WEEK 1 – IS THERE MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS?
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” – Psalm 14:1
“Hi, I’m Abi, and I’m an atheist.”
The rest of the circle – 15 of them – fix their eyes on me with steely benevolence. Turns out I’m the only atheist. Saying as much is a bit like turning up to an AA meeting and confessing to week-long blackouts, only to discover your fellow ‘alcoholics’ are concerned about their Friday night pint.
I haven’t sat in a circle of strangers and played these get-to-know-you games since school. First were a couple of seminally cringeworthy icebreakers. “Say your name, and a positive adjective, starting with the same letter as your name, that describes you!” enthuses the group leader, a well-meaning but sheltered individual who later blushes when I say “bloody hell”.
“I’m lovely Lucy,” says the first in line, turning the letters over in her mouth. “Righteous Richard,” nods the second. “Angelic Angelica,” beams a third.
‘Atheist Abi’ alliterates, but I don’t think this is a positive adjective from where we’re sitting. I settle on ‘articulate’, which is true enough, but does mean that at some point I’m going to have to speak.
I’m pretty quiet for the time being. I’m watching them. I sit out the next game, which involves saying which historical figure you’d most like to be – most of my personal icons lived flagrantly in ‘sin’ – and only chime in when asked directly why I’m here.
Indeed, why are we here? Such is the million dollar question that Alpha purports to answer, and without wanting to spoil the suspense, I can tell you that their answer points up God. As to why I’m here in this room – here in this 16-strong circle in this 1,000-strong congregation in this world-famous Church of England church – well, that’s where I keep my cards close to my chest.
What I tell the group is that I was brought up a Christian and that I fell away from the faith in my teens. They nod; they know this trajectory well. Plenty of Alpha acolytes have followed the same path: lured off course by the world’s seductions, only to feel the pangs for what they’ve missed.
What I don’t tell them is that I’m happy where I am. I already know what Alpha’s going to tell me – all its arguments, all its apologetics, all the tired pro-Christian weapons in its arsenal – and it wearies me. My faith lapsed nearly a decade ago. These guys can’t convince me to be a Christian, any more than the Daily Mail can convince me England’s going to the dogs.
My main point of exploration, then, is not ‘the meaning of life’, but how this hugely successful course has come to wield the influence it does. Alpha is one of the most powerful forces at work in the church today, and I’m hoping to get under its skin.
The Alpha Course was started in this very building in the late 1970s. A Christian induction programme in essence, it currently runs in 169 countries worldwide, and is well-schooled in converting non-believers.
While for many Christians, Alpha seems like a panacea, for a certain brand of traditionalist it is a parasite; a burgeoning tumour on modern Anglicanism.
Unlike the C of E as normally conceived, Alpha is young and determinedly vibrant – the average age of attendee is 27. While the older generation may be happy with pews and hassock weaving, it takes something more full-on to entice their grandkids. This is hardline stuff: we’re talking speaking in tongues and having visions and healing the sick. That’s what the yoof apparently want when they haven’t got ready recourse to sex and drugs.
Anyway, that’s all going to come later in the course, I am informed. For the time being I must be content with a hearty plate of spag bol and 15 people perturbed by my eternal damnation.
Nicky Gumbel, the international Alpha guru, introduced the talk tonight. I’ve read a lot about him, so when he walks past I stare in a manner normally reserved for Actual Celebs. Rarely is this gaze squandered on charismatic 56-year old barristers with a slightly lean and hungry, lupine look.
“What’s Nicky Gumbel like?” I ask a member of his flock, who knows him.
“Oh, he’s genuinely such a nice man,” she gushes, and I believe her, I do. I believe he’s nice. I don’t suspect a cynical agenda. But he’s slightly too influential for my liking.
We have been placed in groups on entry; my group’s near the front. The format will be the same every week, free food and casual chit-chat followed by an introduction to formal proceedings. Then comes ‘worship’ from the Christian rock band, the 45-minute talk and the breakdown of that talk in our small groups.
This week has mostly revolved around dispelling our anxieties. It’s an introductory session, designed to draw us in, ensuring we’re nicely primed for all the tricky stuff. Thus the Christians are trying, a little too hard, to prove their normalcy. My group is terrifyingly friendly. The Christian rock band is pleasantly self-deprecating. And the speaker discusses hangovers and Hitchens in an attempt to placate infidels like me.
