to.