Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 7: Weekend Talks 1 & 2

You may be wondering if God had revealed himself to me sometime during the last week. Was the pastor’s ‘laying on of hands’ routine a success?

The answer, unfortunately, is no.

There’s been absolutely no sign of God since I left the church in high spirits (pardon the pun) last week. There’s nothing to report.

Why would God fail us so spectacularly?

As I drive towards the church for tonight’s session I wonder about the reception I am to receive. Will the Christians be eager to find out the news? Will they be sat in high expectation? Will they be waiting for me at the church gates? I don’t know, but I feel a little uncomfortable having to break the news to them that God failed to show.

I walk up to the church doors and pause for a moment to take in a deep breath. Here goes…

I enter the room and everyone is in fine form, chatting away, smiling and joking. I say my hellos as Lady Two hands me a glass of cold water. I remove my jacket and take to my seat. The group are discussing nature conservation. I join in the discussion.

In no time we’re on to gardening, then to angling, and then to swimming. Not three of my strongest subjects I must admit. In fact I don’t really know why (or how) any of these topics have sprung up but everyone is enjoying themselves, and it’s lovely to see. It’s great that we can come together and get along so well, despite the fact that we have views on religion that are diametrically opposed to each other.

We’ve been chatting now for about twenty-five minutes or so, and everything is fine, but I’m beginning to find it rather odd that not a single person in the group has asked me about any potential godly revelation that I may have had over the last seven days. Particularly after last week’s performance where the pastor laid hands on me as the group prayed in unison, all in an attempt to bring God into my life. I wonder why no one has mentioned it?

Maybe, just maybe, they know deep down that the chances of me hearing from God are miniscule, and if I were to admit that I haven’t heard from him – despite the pastor’s blistering one-man show last week – they’d have to offer an explanation as to why God has not responded to the call. I imagine they don’t want to face that prospect, so they’re shying away from bringing up the topic altogether.

The pastor brings the chatter to an end and tells us that during tonight’s session we will be watching two presentations. The first entitled, “Who Is The Holy Spirit?” and the second, “What Does The Holy Spirit Do?”

He then switches on the DVD and the first presentation begins…

Talk 1: “Who Is The Holy Spirit?”

Gumbel begins by telling us that for a long time in the church’s history the Holy Spirit has been ignored. This has been because of the “big concentration on ‘God the Father’ and of ‘God the Son’”. Not only has the Holy Spirit been ignored he’s also been misunderstood, claims Gumbel.

“The Holy Spirit is not a kind of 20th century phenomenon” states Gumbel. “He has been around literally since the creation of the world”. He then tells us to open up our Bibles and turn to Genesis chapter 1 verse 1. Gumbel states that, “The Holy Spirit was INVOLVED in creation”. He then offers us an insight in to how the Spirit was involved:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters like a bird hovering over her nest, waiting. The Spirit of God was about to bring something new into being. The whole trinity were involved in creation. God the father – the creator – created the world through Jesus, by his Spirit”.

Gumbel then tells us that “in the Old Testament the Spirit of God came upon particular people at particular times for particular tasks”. He then gives us a few examples from the Old Testament where God chooses certain individuals and “fills them with the Spirit of God” so as to ensure that they were better equipped to carry out his will.

The Holy Spirit can make us better people, claims Gumbel. “Many of us find ourselves bound by habits, patterns of thought, [and] addictions. When the Spirit of God comes upon us he enables us to break free. Sometimes it’s obvious things like drugs or excess alcohol addiction. But it can be other things – bad temper, envy, jealousy, anger, immorality of some kind, [and] impurity of some kind. The Spirit of God wants to set us free.”

Gumbel tells us of the time he was speaking at a particular church, and that after the service he “invited the Holy Spirit to come and to fill people there”. I’ll let Gumbel describe the events of that evening:

“I remember this extraordinary scene as people were filled with the Holy Spirit. What struck me particularly was two people on whom the Spirit came with particular power. So much so that they were actually lying on the floor in front of me. One was a little old lady with white hair, and next to her was an eight-year-old boy who was just laughing and obviously having an amazing time with God” Gumbel then tells us that sometime later the mother of the young boy wrote to him. In her letter she said that her young boy had previously been “quite difficult, bad tempered and naughty on occasion, [but] since his encounter with the Spirit he’s become a very different person: much sunnier, more helpful, kinder [and] anxious to please. Obviously he still has his moments but he is different”.

It would appear that God cures naughty little boys of their misbehaving ways with a quick blast of his Holy Spirit. This is something that I’m going to ask the pastor (and the group) to explain, because, to me, it just doesn’t add up.

The rest of the presentation continues in a similar vein, punctuated by an assortment of Bible verses and anecdotes. Gumbel goes on to tell us how “the promise of the father” was fulfilled, and how John the Baptist linked the Holy Spirit to Jesus.

The first presentation comes to an end and the pastor switches on the room lights. “Anyone want to raise any questions or pass any comments before we go onto the 2nd presentation?” he asks.

Everyone shakes their heads.

I mention that I do have a query but am willing to wait until the 2nd of tonight’s talks is over before raising it.

So on we go to the second of tonight’s presentations:

Talk 2: “What Does The Holy Spirit Do?”

Gumbel begins by asking what it is to be ‘born again’. He explains to us that “just as when a man and a woman come together in an act of love that produces a physical baby, so it is when the Spirit of God and the spirit of a man or woman come together in an act of love a new spiritual birth takes place. A person is born anew. They’re born again. They begin a new spiritual life” .

He continues, “What I want to look at in this session is what happens when the Spirit of God comes to live in a man or a woman”. There are a handful of examples that Gumbel wants to use to illustrate this point, and his first one is that “we become sons and daughters of God”

We become official members of God’s family when we are filled with the Holy Spirit; hence we are his sons and his daughters. Gumbel explains this point: “Jesus on the cross took all of our sins past, present and future. He takes all of our sins and he buries them in the very depths of the sea. And that’s where they are to stay. The slate is wiped completely clean the moment we come to Christ. And then something even more amazing happens: you are adopted into God’s family”.

The next one on the list of Gumbel’s examples is that the Spirit helps us to develop our relationship with God. “Relationships grow by communication, so the Spirit of God helps us to pray” and that “The Spirit gives us access to God” and also “He [the Spirit] also helps us to understand God’s word”

Interesting stuff.

I wonder, though, why a guiding Spirit is indeed necessary to understand God’s word. Isn’t it written clearly enough in the first place? I would have thought that clarity would have been of first importance to an omnipotent God? Evidently not, seeing as he needs to send down an assistant in order to make sure the book is understood properly.

But even with the Spirit helping people along there’s still a problem, because there’s literally thousands of Christian groups (Wikipedia estimates there to be 38,000 Christian denominations) that interpret God’s word differently. Maybe the Spirit needs to be subject to some sort of disciplinary action? He’s obviously not doing his job properly.

Gumbel tells us of the time the Spirit helped him to understand the word of God: “I remember before I was a Christian. I heard this book [the Bible] read in services, but I didn’t understand it. It was only when I took a step of faith did some of the intellectual objections [disappear]. I suddenly realised… that I understood things that I never understood before”. The Spirit of God helped him to overcome his objections and to see the Bible in a whole new light.

He then quotes the 11th century theologian, Saint Anselm of Canterbury, who famously wrote, “I do not seek in order to believe but I believe in order to understand”.

That’s right. Believe first, then you’ll understand. A tad convenient, though, me thinks.