His name is Charlie Mackesy, a scupltor and former illustrator for The Spectator. I like him instantaneously – he has the wildly intelligent, yet scruffily shambolic, vibe of the prototypal mad artist. The nice Christian girls around me, who know him already through church, have honed their admiration into a crush.
Personally, I’m not feeling it. The talk oscillates strangely between a kind of stand-up comedy routine and something that strikes me as hugely dark. I think, you can’t just go from good-humoured, laugh-a-minute banter to Christian theodicy. You can’t throw in an anecdote about giant sticks or tuna cans and then segue to original sin.
Mackesy has a phenomenally bleak, yet theologically right-on, view of the nature of mankind. In amongst all the warmth and laughter, he thinks we’re fundamentally evil. He thinks that without God, we’re a blip in the universe, suspended forever in a black hole of our own making. Around me are murmurs of approbation and the same big smiles they later wear while serving up the cake.
I am troubled by the incongruity. Also by the false logic. True enough our lives are meaningless from a cosmic standpoint, but I don’t see how you can jump from that to, ‘there’s a God’. Man up and accept our smallness, I think. Shunt your perspective down to a human level and you’ll see that we matter just enough.
I plan to corner Mackesy at some point and ask him how they sucked him in. He grew up an atheist and claims to be a cynic, yet he came on the Alpha Course many years ago and fell ‘in love’ with the big G.
In my group itself, I’m struggling to find people who weren’t brought up with God. When you’re schooled in His ways from an early age, you’re generally going to keep believing, and so it is for most of the people around me. They’re a mix of helpers and backslidden Christians looking for a refresher course. This somewhat gives the lie to Gumbel’s claim that Alpha is designed for us heretics.
But a chosen few do start sceptical, and then convert, and I want to know how and why they end up being ‘born again’. I’d like to know why they dismantle their world view, embracing instead this weird mosaic of outworn and sometimes antirational beliefs. How precisely do you shrug off science and multiculturalism and Darwin and liberalism and everything the Enlightenment taught us? How do you get your head round Christian rock?
I leave Week 1 feeling curious. For the rest of my group, I’m their personal project. They’re going to have their work cut out with me.
WEEK 2 – WHO IS JESUS?
Week 2 is simultaneously more relaxed and more intense. More relaxed, in that people have begun to loosen up. Whereas last week felt inquisitional – each of us attempting to suss out where we stood in the spiritual pecking order – by now, we know the drill. The Christians’ suspicious cheesiness, and my rictus grin, seem replaced by something halfway genuine.
As per last week, we’re blasted with the sonic cringe of abysmal Christian rock. God-via-guitars is a fundamental part of Alpha’s schtick; guitars being the modern-day way to make the higher powers more ‘accessible’. Nicky Gumbel believes that church attendance is dwindling not because the message is untrue, but because it seems offputtingly irrelevant.
“We are trying to present our message in a way that is contemporary,” he explained last year, during an interview with the behemoth that is Ann Widdecombe. “It’s the way that we welcome people, the language we use, the informality. Not only are they not put off by the packaging – they are actually attracted.”
The packaging’s slick, I’ll give him that. This is a carefully-executed operation, with a lot of PR manpower behind it. Everyone seems so easygoing, and respectful, and, in a word, nice, that it’s very easy to be sucked in. I find myself mouthing the words to the next song, Amazing Grace, until I remember I’m tacitly condoning my salvation from Satan’s grisly clutches.
As to the newly minted intensity of Week 2: well, that comes in the form of Gumbel’s talk. He is explaining ‘Who is Jesus?’, a theological wham, bam, thankyou ma’am, which is supposed to present the factual basis for Christianity. He apologises in advance that we might find it dry or dull. “This is aimed at the head,” he tells us, contritely. “It takes a more cerebral approach than the rest of the course.”
Personally, if I were to become religious, I would need a fair bit of convincing first. One pop at my mind would not suffice. But Gumbel is a populist and he seems scared of alienating the ‘thinking is boring’ brigade. Is he being insulting or does he simply know his demographic? We are after all the Made in Chelseageneration.
