All entries for February 2005

February 27, 2005

Christianity as a Commodity: The Alpha Course

I'm interested to know if anyone here has had any experience with the Christian Alpha Course: it's something I have a lot of opinions about and could write a small book on it – in fact I have but I'm not going to repeat it all here (unless there's a lot of interest for some odd reason). I'm going to try and be a little more objective here – I'll also try and keep it fairly short and post a follow up article in a few days if it generates any interest or debate.

For those that have no idea what I'm talking about the Alpha Course is basically what you get when you cross preaching Christianity with fantastic marketing. It's an attempt to sell to you what really boils down to a life-changing experience. If that sounds good, note that I'm not suggesting this change is in any way a good thing.

If you find yourself intrigued and decide to research the Alpha Course online you'll find very little detail on what it actually is. There's sites with great slogans like "An opportunity to explore the meaning of life" that make it sound really interesting, and you find out that the average Alpha evening consists of free food (good if you're ever really stuck for cash) followed by a talk on an aspect of Christianity followed by a chance to discuss said aspect. That's pretty much all you'll find, other than some wishy-washy testimonials like "It made me understand that God knew me as an individual and knew what I was going through". There's not much substance to it.

This is all part of the marketing, make it seem intriguing and pull people in, impress them with nice food and then, then it gets a bit bizarre. They decide to engage in 10–15 minutes of Christian worship: songs and prayer. I think you can guess why that wasn't mentioned in the publicity. You can either join in or not, and just look like a numpty, as another odd facet of the Alpha Course is that they are packed with people who are already committed Christians (I'm sure when I attended the number of people involved with the organisation of the course approximated that of the number of guests). Hence people will see half the room doing something and join in, singing words of praise to a god they may or may not have any belief in: again, part of the canny marketing strategy.

Then come the talks – these are actually relatively inoffensive, although inevitably one-sided, but at times give the illusion of truth by attempting to address some of the common issues ("We know what Jesus did was real as it's mentioned in this Roman emperor's biography as well": well done, you've found one corroborating source for the bible – considering all the things he apparently did, it's a bit odd there aren’t more, no?)

Following this is the group discussion, though the leaders are only responsible for directing the conversation and won't actually jump in to defend their faith. It's perfectly possible for a strong enough atheist personality to dominate these talks and convince everyone that the entire contents of the talk was incorrect and flawed, but this is totally irrelevant as the following weeks talk is always delivered upon the assumption that you have accepted as fact the previous weeks one (eg. Week 2: the bible is the infallible word of God. Week 3: we know all this stuff about Jesus is true as the bible said so and we established that as true last week.) The talks serve the purpose of giving the illusion of choice; the idea that you can make your own opinions heard makes you think that any acceptance of the ideas presented comes from you thinking and going over the issues, as opposed to just accepting them as given. But in actuality the discussions are completely pointless to you, as the next week will simply assume you have accepted the ideas anyway. Here you get a sort of positive re-inforcement: you realise in week 3 or 4 that if you don’t accept the bible as being one-hundred percent true, you may as well not be there, as any other arguments will build upon this. If you’ve any interest in the subject matter it’s easy to just let yourself accept this in order to see the arguments in their proper context, but in doing so you also help convince yourself of its truth.

Around week 7 or 8 of the 10 week course the piece de la resistance of the marketing occurs: the weekend away. If you thought it was tough to find out anything about Alpha in general, try searching for information on the weekend away! I kid you not dear readers, but when I attended the course I was unable to obtain even an address for where we going! The most specific it got was ‘somewhere in Great Malvern’ despite asking a number of the group organisers. It seems this information, along with all others on the weekend, was heavily guarded. But through either curiosity or stupidity I did get on that coach to be driven to an unknown location with a bunch of people I barely knew. It is a genius method of marketing: take a bunch of people away for a weekend where they will be trapped, a totally captive audience, with little to do other than what you organise for them. It might sound like I’m a bit cynical and over the top here but think about it: the weekend is just the usual talks, discussion and worship. There’s no reason this couldn’t be done at the regular venue – this along with the inability for anyone to give me an address for the trip so I could say, look up the nearest train station in advance, leads me to think that it’s there solely to ensure there’s no escape for the people involved
This in mind, the worship quota is upped for the weekend, and whole notion of giving your life to Jesus and getting ‘saved’ is raised, with people going up to the front of the chapel and praying in a sort of ‘Christianity pledge’, with people collapsing and doing the (pretty amusing) speaking in tongues thing, just like any good cult. These things occurring of course, after the preacher has mentioned that they might. I imagine the result would be somewhat different if he didn’t.