To be honest I’ve never really understood that kind of thinking. What if I were to say to you, “A, B, C is true and you should believe it” and you were to ask, “But what does A, B, C actually mean?” Would you be satisfied if I were to reply, “You won’t understand it until you believe it”? Of course you wouldn’t. It can’t be the case that a belief in A, B, C comes before an understanding of what A, B, C actually means. If so we’d be open to believing absolutely anything and not have to offer good reasons for doing so.

Come to think of it that is precisely how some religious people operate!

Gumbel then offers us the next thing that we see as an effect of the Holy Spirit, and that is “Unity”. Gumbel goes on, “We have a unity because we are sons and daughters of God. That makes us brothers and sisters. The Spirit of God lives in every Christian regardless of background, colour, race, culture and denomination. The Spirit of God lives within Catholics and the Protestants [and] within Orthodox and Pentecostal”.

Strange, then, how Christians have demonstrated this unity by slaughtering one another for the best part of 2,000 years.

Another of Gumbel’s examples is that the Holy Spirit brings, “gifts for all the children”. No, there’s no connection here between the Spirit and Santa Claus, but what Gumbel means by “gifts” is those talents that some Christians are supposedly blessed with – such as being able to receive “words of knowledge” from God, as discussed in a previous session. Gumbel offers us a passage from the Bible to explain these gifts:

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines”. [1 Corinthians 12:4-11]

And finally, the last of Gumbel’s examples is “The growing family”. He states that, “This family into which we are born, the family of God, is meant to be a growing family”. In other words we are to spread the word and win converts. Or, as kids would put it, try to create a bigger gang.

However, this entails that we go out and talk to people, tell them of our faith, perhaps even argue and debate. This is a terrifying prospect, admits Gumbel. But help is at hand, in the form of that most helpful of immaterial assistants, the Holy Spirit. Gumbel declares, “when the Spirit of God fills us it’s not an effort to tell people – it’s an overflow, something we are longing to do because it’s such wonderful news”.

HOW can we be filled with the Holy Spirit?” asks Gumbel. He thumbs through the Bible and ends the presentation by leaving us with this particular verse:

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life”. [Revelation 22:17]

Oh no, not those “free gifts” again…

The DVD is ejected, the curtains drawn, and the lights switched back on. The pastor turns to me first and asks about the question that I had on my mind after the first of tonight’s presentations. I tell the pastor that I’m curious about the example given of the little boy who was known to be naughty, and upon God filling him with the Holy Spirit he became a much better behaved young lad. God seems keen to help him and turn his life around. But why doesn’t God seem as keen to offer that kind of life-changing help to other people? I ask the pastor:

Me: “I’m curious as to why God doesn’t just do that to paedophiles, rapists and murderers”.
Lady Three: “He might do”
Me: “The thing is, he doesn’t do”
Lady Three: “Well I suppose he doesn’t do it to everybody”
Pastor: “I do know of people who have committed serious criminal things that have been changed by God”
Me: “It would have been a better idea for God to have filled them with his Holy Spirit BEFORE they committed those crimes. Wouldn’t it?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “But he doesn’t”
Me: “I know, and that’s why I have great difficulty with all of this.”

Turn on your TV or open up a newspaper and it wont take you long to learn of new cases of child abuse, murder, rape and other assorted cruelties. People are committing the most heinous of crimes every day of the week, and the number of innocent victims is piling higher and higher as each minute ticks by, yet there’s supposedly a loving God who can turn individuals into lovely people by simply filling them with his Holy Spirit. I’m curious as to why he doesn’t just do that to everybody and we can all get along in peace.

I really don’t understand the Christian claim that their God is so caring. Really, I don’t. If the Christian God does indeed exist then all of the evidence we have in the world seems to point to him being anything but caring. How would you demonstrate that you cared for someone’s welfare? I offer the pastor an example off the top of my head. I want to know what his answer will be.

Me: “Let’s say that one night you’re in the church alone and you’re checking around before you lock up. In the corner of one of the rooms you stumble across a man who is raping a defenceless and terrified little girl. Would you just stand and watch and do nothing? Or would you act?”
Pastor: “I would act”
Me: “Why would you act?”
Pastor: [Thinks for a moment] “Because I’d be concerned for the little girl”
Me: “Exactly”
Pastor: [Pause]
Me: “God sits and watches little children get raped every hour of every day and does nothing. God DOESN’T ACT, so why do you make out that he’s so concerned about people’s welfare?”

There’s another pause. Suddenly the long-standing male member offers an answer. An answer that I find to be nothing short of barking mad:

Long-Standing Male Member: “When God looks he sees that rapist as guilty as that little girl. We’re all sinners. All of us. So when God looks at us we’re all black, because sin is sin”.
Me: “God still sits there and watches innocent children being raped and doesn’t do a thing about it”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, but what I’m saying to you is that when God looks down he sees that the sin is as bad in the girl as it is in the rapist. You and I look at the situation and think that the rapist is a bigger sinner than that girl, but she’s just as much a sinner as that man. God is so holy that all sin is black”.
Me: “Anybody who is concerned for the welfare of little girls and has the power to stop somebody from raping them they would.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, but that’s in YOUR understanding. When you say that someone is being raped your rules say that the rapist is the bigger sinner”.

My question wasn’t anything to do with who was the biggest sinner of the two. I was asking about how one would demonstrate that one cares for the welfare of an individual. In this case an innocent, defenceless and terrified infant.

But am I the only one who finds his response to be rather disturbing? He’s justifying God’s choice not to intervene on the girl’s behalf because, for want of a better way of putting it, she deserved it. She’s just as guilty as the rapist in the eyes of these Christians (and I’m sure many others).

Disturbing is too mild a word.

At this point the pastor rejoins the conversation:

Pastor: “The Bible says that one day God will come and put a stop to all of that. But the challenge is this. On that day he is going to judge everybody, and if you want him to stop rapists raping little girls are YOU prepared to suffer the consequences of YOUR sin? Because the day he stops rapists raping little girls he’s going to stop YOU and YOUR LIFE too. God’s word says that God is not slow at keeping his promises. You’re saying that he’s slow to act.”
Me: “I’m not saying that he’s slow to act. I’m saying that he doesn’t act.”
Pastor: “Scripture says that he’s not slow at keeping his promises [2 Peter 3:9]. He’s faithful and just in every way. He’s holding back until the end of days to give people a chance to respond to him. And he does. He weeps and he hurts to see that little girl raped. But he also weeps and hurts to see you, Steve, on your way to hell.”

He tells me that God is weeping over me, but if that’s the case why didn’t he reveal himself to me this past week? Why no sign of him? I think it’s about time that I asked the pastor what he thinks about that:

Me: “Last week you put your hands on me and prayed over me. You sincerely asked God to reveal himself to me. But he hasn’t. It’s in God’s hands, so why would he weep over me when he can cure that problem in an instant? How am I to blame?”
Pastor: “Nicky Gumbel said in the presentation that he came to a point where he had to put aside his intellectual objections. He realised he had to take a step of faith.”
Me: “But we don’t bet our lives on faith alone. We don’t accept massive claims just on faith. Faith isn’t good enough. Let me give you an example. If I knocked on your door one day and told you that your wife was having an affair with John Smith down the road, would you just take my word for it? No, you’d want a bit of evidence. And what if I said, “Well, forget evidence, you just have to take it on faith”. That wouldn’t be sufficient to convince you of your wife’s infidelity, would it?”
Pastor: [Pause] “No, because my belief that my wife wasn’t having an affair would be based on my knowledge of her and our relationship.”
Me: “That’s right, it would be based on evidence
Pastor: [Long pause] “Yeah”
Me: “So we agree that faith isn’t enough”.

There’s another lengthy pause before the long-standing male member adds, “All I have to say is that the Bible says that EVERYONE is condemned. I was condemned before I gave my life to God. And I know that you’re saying that you’d like some evidence, but that is an intellectual aspect”.

