Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

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…

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