Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 6, Why and How Should I Read the Bible?

Holding tzitzit: Not all that different from praying with a Sani-Wipes container.
This is the sixth 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.

Last week, after my small group passed around a Sani-Wipes container to be used as a prayer stick, I accepted that Alpha offered no place for my opinions and perspectives. Although the container was ridiculous as a worship aid, it was not by itself the reason I detached emotionally from Alpha. After all, in Judaism, tallis and tefillin have some prayer token capacities. We also lift the Torah scrolls high before the congregation and we kiss them.

But I was struck by the picture of people adopting the container for their incantations and with such reverance. In our group, intelligent adults grasped the the Sani-Wipes container with two hands. They bowed their heads before it, closed their eyes, and recited all their wishes to the Lord. The sight of a common household cleaner converted into a devotional instrument was too much. It represented how imaginary and emotional Alpha's appeals were. Alpha's leaders wanted to excite people's imagination and desires. The "big questions" they promised many weeks ago were not my questions or questions from participants, they were questions presented by Alpha and for Alpha to answer. The object and endgame of the course was one thing: assimilation. What's a successful Alpha course? One that gets as many people as possible to pray to Jesus and become active in the church.

My notes on the session:
  • This was a tough night because my family is displaced. A snowstorm knocked out power in our area and forced us to stay temporarily with my sister-in-law. The arrangements there were nice enough, but my wife and I would have preferred to be at home and on our routine.
  • Dinner was ham, veggies, and salad. I didn’t eat the ham. Conversation centered on the storm, and who did and did not have electricity back.
  • Live music again; contemporary worship stuff. Carmen, the singer, played two songs. As usual, one song had been performed the previous week and one song was new.
    • The songs seemed sterile. How many times can you sing “God, you are so awesome”?
    • Maybe it's that the songs come across as mawkish and theatrical.
    • Ten Bears, from The Outlaw Josey Wales.
    • For my money, a Jewish song of praise, such as "Aleinu" and "Adon Olam," has more emotional and intellectual content. More iron, as Ten Bears would say.
  • Gumbel’s DVD talk was particularly irritating tonight.
    • Subject was why and how to read the Bible.
      • Not clear what he meant by the Bible: Old Testament and New Testament together or just the New Testament?
      • People in group appear to refer only to the NT when they say "the Bible." At least, they seem concerned only with Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job from the OT.
    • Said the Bible was a love letter from God to people.
      • My eyes roll at a sentiment such as this. The "love letter" metaphor is clearly interpretive; it carries ideas of affection, intimacy, it majesty. It intends to draw out feelings of nobility, humility, and gratitude. It encourages the ego's indulgence: the creator of the universe wants us to know that he loves us and wants us to love him too!
      • I have nothing against love letters or interpretations. My point is that an interpretation has to be demonstrated, and demonstrated carefully. My problem is that Gumbel made no such demonstration. He didn't even try.
    • Gumbel acknowledged total human authorship of the Bible and some historical gaffs, but asserted definitively that the Bible was 100 percent inspired by God and 100 percent true.
      • Here he used an analogy with architect Christopher Wren, who never himself built his buildings.
      • Said the Bible is for teaching, rebuking, guiding, and so forth.
      • Advised people to read the Bible in a quiet place and meditate on God, Jesus, and yatta-yatta
    • He explained that a person did not need to abandon belief just because of questions or problems with the Bible's unsavory aspects. One can have reservations and yet continue on developing a relationship with Jesus.
      • Surprisingly, this point did not come up in small group.
      • I have myself made similar points before (see here and here).
    • Gumbel's final story was complete rubbish. He was afraid his father had died not being a Christian. Gumbel prayed and read the Bible and felt--strongly felt--that his Dad came to know Jesus and was saved. He gathered through coincidence that, yes, Dad really had become a Christian before it was too late. Phew!
      • Some in our group seemed impressed by this story.
      • I was underwhelmed because the story came across as a combination of wish fulfillment and pattern seeking. Even if it’s all true, we know nothing of the real thinking that Gumbel’s father’s had on accepting/not-accepting Jesus.
  • Small group started with a question on who had read the Bible and what their experiences of reading it have been.
    • Most folks said they found it hard reading and kind of dull.
    • Some people said they were in study groups. Many of the group leaders, I learned, were in such groups. My knowledge of such groups is that they focus on a certain book, such as Job or Mark, and then follow a guided path. Several companies sell study materials and commentaries. What they teach, of course, is the party line.
    • Seems like group leader wanted me to talk more. I really have not spoken up for some weeks now.
    • Odd talk about a young painter named Akiane, apparently born into a house of atheist parents. At only four years old she had visions from God and painted pictures of Jesus and pretty horses. Now she sells the paintings for beaucoup bucks, no surprise, but some of the money goes to charity.
    • We read the sower parable from Luke 8:4-15 together.
      • I quickly reviewed the analogues from Mark and Matthew. The story changes slightly in each case.
      • Discussion focused on "see without seeing and hear without understanding."
        • They, the believers, are the ones who really get it because they believe. So they are the ones who do see and do understand.
        • Those who don’t believe or are unimpressed are “blind and deaf.” They are deficient. They are wrong.
    • This was the first time I had ever felt it was not OK to be a non-believer. Earlier posts have sketched the mounting pressure both to believe and to be actively Christian while simultaneously framing non-belief in negative terms. This week, that pressure was increased.
      • Unfortunately, I did not voice my displeasure. I don’t think I will be so quiet the next time.
      • I expected there to be another prayer time, but there wasn't. At my turn, I was going to say that it is possible not to accept Christianity, despite having seen and understood as in the parable. My point would have been that there is legitimate reason to reject Christianity. Even now, I maintain that I see as clearly and understand as much as anyone else, but I have what I think are pretty good reasons to think that Christianity’s core doctrines are false.


  1. Anonymous9:53 PM

    I saw your post title from the Biblioblog library. If you don't mind, I'm a bit curious -- why are you going to Alpha?

    It looks from your site that you have a reasonable (at minimum) grasp of history (e.g,. ancient Israel, early Judaism, early Christianity), have an ability in reading and understanding literature, and a grasp of religion in general.

    If that is so, then you going to Alpha would be like an accomplished adult polyglot going to pre-school to learn English. No wonder you're frustrated with this stuff.

    Again, just curious.


  2. Robert,

    I don't mind at all. The reasons I went (it's over now) are:
    (1) I was invited, along with my wife, by a good friend.
    (2) I wanted time with my wife, who is a Christian.
    (3) I initially thought the course would be more philosophical in scope than it was.
    (4) Free dinners.
    (5) The people were very nice.

    I have gained knowledge at Alpha. For example, I learned that religious belief is more personal and experiential than I appreciated. The way people relate to their parents, siblings, spouses, friends, and workmates has a huge effect on how they approach religion. And that they can experience religion as true and real is good enough. If they pray and then feel at peace with whatever's happening in their lives--this justifies their belief.

    I also learned that I had no special knowledge about history and religion that others didn't have. When I spoke to people--especially group leaders, I found that they knew many of the same facts that I knew. If these facts presented challenges or puzzles concerning religious doctrine, people seemed able to accept facts without having the belief undermined--it was just an interesting thing that we could not yet resolve.

    But what's really fascinating about Alpha is how it tries to push normative belief and behavior without being overtly pushy or authoritarian. They very politely ask you to submit to the church. Personally, I object to this aspect of Alpha, and it's one reason I think people with good knowledge of religion and history really should attend--if invited.


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