07 November 2006

Alpha is for Suckers

My wife was talking to me a bit yesterday about the retreat she went to for her Alpha course, and we started discussing the contents of the course itself. I think I blew her mind that I already knew about all sorts of this stuff, like C.S. Lewis's crappy "God, liar, or madman" argument. I pointed out that I read too much, and went to a catholic highschool for 5 years, so I've heard all this stuff before. Anyway, I'm sure she's still trying to convert me. She started telling me about Nicky Gumbel, the lawyer turned vicar who started the modern version of the Alpha course back in England in 1990. She explained how he was as serious an atheist as possible, but had a Christian roommate in university who he liked to debate religion with. According to Gumbel's story that he tells in the Alpha videos, in doing all this research into the claims of the bible to argue with his roommate, the evidence he found convinced him that Christianity was true so he converted, and later became a vicar.

Now, because a) he's an evangelical Christian, b) he's sold over 750000 books, and c) he's a former lawyer, I figured I probably couldn't trust him as far as I could throw him (Looking at the picture of him on the back of one of his books, he looks like a decent-sized guy. I'm average-sized without any fighting training, so I probably couldn't throw him very far.). I challenged my wife with the following question, which she didn't come close to answering:

Given that Alpha is intended as an introduction to Christianity with the desire to convert people, and that Gumbel has alledgedly researched historical data that proved to him that Christianity is true, then why do the topics of discussion in Alpha stick to fluffy topics like "How does God guide us?" and "Why and how should I pray?" and almost entirely avoid issues of proof?

You hear it out of almost every evangelical with something to sell, how you were a militantly atheist sinner who looked at the facts and found Christ. Throw in random comments about how you used atheism as an excuse for all manner of moral depravity, like sex and drugs. I don't know if Gumbel ever claimed wickedness as a result of his atheist, but others like Lee Strobel come to mind.

How many ever really were atheists? How many found a persuasive talking point that they could use to help sell books to the easily impressed?

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5 Comments:

At November 08, 2006 6:56 AM, Blogger James said...

I enjoyed reading your comments. I'm a n (Anglican) priest in London and doing a PhD on Alpha. You make some similar comments that I have made in my thesis. Eg it is rather odd that Gumbel is asking 'prayer' 'guidance' questions in a course that is attempting to convert people.

And you're right. C.S. Lewis' argument is particularly weak.

 
At November 09, 2006 8:53 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Hmm, I wonder if I could get a PhD out of this. Probably not.

Anyway, you do phrase it more accurately as 'prayer guidance'. I wish I'd thought of that.

Any other good observations about Alpha that I haven't noticed?

 
At November 12, 2006 4:32 AM, Blogger Steven Carr said...

When I went on an Alpha Course and started asking questions, I was at one point flatly forbidden to read something from the Bible, my Bible was forcibly taken from me, and I was verbally abused and told not to say anything more for the rest of the discussion.

The group leader (I had always thought it was just a few people sitting around a table, I didn't know that there were group leaders), anyway, the group later later emailed me saying that it was his job to put questions, not the participants.

If he didn't put questions, he said, he could not control the flow of the discussion.

It was interesting to see Christians forbid the reading of a Bible passage.

I guess they know that the Bible contradicts itself, but they didn't want the Bible to contradict them.

 
At November 13, 2006 4:53 AM, Blogger James said...

Steven... your experience of Alpha totally conflicts with the instructions given by Alpha International. Still, in the courses (6 of them) that I researched, several leaders found it difficult to follow this advice and there were occasional confrontations.

One priest, Dave Thomlinson (wrote 'post-evangelicalism') describes how Evangelicals are in the third stage of faith, which has either/or (black and white) categories. The fourth stage tends to be one of deconstruct ion, and the fifth stage is where you are content to live with paradox, ambiguity. Most people don't reach this stage until 35 years old... and some never reach it. Although such categories have been critiqued (we can easily regress), they have an important insight I think. Sorry, I'll stop rambling now.

 
At November 13, 2006 9:31 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Steven, I think it's important to remember that, most of the time, these guys aren't professional, and that it depends very heavily on how good the leader is. Remember the old adage "see one, do one, teach one"? Well, often these guys have seen and done, but this can be the first time teaching one, and that's fine if everything goes smoothly. Have you ever taught someone something and have it start to blow up in your face time? Remember the panic and the grasping for straws that set in? Your leader probably panicked and wanted you to stop victimizing his knowledge gaps.

 

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