Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing
By Andy Freeman and Pete Greig
Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
First, a confession: I fell in love with this book the moment I heard of its title. Bands like the Clash and the Jam provided the soundtrack to my undergraduate years, so I guess I have a soft spot for the punk world (even though I was never much of a punk myself). And while a title like this could easily signify a book that is more cutesy style than substance, I’m happy to report that this book has value well beyond its two-syllable rhyme.
For readers who may not be not familiar with the 24-7 Prayer movement, Punk Monk is a worthy successor to Pete Greig’s previous book, Red Moon Rising, in which he tells the story of this exciting new expression of Christian spirituality. Essentially, 24-7 originated in England among young evangelical Christians who wanted to put into practice the command to pray without ceasing, even if only for a weekend or a week at a time. Led by and ministering to youth on the margins of church culture, it became an unlikely postmodern expression of how the Holy Spirit continues to surprise the community of faith with new and creative ways to “do” Christianity. The “Boiler Rooms” — gatherings of Christians who seek a more permanent and communal extension of the 24-7 concept — seem to be an obvious enough outgrowth of this movement. The first Boiler Room opened in Reading, England in October 2001; others soon followed, including one in Kansas City.
Boiler Rooms are part of the neo-monastic movement; as such, they are entirely new and dare I say cutting edge expressions of the impulse toward creating Christian community, but respectful and honoring of other holy expressions of intentional faith community over the ages, from the early Celtic monasteries to the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions, to Protestant communal movements such as the Moravians. Like other neo-monastic groups, the 24-7 Boiler Rooms combine zeal for prayer with a willingness to do ministry in unconventional ways. for these punk monks, this means reaching out to urban teens and young adults who might be strung out on drinking or drugs, embroiled in a life of petty crime, or simply so immersed in the skater/goth/punk culture that something like monasticism (or, for that matter, Christianity in general) would seem irrelevant if not totally stupid. To keep from closing doors on this vulnerable and all-too-cynical segment of the population, the Boiler Rooms appear to be long on tolerance and short on dogma, a stance that might be upsetting to more conventional Christians. But I don’t mean to suggest that this is some sort of “Christianity-lite.” Based on what I could glean from the book, I think the Boiler Room mission strategy is to meet people where they are, try to love them as Christ loved the people he encountered, and then let the Holy Spirit worry about such things as repentance, conversion, and orthodox belief. This places these guys in the same camp as such folks as Peter Rollins and Brian McLaren — folks who are often misunderstood for their radical commitment to celebrate the gospel in a thoroughly postmodern way.
The Boiler Rooms resemble traditional monasteries in at least two significant ways: first, they are serious, bone serious, about prayer (and like the Greek hesychasts, they understand that prayer should be as much an ongoing part of our lives as breathing, hence the book’s clever sub-title). Their other clear connection to old-style monasticism stems from the fact that they have their own rule of life. In it they affirm two purposes (prayer and the practice of the Christian life), three principles (being true to Christ, being kind to people, and being missional), and six fundamental practices (prayer, creativity, hospitality, mercy, learning and mission). Their rule sums up their commitment “not to buildings but to community,” recognizing that even though they’ve occupied some pretty neat locations (the Reading Boiler Room began on the grounds of the old Benedictine monastery, while the London group occupied the same block where John Wesley led his Methodist revivals), the focus is not on real estate but on creating a living web of relationships where grace and miracles can happen.
One of the challenges facing traditional monasticism for at least the past quarter century or so has been a dearth of vocations. Even though the monastery where I work is relatively healthy in that respect, even there the new novices tend to be mature men, in mid-life – or beyond. Punk Monk, however, offers hope that monasticism is not going to die out any time soon, and that it can still be relevant to the young. We just need to be prepared to accept the fact that the monk of the future just might be covered with tattoos.