Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 1, Introductory Session

Pleased to meet you....
This is the first official installment in the Alpha Course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Gnu Atheist and Jewish-raised dude taking the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

This first Alpha activity was an informational dinner and DVD talk. My wife and I arrived for the event at the rotunda of a local church. The rotunda was very nice, with high ceilings, tall windows, and dimmed lights for a mellow feel. We picked up name tags, searched for the friends who had invited us to Alpha, and found seats. We made small talk with our friends, Carmen and Josh, and we met other folks briefly. We talked nothing of either Alpha or religion.

Soon after our table filled with people, we brought up our paper plates to another table at the other end of the room and got the dinner, turkey tetrazinni.We ate and continued talking with people, a lot of where are you from, how many kids, what kind of work type of conversation.

Then a man and a woman called from the front of the room for our attention. The man was the church pastor, Joe, who told a few ice-breaker jokes. His role would be emcee throughout the course--that is, in all future sessions. To my knowledge, he did not actually participate in any of the small group discussions held after the DVD talks. The woman at the front was the Alpha course director, Rose. Her job was to pitch the course and convince people that they could get their questions answered at Alpha and that their comfort zone would not be violated. Obviously, the big concern was that people would check out Alpha and decide it wasn't for them.

The really intriguing part in Rose's schpeel was she talked about Alpha as a “safe” place to raise questions and doubts about. I guess people sometimes don't feel "safe" or comfortable voicing their misgivings with Christian doctrine or practice. As I would later discover, of the people in my group who had "problems" with Christianity, the problems concerned church, not belief.

Rose called up one person who had taken the course before to talk about his experience. This person, named Scott, later became known to me as one of my small group leaders. He said he came to Alpha as an agnostic and a non-churchgoer. He said that now he has a relationship with Jesus. He pointed to the weekend retreat as the time when belief and practice really kicked in on a personal level.

The second man was Josh, the guy from my table. He told everyone that he had been transformed since taking Alpha last year. He had been at a low point in his life, and now, 10 months later, he was in a very good place. I'd heard a bit of Josh's story before. His girlfriend Carmen was good friends with my wife. The four of us had gone to dinner once. Josh was a nice guy, a little older than me, divorced and looking to get out of a very bad job situation.

Next came a long (looong) DVD talk by Nicky Gumbel on whether Christianity was uninteresting, untrue, and irrelevant. The video was projected on a big screen up front. Gumbel, an Englishman, is a former lawyer and now senior pastor at one of England's largest churches, Holy Trinity Brompton. Gumbel developed the Alpha course, and it has been very successful around the world.In his talks, he stands alone on a stage before a lectern. He speaks in a breathy and emotive way, cracking jokes and smiling at them. As I'll learn, he is a master at conveying amazement without losing a sense of intelligence. For example, when he will talk about his conversion to Christianity, he'll come across as fully enraptured yet in perfect intellectual command of the experience, the experience of feeling and knowing at the same time that something is true. If he reaches people, I bet his delivery is a big reason why.

Gumbel began the talk by saying he had been an atheist, but also one who didn't know all that much about Jesus or Christianity. Now, when Gumbel uses the word "atheist," and he will mention atheists a whole lot over the course, he usually means someone who has never been a fervent Christian. He's not talking about people who have examined Christianity and rejected it. These sorts of people will never come up in Alpha.

He said, however, that he discovered that Christianity was true both intellectually and personally. After a close friend had become a Christian, Gumbel became distressed and decided to read the Bible. He doesn't say exactly whether he started at Genesis or if he went to straight to the New Testament, but he spent the evening and the next day reading the Bible. At the end, he concluded that it was all true. Don't ask me how.

Jesus, Gumbel said, was a real historical figure and this was en established fact. Gumbel also claimed through an unnamed authority--a history professor at Oxford--that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the most well attested fact ever.

I'll end the summary here. It was long, as I said, and presented a barrage of claims. But the main point was that we could feel confident and secure in the truth of Christianity and in the knowledge that Jesus chose to be born, to take our sins upon him, and to die so that we could have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. 

After the DVD talk ended, Rose told us that next week we would follow the same format and also have small group discussion following the talk. Finally, we all were given a booklet written by Gumbel on “Why Jesus?” It’s not very detailed and is mainly an argument for praying to Jesus as the way to fulfill one’s needs for happiness and forgiveness.

My impressions of the evening:
  • Everyone involved seems really nice, as expected.
  • I immediately felt a disconnect between the advertisement of the group as a place to explore “big questions” and the clear intent of the course to persuade people that Jesus is real, Jesus is God, and people should worship Jesus/God.
  • One part came off as repugnant. At the end of the video, Gumbel insisted that the truth of Christianity was the most important question in the history of questions. If Christianity was true then it was true for everyone and therefore everyone should be a Christian. 
    • He didn't say this last part, but I thought the path of his argument would lead inexorably to the idea that it was not OK for people to not be Christians or to reject Jesus’s offer for a relationship. There was no “opt-out” in Gumbel’s world-view.
    • The reason this is a problem is that it makes people like me an automatic antagonist. If you believe Gumbel is correct that Christianity is true and super-important, how could you bear to get along with someone like me, who thinks Christianity is a collection of bad and unattested ideas? (I, of course, can get along with Christians because I know that bad ideas are part of what makes us human. Not sharing my bad ideas won't get you kicked out of my circle.)
  • Gumbel focused heavily on the “something is missing” meme. It’s a strange line of thinking: people are generally unhappy, Gumbel says. People long for something greater in this life. People ache for more. Viola! Have a relationship with Jesus and all your emptiness will be filled. 
    • Of course, not everyone finds religion, including Christianity and a personal relationship with Jesus, to be the antidote to “the hole.” From what I can gather, the real antidote is not the attainment of things or status but the pursuit. It’s the challenge of a self-directed journey that seems to make people happy and satisfied. See this, for more.
    • So, I don’t buy the "Jesus fills the existential void" argument, and in fact my "void" has been filled by not worrying about it and by living more awake and mindfully. No god required.
I walked out of the introductory session apprehensive about what would come the next week. Based on Gumbel's talk, I was torn between not wanting to let some arguments stand uncontested, particularly when they misconstrued or omitted facts, and wanting generally just to be a passive participant.

I came to the group to share the time with my wife and to socialize. If people were only interested in being reassured that praying to Jesus wasn’t totally stupid, then I didn’t want to get in the way. But I also felt like I should be honest and forthright about what I really believed and why.


  1. I loved this paragraph:

    "He said, however, that he discovered that Christianity was true both intellectually and personally. After a close friend had become a Christian, Gumbel became distressed and decided to read the Bible. He doesn't say exactly whether he started at Genesis or if he went to straight to the New Testament, but he spent the evening and the next day reading the Bible. At the end, he concluded that it was all true. Don't ask me how."

    I have heard from so many of my Christian friends--this is the exact same reason (more or less) that they chose to become Christian.

    They went to a few group discussion sessions. They read a little bit of the Bible.

    Then suddenly, they knew. They KNEW. It was all true--all of it.

    How did they know this?

    One of my Christian friends informed me, "I know it in my heart."

    Ah--the crux of the matter--it is not *knowledge that you know--rather it is the certitude of emotional conviction which compels one to feel they know because they know.

    Sadly, most religious faith is predicated on nothing more than a feeling. No knowledge. No truth. Just... I know it in my heart--and that's why I believe.

    For those of us who have, well, thoughts... I am afraid this simply isn't good enough.

    I am looking forward to the rest of this series.

  2. I would attend an Alpha course if it started with the evidence they had that God and Jesus existed. They don't so I won't be going.Jesus is NOT an historical figure



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