Thursday, January 05, 2012

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 3, Why Did Jesus Die?

Cart before the horse: If Jesus is God, God is God.
This is the third official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

One striking item from the first two meetings was the "go directly to Jesus, don't worry about God or the Old Testament" approach. Alpha founder and DVD star Nicky Gumbel had argued that instead of first determining that God exists and then establishing that Jesus was who Christians say he was, we should focus on Jesus and use Jesus to confirm the truth of everything in the Old Testament.

Almost needless to say, I found this approach as much like putting the cart before the horse as actually putting the cart before the horse. Why? Because if you don't automatically grant the Bible as reliable, then Jesus has little to offer anyways and his story makes no impact whatsoever on the existence and nature of God. The figure, story, and cultural power of Jesus only make sense in the context of ancient Israel's providential God.

This was the week I decided to speak up. I wasn't about to take another small group session of listening to the clock on the wall tick the seconds away. My notes on the evening:

  • Good meal. No religion talk at the table, just small talk.
  • Introductory announcements increasingly emphasize an overnight getaway scheduled in four or five weeks. They want everyone to go. I'm ambivalent about it, but if the wife wants to go I probably will too.
  • A new feature: live music!
    • My wife's friend Carmen plays guitar and sings. In front of a PowerPoint slide with the lyrics, she performed "Amazing Grace" and "How Great is Our God."
    • A more-than-casual justification was given by Rose for including music in the program. She said that many people found music one of the best parts of Alpha. I don't recall whether she called it "worship," specifically, but that's what was going on. The songs were, after all, worship songs.
    • Lights were turned down low and everyone stood as the music played.
    • The words of "Amazing Grace" were combined with the tune and chorus of "Peaceful, Easy Feeling" by the Eagles. I'm not a fan of this approach. I can only imagine what Glen Frey would think.
  • Gumbel's DVD talk on why Jesus died. 
    • Basically the case is that we all sin and Jesus came to bear our sins for us. Now we are free to have a relationship with God if we accept the “offer.”
    • Two analogies were used to explain the situation of our sin and what it was that Jesus did. Neither analogy was accurate to the doctrine, however. Both glossed over that (1) the “sacrifice” was made on our behalf without our prior knowledge or consent, and (2) a post-hoc demand to compensate the sacrifice was placed on us. For the analogies themselves, refer to Stephen Butterfield's account of Alpha. It's pretty much the same thing.
  • Small group discussion was lively, mainly because I grew intolerant of the silence and decided to speak.
    • I asked whether Jesus would have atoned on Yom Kippur, and how he would have done so. Not a great or a gotcha kind of question but just a reminder about how little we really know about an actual Jesus being a Jew in ancient Israel.There's also the strangeness of thinking about God incarnate in the crowd of Jews praying and atoning before God the Father.
    • I objected to the idea of sin as rather arbitrary and unbalanced. After all, I think we are probably more altruistic than sinful, if someone is keeping score. I questioned whether people are naturally sinful or whether they have impulses and tendencies.
    • I did not raise but might have why we were not created to be able to reach our full potential. Everything else in the universe gets to be what it’s supposed to be except us.
    • I raised the idea that incarnating oneself for the purpose of being humiliated and murdered hardly seems like an expression of love, and in any case it cannot be the best idea the Creator of the universe has to fix any problem.
  • Through my speaking, I became what earlier I did not want to be: the token Jew/Atheist/Non-believer. 
I must point out that I did not monopolize discussion. Many people in the group spoke up and defended their ideas that we are sinners who need salvation and that Jesus did a great and noble thing by being crucified.

No one seemed hostile to anything I'd said, but on the other hand no one felt that my objection about sin was anything to make them re-think their ideas. Same when I suggested that perhaps Jesus's "sacrifice" wasn't all that necessary, even if it were true we were sinners in need of forgiveness. People seemed to be of the mindset "Well of course we needed Jesus, you silly!"

I get why they think this way. It's the sine qua non of Christianity. Still....

People generally left the session remarking the discussion was good and lively. I left nervous, not knowing if the group leaders or others would try to engage me specifically in argument the next week.


    1. Although you're probably not doing this specifically for our blogger entertainment, it is much more interesting to read these now that you are speaking up in the meetings :)

    2. Gee, it's only this one Alpha post where I've started to speak up. What is it specifically that captures your attention more now? I'll try to do more of it.

    3. Anonymous5:12 PM

      I really like the cart-before-horse observation. You reminded me of an article, one of my favorites on the topic, and referencing the alpha argument:

      Which includes the following:
      "...if you think the Bible is accurate and reliable, then there is no need to get involved in manipulative pleas like ‘Jesus loves you, just reach out and accept the gift, let him into your heart’. It’s irrelevant how ‘caring, wise and loving’ Jesus was. If he’s god, he’s god. Even if he’s a genocidal monster I’ll bow down since you convinced me at ‘accurate and reliable’. One does not need to meditate on the nature of Jesus and decide if you want to follow him – his nature is irrelevant to the quality of the reportage."

      Unfortunately, that is an accurate analysis of what the evangelism of the Alpha course is doing. The getaway/retreat, in my opinion, is an event which really uses the emotional thumb screws to get people to give in and bow down based on an emotional hunch or need, rather than rational analysis.

    4. Just wait until we get to the getaway weekend. That was one of the most incredible events of my life.

    5. I admire your ability to keep it together at these things. I'd have trouble - A LOT of trouble - getting past how intelligent people buy into this.

    6. C. Laundry,

      Truth be told, I'm not "past" it. But I accept it. I think the pair of questions that don't occur to many people are "should I believe this?" and "what does it matter if I do or don't believe?" Maybe people do ask these questions and simply answer differently than I do.

      Have you ever seen that comic--I think it's XKCD--that has a graph, and the caption reads "Science: It works, bitches!"

      For many people, Christianity works, bitches! It doesn't have to be all or really true because it mostly works for them. It helps them cope. It helps them strive to be better. It helps them participate in a community of people that they like and that are in similar situations to them. It provides intellectual nourishment, virtually as much as they want. There's really nothing else like it in our culture that could be a viable, permanent alternative.

    7. You're right, of course. Truth be told, I also bite my tongue, particularly around my family a lot. (I blogged a post on this theme here:

      My husband and I are both Jewish, but as an atheist, I've often felt like we're an interfaith couple. I have to very consciously remind myself that people need religion for a variety of reasons. While for me intellectual consistensy is crucial, for others, factors like community, tradition etc. carry more weight, and like you say, it "works" for people. Unfortunately, although irrational belief may be harmless in and of itself, once it starts seeping into things like equal rights for homosexuals, then it's not so harmless anymore. It's hard to know when one to draw the line on keeping my mouth shut!

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