All entries for Saturday 06 October 2007

October 06, 2007

Alpha Course Redux

Given a combination of:
1: Renewed interest in my original Alpha Course article and,
2: Me not feeling very well,
today’s blog entry is a never before seen first draf of a piece I did on the subject for the Mail On Sunday ages ago. And since it hasn’t seen print yet, I doubt it ever will do so I’m throwing it up here instead:

‘Discover the Meaning of Life’. That was what the posters said, and what 20-year old student with a penchant for pseudo-intellectual philosophising wouldn’t be interested in a course of free classes purporting to offer insight into and discussion of the big questions of life, the universe and everything. On closer inspection and in a much smaller font the posters also said: ‘A Christian view of the world’. This was a little disappointing at first, but then a free-for-all on the subject would inevitably lead to a bunch of students sitting around spouting pop-psychology sound bites from The Matrix.
Further enquiries lead me to discover that the point of the course was to provide a friendly and open introduction to Christianity, which crucially omitted any ‘preaching’ and allowed an open forum for discussion after each talk. I was raised a Christian but gradually drifted away from it, instead adopting a personal set of beliefs that I thought had a lot in common with those of Christians. So I decided to go along with an open mind, after all at worst I’d come out of it with a deeper understanding of Christianity, whether I agreed with everything or not.

The first thing that happens at an Alpha evening is you get given free food, and its good food. Of all the criticisms one could make of the course, this is one area that is beyond reproach!
Unfortunately things quickly take a turn for the worse. Following the food and light-hearted chat comes Alpha’s dirty little secret: worship. I imagine this could differ from course to course but on this one it consisted of someone playing guitar and people standing up, singing worship songs and clapping along. Now crucially the leaders do make it clear that this is optional and we’re welcome to sit it out if we so wish. However, this is where another interesting facet of Alpha comes in: it’s also a course for existing Christians, being marketed heavily at local Churches. Hence a majority of people there are already used to this sort of thing and gladly join in, leading to many of the non-Christians joining in perhaps to ‘fit in’, leaving only a few of us to become increasingly uncomfortable, checking our watches and wondering exactly how many verses of this song can be left. You’ll find no mention of worship in any descriptions of Alpha on their website or in their leaflets, understandably so since had I known before-hand I may well have been put off attending. Nevertheless its casual insertion into what is supposedly an open and un-pressured introduction to Christianity seems rather at odds with the goals of Alpha. Interestingly the amount of time given over to worship is increased as the course progresses, and those not participating made to feel more uncomfortable. For example, after a few weeks rather than ask all those who wish to worship to stand up, everyone is asked to stand up and those not wanting to participate told they can sit down again. It’s a subtle thing but no-one ever wants to be the first person to go against the group, drawing attention to themselves by sitting down. For me this culminated in one of the last weeks of the course, when the guy leading the worship actually said, “those couple of you that don’t normally join in might want to think about trying it this week.”

After the worship comes the talk. These are presented by various people from local Churches and based around such issues as ‘Why did Jesus die?’. While the various speakers may add in anecdotes of their own, these talks are based heavily upon Alpha-founder Nicky Gumbel’s ‘Questions of Life’ book. On the surface they’re pretty inoffensive but much of what is presented as fact is tenuous at best, and some of the arguments are rather flawed. To give an example, one speaker brings along a copy of Tacitus’ diaries from the times of the Roman Empire. His argument goes that were he to read this he would accept it at face value as an accurate portrayal of that time, with no reason to doubt it. As such, there’s no reason to doubt the Bible’s accuracy either. I somehow feel that the speaker might struggle somewhat with GCSE History and the notion of source reliability, bias and corroboration.

While mostly inoffensive the talks at times strayed into dangerous territory, during one the speaker actually claimed that the ideas of Spiritualism and the New Age movement were not just wrong, but ‘evil’. It’s easy to target the stranger and less popular religions and for a speaker in this situation it’s easy to get a laugh of ‘someone putting a crystal in their ear’ but it demonstrates the underlying attitude that those of other religions are worshiping false and evil gods. A speaker can avoid potential controversy by poking fun at Spiritualists instead of Muslims, but the argument would be the same in either case. It was also rather odd to see the same people who only half an hour ago were dancing about, worshiping their Lord and singing ‘Praise God to Whom All Rivers Flow’ criticise another religion for having ‘weird’ practices.