So?

He then goes on to suggest that God will reveal himself to anyone who asks genuinely. He’s obviously intimating that the reason I haven’t heard from God this week is because deep down I’m not being genuine. Yes, the finest of Christian trump cards. Works every time.

The conversation then turns to my days as a youth, when I used to be a believer. “What made you stop believing?” asks the usually silent Lady One. “I suppose I came to the slow realisation that I had no good reason for believing God to exist” I reply.

There are a few shakes of the head. I think it’s fair to say that the group do not understand my lack of belief at all. They’re baffled by it. They’re convinced that their God exists and expect everyone else to be as convinced as they are. Sadly, for them, that’s not how it works.

The long-standing male member touches upon morality and law. He suggests that the world would be a better place if we followed the Ten Commandments. He says that kids no longer have respect for their parents because kids are “no longer using God’s standard”.

Me: “I’ve read the Old Testament and I can’t say that ‘God’s standard’ strikes me as particularly praiseworthy. Commanding that disobedient children and homosexuals be stoned to death? That’s a standard to which we must aim?”
Lady Three: “Him commanding that homosexuals be stoned to death was him making a stand and saying that it wasn’t right.”
New Christian Male: “Exactly! He was saying that he wasn’t going to stand for it”
Me: “Nowadays we’d view that [executing homosexuals] as abhorrent”

The new Christian male sits shaking his head. Why is he shaking his head? I want to know the reason why, so I ask him to explain himself. Nothing could have prepared me for what was about to follow:

Me: “Do you think killing homosexuals is ok by today’s standards? Would you, for example, stone a homosexual to death?”
New Christian Male: “If it was part of God’s law then yes I would”.

Now it is me that is sat shaking my head. I’m blown away by such a response. This is a dangerous, in fact VERY DANGEROUS, mind set. How does his way of thinking differ from that of the suicide bomber who straps on an explosive belt with the intention of blowing people to smithereens because God would appreciate the sacrifice? This is religious belief at its most dangerous. It is able to warp the minds of otherwise sane and rational individuals. I recommend that he avoid reading Leviticus.

I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person, but I’m definitely proving it tonight. How can any sane person spew forth such vile, hateful nonsense?

The long-standing male member can see that I’m noticeably shocked but he wants to stress the point that we all deserve to go to Hell. Yes, all of us.

Long-Standing Male Member: “All of us have done wrong against God, whether we’re a child or whether we’re a grown up. We all deserve to go to Hell”
Me: “What of a young child that has just been born? What has that child done wrong to God?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Pause] “It might have lied”

What? An infant barely out of its mother’s womb, incapable of speech, “might have lied”? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I ask the pastor the same question. His response is just as ludicrous:

Pastor: “It might have been selfish”
Me: “And that deserves eternal torture??”
Pastor: “I’m prepared to leave that up to God. You can argue and debate and have intellectual arguments, but I’m happy to leave that in God’s hands”
Me: “Well personally I think it’s something that needs answering. It’s certainly a big difficulty for me. A supposedly all-loving, merciful God that sends infants to eternal torture and also sits idly by while more infants are raped by crazed men? You can’t be serious”
Lady Two: “But he gave everybody free will. He doesn’t want puppets!”
Me: “And is evil a natural consequence of God allowing humans free will?”
Lady Three: “Yes”
Pastor: “Yes it is”
New Christian Male: “Yeah”
Me: “So do we have free will in Heaven?”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “No”
Me: “So we’re puppets in Heaven, then? I thought God didn’t want puppets?”

There’s a lengthy silence. I’m half expecting tumbleweed to roll across the room.

Lets think about what’s just occurred in that brief conversation. The pastor answered “No” to my question of “do we have free will in Heaven?” because he knew that if he had said “Yes” then he would have had to concede that evil will occur in Heaven (as he had already admitted that evil is a natural consequence of free will). But by answering “No” he is therefore left with a Heaven consisting of puppets, something God supposedly does not want! Either way the pastor is stumped.

At this point Lady Two adds a few cents:

Lady Two: “God is love! God is love! Every time you have a loving thought about somebody that’s a lovely feeling isn’t it? It’s a positive thing. It makes the other person feel good when you give them a loving comment. So you imagine EVERYBODY being like that”.
Me: “That would be great. That’s how it should be”
Lady Two: “That’s how God WANTS it to be!”
Me: “God could have made it that way from the off”
Lady Two: “He tried to!”
Me: “God can’t ‘try’ anything. He’s supposedly omnipotent.”
Lady Two: “He tried to. He’s given us the word of God to follow it. And if we follow the word of God we’ll have a happy life”
Me: “The point is he could have made it like that in the first place, but he didn’t. Look at the world we have. Kids are starving to death for goodness sake.”
Pastor: “I believe that God DID create the world perfect because in Genesis chapter 1 it says that God looked at what he had created and said that it was good”
Me: “Can perfection go wrong?”
Pastor: “Yes”
Me: “So there’s potential for it to go wrong in Heaven, then, because that too is perfect, yes?”
Pastor: [Yet another excruciatingly long pause] “I’ve often wondered that”
Me: [Tongue in cheek] “So I guess it’s possible that in a few millennia we could all be sat in a church somewhere in Heaven, sat watching DVD presentations from some pious apologist who’s trying to explain how it all went wrong again.”

I look around the group and I’m met with blank faces and a few shrugs of the shoulders. The pastor looks at his watch and says, “I’m afraid that time is up”.

This session has been a real eye-opener!

Next week’s session is entitled, “How Can I Resist Evil?”

Hmmm, something tells me there’s going to be fireworks!

October 18, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

WEEK 6: “How Does God Guide Us?”

I arrive at the church slightly earlier than usual and am surprised to find everyone already in their seats. It’s good to see that everyone is keen to attend. I’m really enjoying the sessions and it looks like everyone else is, too. Fantastic.

I sit chatting to Lady Three, who I find to be a really warm person, and it isn’t long before she’s telling me of her weekly jaunts into the local town centre on Friday evenings. She doesn’t go to town to sample the fine beers and wines that the assortment of bars and clubs have on offer, but she does stand outside those bars and clubs… equipped with her Bible. She tells me that other members of a Christian group join her and, as Friday night becomes Saturday morning, they wait for the young revellers to exit the clubs. As the wobbling, pie-eyed youths spill from the bars Lady Three and her entourage stop some of them and ask if they know of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. They ask some of them if they would like to be prayed for, and to others they offer Bible verses.

They’re a very brave bunch. I’ll give them that.

She tells me that one member of the group is a particularly gifted chap who is “very good at choosing people to speak to who turn out to have ailments”. This gentlemen then prays with these people in the hope that Jesus will cure them on the spot.

Lady Three is noticeably excited as she tells me of their most recent foray into the town centre. She begins, “Last weekend we got to see something amazing! He [the gifted chap] actually picked someone out who had a fractured collarbone. He went up to the young lad and asked “Do you have any faith in God?” and the boy replied “No”. So my friend asked him, “Do you have any reason for not having faith in God?” and the boy replied, “BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PROVE IT!” So my friend asked the lad about his arm, because he had it in a sling, and he told us that he’d fractured it by falling off of a motorbike. My friend asked, “Can we pray for you? Because we believe that Christ heals” so we prayed for the boy and moments later he could lift his arm up!”

I must say, there were a couple of points that sprung immediately to mind. The first was that I wasn’t aware that a fractured arm stops you from lifting it upwards. Why would that seem so astonishing? And the second point that sprang to mind was to do with the “gift” that this Christian chap supposedly had. Lady Three had said earlier that he was gifted in that he was, “ very good at choosing people to speak to who turn out to have ailments”. And the first example she gives in support of that is to tell me that he stopped a young lad who had his arm in a sling. Some gift! Stevie Wonder could have spotted that ailment, I’m sure.

