Wednesday, December 21, 2011

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 2, Who Is Jesus?

This is the second 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.

After last week's introductory session, I began taking notes as soon as I got time at my computer. That session was titled "Is There More to Life Than This?" but we never--not once--talked about life! We didn't discuss being children and learning about the world. We dwelt not at all on the excitement and angst of adolescence. We had no words on the power and danger of early adulthood, or on the hard wisdom and humility gained in later adulthood. No mention was made of parenthood, of confronting death and mortality, or of human dignity and legacy.

In short, we spoke of nothing that had any value.

My session notes rambled as I searched my memory of the evening. If I were to continue in the course, should I speak up when I hear errors or unsupported assertions? Should I declare myself an atheist? Should I challenge the historicity and uncritical fan-dom of Jesus? Should I point out the sales agenda of everything that was happening at Alpha (so far)?

I never answered these questions as my wife and I arrived for the second session. Don't get me wrong: last week was not an awful, torturous experience. I liked being with my wife and talking to people. I was genuinely interested to come to this next session. Yet I had also hoped for something different than what I knew we were probably going to get in Alpha. Initially, I was excited by what the course promotional material said about the focus: "The emphasis is upon exploration and discovery in a relaxed and informal environment." No, the emphasis was not going to be on exploring and discovering but rather on first-person testimony and gentle coercion.

My impressions of this second session:
  • We met in a downstairs reception area, beside a kitchen. Not quite as warm and inviting as last week's rotunda.
  • Dinner was shells and sauce. Not as great as last week, but pretty good--and free.
  • Joe, the church pastor, and Rose, the Alpha director, made official welcomes and announcements. Joe's role is strictly to tell a joke and lift everyone's mood. Rose had several administrative items. Of interest to me was the library. They had books for sale and books to loan. Lots of C.S. Lewis, Nicky Gumbel (of course!), some Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Francis Collins, and N.T. Wright.
  • The DVD talk tonight was "Who Is Jesus?" Gumbel waxed on about how Jesus was a real person who really lived, really rose from the dead, and has had a real impact on both individuals and world history.
    • I'm not going to rehearse the whole talk here. If you read Textuality at all, you know that there simply is not enough evidence to tell one way or the other whether there was an actual Joshua the Messiah who was the basis for the gospel stories and the MacGuffin of the Pauline epistles.
    • Gumbel made a good, lawyer's case for Jesus. After all, Gumbel was a lawyer before be became a clergyman. But remember what we know about lawyer's cases from that great movie, My Cousin Vinny:
      Vinny: Look, maybe I could have handled the preliminary a little better, okay? I admit it. But what's most important is winning the case. I could do it. I really could. Let me tell you how, okay? The D.A.'s got to build a case. Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, solid-looking bricks, like, like these, right? (puts his hand on the wall)
      Bill: Right.
      Vinny: Let me show you something. (he holds up a playing card, the ace of spades, with the face toward Billy) He's going to show you the bricks. He'll show you they got straight sides. He'll show you how they got the right shape. He'll show them to you in a very special way, so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there's one thing he's not gonna show you. (turns the card, so that its edge is toward Billy. The card is now a joker.) When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they're as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick.
    • It would have positively impressed me if Gumbel had acknowledged some of the problems of using Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus as evidence of Jesus. I would have been pleasantly surprised if he had mentioned Philo. He brought up textual criticism as a way to establish the trustworthiness of the texts, but he did not get into the particulars of real textual criticism, especially of the New Testament. Yet I am sure that Gumbel knows all this stuff. I can tell by the language he uses to talk about "the writers" of the Gospels. His theology background also tells me he knows that the case for Jesus is as far from a slam dunk as you can get at every point. So he could have given a fuller story, one more challenging to some believers but I would think ultimately more balanced and rewarding.
  • After the DVD, we are assigned to small groups. Each group adjourned to a separate room nearby.
    • Our group had about 15 people. My wife and I were one of only two couples in the group. Everyone seemed to be between 35 and 55 years old. We had two group leaders, Scott and Karen. My friend Josh was a helper, as was another woman named Joan. Only four of the group were women.
    • We began with an ice-breaker. First we went around and said why we were at Alpha. No big confessions from anyone. People were just curious. I said that I came because I was invited. Then we did a name game to get everyone familiar with one another.
    • Scott asked a few questions but got little response. He asked what people thought of Nicky Gumbel's talk and if anything about the talk surprised anyone. I could hear the clock on the wall ticking. 
    • Group leaders seem to have been coached not to initiate discussion but to let group participants direct the conversation.
    • After all my turmoil at the outset, I refrained from talking. What was I supposed to say? However, I was so bored I resolved to stir things up next time.
So, tonight's session was supposed to establish that there is a lot of evidence to support Jesus' existence, which there isn't. More importantly, it was supposed to assert definitively that Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God, and there's lots of evidence of this.

