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)
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.
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.