Inspirational but OTT: review of ‘Dirty Glory’ by Pete Greig

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.

Provocative teaching

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)

Ancient wisdom

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.

Story inflation

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, so I got in touch with them to ask them about their view on how they are presented in the book. 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.

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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11 Responses to Inspirational but OTT: review of ‘Dirty Glory’ by Pete Greig

  1. Kevin says:

    Very interesting – I’ve not read it but I can totally understand what you say. It’s the reason I’d find it hard to write a book, and even with a blog I don’t tell the stories I want to tell. Why? Because most of the stories are true but ordinary, life-changing sometimes but life-adjusting at others, which may well still be a major achievement. But not book material. And also, the people are real, not story-fodder. It’s hard because I want to inspire others, but without reducing real life to (at best) an overly simplified paragraph or (at worst) a glorified fiction. It’s also why I rarely buy Christian paperbacks!

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Kev. I think this is why it’s an important issue to talk about. We need to be in the business of being real – I appreciate the way Luke includes in Acts the bust-ups and rows the early church had. I just wonder if the industry of Christian publishing and conferences would last…but we need to celebrate the ‘life-adjusting’ changes you speak about

  2. James says:

    Echo what Kevin said on this. Stories are gold dust and often embellishment to justify a ministry. Good critical review , one that won’t be said in evangelical circles where Pete has gained heroic status.

  3. Interesting to read this, especially as I read the book recently. I don’t think I know any of the people in it personally (although I have some friends who do know Pete Greig), but I have used some of the stories in sermons and talks. However, the ones I have used have generally been those about the people who have fused prayer with action, and who have exercised costly ministries among the poor and the broken. Will be interested to read any further comments here on the book.

  4. I see this happening all the time – propagandisation; window dressing… claims that don’t stand up; blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction; exaggeration – a creeping, climbing plant…

    George Verwer is a contrast – OM is an extraordinary organisation, but he writes about MESS-iology! I still thank God for the 24-7 prayer movement…

  5. Jo Bega says:

    I do agree with you Jon – I’ve definitely witnessed exaggerated stories within the evangelical church and I’ve hated it. However the little bit of Pete’s story that I have experience of (we grew up in the same town) is completely true 🙂

  6. Doug says:

    Thanks for the insights. I have yet to read it but have read all his others which have been incredibly encouraging (if you haven’t read God On Mute – it’s the other end of the spectrum to ‘answered prayers’…)

    But I do know Pete and his heart and I think you should go see him and dig deeper including outlining your conversation with the ‘friend’ that you know. I would be shocked if Pete had any intention of exaggeration or OTT-ing anything. He believes, with good reason, in the power of God through prayer and if there is anything right now the western church needs, it is a good kick in the pants to get back to one of their key responsibilities in bringing the Kingdom of God to this world.

    So to that end, I would err on the side of caution when publicly critiquing a guy who is really bringing that gift back to the church. Better, I think, to go see him face-to-face with your concerns first and would be happy to introduce…

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Hi Doug, thanks for reading the post and for your reasoned comment. But I disagree with what you say – you may be right that the church needs a kick in the pants – but this needs to be done in a way which has truth right at its core. I did err on the side of caution in what I wrote – that is why I checked out what was said with the person I know – I wanted to be careful with the critique. But we need critique rather than cosiness. There is too much of the ‘we are friends’ going on in the Christian world. He has written a public book and I have criticised elements of it publicly whilst praising a lot of it. We need these kind of assertive, honest reviews far more than the bland agreement that often passes for unity. We need to grow up a bit and be more up front with each other.

      Perhaps Pete G never meant to OTT anything but I feel this is what has been produced and others have got in touch to affirm what I wrote. As an independent example, check out this ‘trailer’ for the ‘Dirty Glory’ book – in my view it is hugely overblown – and I don’t think its good for 24-7 Prayer to produce such stuff: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ImEKpEnIvWU

      I think that raising concerns like this is a key part of Christian discipleship – I think we should be able to handle a robust discussion around issues like this.

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