It’s at that point you really see what the Alpha Course truly is: it’s not an invitation to explore the meaning of life, but a slickly marketed Christian conversion course. The objective of Alpha is not to educate people about Christianity, but to convert as many people as possible their particular brand of this religion. By the time it’s been pared down enough to just the people left at the weekend, the success rate is pretty high, around 90%. As more people go to the front of the stage to be ‘saved’ you become made to feel increasingly awkward stood at the back, perhaps even a little tempted to just give in and go for it anyways, made all the more acute by the preacher singling you out: the combination of direct and peer pressure make for an extremely uncomfortable situation. I stuck around for the remaining few weeks after the weekend as I figured I may as well finish it off so I could at least write about it with some authority and it wouldn’t be a total waste of my time, but by that time there were only a couple of us sceptics left and we were left to feel increasingly marginalised and singled out as the last attempts to convert us were made. From the Alpha course people are then moved into becoming regular church goers at churches with similar beliefs to those taught at Alpha, and absorbed into Cell groups, and I’ll talk more about Alpha’s particular ‘brand’ of Christianity in the follow up article.

Alpha is ingenious at what it does, but be warned it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

February 26, 2005

Sleeping In Light: Babylon 5

So many many moons ago I came across this television program on Channel 4 entitled Babylon 5: I'd heard alot about it but never really watched it, but they happened to be showing the final series at lunch time on sundays so I started watching it. I caught most of the final series and t was pretty good: not incredible by any means but a decent program that kept me amused for an hour.

It wouldn't be until a few years later when the Sci Fi channel showed the whole series, one episode a day over the course of the summer that I'd really grow to understand the show.

Babylon 5 was planned in meticulous detail as an epic 5-year novel-for-television. This wasn't George Lucas bullshit style, claiming that Star Wars was actually part 4 of a 9 movie story: it's quite evident in watching the show that hints are dropped and future events forshadowed as early as the first series. Plot strands are even opened up that arn't bought to a close until a few years down the line. It's not just about fancy sci-fi ideas either: infact the show is mostly about characters: each and every one is changed through the course of the series. G'kar goes from a war-hungry militant to a revered writer, Sheridan from gung-ho space captain to founder of a peace-keeping alliance, and Sinclair and Delenn change in even more signifacant ways. There there's Londo. In many ways, the show is about his story: his attempts to gain power and influence, lead him to making some bad choices and ultimatly destroy him. His story is very much a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense.

Sure, the show isn't perfect: the CGI effects look pretty poor today, there's ropey acting in places and some even more ropey dialogue, especially amongst the human crew. Not to mention everything in the series to have gone or be going to hell. The story also suffered from practical considerations, such as actor's wanting to leave, and while it was planned as a 5 year story, when it looked like getting a fifth year was unlikely, much of the story was compressed into the second half of the forth, to give people some closure. Hence it feels rather rushed, and series 5 rather stretched out in comparison. Of course if you start with series one the show also appears distinctily unimpressive, being as it is the equivalent to a novel's prologue, so while not a bad show by any means, it gives little indication of the sheer brilliance to come.

Still, it manages to work as an amazing cohesive whole, due in no small part to 80% of the episodes being writen by series creator Joe Straczynski, a herculean effort but it paid off

During it's five years the show tackles a number of issues: addiction, religion, cult of personality and perhaps most interestingly religion and faith. "Faith and reason are the two shoes on our feet, we can go furthur with both than either alone" is just one nugget of wisdom it produced, that's been repeated many places since.