After the session, I drove away disappointed by the entire presentation. I don't think I had ever really been as close before to the way Christianity talks about itself to modern believers. It is all total bullshit.
  • The world is lost, confused, and dark. That's why you need Jesus.
  • You can't fully live life without Jesus. That's why you need Christianity.
  • Christianity is true and all-encompassing. That's why you need to be Christian.
  • To be Christian, you must transform your life. That's why you need the church.
From alpha to omega, this doctrine is thoroughly, disgustingly, and arbitrarily authoritarian. 


  1. If I were to continue in the course, should I speak up when I hear errors or unsupported assertions? Should I declare myself an atheist? Should I challenge the historicity and uncritical fan-dom of Jesus? Should I point out the sales agenda of everything that was happening at Alpha (so far)?

    Of course not. The course doesn't pretend to be some sort of critical examination of Christianity, does it? What I gather from reading your account of it is that it's a sales effort, even by means of the soft rather than the hard sell. You could demolish the instructors' pretensions and humiliate them in front of the other participants if you wanted to do so; but surely that would be a mean thing to do.

    Don't get me wrong: last week was not an awful, tortuous experience.

    I think you mean "torturous." I don't think that an experience can be described as "tortuous."

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I must admit however, you are showing great restraint. Not me. I'd be raising my hand and asking things like, "How does he know that?"


    "How do we know that. Why?"

    I would deliberately slip in the name of biblical scholars and their works. Make people think to themselves... this guy has read a book or two.

    No direct confrontations... just little questions to get them to think rather than just sit there like sponges absorbing their Christianity via osmosis.

    I for one agree that there is not enough physical direct evidence to say Jesus lived or not. I do believe, on the other hand, that their is enough indirect evidence to prove a person by that name existed.

    In my talks with Robert M. Price and R. Joesph Hoffmann, plus the work of Hugh J. Schonfield, I feel there is too much political events knotted around this central figure--that if you were to cut Jesus out of the picture, the political events would not tie to anything.

    Like a Gordian knot it would all fall apart. So in my estimation, there must be something at the center holding it all together.

    We just don't know anything beyond that.

    Another reason I think Jesus of Nazareth really existed was because of the textual massaging going on to lessen some sayings or enhance others. Not just adapt them.

    If the sayings were all fictional, then they would have been produced and shared more freely. But it seems there is a tension between supposed original sayings (which I do not think we can actually designate) but... as I have often said... the sayings had to come from somewhere.

    There is enough similarity in the sayings, between canonical and gnostic sources, that the overlap suggests a borrowing from earlier sources--the hypothetical Q document.

    Minus the Q hypothesis, however, the exact nature of these shared sayings just doesn't have a logical explanation.

    Now this doesn't prove that Jesus actually said these things. If he is fictional, then these could be the words of a character, not so unlike Socrates.

    Unlike Socrates, however, Christians claim Jesus became God. I think the mistake which is made is that there is technically three different Jesai (plural for different Jesus conceptualizations) all happening simultaneously and getting blended together.

    You have the political Jewish figure lurking in the background--who may be the only real historical element. Then there are the sayings--which stem from a likely fictional character dressed up as historical. And finally we have the theological Christ--who becomes the Christian Savior.

    Admittedly, this is just my take. But I try to make the distinction. I know Hoffmann leans toward Jesus was a real person while Price leans the opposite direction--towards Jesus being a complete fabrication but that we cannot tell for certain. I guess I am somewhere in the middle--assuming they are both half right. ;)

  4. Perhaps I should mention that there are many historians who have influenced my thinking, including those like Albert Schweitzer and David Friedrich Strauss and many more like them, not just the ones I make mention of.

  5. @MKR -

    I must have been naive. I did not expect a critical examination of Christianity, but then I didn't realize until that first session that it was about Christianity primarily. I thought Alpha was going to be about asking and discussing "big" philosophical questions. I thought the question about there being more to life would give some attention to life. I expected that a Christian approach to these questions would be brought in. But I didn't think that Christianity was the subject of the course, until that first session.

    On the instructors: Although group leaders were laypeople, they were well-read and generally smart, commonsensical people. Very few of the objections or facts I brought in later were wholly new to them. I couldn't have humiliated them.

    And, importantly, group leaders had been coached on how to share their experience. When finally pressed, they would have had recourse to a statement like this: "You raise some interesting points, but I can tell you that I have felt the Holy Spirit in my life and it's made all the difference."

  6. @Tristan -

    In the following week's session, I start to ask questions and shake things up a bit. I was so bored the first discussion that I wouldn't have been able to stand another like it.

    And, as I suggest above, these folks have read books too.

    I share your general view of the historical Jesus. The Jesus presented in the Gospels is certainly fictional, but I have no trouble imagining that a real person lived whose teachings inspired the gospel hagiographies.

    But to me "the greatest story ever told" is not about Jesus but about the emergence of Christianity in the first century CE and the separation of Christianity and Judaism as both religions started to develop in response to each other and in response to the surprising diversity within the religions themselves. And all of this took place in a fascinating Roman political system. The whole thing--Judaism, Christianity, and Rome--is just wild.

    Can you imagine if we were to rewind the clock and let it run again, or make one tiny little change? The whole of history as we know it could have been markedly different.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.