Lady Three continues, “The boy took off his sling for a moment but then put it back on. We asked him why he was putting it back on and he replied, “Because my mum wont believe me””

I reach for my glass of cold water that sits on the table beside me and as I do so I catch the eye of the pastor who nods at me and says, “I’ve got a word for you”. By this he means that God has given him a ‘word of knowledge’ about me. I’m quite excited at the thought. I wonder what God could have told the pastor? Has he told him something really specific about me, something that only I could know? I can’t wait.

As the rest of the group chat I have a moment to think about this supposed ‘word of knowledge’. I must admit that I’m curious as to why God didn’t just tell me himself. But I don’t want to get in front of myself, maybe I’m in for a surprise? The pastor says that he’ll tell me all about it after tonight’s DVD presentation has finished. I’m looking forward to that!

The DVD begins to play. Tonight’s session is called, “How Does God Guide us?”…

Gumbel starts by asking, “Who will God guide?” and then offers an immediate answer to this question by stating, “He’ll guide those who are willing to do what he wants”.

Nice start.

Gumbel then tells us that we should all have a similar attitude to that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was willing and grateful to be “the Lord’s servant”. I must admit that Mary’s attitude was indeed remarkable considering that an invisible ghost, by means of magic, had just impregnated her.

Gumbel informs us that we don’t have to be special in order for God to use us for something. He then lists the names of a number of misfits from the Bible who God used in various ways.

He then asks, “So how does God guide us? How does this relationship work?”

“We’ve got 5 main ways we’re going to look at tonight”. says Gumbel.

The 1st of these is:
#1: COMMANDING SCRIPTURE:

Gumbel begins, “In the Bible the general will of God for all of us is revealed”. He continues, “He’s spoken about marriage, family life, work, money, children and all kinds of things. We know for example that marriage is for life”. Gumbel goes on to tell us that we shouldn’t commit adultery, because the Bible commands that we shouldn’t. We should also pay our taxes each year, because the Bible commands that we should. For these important matters the Bible is our guide.

God can use the Bible to guide us as we read it. “Sometimes he [God] will bring to light a particular verse as we’re reading”. says Gumbel.

The presentation continues and he offers us an example from his own experience of how God pointed him toward a certain passage in the Bible. Gumbel picks up the tale, “I’d been practising as a lawyer for some years [but] I sensed that God was calling us to ordination in the Church of England. Pippa [his wife] and I went off for a weekend together to pray. During this weekend I wrote down all the ways in which God had been guiding us. And the first thing that I wrote down was the ways in which he had guided us through the Bible, and there were fifteen different occasions where we had sensed God speaking to us through this book. One of them was through a verse in Romans 10 which says this, ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ I wondered whether that was God calling me”.

What does he mean by that last sentence? Why isn’t he sure that God has communicated with him? Why the uncertainty? If God communicates with people why are they always left saying things like, “I THINK that God is telling me such and such”? Why do they only “think” that he is telling them something? Does he have trouble making himself clear? Why are his methods of communication so vague? I have to say that this kind of thing smacks of wishful thinking.

The 2nd way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#2: COMPELLING SPIRIT:

Gumbel tells us that we learn in the New Testament that the apostle Paul was led by the Holy Spirit.

Gumbel then talks about how we get to know people’s voices and how we can recognise certain people by their voices. He adds that his wife, Pippa, recognises his voice because she knows him so well. In the same way that we come to recognise human voices we can also come to recognise the voice of the Holy Spirit, claims Gumbel. This is all part and parcel of our developing relationship with the Holy Spirit.

We are then told that the Holy Spirit leads us in a number of different ways. Gumbel offers us an example, “First of all God speaks to us when we pray”. He continues, “Prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just a question of us pouring out our requests to God and then going off without ever listening, because he may want to speak to us when we pray”.

He then gives us an illustration to show how silly it would be for us to simply pour out our feelings then walk away before a response could be offered. Gumbel says that none of us would go to see our doctor and simply reel off a list of ailments that were troubling us and then walk out of the room before the doctor had chance to offer some medical advice. It would be ludicrous to do something like that, suggests Gumbel. Similarly it would be just as silly, when praying to God, to reel off a number of problems and then end the prayer before God could supply you with an answer. We must understand that God guides us through prayer.

We can also tell when God is guiding us if we have, for example, “a good thought” such as “maybe I ought to ring that person” or “maybe I ought to write a letter to that person” . All these nice thoughts emanate from God, claims Gumbel.

The Holy Spirit can guide us in more unusual ways, such as, “prophecy or visions or pictures or angels” or even “in dreams”.

Gumbel admits that, “Guidance is a very difficult thing,” but thankfully “there are various tests” that we can perform. “St John says, ‘Test the spirits to see whether they’re from God’”. Now that sounds interesting. I’ll have to raise that particular point in our discussion after the presentation. If we can test these things then maybe we as a group can devise a way in which we can demonstrate God’s involvement in earthly life. I do hope so.

Gumbel then gives us some examples of how we can test that an idea emanates from the Holy Spirit. We should ask ourselves, “Is it in line with the Bible? Does it promote love? God is love, so if it’s not a loving idea then it wont come from God”

I must say that I found that sort of “test” to be very disappointing. Is that really how we are to test if an idea in our heads has come from God? How weak is that?

Do we sit and ponder, “Errr… I’m not sure if God is communicating with me…so… errr… let me think… errr… yes, this is a decent idea that I have in my head and it involves love so it must have come from God, therefore God was communicating with me”.

My goodness.

The 3rd way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#3: COMMON SENSE:

Gumbel starts by stating, “God has given every human being a conscience” which is “like a very sharp knife that can be blunted if it’s misused and ignored. But if it’s used in the right way it can become more sharp. God has also given us minds to think and reason”.

He continues, “In the big decisions [in life] common sense is very important”. He then gives us an example of how we should use common sense when confronted with a big decision, such as to who we should marry, “Paul warns us of the danger of marrying someone who is not a Christian” and that “if we’re a Christian we should look to marry a person whose faith we respect”. It’s all “common sense” says Gumbel.

The 4th way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#4: COUNSEL OF SAINTS:

Gumbel begins, “The word ‘Saints’ is used in the New Testament to mean ‘all Christians’, in other words the church”. He then offers us a Bible verse:

[Proverbs 12:15] “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.”

Make of that what you will because that is all he offers in support of point #4.

The 5th way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#4: CIRCUMSTANTIAL SIGNS:

Or to put it another way, “The providence of God” says Gumbel

He then paraphrases Psalm 37:5 “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will act.”

Gumbel explains that particular verse, “What he means is this: if we’re faced with a difficult decision, as all of us are from time to time, we can go to the Lord and say, ‘Lord, I don’t know which direction to go. I don’t know whether this decision is right or whether it’s not’”. By doing this we are committing ourselves to the Lord. We are putting our trust in him. Gunbel continues, “His [God’s] promise is this… he WILL act. God can shut doors or he can open doors”. and then adds, “But we have to be willing to say [to God], ‘I trust you with this’”.

Gumbel then gives us an account of a circumstantial sign. He tells us the story of two of his friends, a young man and a young lady, who were going out with each other. They’d become Christians and after a little soul searching they decided that it was for the best that they split from each other temporarily. During this time they would leave it in God’s hands to show them whether or not they should stay together. After a week of being apart from each other, and after a series of chance occurrences, they happened upon one another in the street. They ran towards each other and met in a loving embrace. The young man later wrote about this episode, “Meeting like that was a chance in a million, and we took it as a sign from God”. Gumbel then tells us that they’ve since been happily married for nearly thirty years.