His tug on our brain strings, at any rate, is far from forceful: a bundle of logical fallacies superficially trussed up with clever rhetoric. Gumbel is a lawyer and it shows. He talks and talks about the ‘evidence’ for Jesus, but the sort of evidence he means would not meet any scientific benchmarks – lawyers don’t go in for null hypotheses. He is spinning the basic facts into a narrative that boosts his pre-existing case.
He says, for example, that Christ cannot merely have been a great moral teacher. Great moral teachers don’t potter about round Palestine claiming to be the son of God. No, says Gumbel, we’re left with three options: he must either have been bad, mad, or speaking truth. Needless to say, Alpha isn’t down with (a) or (b).
Again with the resurrection. Gumbel’s trick is to spell out some straw man alternatives and dismiss them with a wave of the hand. Collective hallucation? Disciples stealing the body? Well, fisherman don’t hallucinate, and disciples don’t steal, so what other possibility can there be? He shrugs off the option that the Gospels themselves, written over 30 years after the ‘resurrection’, are a glorified game of Chinese whispers.
We the jury, following Gumbel’s talk, retreat to our small groups. Much to the consternation of the leaders, who are expecting me to throw them some bait, I stay silent. Next week, perhaps, this veil of smiling passive aggression will start to slip.
Afterwards, we retire to the pub for an orange juice: these guys prefer to get ‘drunk on the Holy Spirit’ and I’m already irredeemably hungover.
Here in this more habitable environment, I press one girl about her faith. Echoing a prevailing theme at Alpha, she was raised a Christian, but she fell away: her church was one of those mildew-and-blue-rinse social clubs for senior citizens. Not till uni did she return to God, and then only following a rocky patch and a dire need for emotional sustenance. Now she works full time for Holy Trinity Brompton.
This is more what it’s about, I think: not rational argumentation, not rhetorical lists of three, but profound psychological need. Life is tough, and most of us, smarting from its suckerpunches, could do with a bit of TLC. But there must be a way of taking that without recourse to blind credulity. If ignorance is bliss, I don’t want either.
WEEK 3 – WHY DID JESUS DIE?
One of the strangest things about the Alpha Course so far is the way everyone keeps referring to themselves as ‘evil’. Yep, with zero irony and remarkably good cheer, this lot keep hamming up their own depravity.
“I’m a terrible person,” they’ll say, breezily; or “I’m wicked,” or “I’m an abject sinner,” or “I’m lower than low. Would anyone like any cake?”
It’s medieval rhetoric, the sort that’s normally reserved for the comments section of Daily Mail. Rarely do you hear an ordinary person self-define as evil, and even rarer to hear a nice one say as much. (I’m fairly sure there’s no arsenic in this cake.)
As such, it’s truly bizarre to hear the Christians reclaim the word. This is not just ordinary, self-aware humility: this strikes me as demented self-flagellation, the sort which swaps all the fascinating hues of human psychology for a terrifyingly monochrome view of life. God demands perfection, they say, and whatever your failings – impure thoughts in the presence of a bra strap? swore when you stubbed your toe? – you’ve still failed the celestial test.
‘Our greatest need is for forgiveness,’ reads a deceptively friendly booklet on my chair. ‘Just as someone who has cancer needs a doctor whether they realise it or not, so we need forgiveness whether we realise it or not. Just as with cancer, those who recognise their need are far better off than those who are lulled into a false sense of security.’
This is Week 3 of the Alpha Course, and in some ways, it’s the most pivotal: it’s presenting the very crux of Christianity itself. Salvation doesn’t make any sense if you reject the concept of sin.
I do get how this is supposed to work. Kind of. If you posit a divine, perfect, all-powerful being who cares enough about us to take note of what we do, then any infringement of his code becomes a real barrier against him. Our mediocre little thought-crimes acquire a cosmic magnitude, and God being a God of justice (albeit a very boorish, pre-modern kind of justice), he can punish us however he sees fit.
Luckily, this God is merciful too, and so he sent his son to take the death penalty in our place. That’s what Nicky Gumbel is telling us tonight, rapturous, from the front of the church. If we believe this tale and accept it deep in our hearts, we’re forgiven. You and I can have eternal life.