Babylon 5 is not perfect, but for me it's the greatest TV show ever created. Sure, individually episodes might not be on par with one of The Sopranos, but it's so much greater in scope and tries to do so much that it can be forgiven many of its flaws. The fact that Straczynski set out to tell a single story that needed 5 years to tell, and stuck to his guns and somehow mantained the creative freedom to tell that story is nothing short of a miracle, and something that has never been accomplished before or since. Since B5 shows with 'arcs' have come along, but they're rarely planned out in as much detail, or if they are, they're only planned out one series at a time. The quick-fix climate of TV at the moment means that something like B5 just wouldn't get commissioned any more, which is quite sad: but if by some miracle B5 aired today, it would be cancelled halfway through the first season.

I'm writing this now as over the past year and a half I've just finished watching the entire series on DVD, the second time I've seen it, and the first time in order! The final episode, set 20 years in the future, just absolutly breaks your heart, with Sheridan leaving Delenn for the last time, and the station destroyed, ending 'in fire' just like Lady Morella predicted it would way back in the first series. All to the most stunning musical score by Christorpher Franke. The show ends with the credits showing the first and last appearence of each of the principle cast members, reminding us how much they have changed.

The Babylon Project truely was a dream given form. It worked, and left us with the greatest and most important TV series of our generation.

Faith manages.

February 24, 2005

The Boar

They printed the word "cunt".
I think someone is getting fired.

February 13, 2005

Boogie Nights

In what must be a first I had the strange experience of listening to the DJ in the Marketplace continually telling people to go to the Cooler in a few minutes to support someone that's presumably his mate who's going to be competing in the DJ competition there.
I've never seen a DJ attempt to clear the dancefloor purposely before, it didn't work though – it remained packed… perhaps the Crash DJ's should try that!

February 09, 2005

Comedy Benfit Gig Thursday Night

And in furthur comedy-ness, if you're in Leamington head over to Toyk on Warwick Street tommorow night for a great night, including four comedy acts, an art auction, and live music. Entry is £5 and it all goes to charity.

Chortle Student Comedy Competiton Semi–Final

Just posting this up to say if anyone went to this, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the night – either by commenting here or by a track-back thingy.
I'll post some more detailed thoughts on it once I've written them up.
Chortle's Steve Bennet has a review up here: link

February 08, 2005

Valentines Day

Since everyones talking about it, by far the most fun you can have in the run up to valentines day, is going into a card shop and seeing the look on the shop assistants face when you buy three cards :D

February 06, 2005

and while we're newslettering

Here's a blatent plug for Tuesday's comedy event from the same newsletter as the elections stuff. Do come along, its a fun and different night out (for you and your friends!)

Chortle Student Comic 2005
This Tuesday (that’s the 8th of Feb, date fans!) sees the return to Warwick University of the Chortle Student Comic competition. Those here last year may remember that we hosted the final and based on a combination of audience vote and a decision by professional industry judges, it was won by our very own Lloyd Langford.
This year we’ll be hosting the midlands semi-final with a number of upcoming student acts from the area including Simon Bird, Ben Travis, Matt Whitely, Bullet and Gunn, Ben Poole, Lovdev Barpage and William Claringbold.
Presiding over the competition will be the brilliant Gary Delaney. Finalist in a number of competitions himself, including the Daily Telegraph Open Mic competition and BBC New Act award in 2002, he’s no stranger to the world of comedy competitions. If you ever thought the term ’fantastic pun’ was an oxymoron then this is the man to prove you wrong. Think Jimmy Carr style gags crossed with Jack Dee’s could-care-less stage manner and you’ve probably got a vague idea what he might be like. Then of course there’s the acts themselves, anyone of which could win the competition and go on to be the next Harry Hill—this is your chance to see them before they hit the big time.
Tickets are on sale at Advance and online now at the same price as the regular gigs, last year’s show sold out so get them quick!