Isn’t this what anyone else would call a “coincidence”?

Gumbel ends his presentation with a prayer. The pastor switches off the DVD and switches on the lights…

“I liked that! It was my favourite so far” says the pastor. The Christians are in full agreement. I must admit that I enjoyed it too.

The pastor talks about similar relationship difficulties to those of the young couple. He solemnly admits that his own marriage once went through some really rough times, and that such difficulties arose because “God was calling me to the ministry but I kept fighting it”.

Why did he keep fighting it? Didn’t he trust God or something? What’s all that about?

As a group we chat for a few moments about certain relationship difficulties. It’s not long before there’s a pause in the action. The pastor looks around the room to see if anyone has any questions. There are none forthcoming so I offer something:

Me: “Early in his presentation Gumbel gave us an example of someone sitting in the doctor’s surgery reeling off his problems without waiting for a response from the doctor. He gave this as an analogy to us praying to God without waiting for a reply, leaving God to ask, “Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?” Well in a way I’m sitting in the doctor’s surgery now but I’m actually hanging about for a response. But I’m not getting one. If God doesn’t want to speak to me personally he can speak to me through one of you, I don’t mind”
Pastor: “Can I share with you what I felt God say to me today?”
Me: “Of course.”
Pastor: “I was praying this morning and I was also reading the Bible. I read these two verses and I just felt God say to me, “That’s for Steve””.
Me: “Ok”
Pastor: “It’s from Luke chapter 19 verses 41 and 42. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes”. I hope you don’t mind me being personal here but there are two sets of eyes: there’s Jesus’ eyes and there’s your eyes. I really sensed that God was weeping over you, Steve. That’s the passion that Jesus has for you. There is something inside of you that’s wondering what all this [life, the universe and everything] is about”.
Me: “Yes, you’re right. I’m interested in the ‘big’ questions”
Pastor: “Jesus is longing that you’ll know peace, but at the moment it’s hidden from your eyes. It’s interesting that you say that you’re here waiting for God to respond to you because I felt, and this is entirely up to you, but I felt that God wanted us to pray for your eyes, your spiritual eyes, to be opened. I think that God sees your heart and he knows you want answers, but I felt him say to me that you’re blind.”
Me: “Do you think that God sees me as hard-hearted perhaps?”
Pastor: “I don’t think you’re hard-hearted, Steve. I see you as a very gentle person, a very thoughtful person and a very caring person. I think “hard-hearted” would be the last phrase I’d use to describe you. But your blindness is, and I don’t want to sound rude here, but your blindness is an illness that can only be healed by Jesus. In the Bible Jesus said, “I’ve come to give sight to the blind,” and he meant that both physically and spiritually. And Jesus went around laying hands on people and they received their sight both physically and spiritually”
Me: “Thanks. However I must ask that if it is true that God is weeping over me and he knows I have a good heart, why does he contact you to tell you to read a bible verse to me? Why does he contact you to tell you to tell me that he’s weeping over me? Why doesn’t he come to me and tell me that?”
Pastor: “I think he has”
Me: “But I’m not aware of that”
Pastor: “Maybe not but…well… I can only offer to you what I’ve heard God say to me”
Me: “Yes, but why didn’t he just say it to me, though? Wouldn’t it have been easier, and a lot more persuasive, if he had cut out the middle man?”
Pastor: “In the last six months [the long-standing male member] has shared things with me, which were about me, which he felt were from God. Now, I could have said, “God, why didn’t you tell me that directly?” but I didn’t because I feel that [the long-standing male member] has, after listening to God and on my behalf, brought the words that he’d had for me straight from God. That gives me a real thrill to think that God is THAT interested in me! I feel that I’m more likely to succumb to wishful thinking, whereas [the long-standing male member] has no agenda.”

In other words he could merely be imagining that God was speaking to him, whereas the long-standing male member is an unbiased source so whatever comes from him must be legit. But I must ask, why couldn’t he be guilty of wishful thinking too?

Isn’t it incredibly revealing, though, that he admits to being prone to wishful thinking? Maybe he’s revealed more here than he would have liked.

The conversation is getting a bit heavy now as the pastor has tears in his eyes because he is so passionate about the fact that God communicates with him. I try to lighten the tone:

Me: “What if [the long-standing male member] came up to you and said, “I’ve just heard from God, and I felt that he was telling me to tell you that you must give me a couple of thousand pounds per month, paid directly into my bank account”

The group laughs. The pastor then responds by telling me that such a message couldn’t possibly have come from God because it doesn’t fit with scripture.

Interesting.

Anyway, after that minor diversion I get back on track by asking:

Me: “Why are such things so vague, though? We are after all talking about a God who is everywhere, knows everything and can do anything, but the only way I can get to know if he exists is if you come up to me and say, “Steve, I think that God has told me to read this Bible verse to you”.
Pastor: “Well it’s more than that. I felt as though he asked me to ask you if you’d be willing to be prayed for. And for your eyes to be opened.”
Me: “I have no problem with anyone wanting to pray for me.”
Pastor: “That’s fantastic. So tonight before you go, and with your permission, I’d like to do that”
Me: “Of course you can”

Things are getting interesting now!

These sessions are getting better by the week. It would appear that by the end of the evening I’m going to be surrounded by a mob of salivating Christians, who will be trying to will the power of the Holy Spirit into my doubt-riddled soul. I sit and listen to the rest of them chat as I try to imagine what is going to happen to me later on.

The conversation jumps swiftly from one topic to the next, and I’m quite content to sit quietly, that is until “punishment”, “discipline” and “hell” enter the discussion. The pastor explains to us that he has to discipline his own children but he does so because he loves them, and that it’s for their own good in the long run. He likens this to God sending non-Christians to hell.

Pastor: “God’s punishment is a discipline that comes out of his love. Just as my love for my children expresses itself both in abundance and in strict discipline at times.”
Me: “I don’t doubt that we need to have some sort of discipline in the world, but torturing someone is a different matter. When [my fellow sceptic] and I die we are, supposedly, going to get tortured for an eternity”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, but that torture is self-inflicted”
Me: “Didn’t you say the other week that my doubts were justified?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes… errr… yes… but when God speaks to you it depends how much of an argument you put forward to God. You say you’re genuinely searching so God will genuinely break through, because if we draw close to God he’ll draw close to us”
Me: “The thing is, though, according to your belief, if I were to have a heart attack now and die I’d be spending an eternity in a lake of flames, even though I’d genuinely looked for God, but never heard from him or stumbled across any evidence for his existence”
Long-Standing Male Member: “If you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, where you’ve surrendered your life to Jesus, that is what will happen, yes”

It astonishes me how Christians can say things like that and not even flinch at the thought. The threats of eternal torture roll effortlessly off the tongue. They are quick to tell us how much their God loves us all, but are just as quick to tell us that he created an eternal pit of flames in which to torture those of us who do not reciprocate his love. Isn’t this just absolutely bizarre?

The pastor supports what the long-standing male member has just told me. He agrees that I’m doomed to (and deserving of) being sent to a place of eternal torture “because that’s been your choice”.

My choice? I don’t think so. We’ll come to that in a moment.

