Spirit of the Age: The hangover from Alpha

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The Independent Culture
COMING SOON to a church near you, said the leaflet. You may have had one yourself. They emanate from the church of Holy Trinity Brompton which has just spent pounds 1m on a billboard campaign to invite you to a 10- week Alpha course on the basics of Christianity. They have put leaflets into a million households and some 6,000 churches are involved in offering a hearty welcome to a brand of religion which advertises itself with the words: "Don't get drunk on wine, be filled with the Spirit. Come to a party where you can get drunk on God."

A couple of years ago, I met a man who had not only got drunk on God but had the hangover to prove it. He had been on an Alpha course the year before. But now that the exhilaration of the fast-moving introduction had worn off, he was left troubled enough to assault a relative stranger like me with his worries. Unsettling questions kept bubbling up from some sub-conscious spiritual uncertainty which the neatly organised layers of the Alpha programme - with its uncompromising views on homosexuality, abortion and divorce - had quelled only temporarily. And he was worried because he had not yet been given the gift of speaking in tongues. Was he doing something wrong? he asked me.

There was a milling crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings in the foyer of St Stephen's Church in East Twickenham when I arrived. There were about 60 people present, which was only a fraction of the 900 who were that night starting Alpha at Holy Trinity Brompton (known as HTB to regulars), according to one of the young Alpha leaders, Nigel, a chartered surveyor, who had come from there only weeks before.

After a supper of pasta and salad (pounds 3.50 suggested contribution), a young man in an open-necked check shirt rose to speak. His name was Harry, and he was, he said with an apologetic grin, "The Rev" because he was the curate there. He invited us into the church with its new oak floor, 44- channel mixer desk and tasteful underlighting picking out the corbels of the nave. There, Harry's wife, Merisa, a fresh-faced Daisy-pulls-it- off young woman, gave us the first of the 15 Alpha talks.

"Before I became a Christian, I thought Christianity was just a crutch for the weak," she began. "To me, Christians were quiet people who still had their hair in pig-tails when they were 17 ..."

Her talk had a number of key points, all taken from the Alpha Handbook. Christianity is based on historical evidence, she said, making sketchy references to Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus, "and facts are facts whether we choose to believe them or not." Christ's life fulfilled Old Testament prophesy - "and after all he couldn't have rigged where he lived and died". Jesus made some "pretty wild" claims about himself - that he was the Son of God and so on. So thinking that "Jesus was a pretty OK guy who said some good stuff" wasn't enough. He was, therefore, either God, a liar or a madman.

So, she went on, since Jesus was obviously too good to be a fraud or mad, he must be God. And what did Jesus say about himself? "I am the resurrection and the life," she continued. Which is, she said, much nicer than the Buddha saying, "I die seeking truth". People say Christianity is really boring but it is not a hobby or a social club. It's a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and, let's face it, "It would be amazing to hang out with Jesus if he was doing that sort of thing - turning the cheap Tesco plonk into Chateau Neuf du Galilee, and making people well and so on".

She ended with a story about her marriage to Harry and how they go swimming with their son Angus "who's a real pain, 'cos he sinks, and then recently we discovered armbands and it's great. Now I'm not saying that Jesus is like armbands but ..."

Merisa was evidently a kindly, sincere and well-intentioned woman - as were all of the Alpha team in St Stephen's. But her argument, like that of the handbook setting out the basic skeleton of the course, jumped deftly across the fissures of faith and crevices of doubt which give Christianity its complexity and reveal its depth.

After coffee, it was time for small groups. Mine seemed made up of a friendly group of folk, almost all of whom already went to St Stephen's and most of whom had done an Alpha course before. Someone had done two. Someone else had done four but never finished them, which may explain why HTB claims that 1.5 million people have done the course even though there are only one million people at Church of England services most Sundays.

The conversation was discursive. One chap said he had come because his fiancee was a Christian. A girl lamented that her Jewish boyfriend didn't buy the idea that Jesus must either be mad, bad or dad. I had decided to keep quiet but Nigel asked me what I thought. It seemed to make a whole raft of challengeable pre-suppositions, I said, and all kinds of assumptions about the gospel texts which New Testament scholars had now called into question

Ah yes, but the historians must know their job, Nigel argued. And he could categorically say that you could rely, at any rate, on the text of Matthew, because Mark and Luke copied from Matthew. It seemed unkind to point out that this was the exact opposite of what the weight of biblical scholarship suggested, so I remained silent and the group passed onto the "2000-year-of-believers-can't-be-wrong argument ". Alpha, I decided, might be a starting point for some but it certainly was not for me.

Yes, said Nigel, there are lots of questions, but time was up. So should we go to the pub? he said. It seemed like a good idea.