Before I start, I would just like to stress that what follows are my personal views and observations on the Alpha Course materials. They in no way represent the views of the volunteers and ministry team members currently running Alpha Course at St Mary’s, nor do they reflect upon how I feel about said members & volunteers, all of whom are excellent, smart, friendly and compassionate people with whom I enjoy working and associating on a frequent basis.
Back at the start of December, I was approached by Rev. Frances Shoesmith, vicar of St Luke’s; St Mary’s would be running the Alpha Course in January, and following my write-up of my Confirmation experience there’d been some discussion and it was thought it might be a good idea if I attended Alpha.
Now, personally I have a number of issues with Alpha. It arose in its current form out of the Charismatic Movement that came out of Holy Trinity Brompton as part of the Toronto Blessing in the 90s, and puts a lot of emphasis on experiencing the Spirit; three of the ten-twelve sessions are given to the person and work of the Holy Spirit and cover the infilling of the Spirit; speaking in tongues and healing via prayer. Conversion stories in the book of Acts (see 2:1ff, 9:17-19, 10:44-46, 19:1-6) are seen as normative. It has been strongly criticised for not being firmly enough grounded in Scripture; it has been likened to a cult movement by some.
It didn’t start out that way; it was originally started in 1977 by the Reverend Charles Marnham, a curate at Holy Trinity, Brompton, London, where it was intended as a basic “introduction to Christianity” course. It was revised into its present form (with an emphasis on Charismatic Evangelical aspects) by Reverend Nicky Gumbel in 1990.
I have a deep mistrust of Charismatic theology. It puts far too much emphasis on acts of the Holy Spirit, in signs and manifestations. I am personally a Cessationist; I believe that the Apostolic gifts were only bestowed on the original Twelve Apostles. Glossolalia in particular is something I believe to be purely delusional – either self-delusional or, more worryingly, a deliberate deception of others. Charismatic services seem to be deliberately designed to work up the congregation into something akin to a state of mass hysteria of spiritual frenzy or ecstacy – which may feel wonderful and uplifting whilst it’s going on, but you can’t stay on a high forever and sooner or later you have to come back to earth; usually with quite a jarring bump. It’s not conducive to longterm good mental health or any form of spiritual maturity or growth.
However, I had not ever personally attended an Alpha Course, and I am well aware that a great deal depends on the way in which it’s presented and the people running the course, so I agreed to attend. At the very least I would be able to say I had personal experience.
The first session was on Monday 6th January; we gathered at 7:15pm at the Welcome Centre by St Mary’s Church. There was quite a sizeable number of attendees; enough for three discussion groups of about 8-10 people each. We began with a shared meal, followed by a DVD. This is part of the standard timetable for Alpha Course sessions; the DVD is basically a video of Nicky Gumbel talking about the topic for that evening’s discussion. Ordinarily it would be a 40-minute video but we got the cut-down 20-minute version, which is perhaps unfortunate for reasons that will become apparent shortly.
The video seemed to have been recorded at a live conference in a church somewhere. I’d been led to understand that Nicky Gumbel is a talented, charismatic speaker but I didn’t get that sense from the video; maybe the more usual Alpha materials are better scripted. He had a tendancy to insert little personal anecdotes that seemed to have little relevence to whatever was being discussed.
The first session is “Who Is Jesus”. I have to say at this point that Alpha is billed as being for people who are not already Christians but who are exploring Christianity, curious, looking for answers – however it’s quite obvious that the course is written from a Christian perspective of taking Jesus’ existance for granted and for the most part there’s a very strong undercurrent to the whole thing of “Well of course we’re all Christians really” and talking more about being a Christian than why someone should have reason to believe in Jesus in the first place. Nicky Gumbel starts in the video by addressing the question of whether Jesus really existed by effectively glossing over it quite tersely with a really tiresome appeal to authority by citing Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus and glosses over offering actual historical evidence for Jesus, skipping very quickly to citing Jesus’ personality according to the Bible as evidence after claiming that secular historians accept the existance of Jesus as fact. NG is actually being intellectually dishonest here, as there are no contemporary records at all of Jesus written during His lifetime – all the sources NG cites actually date significantly later, and in many cases the Roman and Greek scholars concerned were merely repeating what they had been told by early Christians without claims as to veracity. The only source that can be claimed to possibly be actually contemporary is Josephus, and even such authorities as the Catholic Encyclopedia consider the ‘testimonium Flavianum’ to be of doubtful and unproven provenance. The passage was unknown to the early Church Fathers prior to Eusebius, including some such as Origen (whose work Eusebius based much of his own writing on) who would undoubtedly have quoted it in his own works. However NG doesn’t go into detail on this, instead leaving a vague referral to antiquarian historians as proof external to the New Testament of the existance of Jesus, and claims that no secular historian would dispute the historicity of Jesus – which is simply not true.