I cast my eye to the faithful hordes around me. On the hierarchy of Things That Are Evil, they rank somewhere around the level of a tea cosy. And yet their inoffensiveness stands in stark contrast to what they believe, a story so cartoonishly black and white that even the crassest Hollywood production team would reject it.
(Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ doesn’t count.)
If I sound irate, it’s because I am; this week’s theme has struck a nerve. Yep, here amongst the tea and biscuits, I the token lackey of Satan am on something of a moral crusade.
Christopher Hitchens, in God is Not Great, made the case that religion doesn’t have the monopoly over morality: it has been responsible for an untold number of atrocities, with secularisation tied in closely to the advancement of tolerance and peace. Well, this lot aren’t the sort to blow up buildings, but in my own experience, their belief system is psychologically fraught.
I was 17 when I sloughed off my faith. Ironically enough, the death knells came while I was helping out with my sixth form’s Student Alpha Course. While I knew all the supposed ‘answers’ to atheists’ questions (I could regurgitate these in my sleep) I realised that, whatever its internal coherence, there was no compelling reason to believe in the system as a whole. Standing, slightly shellshocked, on the outside, it all looked much more contingent than I’d thought while in its midst.
Perhaps more damningly, its divisive mindset had stopped making any sense. The world as I was coming to see it was not this dramatic Manichean struggle; this unceasing duel between the forces of bad and good. Much of our everyday reality, boringly, was not lived out in the moral domain at all.
As my own beliefs slipped into grey terrain, I wondered what kind of God would split us into teams like that, like the worst kind of sadistic PE teacher: cut a line down the middle of the human race and say “you’re in and you’re out”. To me, it smacked far more of petty tribalism than it did of divine reality. All too easily, ‘we’re in and you’re out’ can warp into a weapon of social control.
Obviously, as a highly-strung teenager this wasn’t the pleasantest set of epiphanies to be having: far better to piss off your parents with a secret stash of mary jane than to quiver alone in your bedroom, thinking you’re going to spend all eternity being punished for your thoughts.
Nine years later I’m here at Alpha, watching this process in reverse. If you want to receive God’s wonderful free gift, says Gumbel gently, you merely have to pray a simple prayer. You have to say sorry, thank you and please. Sorry for all my sins. Thank you for forgiving me. Please come into my life by your Holy Spirit and be with me forever. Then you are a Christian, Gumbel says. He reminds me of the Demon Headmaster; all soft, soporific, hypnotic tones and giddyingly emotive thrall.
In our small group, the helpers talk, and this time I talk back. This time, I’m positively belligerent – I pelt them with textbook questions. If God wanted us to be perfect, why would he set us up for failure like that? What can it possibly mean to have ‘free’ will? How did evil enter the world in the first place if everything originated with God? I don’t mean to be a saboteur, but these questions need asking. I feel like I’m lobbing my ammo, however powerful, across an insuperable gulf.
Later, as we’re filing out to go to the pub, I see an old man sitting in a circle of chairs, alone with one of the helpers. She has her hands laid on him in prayer (the sorry, thankyou, please prayer, I’m surmising); he has his head down and is weeping. I picture the baggage of a long life swept away; the glistening incipience of a dusty slate wiped clean.
To be honest, it makes me want to weep myself.
WEEK 4 – HOW CAN WE HAVE FAITH?
Week 4, and I arrive at Holy Trinity Brompton exhausted and emotionally manipulable. I’m recovering from a bad cold; I’ve had insomnia all week, and yesterday was Valentine’s Day. (As you can imagine, the latter phrase comes prefaced with a choice few words of Anglo Saxon.) I’m barely awake, to the extent that, should a chugger stop me in the street, I’d probably end up pledging £50 a month to save the elephants.
In consequence, I’m slightly concerned about my susceptibility to Alpha’s message. My brain is using dream logic, and in dream logic, the impossible makes sense. Giant rabbits mauling me as I carry them round a treasure hunt? Attempting, and failing, to fly over central London? Sin entering the world because a snake told a nudist to eat an apple? Two of these are dreams that I have had.
It doesn’t help that today’s theme, ‘How can we have faith?’ is expressly designed to grab us on an emotional level. When you’re asleep, or tired, or maudlin, or half-cut, your emotions coalesce into urgent shards of fact. Cool intellectual analysis is for the 9-5. Here at Alpha, it’s 8pm, and the man at the front is kneading our feelings into something we can’t refute.