I ask them about this supposedly loving God who tortures his children for an eternity:

Me: “If your children had been naughty would you discipline them by holding their hands over a hot flame for a few seconds?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “What about holding their hands over the flame for ten seconds, then? What about a minute, an hour, a day? How about a zillion years? How about even longer without any chance of them ever being able to pull their hands away?”
Lady Three: [Long pause] “But what if they threw themselves in the fire?”
Me: “But I’m not throwing myself in any fire”
Lady Three: “Maybe on a spiritual level you might be. The Bible says we were created to have a relationship with God, to have a two-way communication with him”
Me: “But God isn’t communicating with me”
Lady Three: “You can’t have communication with God without having a faith that he’s there”
Me: “I’ve had faith that he was there. I’m a former believer. And I can honestly say that I’ve never heard from God”
Lady Three: “What made you believe back then?”
Me: “I was raised that way. I didn’t know any different. I suppose if I’d have been raised in Pakistan I’d have been a Muslim”
Pastor: “I always think of it like we’re walking towards a cliff. God doesn’t push us over that cliff. All the time God is saying, “Look at the cross. My son died for you. Look at the cross. You don’t need to go over that cliff!””
Me: “But I genuinely do not see the cross or the cliff, despite being told that they’re there, and despite me looking for them for many years”
Long-Standing Male Member: “That’s because you’re like a blind person walking without a guide towards the cliff edge”
Me: “If I’m blind then I’m not choosing to throw myself off of a cliff that I don’t even know is there!”

Again, I’m dumbfounded at the way these Christians attempt to defend their beliefs. Much of it is childish. Some of it is just plain absurd. It’s as though they have never questioned these beliefs in the past, and have never even heard anyone else question them either. So now that someone IS questioning them (i.e. me) they panic and leap to the first thing that comes into their heads.

The long-standing male member then suggests that maybe God is communicating to me by nudging me towards attending the Alpha Course every week (I seem to remember that someone else suggested this in an earlier session too). I pose a similar question back at him:

Me: “And when I talk to Muslims maybe it is Allah who is guiding me towards them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “And that’s the choice you have to make. How do you know that God is not telling you things through us?”
Me: “I don’t.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Well I’m saying to you that God IS telling you things through us”
Me: “But I’d just have to take your word for that”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes”
Me: “But why would I take your word for it about your God, rather than the word of a Muslim, Sikh or Hindu about their gods?”

There’s a momentary pause before the pastor interjects by changing the subject. In a previous session I had told the group that Christianity was not original in having a godman sent to earth. One of the names I’d mentioned was Krishna, a Hindu deity. Krishna was an earthly manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and he is still worshipped today. The pastor wants to pull me up on the topic of Krishna.

The pastor cannot understand how anyone could seriously believe in Krishna due to the fact that he “went around killing people and took sixteen thousand wives!”

The Christians in the group erupt into fits of hysterical laughter, and it doesn’t stop for almost a full minute. It’s as though someone has just told the greatest joke in the history of the universe.

They obviously find it ludicrous to believe in a god who kills humans. Yet they believe in the Christian God, the most notorious killer of all. Remember, this is the very same God who slaughtered the entire world’s population barring Noah and seven members of his family. And this is the same God who slaughters people on almost every page of the Old Testament.

They obviously find it ludicrous, too, to believe in a god who marries many women. Yet they believe in the Christian God who impregnates a young virgin without so much as asking her permission.

It blows my mind how can they laugh at one set of beliefs whilst holding firmly to a similar (or even sillier) set of beliefs themselves. It really is remarkable.

At this point Lady Two, who has been quiet for almost the duration of the evening so far, turns to me and asks:

Lady Two: “Have you repented? Do you feel the need to repent before a Holy God?”
Me: “No, not really”
Lady Two: “Do you think your life is ok?”
Me: “Yes I do”
Lady Two: “Before a Holy God? Say the Bible is true, do you think that everything in your life is as good as you can get it to please a Holy God?”
Me: “If the Bible is true then no, my life wouldn’t be pleasing to him because I’m not a Christian. I’d have to make myself a Christian, pretty sharpish I’d imagine”
Lady Two: “You know that night when I prayed for 100% faith?…”

Oh dear. We’re only 25 seconds into the conversation and already she wants to present her testimony again. The exact same testimony that she’s given at almost every session so far. “I never thought anyone could have 100% faith”… “God filled me with his Holy Spirit”… “It was complete POWER”… “Tears rolled down my face”… “The Bible sank into my chest”… “God had revealed himself to me, a nobody”…

You get the picture.

Her testimony lasts for about eight minutes before the pastor interrupts to state that now is a good time to pray for me. I’m quite excited at the thought. I’m just hoping, though, that it’s not going to be embarrassing. In my head I picture the scene from the film “The Exorcist” where the priest is attempting an exorcism on the demon-possessed young girl, dousing her with Holy Water as she squeals and vomits as her head spins around 360 degrees. I’m hoping it’s going to be a milder experience for me!

The pastor suggests that after he has finished with me I should go home and “read the Bible afresh so that God can speak directly to you through his word”. The long-standing male member adds, “Part of my love for God is to read the Bible. And as I read the Bible I sense God speaking to me, sometimes very consciously, to the point of tears”.

The pastor asks, “Can I pray for you? I’d like to lay my hands on you because Jesus did that”. I respond with a “No problem”.

He walks towards me and rubs his hands together as if to warm them up. I smile and say to him with a wink, “Be gentle with me”.

He puts one hand on the top of my head, holds his other hand in the air, closes his eyes and then begins his prayer:

Pastor: “Father God I just want to thank you for your word. God I want to thank you for Steve. I just want to thank you Lord that you do weep over Steve and that your eyes, Lord, are full of tears. I just want to thank you for Steve’s heart, Lord. He’s earnestly seeking you, Lord, and I want to thank you for the honesty and integrity with which he speaks to us. I praise and bless you for that, Lord. I lay my hands on him now just as Christ laid hands on the blind, and I want to pray in Christ’s name Jesus, Lord, that you will open his spiritual eyes that he may receive all he longs for. And Lord please make him be certain about the things of which he currently has no certainty. Open his eyes I pray. As he reads the Bible from this day onwards he’ll find you speaking to him and showing him the way. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen”

He stands quietly for a moment, with his eyes closed and his hand firmly gripping my head. He’s in the zone. I look around the room and the other Christians have their arms aloft. Some have their eyes closed and are rocking back and forth in their chairs, mumbling inaudible prayers to God.

A few seconds later the pastor lets go and thanks me for allowing that to happen. I tell him that it’s no problem. I look around the room again and the Christians seem quite moved by the experience. Ladies Two and Three have tears in their eyes. I’d say that they’re hopeful, if not certain, that I’m on my way to becoming a Christian now that I’ve made that first step.

The room remains quiet; everyone sits motionless as all eyes are focused on me. I sit still in my chair, taking in the moment. I wonder, do I have to say something at this point? Is this the point where I’m expected to start speaking in tongues or throwing myself on the floor, body convulsing from the power of the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. I don’t feel any different. Maybe it’ll come later.

The group remain with their arms aloft, as they take turns to mutter thanks to Jesus. The long-standing male member gives his thanks more audibly than the rest, “I want to thank you Lord for being an amazing God. Even though I might find it difficult to understand that Steve can’t see you, Lord, I pray that you help him to see you and understand you. Lord I pray that you’ll touch his heart, and I thank you, father, for promising to draw close to them who draw close to you. Lord, I give Steve into your hands and I pray that over the next week you will speak to him and that Steve will sense your powers and your presence. Lord, you know exactly how Steve thinks, and I pray that you will reveal yourself to him. This I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen”

His prayer is met by a chorus of amen’s from the group. Everyone smiles. The room is buzzing. The atmosphere is similar to that of an operating theatre after a surgeon has performed a difficult but life-saving operation on a patient. Success is in the air.

Or is it?

We all pack up our things and put on our coats and jackets. Tonight’s session has come to a close. There’s some hearty backslapping and a few excited handshakes. They all wish me well for the week ahead and I thank them for a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

This could be a momentous week in my life. God could be revealing himself to me sometime between now and the next session. It’s kind of exciting.