After the talks there are discussion groups; here the forty or so people on the course split up into smaller groups of around ten. These are quite well handled, with the leaders instructed not to preach but merely to direct a discussion of ideas between the participants on the contents of the talks they have just heard. While enjoyable these group discussions are of no consequence. It would be possible for a group to discuss and agree that the talk was flawed and even wrong, but Alpha being a linear course makes this irrelevant; the next weeks talk will happen regardless, building upon the previous one, with the assumption that one accepts everything said previously as true. For example in week two we are told the Bible is the infallible word of God. In week three we are told we know Jesus did everything it is claimed he did, as it says so in the Bible; for proof- see week two.

It’s around week seven of the course that things truly take a turn as this brings the weekend away. Here you get to spend the entire weekend with the people from your course and others, and receive a series of talks about the nature of the Holy Spirit. At least that’s what we were told. It was during breakfast on the Saturday morning that I got the first inkling of what was to come. I was approached by one of the leaders from another course, we had a short discussion about my personal beliefs and she finished by telling me she felt there was something special in store that night. My heart sank as I realised what was in store and sure enough I was right. After the first talk that evening there was an extended period of worship, where people were invited to come up to the front, pray with the leaders and give themselves to God, becoming a ‘true Christian’. It was pointed out by the leader of the service that when doing so one might collapse and feel physically pinned by the force of God. Of the people that went up this happened to over half of them. I have no way of knowing if this was real or not, but cannot help but speculate what those numbers would have been like if the service leader had not put the idea in our heads to start with. A similar example of this Derren Brown-esque suggestion happened at the following day’s worship: this time it was suggested that during worship people often start to ‘speak in tongues’. Sure enough for the first time that weekend someone supposedly spoke in tongues. By the end of the weekend there were only two of us left ‘unsaved’ out of around a hundred attendees, and the preacher on the microphone was happy to single us out and encourage us to join in, again, at odds with Alpha’s supposed ‘no-pressure’ ethic. But then it’s easier to change the rules when your audience are away from home and can’t simply walk out.

While I found this all quite off-putting but it wasn’t until the following week I truly realised the course wasn’t for me. The talk was on the subject ‘Does God heal today?’, the crux of it being that miracles still happen all the time and God can heal us; not just mentally, but physically. We were told an anecdote about a woman who was born with no foot, but went to a Church where she was prayed for and then told to buy a pair of shoes. As she put her leg into the shoe, her foot grew back there and then. I believe in miracles: if you claim someone was dying of cancer and was prayed for then went into remission, then I am happy to admit that it could be a divine act. But a woman growing back an entire foot in seconds seemed ridiculously far-fetched. So I raised this point in the discussion group. I expected these people that I’d come to know, many being fellow science students, to agree that it was rather unlikely. Instead I was met with blank stares and mumbled agreement that “it could happen”. In this moment I was reminded of an appropriate quote from an old TV show I’ve always taken to heart: “Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel further with both than you can with just one”. It became apparent to me in that moment that to believe as the others did I would have to put aside all reason and accept things solely on blind faith, something I wasn’t willing to do.

The overall effect of the course was to put me off Christianity for quite a while, and it took a few months for me to realise that despite my scepticism, I’d actually been taken in by the course: while I didn’t believe in the veracity of everything in it, I believed that what is presented was the totality of Christianity. I’d been blinded to the fact that there are a whole host of other Christian denominations that allow for far more reason and a far less hard-nosed attitude towards things. I imagine Alpha would probably see members of such Churches ‘chameleon Christians’, claiming they are not ‘true Christians’.

Despite everything I would encourage people to try the Alpha Course if they’re at all interested, but to be aware that beneath the carefully advertised gentle introduction to the faith, lies a fairly fundamentalist Christian-conversion course that uses slick marketing, psychological tricks and peer pressure to pull people in and so is best approached with a healthy degree of cynicism.

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