No Nicky Gumbel this week – today we have the likeable Jamie Haith. He’s funny and disarming, and makes public speaking look a breeze. An ordained minister, he could make a kill from pimping out his services as best man.
Aptly enough, today’s talk is based around relationships, with Haith’s (sickbag) marriage to his wife furnishing an extended metaphor for our relationship with God. I say extended – I’m talking 45 minutes, the entire length of the talk in question. If you weren’t already angsting about relationships in the wake of Valentine’s Day, you would be after a lecture from Jamie Haith.
“Relationships are exciting, they’re wonderful,” says Haith, whose principal virtue is not a lack of smugness. “And the most exciting relationship of all is the relationship we can know with God.”
The relational aspects of Christianity are at the core of Alpha. This is not a religion based on regulation, they say, but rather an all-out love affair between you and the Almighty. Of course, once one pries a little there are a fair few rules you’re supposed to abide by: no sex before marriage, no homosexuality and no drunken carousing for starters. Nonetheless, such tenets are passive-aggressively couched. It’s not that God says you can’t have sex before marriage, but rather that he’ll be disappointed if you do. A little bit like your mum.
As an outsider, it’s fairly hard to quantify what is meant by a relationship with God. A relationship with another person involves – well, the presence of another person. The other person is there, you can see them and talk to them, and you know that they exist in their own right. Nobody can explain to me how a relationship with God is anything other than a redefinition of your psychodrama, a grandiose way of framing your inner life.
“I understand that faith isn’t the same as belief,” I say, during the group discussion, “but surely you have to believe in God in the first place in order to have faith in him?”
For my group, however, the ‘God = lover’ metaphor is just too seductive. They can’t see how belief in God differs from belief in another person. Loving another person is, after all, an act of faith, involving trust and vulnerability and the possibility you’ve got them wrong.
I think this is a semantic sleight of hand. Plenty of times, I’ve misinterpreted other people, but nobody has ever proven to be a figment of my imagination. However bad the betrayal, nobody conjures old flames out of thin air.
My group launch into a discussion of what their faith means to them, and, especially given how knackered I am, it’s pretty moving. I hear how God has helped them, and healed them, and guided them through tough times. Certainly, this is a warm-blooded affair, far closer to the passion of the football fan than the freeze-dried axioms of the logician.
But then, Christianity has always come pepped up with a shot or two of anti-rationalism. “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” says Jesus himself, in Matthew 11:25. A guy in my group tells me that Christianity is a robust and intelligent and evidence-based faith This doesn’t negate the fact that, anecdotally speaking, it seems to be an easier sell if you’re vulnerable; thinking with your heart and not your head.
Certainly, I’m feeling none too wise and learned right this second. “I think that faith sounds like a beautiful thing,” I say defeatedly. And then – because I know they’ll be suckers for a nice bit of biblical allusion – “the spirit is willing but the mind isn’t having any of it.”
I’m tired out and I’m miserable and I’ve slept 9 hours total in the last 3 nights. Later at home, I find myself praying. A calm descends and I pray myself to sleep.
ALPHA WEEKEND AWAY PART 1
The centrepiece of the Alpha Course is a weekend away. This is supposedly an opportunity to spend time with friends, enjoy good food, soak up some sun, get your disco groove on and run with madcap abandon into the English Channel. The promo video beforehand promises as much, anyway, before you sign away your ninety quid.
Nonetheless, you’d be disingenuous to expect God not to pop his head round the door on occasion. You can’t pack 400 Christians, or soon-to-be Christians, into a holiday village in Chichester without things getting a little bit intense.
It is an ambient Friday night in March and my colleagues are off carousing. I am sitting on the back row of a coach, glowering. Say what you like about the preternatural friendliness of Christians – the sanguinity of their company and the braveness of their life choices – but they aren’t any match for a pub crawl down Fleet Street, and I do somewhat resent them for that.
I am sitting next to Lucy, one of our group leaders, who will become a sounding-board for me this weekend. She’s intelligent, and thoughtful, and every time I feel angry or indignant or confused or outraged or baffled (which I will do, consistently, for most of the next 48 hours), I speak to Lucy. She is the patient friend in the changing room as I try the thought on for size, tactful even though most of my thoughts are ugly.