God, the ball is in your court…

October 11, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

WEEK 5: “Why And How Should I Read The Bible?”

This week’s review will be shorter than usual. The reason for this is that my audio recording device, which I use to record each session, sadly ‘gave up the ghost’ about one hour in to this week’s proceedings, and I didn’t notice this until I was typing up this transcript. Thankfully my device managed to last long enough to record the full presentation that was given by Nicky Gumbel, but the group discussion that followed is sadly lost. Divine intervention perhaps?

Therefore this week I will just be having a look at what Mr Gumbel had to offer. Next week I will endeavour to raise a few more points about this week’s session so that I have some recorded material to work with, as I don’t want to do the group a disservice by constructing conversations from memory. I want to continue as I have done in the previous four weeks, which is to type the discussions up as they actually happened – verbatim – from the audio recordings.

I can’t be fairer than that.

So let’s begin…

I’m one of the first to arrive for this week’s instalment. The pastor and the new Christian male are discussing the action from last weekend’s football (soccer) matches, so we have a laugh and a joke about that for ten minutes or so. The rest of group trickle into the room and we chat for a while as we enjoy a drink and a bowl of fruit salad.

After we’ve all been ‘fed and watered’ the pastor slips tonight’s DVD into the player. This session is called, “Why and How Should I Read The Bible?”…

Gumbel begins this week’s presentation by telling us of the time he and his father journeyed to Russia armed with a concealed box of Bibles.

Why the hidden stash of Bibles?

Gumbel explains to us, “It was back in 1976 and Russia was behind the Iron Curtain and we knew that there was persecution of Christians.” So much so that for the average Russian Christian, “it was very hard to get hold of a Bible”

So off they went in search of people who they thought “would appreciate these amazing Russian Bibles.” In one particular town in central Russia, Gumbel and his father attended a church service but found it “difficult to tell at the time whether the people in the church were genuine Christians or whether they were members of the KGB who were infiltrating the meetings”

I assume Gumbel was then guided by the Holy Spirit to take notice of a man who “had a wonderful beaming face.” Gumbel considered this ‘beaming face’ an obvious giveaway, and led him to conclude that the cheesy-grinned Soviet MUST have a faith in Christ.”

After the service he followed the smiley man outside and eventually down a neighbouring street “until there was just him and I alone”. Gumbel pulled out a new Bible and offered it to the gentleman. “He was just SO excited!” exclaims Gumbel. “He was jumping up and down. He was dancing!” In no time the pair of them were “running up and down the street dancing together!”

Joyous scenes indeed.

Gumbel then asks us, WHY was this man SO excited?” There is a momentary pause and the audience leans forward to hear his answer. Gumbel continues, “The Bible is the most popular book in the world”

He goes on to tell us that the works of Shakespeare have been translated into 60 languages, but such numbers pale into insignificance when compared to the Bible. The Christian holy book, he assures us, has been translated into over 2,000 languages. He adds, “it’s the world’s best seller by several miles” and that “44 million copies of the Bible are sold every year”. Impressive numbers, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But how important are such numbers?

British author, J.K Rowling, sold 11 million copies of her book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the first 24 hours of its release back in 2007, and has since gone on to sell nearly 500 million books from the Harry Potter series. Do such mind-boggling numbers tell us anything about the truth content of those books? No they do not. And the same goes for the Bible. The sales figures for a book are no guide to the truth of claims made in that book.

Gumbel is still spouting numbers, and offers us the interesting statistic, “In the average American household there are 6.8 Bibles”. Really? I’d bet that in the average American household there are 6.8 mullet-style haircuts too. So what?

He tells us that the Bible is “the most powerful book in the world” and that it has “the power to change lives” and he caps it off by telling us that it’s “the most precious book in the world”. I don’t know about you but I’m getting the sneaking suspicion that Gumbel is quite fond of the Bible and that he would heartily recommend that we read it.

He then asks us, “Why is it so popular? Why is it so powerful? Why is it so precious?”

To answer this he offers us a Bible verse (the Bible is precious because the Bible says so?), [Matthew 4:4]
Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Gumbel elaborates, “Material things leave us with a sense of unfulfilment, because human beings, all of us, were created to live in a relationship with God” and that such a relationship is triggered by reading the Bible. God communicates with us through the pages of his word – his “written revelation”.

“The Bible is a manual for life” says Gumbel. Oddly enough I never got that impression when I read the Old Testament. Perhaps all the best tips for living a wholesome, peaceful life were hidden somewhere in between the genocide and incest. I’ll look a little closer the next time I read it.

As we have just learned, the Bible is God’s revelation to us in written form, but God has revealed himself to us in other ways too, claims Gumbel. “God has also revealed himself in creation”. He continues, “The earth proclaims his handiwork. You only have to look around!” He then offers us some examples, “Look at a beautiful sunset, look at the oceans, look at the stars, they speak about God”

Says who? God?

Try this as an experiment: approach a Christian and say, “Allah has revealed himself in creation… The earth proclaims his handiwork. You only have to look around!” and then offer some examples in support of your claim such as, “Look at a beautiful sunset, look at the oceans, look at the stars, they speak about Allah”. See what kind of response you get. I think it’s safe to say that such a claim will be met by ill-concealed laughter and perhaps derision. This is yet another example of how religious people find their own arguments to be completely unsatisfactory.

Gumbel then tells us that science helps us to discover God. He states, “Science is an exploration of the way in which god has revealed himself in creation. That’s why there’s no conflict between science and faith. Indeed they complement one another. They’re two different ways in which we explore Gods revelation.”

He then quotes possibly the greatest scientific mind of all time, Albert Einstein: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. Gumbel uses Einstein perhaps in the hope that such a name will make any uninformed sceptic think, “Hmmm, Albert Einstein agrees with what Nicky Gumbel is saying, so I’ll have to take Christianity very seriously indeed.”

But did Albert Einstein believe in the Christian God?

No he did not. Nor did he believe in ANY personal god. It was Albert Einstein who wrote the following:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Einstein is hardly endorsing Christianity, is he?

Back to God’s supposed written revelation, the Bible. Gumbel admits that difficulties can arise when reading the Bible. One such difficulty, he says, is the existence of suffering. “Every Christian believes that God is love. And yet there is this extraordinary amount of suffering in the world. How can we hold on to believing in a God of love AND seeing all the suffering that is in the world?” What we mustn’t do is abandon our belief, he advises. What we should do, rather, is “wrestle with those problems. And as we wrestle with those problems we get a deeper understanding of the Bible and a deeper understanding of the problems. The Bible is our supreme authority”

He adds that by reading the Bible we “find out what is right in God’s eyes and what is wrong in God’s eyes” He states that the Bible is, “full of practical material for how to bring up children, for example”.

If the Bible is to be believed then I’m not so sure if child welfare is high on God’s list of priorities. He seems to have a penchant for slaying defenceless infants whose only ‘crime’ is to have been unfortunate enough to be the first-born child of a certain couple for example, and God seems to have a liking for having infants offered up to him as a burnt offering (only to present the child’s father, the man assigned the duty of killing the boy, with a rib-tickling “Gotcha! I was just seeing if you’d obey me!” seconds before the child’s throat is to be slit). Yes, God is love indeed.

Gumbel then makes the point that we need rules in life. Without rules there would be anarchy and chaos. Thankfully God has that covered, as he offers us the greatest rulebook of all in the shape of… yes you guessed it… the Bible.

