Alpha beater

Just watched Channel 4’s Revelations: How to Find God, which this week was a documentary about the Alpha course as run by St Aldates. Interestingly it highlighted several of the reasons why I am no great fan of the course … and threw up some problems that I hope are unique to St Aldates.

I myself have Done Alpha. I held out for a long time but eventually I cracked, and I enjoyed it. I had no great revelations myself but then I was already about as committed a Christian as I will ever be. I met some nice people. My group leader was one of the saintliest, wisest, most head-screwed-on people I know. My problems?

Well, even Richard Dawkins couldn’t argue with the idea of Alpha. A simple, straightforward presentation of Christian belief, in a friendly, non-threatening setting. Something to counter all the misconceptions the average bod is likely to pick up through a lifetime of half-heard truths and strawman targets and the Vicar of Dibley. What could go wrong? Show them the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.

I don’t know if this is how all churches do it, or just us – but the first thing our meetings kick off with is a couple of choruses. Now, to the people running the thing this may be as natural as breathing and it wouldn’t occur to them to do otherwise, any more than they would set off in a car without putting on their seatbelt. However, my most positive feeling towards those songs is grudging tolerance, and that’s when I’m in a good mood. I go to my church for the fellowship and the friends that I love. I don’t go for the singing. And so I honestly couldn’t invite someone to Alpha with a straight face, telling them it’s all a simple, straightforward presentation etc. but knowing they’d be singing “Hungry I come to you” before anything else.

Second is the content itself. It’ll be no surprise to anyone that I fully agree with all the main conclusions of the arguments … just not always the route taken to get there.

Example: in the session on Sin, the official Alpha coursebook contains a handy little story about Arthur Conan Doyle sending telegrams to a certain number of friends saying “flee, all is discovered”, whereupon most or all of them cleared straight out of town. The point is meant to be that we all have a guilty conscience, or something. But the number of friends varies from telling to telling, I’m sure I’ve heard exactly the same story told about Mark Twain (in whose case it sounds much more likely), and this very day I came across this handy little thread that seems to conclude the tale is apocryphal.

Again, to some people it’s completely natural to trot out a half-understood urban legend in the genuine and sincere belief that it’s just as good as hard, solid fact. There is no intention to deceive. But it isn’t as good as hard solid fact and that’s all there is to it. Give me citations, or leave it out. I have ranted about this before. If a speaker demonstrates that he’s a very nice bloke but will uncritically receive any pile of tosh that comes to him from another Christian, why should anyone believe what he has to say on … I dunno … Jesus?

(I’ve also read the Christianity Explored coursebook, which is for people who find Alpha too liberal and non-commital (a bit like actuaries being people who find accountancy too exciting). But whatever your views on it, the content is based squarely on direct anecdotes from the author’s life, or illustrations drawn from movies that everyone will have seen. In that respect, Christianity Explored is streets ahead.)

And then there’s the old CS Lewis chestnut about Jesus being “just a good teacher”. No one, he said, could make the claims he did and just be a good teacher. He was God, or he was a deluded lunatic, with no middle ground. Well, this is one of the few times I have to say that old CS was talking cobblers. Mother Teresa is a perfect example of the contradiction CS Lewis says is impossible. The love and devotion she showed the poor of Calcutta was exemplary. Her teachings on contraception verged on criminal irresponsibility. Of course you can have both those extremes in one human being. We are complex people.

Again, no surprise to regular readers to know that along with Lewis I also believe Jesus was God. But I don’t believe it for that argument, not least because that argument doesn’t work. It is illogical. It should not be used.

It is used.

The content that works best in Alpha is never intended to be a show-stopping argument, but still it tends to get used as such. There is an answer to every objection I have ever heard raised, both at my own sessions and on the TV show, but these are not absolute arguments designed to sweep away all doubt. They are simply counter-arguments that take the game back to 15-all. There is no other way to do it. Yet, they are used as absolute arguments, and the Alpha leaders seem strangely confused and upset when doubts remain in the mind of the questioner.

To the TV programme, and the specific St Aldates thing I really disliked was the matter of Tongues. It may just the editing, but it looked horribly like speaking in Tongues at St Aldates is the indicator of success for the Alpha weekend away. And again I say unto you: cobblers.

Two of the participants walked out during the Holy Spirit session on their weekend away, and my heart went with them. One of them said straight out that if he had known, if he had realised it would be like this …

Meanwhile the Reverend quotes the first half of 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul states: “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues …” But you can’t have the first half of that verse without the second: “… but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.”

Not every Christian speaks in Tongues. Not every one has to. A Christian message that says otherwise is just Wrong.

Overall, Alpha – at least, as practiced as Christ Church in Abingdon and apparently at St Aldates – starts off as the presentation thing, but it tries just a little too hard to make you click into one particular slot and it doesn’t make it clear that there are many, many, many slots available. And if you don’t make that slot, yet you conclude on the evidence presented that this is all that’s available … well, then, obviously you decide you’re not going to be a Christian and according to official Alpha doctrine you’re destined for Hell.

Fortunately I don’t believe that either.

Let’s not diss it. The Spirit works wherever he is given the opportunity and that includes Alpha, including the Wrong bits. I can say this because he works in all of us, including the Wrong bits, because he has to: down here on Earth there are no bits that are wholly Right. Alpha does great things. I will gladly help set up and deliver puddings for the meals. I even have that sticker in the back of my car of Bear Grylls on top of a mountain with his arms held out. I do all this because I want Alpha to succeed, which means giving the Spirit a chance to act and overcome the foibles of his human servants.

But I’m not of the Alpha slot.