Probably the last elections post

I wrote this for this weeks Comedy Soc newsletter, those of you down with the rockin' comedy beat (err.. yeah) will have seen it already, but for those that do other things on a Sunday night (like work I guess, or the RAG quiz) here's a little sardonic look at the elections. Written, incidently, before I knew the results:

Well the elections are now over (until the next lot) and the results will be out so we’ll know who’s lost and wasted 2 weeks of their life, and who’s won and will be wasting an entire year.
A bit harsh? Maybe—but I’m sure you’re as sick of them as me by now, incidentally I hear the final figure was 60% – that’s not voter turnout, but the percentage of the world’s rainforests destroyed to produce the candidates posters and the elections booklets.
You’ve probably noticed a certain candidate going around campaigning dressed up as an extra from ’Maid Marrion and Her Merry Men’, complete with sword and shield. Like me you probably assumed this was an original, if tacky and possibly misguided, gimmick, in order to make an impression on the voting public. It would seem this is not so, as I witnessed said candidate in full knightly fair at 11pm at Crash on Friday night: 5 hours after the polls had closed. It would appear to be less election gimmick and more a disturbing fetish.
I personally found the most amusing poster campaign belonged to Kat Stark, less because of amusing policies, but more down to the fact that all the photos of her on various publicity that see her staring oddly into the distance have an almost messianic quality about them: add an ephemeral white glow and we could re-name the campaign ‘The Second Coming’ (which wasn’t intended as a gag about the fact she running to be a saab two years in a row but if it works for you…). Her published polices didn’t include ‘all union e-mails should be written in at least 5 different colours’, but I’m sure it must be in there. Interestingly one of her policies is ‘Freedom of Speech’ which will undoubtedly be of interest to the poor blogger who upon making an off hand comment about how everyone should vote for RON (that’s the option to choose if you think all the candidates are morons) for everything, found themselves on the receiving end of a hand-smacking e-mail from our current union President: see, somewhere there’s a policy that says you’re allowed to say you think someone’s worth voting for, but if you think they’re all useless twonks then you have to keep your mouth shut: democracy at work folks!
One could now draw a comparison between our elections and those in Iraq, but that would be crazy as despite voter intimidation and death threats, the Iraq elections managed a turnout of 72%, which I’d wager is more than the average turn out here. Perhaps the Iraqi fundamentalists should have dressed Iraq up as a campus instead of going with the old intimidation techniques—it would appear to do wonders for voter apathy!
I try to vote fairly based upon policy, however I do have a few rules which I find useful when narrowing down the field. Obviously too late for this election, but feel free to bear them in mind, should you not be in your final year and thus have to go through it all again:
a) Never vote for a candidate that uses ‘txt spk’ in their promotional material. Especially if it’s a play on them representing ‘U’ and the ‘U’ in ‘Union’.
b) Avoid candidates that change the spelling of words to better fit their slogan: eg. ‘Kim Kan’, ‘Spredd the Love’, ‘You’d be inZain not to’, ‘Chris-tal Clear’ and this year’s worst, ’Shaw to Succeed’.
c) Never, ever, ever vote for a candidate who is standing solely upon his ‘wacky’ hair (and there’s at least one every year) unless they are John Lumley.

February 05, 2005

The obligitory drunken entry

Just got back from Crash – had too much to drink, but tradition dictates that my blog should have at least one entry written under the influence that I can regret in the morning.
I find it quite indicative of my developing geekdom that even after consuming enough whisky to make it hard to walk in a straight line, I am still able to type quite easily, the ability being so ingrained into me that it seems to bypass my brain and act like a complex reflex reaction. Of course, while what I type may be typographically accurate, being drunk means it is still complete bollocks.
Yumi Yumi were…. odd. They had a great song about Lemsip addiction though. Reminds me of Chris TT's "Headcold hit of the winter" – them being the only two songs based around cold medicine ever written I guess:
"lucozade nurofen benylin lemsip anadin hot milk
n n n n n night nurse"
Genius. They also played that Queens of the Stone Age track at Crash that rips it off totally replacing the cough medicine with harder drugs. Obviously it was that way round*
They played National Express – hurrah! and Panic, which is always fun. No James though. And they had New Order on next door in Neon but not in Crash. Meh.
Still – having a band on for half an hour worked quite well, and avoids the disaster that was The Likeness playing for two hours then telling people to go home. Infact it was probably the most packed Crash I've ever seen. Indicative of a change of taste in music at Warwick? Lets hope so.
Oh and that guy that was campaigning for election dressed as a Knight…. he was at Crash still dressed as a Knight. After the polls had closed at 9pm. What I had initially assumed to be a decent attempt at an original gimmick to get people to vote for him must be in actuallity a scary and strange Knight festish. It'll be a weird year if he wins.

*NB – Lie.

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