He also goes on to refer to textual criticism of the Gospels as being another form of evidence of Jesus’ existance. He then skips on ahead from discussion of Jesus’ personality according to the Bible to evidence for the Resurrection, citing the rapid growth of the early Church as “proof” that Jesus really did come back from the dead (though he doesn’t explain his reasoning), and dimisses the possibility of mass hallucinations in the case of the appearance of Jesus to His followers after his death, citing the number of different occasions (eleven) over a period of six weeks to more than 500 people (I guess NG has never read about the various Marian apparitions such as Zeitoun, Fatima and Assiut where thousands claimed to have seen her over a period of time). He also cites personal Christian experience as further evidence, and concludes with his own personal story, including the Arthur Conan-Doyle quote from “Sherlock Holmes” about eliminating the impossible to leave the improbable.
After the DVD, we split up into our groups to discuss the video. We were told we could ask any question and nothing would be deemed “off limits”, and then asked what we thought. I’m afraid I may have branded myself the troublemaker of the group by taking issue with pretty much everything NG had said regarding the historicity of Jesus, pointing out that the only historians who take it as undisputed fact are Biblical historians and that in the wider field of historic academia in general it is far less regarded as fact, and that really I would have expected something of far greater academic rigour than NG’s attempts. It was pointed out to me that we only got the brief 20-minute version and that the book “Questions of Life” by Nicky Gumbel would undoubtedly go into more detail than the small course booklet or the abbreviated video, so I picked up a copy from the small bookstall at the end of the evening.
Unfortunately the book goes into no further detail than the video did, and in fact I have to admit that I’ve nearly thrown it at the wall three times in frustration whilst reading it since Monday evening; it’s the most appallingly-written piece of codswallop that no tree should ever have had to die to perpetuate, frankly. And people are actually expected to pay £6.99 for it as well. Having taken copious notes whilst watching the video and compared them to the book, I can see that his notes for the lecture deviated very little from what’s in the book. Which I suppose will be handy for dissecting further sessions but doesn’t bode well for my patience levels.
I was fairly scathing in my verdict of the initial session and was reprimanded by a commenter who asked why I was Confirmed if I consider myself a skeptical Christian, and that Alpha is “not for people who want to show their intellectual superiority and could have the opposite effect by pushing people away because they might think they don’t have the understanding”. Firstly, I was Confirmed because it was the logical next step for me personally; that doesn’t mean I give up questioning and frankly, I will always question my faith. I cannot accept blindly; I have to always challenge what I am told if what’s been said has no actual rigour or logic to it. Arguing from a point of authority when your authority is actually bogus as Nicky Gumbel appears to do is intellectually dishonest and is the perfect way to turn atheists away, not bring them into the church. Faith should stand up to questioning and reasoning, and it was made plain at the outset that we were all expected to ask whatever questions we needed to. Nicky Gumbel starts Alpha by posing the question of whether Jesus actually existed. If he’s not going to answer that honestly then he shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. “Did Jesus really exist?” is a pretty big and important question. If Alpha cannot answer that with honesty and valid sources then it’s arguably not fit for purpose. If even I – a Confirmed, church-going Christian, not even with a degree in theology mind you! – can pick holes in and identify the misleading parts of Alpha, what will a curious atheist do? You can only bring people to Chist through honesty. I would have had far less issue with the whole thing had Nicky Gumbel said “Did Jesus actually exist? Well, the answer is that we have very little real documentary evidence for it; there is no contemporary evidence but this is not unusual – Judea was a backwater and very few documents from that era have survived, but this is what we have.” Instead he claims “Yes he existed, we have proof!” and then offers basically… not proof.
It may be that Alpha is not for me – in fact, I would say with a fair amount of certainty that on the basis of the book and the first session it undoubtedly is not for me; I’m uncertain as to what I’m expected to get out of it. To be honest, if my first introduction to St Mary’s had been the Alpha Course, then on the basis of the materials alone and the first session I think I would have walked away and never looked back. Thank goodness it was Jackie and David Baker’s home study group and the actual people of St Mary’s instead that drew me in and allowed me to find faith in my own time, answering my questions honestly and truthfully and guiding me towards other sources to further my own spiritual growth.
I will go to the next session, but as to whether I will stick out the full course I don’t know. I shall blog any further sessions I do attend however.