To highlight the fact that we need rules he offers us the tale of how he was once roped in to refereeing a boy’s game of football, after the designated referee failed to show up. Unfortunately Gumbel didn’t know the rules of the game, so it wasn’t long before the match turned into chaos. Thankfully the real referee eventually turned up and managed to sort out all the mess. He imposed the basic ground rules and the boys went on to have a great game of football. They had rules to follow and a lawgiver to obey. Things are better that way, says Gumbel. Similarly, he suggests, life is better when we have basic ground rules to follow (the Bible) and a lawgiver to obey (God).

Gumbel wants us to realise that just because God has laid down some rules for us this does not make him a dictator or a bully. On the contrary in fact, as Gumbel explains, “God loves us. He hasn’t given us this [the Bible] to restrict our freedom. He’s given us this book to set us free. To enjoy life as he intended us to live it.”

Gumbel continues, “He didn’t give us the command ‘You shall not kill’ because he is a spoil-sport… He didn’t say ‘Don’t steal’ because he wanted to ruin our fun… He didn’t say ‘Don’t commit adultery’ because he wanted to ruin all our fun. He said it because he knows that people get hurt. And he doesn’t want people to get hurt because he loves us. This [points to the bible] is how to live. This is life at its very best, and within that we find freedom.”

Moving into top gear now, Gumbel adds that the Bible is “a love letter from God”.

A love letter?

I must admit I haven’t had many love letters in my life, but the ones that I have received have been conspicuously lacking in grizzly tales of mass human slaughter, rape, and torture. If I were to receive a “love letter” from a lady whose career highlight to date was the extermination of the entire worlds population (with the exception of 8 individuals), and that such a lady also had an unhealthy fascination with torturing homosexuals and the non-religious, I think it’s safe to say that her letter would hardly ‘warm the cockles’ of my heart. And I doubt that I’d be inviting her over to my parents’ home for Sunday luncheon anytime soon. I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that those kinds of “love letters” are, to me, a tad unattractive. Maybe that’s where Gumbel and I differ.

Sticking with the love letter theme Gumbel tells us of the time he was parted for a few weeks from his then fiancée (who later became his wife). He found it very difficult, but the two of them wrote to each other every day. Every morning he’d get up and look for a letter popping through the letterbox. “If I saw a letter with [his fiancée’s name] on it I felt this excitement, this thrill. Why? The letter in itself wasn’t what it was about. It was because of the relationship. Because it was a letter from the person I loved” Gumbel, of course, is likening this scenario to that of the Christian’s relationship with God, and the warm personal attachment they feel when they read his love letter to them – the Bible.

Gumbel assures us that God “brings faith to those people that are not Christians” when they take time to read the Bible. As the apostle Paul states [Romans 10:17], “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of God.”

Surely there are millions of people that have read the Bible and haven’t been imbued with faith as a result? I’m certainly one of them. Why does God not treat us all equally?

Keeping up a strong gallop, Gumbel enthuses “it never ceases to amaze me that this book, about a person who lived two thousand years ago, we can actually KNOW that person. We can speak to them and they speak to us through this book. Communication is vital to any relationship, that’s how we develop relationships, and that’s how relationships grow and strengthen.”

I don’t see much of a “relationship” there, to be honest. I’m a big fan of the work of Robert. G. Ingersoll, the magnificent orator and freethought advocate of mid-to-late 19th century America, but I don’t have a “relationship” with him, as such. His words touch me very deeply and they satisfy me intellectually, but I don’t claim to be in a “relationship” with Robert. G. Ingersoll. Not in the everyday sense, at least. Gumbel claims to have such a relationship, in the everyday sense, with God through the pages of a book. I think Gumbel is misleading us by misusing the word “relationship” in the way that he does.

If anyone is interested in reading some of Ingersoll’s work you can click on his name in the paragraph above, or alternatively you can find a link to his writings to the right of this screen, under the “Links” header.

Moving on…

All parents know that when you have a child you have to feed it so it will grow. Gumbel tells us that the Bible is “spiritual food. It helps us to grow” and that it “brings joy and peace”, as well as “gives us wisdom” and “challenges us” and “guides us”

He stresses now that it’s an absolute must that we read God’s word. “If you want to grow as a Christian. If you want your relationship with God to grow you need to set aside time to read the Bible.”

We should read it “rather like with foods: little and often”, then gradually increase the dosage. He suggests that we go to a solitary place to read, as this may help us focus on the message.

Gumbel adds, “I think you’ll find that if you do this on a regular basis over the years you’ll find that day-by-day God speaks to you. Sometimes in very ordinary ways and sometimes in very important ways”

Gumbel then offers us an example of when God spoke to him regarding one particularly important matter. A matter involving his father, “a secular Jew by background”, who died in 1981.

Gumbel states, “I never quite knew, because he was a man of very few words, what he thought or what he’d come to believe. And when he died I was obviously very sad because his death came very sudden, but also I was worried about whether he really had a relationship with God, through Christ. Whether he really had a belief, a faith. It was about ten days after he died that I was reading the Bible [and] I prayed that God would speak to me. I read a verse that day from Romans 10:13 and it says this, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ I sensed God say to me, ‘Your father DID call on me and he WAS saved.’”

I happen to feel for Gumbel on this point. I’m sure that every ounce of his being hopes that his father survived death, that he’s living in a paradise free from pain and that he’s in a state of perfect happiness. As humans we all want what is best for our loved ones, but, I’m sorry to say, I don’t see how these supposed admissions from God are anything but wishful thinking on Gumbel’s part. I really don’t.

There are plenty of people that claim to hear voices in their heads. Many of whom are now locked in lunatic asylums for our (and their) safety. Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) was also convinced that he had heard the voice of God in his head commanding him to slaughter prostitutes. The thing is I have no good reason for believing that the lunatics are telling the truth and, similarly, I have no good reason for believing the testimony of Gumbel. Though I am not for one moment likening him to the lunatics listed above. He is, on the whole, a reasonable fellow. Only when religion enters the fray does he, in my eyes at least, deviate from reasonableness.

Shortly after God had assured him that his father was safe in heaven, Gumbel’s wife entered the room and said, “I’ve just been reading a passage in the Bible and I think I’ve got a verse which is for your father. Its Acts 2:21 and it says this, ‘And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’”

Obviously Mrs Gumbel knew of her husband’s concerns regarding his father’s fate (as stated earlier), so it’s hardly surprising that she would tell him of a verse that would possibly offer him some emotional comfort. Gumbel doesn’t see it that way, though. He sees this as God guiding his wife to that particular verse so as to prove that he’s a caring God, and that he is a God who is eager to put their concerns to rest.

Through Gumbel’s presentation we’ve come to learn that God speaks to people. He speaks to the Gumbel family and supposedly millions of others too, but Gumbel wants to know about members of the audience, particularly the fence sitters and would-be-Christians amongst them. A fully focused Gumbel asks, “Let me ask you this question tonight. Do you think the Lord may be trying to speak to YOU?”. A doe-eyed Gumble then looks toward the audience and pleads in a whisper, “In which case will you let him?”

There’s a quiet pause as the room looks towards Gumbel contemplatively. He then brings the presentation to a close with a prayer.

There were quite a few points worthy of discussion in tonight’s session, as I’m sure you’ll agree. A couple of issues that I want to get my teeth into are:

1 – How the Christians in the group reach the conclusion that stars, oceans and sunsets are “designed”.

And…

2 – How the Christians in the group reconcile the existence of an all-loving God with the existence of gratuitous evil in the world.

We did touch upon these issues in our discussion after tonight’s presentation, but, as stated earlier, they weren’t recorded. So I wont include them here. Hopefully I can steer the conversation towards these topics in the coming weeks.

Next week’s session is entitled, “How Does God Guide Us?”

Until then…

October 4, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments