|Cart before the horse: If Jesus is God, God is God.|
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.
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.