Leaving London is a sluggish process and I nod into a groggy sleep. By the time I snap awake, we’re in Bracklesham Bay near Chichester, pulling up towards our Pontin’s style accommodation.
Inside, the early arrivals are checking in and tucking in to a meal of ungodly volume: the food here is plentiful, wholesome and calorific, as though they’re trying to carb-load us into conversion. It’s basically the opposite of fat camp. For my part, I’m grateful to discover there’s a bar. As and when I wish to dull my faculties, I will not be doing so with cake.
We’re two to a dorm but an administrative blunder has given me my own bedroom. This, like the bar, is something to scribble in my Evidence For God column (the exuberant cackling in the lobby outside is filed in Evidence Against). I sleep well and deeply: the idea of a shiny happy roommate had filled me with a doom so great, I was considering doing a runner to Portsmouth and crashing the next ferry to France.
This trip away, a staple of Alpha since its outset, is known on the downlow as the ‘Holy Spirit Weekend’. Presumably they downplay the Holy Spirit element so as not to freak out non-believers, and judiciously so, as freaky things are afoot.
In January 1994, the Vineyard Church in Toronto was swept by a peculiar phenomenon. Members of the congregation were reportedly healed, transformed and overwhelmed with God’s love, an outpouring of spiritual bounties with physical manifestations to match.
The first time this happened, most of the 120 in attendance fell to the ground, laughing and rolling on the floor. As such incidents grew more prevalent, and spread to other churches, attendees were gripped with all manner of reactions: shaking, crying, convulsing, roaring like lions, prophesying, speaking in tongues, even dry heaving at times so as to purge the negativity in their life.
Some Christians embraced the ‘Toronto Blessing’ as a sign of spiritual revival, a visceral injection of new life into the church’s ailing frame. Others were more circumspect, seeing the episodes less as ‘signs and wonders’ and more as psychologically-whipped mass hysteria. Darker still, others believed it was all a satanic trick.
Nicky Gumbel, architect of the then-embryonic Alpha, was watching with interest. While these days he does not talk about the Toronto Blessing, he is on record as saying he thinks it was a ‘wonderful thing’. A strong vein of Charismatism, with all the attendant ‘spiritual gifts’, has always pulsed under Alpha’s smooth-seeming skin.
I am intrigued and, it has to be said, slightly looking forward to it. I grew up with this, in a dilute form – visitations of the Holy Spirit were as routine in my church as jam-making contests are in others. Never before, however, have I witnessed it through the filter of scepticism, and I’m interested to see how my inner Ben Goldacre will react.
Little do I know that before the day is done, I’ll be feeling the heat of the so-called Holy Spirit myself.
ALPHA WEEKEND AWAY – PART TWO
The Holy Spirit is not quite so outré, quite so fringe, as a casual observer might suspect. As a card-carrying member of the Holy Trinity, he’s the very stuff that Christianity’s made of. For sure, he wouldn’t fit too neatly into a church cake sale, but he’s there in the Bible for all to see.
Take Acts 2:2, which has the disciples gathering together to celebrate Pentecost. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting,” reads the verse. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.”
The disciples, understandably enough, were accused of drunkenness, but they retorted it was only 9am – a fairly niche time to be staggering around spewing gibberish. No, they were fulfilling an age-old prophecy: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
It was a mote of wisdom with which those assembled would have been well-acquainted. Three thousand bystanders, apparently, were convinced by it and became Christians that day.
Here at Alpha, this morning’s talks serve to highlight the scriptural nature of the Spirit, running meticulously through his Biblical pedigree. To be fair, if you believe that the Bible is true you oughtn’t to be too fazed by the Holy Ghost – in for a virgin birth penny, in for a ‘old men dream dreams’ pound.
What sets him apart from the rest of the canon is that he’s not just another folk tale to be accepted, but the very conduit for conversion itself. One phrase mentioned this morning stays with me: ‘credo ut intelligam’, I believe so that I may understand. According to Alpha, spiritual truths are not penetrable from the outside in, but make sense only after you’ve made a leap of faith. The Holy Spirit is our proverbial bungee rope in the jump across the void.
We splinter into our small groups shortly before lunch, and I find myself sitting outside in a circle, breathing in the fresh spring air and talking about spiritual gifts. About half my group lay claim to glossolalia, the gift of tongues: one girl says she was taught the skill by her dad. Tongues are supposed to convey to God the things our heart wants to say, but which our brains can’t summon. To be honest, the things our brains can summon don’t seem to be that well-regarded on Alpha.
I spoke in tongues myself as a kid. I remember letting my tongue go loose and loll into disjointed syllables; English lexemes unpicked at the seams and unmoored from any referential content. Dishearteningly, I could still do it now, if I tried, and I bet you could too. For that matter, so could a baby.
More impressive are claims to bodily healing. My group leader relates his time in Africa, where he saw tremendous miracles: one man was healed from a bad back, another from cataracts, another (more prosaically) from hayfever.
“How can you explain this, if it’s not God?” they ask me, as the token dissenter. I reply that I can’t explain it on the basis of such limited information: I would need firm scientific evidence to be persuaded that such events took place. But this is a God who refuses to hem himself into laboratory conditions, laughing in the face of randomised controlled trials and arbitrarily messing with people’s pollen tolerance.
Lack of evidence is not my only problem here. This weekend has touched upon one of my major bugbears with religion; the idea that there are certain, cloistered, truths that cannot be grasped through reason alone, but must be approached via some kind of mystical side street.
Here, I think believers are playing a dangerous game. As soon as you remove rational thought from the equation, truth loses its accessibility and democracy. It becomes an article of power, with its self-appointed custodians free to shape its content as they see fit. Were I prone to snidely coughing phrases, I’d now be coughing the phrase *priestly abuses*.
Or possibly, I’m missing something. The group is talking now about the ‘fruits of the Spirit’: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’. Far more pivotal than all the roaring and the shaking, these are things he promises to instil. Out here in the sunshine, in amongst these calm, kind people, my mind is churning uncontrollably. Despite myself I want to be like them.
After lunch, I take some time out. I buy a can of beer and meander to the beach, whereupon I stride purposefully along the pebbles for a good two hours. It is a beautiful day, and as the waves lap around me, my mental convulsions soothe. Perhaps I think, gingerly, confusedly, my scepticism really does have its roots in sin.
ALPHA WEEKEND AWAY PART 3
Walking down the beach, I’ve had a revelation of sorts: I’m not as disinterested as I’d hoped. Whereas, previously, I’d seen myself as something of an intellectual warrior, blazing a trail through wishful thinking and self-delusion, I’ve smacked face-first against my own biases. They don’t make for a pretty sight.
Of course, the primary reason I’m not a Christian because I don’t think it’s true. I find it logically hard to reconcile, and none of the answers I’ve been given here have changed that. But my judgement in this regard is not clean, and pristine, and impartial; it is clouded by all manner of personal predilections that give their own tinge to the facts.
For example, I’m not a Christian because it clashes with my politics. I’m not a Christian because its worldview seems unfair, because the anti-gay stance is a travesty, the music an auditory atrocity and the people are too clean-cut.
I’m not a Christian because I think the concept of a ‘father God’ is infantilising, because I would lose social cachet and because trying to be good all the time, unbendingly complaisant, is a guaranteed means of messing yourself up.
I like moaning, swearing, lusting, griping, gossiping, hipster-bashing and drinking too much. For me, being a Christian would remove the salt and the savour from life. I’m not a Christian because it hurt me first time round. I’m not a Christian because the devil gets all the best lines.
It occurs to me that in many ways, I’ve taken the easy way out.
This much is chastening, and as I return to the hall for this evening’s talk, I look at those assembled with admiration. Presumably, they’re not all innately Blue Peterish: for some of them, religion is bound to present an awkward, if worthwhile, fit.
Tonight’s talk will take the form of a ‘Holy Spirit’ workshop. The idea is to put into practice everything we’ve learnt to date: you wouldn’t have a theoretical weekend learning about sport, says Gumbel, without the opportunity to play.
We are sitting in tightly packed rows, all 400 of us, lending a sense of intimacy that is lacking on Wednesday nights. I’m exactly in the middle, such that I’m directly opposite Gumbel, and that when he looks straight forward it appears he’s looking right at me.
Every last one of us here tonight, he says, can be filled with the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter who we are, or how we got here – God loves us and wants to touch us. If we ask, we will receive. We simply need to lay aside our doubt, fear and sense of inadequacy and, however falteringly, trust in Him.
Is this mere emotionalism? That’s an argument often brought against Alpha, but Gumbel gives it short shrift. Emotion need not be a dirty word, he says, despite the fact we’re British. If a comedian makes us laugh, or a film makes us cry, it’s seen as a rousing success. If you go to a football match, you’ll be shouting and chanting and leaping around in the time it takes to say ‘stiff upper lip’.
Nor are the physical manifestations a thing to fear. They are merely the outward trappings of something deeper, akin to the tingle down your spine when you’re in love. For what’s it’s worth, we can expect to cry, laugh, feel a surge of heat through our bodies or start to shake.
I think this is a form of hypnosis: implanting an idea in people’s minds, to the extent that it becomes reality. Suggestibility with psychosomatic side-effects. But Gumbel’s pre-empted this one too.
“Once, after one of these weekends,” he says, “someone came up to me and said, ‘that’s autosuggestion – people are experiencing these things because you’ve told them that’s what’s going to happen’. Next time round I didn’t say a thing. Afterwards someone said, ‘all the heat and shaking, why didn’t you warn us about that?’”
Everyone laughs, as though it’s funny, but now the room falls still. Now, says Gumbel, we are to wait on the Holy Spirit. The real action’s about to kick in.
ALPHA WEEKEND AWAY PART 4
First thing’s first: if we want to receive the Spirit, we need to make a simple gesture. We should stand up with our hands out in front of us, a sign that indicates to ourselves and God that we’re open to his touch.
Around the room, most people are following instructions: eyes shut in silent communion; hands cupped to catch a hail of blessings. The hush is eerie. Half participant and half voyeur, my heart is pounding. I don’t know whether to copy them or take notes.
The public / private boundary has grown porous. While in some senses, this experience is as communal as Gumbel’s notional football match, in other regards it’s intensely subjective. Each of us is engrossed in our own psychodrama, albeit with stage directions issued from the front.
“Now we’re going to sing in tongues,” says Gumbel. “Feel free to join in if you would like.”
His friend Jamie Haith, who has led two talks thus far, steps into the breach. Haith is a winning character on many counts – tonight, at the talent show, he’ll perform a cockle-warming comedy routine, and early in the morning I’ll catch him running he-man style down the beach.
For now, however, he is indeed singing in tongues, along with dozens around me; a jangle of softly splintered languages. The sound is strangely lovely, if atonal: a sort of avant-garde vocal collective tuning up.
Personally, I don’t know what to think. As the only atheist in my group, I’m tired of fighting, like when you’re swimming against a tide, and start to succumb. “Can I pray for you?” asks the girl beside me, and I agree.
“Alright then God, if it’s real, give me a sign,” I mutter. “I don’t believe, and I don’t think I want to believe, but I want to want to believe if it’s true.”
As she lays her hands on me, a blast of heat fires through my body, warming me from head to toe. I am blazing, and I’m trembling, my hands and feet shaking uncontrollably. At the front, someone is saying: “I’ve had a picture. I feel there’s someone here who has been using their intellect as a weapon against their group…”
All across the hall, people are coming to, swapping watery half-smiles. Some will cite tonight as one of the most powerful experiences of God they’ve ever had. For me, the spell is broken. I head towards the bar and neck a drink.
Next morning, clustered on the beach as the tide comes in, I recount my tale to the rest of my group. It doesn’t surprise them. They nod sagely; it’s what God does, he comes in all his might to the most unlikely candidates and overwhelms them with his love. “I still don’t believe,” I tell them. I think I might have mentioned Derren Brown. I don’t think they’re especially impressed.
We pack up our belongings and take the coach back to London. The consensus is that this has been a great weekend; we’ve been lucky with the weather and with the food and with the fun times; the talent show was wonderful and the disco afterwards raucous; friendships have been cemented and we’re spiritually recharged to boot.
But as the coach pulls up into South Kensington, just in time for the 5pm service at HTB, my churchly batteries couldn’t be more flat.
This blog, running between January and March 2012, was followed up by a piece in the print edition of the New Statesman
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands