Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 10: “What About The Church?”

The group is one person short this evening as Lady Three has failed to put in an appearance. Maybe last week’s prayers worked wonders on her injured knee, and subsequently a British cycling team has snapped her up to compete in the Tour De France? Yes, with God all things are possible.

Joking aside, none of the group has heard from her, so they are surprised that she’s not in attendance. I hope she’s ok.

After a moment or two I dig into my jacket pocket, pull out a piece of paper and say, “I’ve brought the Bible verse that you asked for”. The pastor smiles and rubs his hands together, eager to see what I’ve come up with. “Let’s have a look then”, he says eagerly.

“Actually I found two verses of that nature, but I don’t know if there’s any more”, I say as I hand the long-standing male member the piece of paper. “TWO??”, he shrieks in astonishment.

He reads carefully. He looks to the pastor, who is sitting beside him, and reads aloud the verse location, “Numbers 31:17-18”. The pastor opens up his Bible and searches for the verses in question.

There’s a quiet moment as the pastor reads them. His face drops a little, and a few seconds later he looks up from the page and dejectedly admits, “Yep, you’re right”

There’s more silence before Lady Two gets out of her seat and walks towards the pastor. She asks, “What does it say?”. The pastor reads aloud the offending verses:

[Numbers 31:17-18] “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” [NIV]


[Judges 21:10-12] “So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin.” They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan.” [NIV]

My fellow sceptic, who is grinning from ear to ear, asks the group in his inimitable dry style, “Are you guys trying to tell me you didn’t know about that?”.

No one answers.

“If I may ask, what does everyone here think of verses like that? Do you think that they are examples of morally acceptable behaviour?”, I ask.

New Christian Male: “No, I think it’s wrong”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to the new Christian male] “Well, yeah, on face value… just by reading that sentence”

He says that as if in the hope that there’s some deeper meaning to it all, which we’ve most probably overlooked, that will ultimately shed God in good light. That’s right, God comes out of it smelling of roses no matter what. Like I’ve said before, no amount of evidence will budge these people from believing that 1) God is perfectly good, and 2) The Bible is God’s perfect love letter to his children.

Pastor: “This is just my view but I think he was seeking to bring purity to the Israelites.”

Purity? Is this guy serious?

Pastor: “You see, you judge that from a 21st century, western background. And we’d all say yes, in the 21st century, that wouldn’t be morally acceptable”
Me: “Would God have considered it morally acceptable behaviour back then?”
Pastor: “Obviously, because he allowed it”

So if God allows things to happen then he obviously considers them morally acceptable? Children being raped, old ladies mugged, innocent people tortured and killed? All these things happen today, so, according to the pastor’s principle, God must consider them morally acceptable. What kind of monster are they making God out to be? This is ludicrous.

The long-standing male member asks me if I’d like to live in a world without Christian morals. “What do you mean by “Christian morals”?”, I ask. He replies by reeling off a couple of the Ten Commandments, such as thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not kill. I state that I don’t need knowledge of the Christian God or his Bible in order to know not to steal and not to kill.

Pastor: “We have a moral absolute that stealing is wrong”
Me: “Don’t you think there are occasions when it could be deemed “good” to steal?”
New Christian Male: [Dumbfounded by my suggestion] “HOW??”
Me: “Let’s try this hypothetical example: A terrorist has hijacked a plane. He has a loaded gun pointed at the pilot’s head and he’s commanding him to head for Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone onboard the terrorist intends to have the plane slammed into a skyscraper, killing hundreds of passengers onboard and thousands of innocent people on the ground. Suddenly a split-second opportunity arises where you are able to steal the terrorist’s gun by snatching it out of his hand, thus saving the lives of thousands of innocent people. Would stealing this man’s gun be a “good” thing to do?”
Pastor: “Yes, but I’d hardly call it “stealing”, though”
Me: “To “steal” is to take someone’s property without their consent.”
New Christian Male: [Struggling to think of a quick answer] “But… but… it [the gun] is not his property…. because he doesn’t have a licence for it”

What??!! I’ve offered up a thought experiment about a terrorist that has hijacked an aeroplane, and the new Christian male somehow knows that my invented character hasn’t been issued with a licence for his firearm?? That has to be the craziest comment I’ve heard in a long time. Funny though (albeit unintentionally).

Long-Standing Male Member: “This is how I see it if Jesus was onboard: He [Jesus] wouldn’t go and steal the gun. He’d work in a far different realm, because Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek”.”
Me: “He wouldn’t have just turned the other cheek when confronted with a hijacker who was about to kill thousands of people, surely?”

The pastor intervenes, “Anyway, shall we watch tonight’s DVD?”

Yeah, why not.

Gumbel starts by asking, “Is it possible to be a Christian – to be a follower of Jesus – and not go to church? What does “going to church” mean? What is “Church?””

He tells us of the time, before he was a Christian, of how whenever he heard the word “church” his heart used to sink. Of course since becoming a Christian he views the church in a completely different light, “At the heart of the church is something amazing, something wonderful, something beautiful”. Filled with pride he exclaims, “I LOVE the Church!”

He has a number of reasons for feeling as he does. First reason why he loves the church so much is because, “The Church is the people of God.”

He tells us that, “We become a member of the Church not by birth but by new birth. He then states that “Jesus spoke about being born of water and the spirit”, and that Jesus “commanded his disciples to baptise”

He continues, “Becoming a Christian involves three things: First of all, something WE do… Repentance and faith. Secondly, something GOD does… He gives us the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, something the CHURCH does… Baptism.”

“Baptism is a kind of visible mark of what it means to be a member of the Church”, he adds.

Gumbel states that thousands of people become Christian’s everyday, it’s just that we (Western Europeans) don’t recognise this fact. “We live in Western Europe, and the Church has been in decline for fifty to eighty years”, admits Gumbel. But he states, basically, that we’d be mistaken to conclude that such a decline is ubiquitous. He used to look at it the same way, but that was because he had – as he puts it – a “totally blinkered, narrow view of the world”. He then tells us how the Church in Africa is “growing faster than ever!”. This is an interesting fact that I hope to discuss with the pastor later on in the evening.

The second reason he loves the Church so much is, “because it’s a family!”. He continues, “It’s a family of God. When you come into a relationship with God you come into a family””

Gumbel has to regretfully admit that “The history of the Church has been a sad one because it’s been a story of disunity”. He then tells us that people look at the Church and think, “If you guys cant even agree amongst yourselves what you believe in, why should I be interested?”. He’s absolutely right. That’s precisely what many people think.

But Gumbel isn’t without hope because, as he says, “Jesus prayed. Just before he died Jesus prayed that we would be one so that the world would believe.”. This speaks volumes about the supposed efficacy of prayer, doesn’t it? Even Jesus himself is still waiting for his prayers to be answered!

The third reason why he loves the Church is because “the way in which people see Jesus today. It’s the body of Christ”

Gumbel states that, as Christians, “Each of you represents Jesus, wherever you go”. Let’s hope that isn’t true, if history is anything to go by. The Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Witch burners, the abortion surgeon murderers… all of these cretins represent Jesus? My goodness.

The fourth reason why he loves the Church is, “It’s where we experience the presence of God in a special way”

He then claims that “There’s a longing for God in every human heart, whether people admit it, acknowledge [it], recognise [it], or not, there’s a longing for God”. I wonder how he would define “God” in this instance? The capitalised “G” of the Christian variety, or the generic god with the small “g”? It’s an important distinction that needs to be made, and Christians are often guilty of blurring the two when it suits them.

And another thing, what are we to think of Christians who claim that it is true that everyone longs for their God whether they recognise it or not? How does that work? This brings to mind the story told by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr, who, when asked for the reason why he had a horseshoe stuck to his front door if he was so against superstitious thinking, replied (with tongue in cheek) that it was there because he’d been told that it would bring good luck whether he believed in it or not. Christians are offering us their own kind of horseshoe, and it goes by the name of Jesus.

The fifth reason why Gumbel loves the Church is because “Jesus loves the Church. It’s his bride. The Church is the bride of Christ.”

A smiley-faced Gumbel then tells us how much he loves his job. Yes, he wants us to know that the Church is great, God is great, and Christianity is great. Talk about a hard sell!

Gumbel returns now to his opening question, “So, is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church?” Gumbel offers the simple answer, “We don’t GO to church, you ARE the Church!”

Gumbel ends his presentation by stating “There’s only one way into the Church and that’s to say, “God, be merciful to me – a sinner.” And the moment we say that, God in his love says, “YOU are part of my people. You’re my family. You’re my representative. You’re my body on earth. You’re a holy temple, my spirit lives within you. You’re my bride””

Roll the credits…

On go the lights and back go the curtains.

The long-standing male member asks me how I felt about this week’s presentation. I’m determined not to be the focus of attention this evening because, believe it or not, I’m not at all comfortable playing the bad guy role week in week out. So I try to be as diplomatic as possible and tell him “I quite enjoyed it, thank you”. With me being one of only two sceptics on the course, and the other one being quite a quiet individual, it makes it hard not to be the one who is asking all the questions.

The pastor turns to my fellow sceptic and asks, “Anything strike you about that video tonight?”. My fellow sceptic responds by saying that he was surprised to learn that the word “Church” doesn’t necessarily apply to a building but to a group of people. He remarks that to him the word “Church” brings up thoughts of a “freezing building with very narrow and uncomfortable seating. Somewhere you were made to go.”. He also says that the Church has done an excellent job over the years of fleecing people of their money and property. “Churches are always looking for money”, he adds. Generally, then, it would seem that my fellow sceptic has a negative view of the Church.

I take a back seat as my fellow sceptic vents his spleen. It’s nice to see him air his views like this. I’m quite happy to sit and listen. For the time being at least.

He then reveals to the group that he was under the impression that the Alpha Course was supposed to be aimed at people like him (and me) – i.e. people who were sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity – but to his disappointment he found the course to be aimed more at the casual Christian, someone who is looking to have his or her faith boosted, someone in need of a spiritual enema. I’m in full agreement, as I certainly don’t think that the course caters well enough for non-believers, and certainly not at all well enough for the informed sceptic.

The new Christian male tells us that he finds the course remarkable because “every time I watch a presentation it answers the questions that I’d been thinking about the week before! I have a question one week and lo and behold the following week it’s answered!”

My fellow sceptic points out that this is probably the case due to the fact that the new Christian male takes home the DVD’s and watches them one week in advance. A red-faced new Christian male has obviously forgotten that he told us this only a few weeks ago. Tut tut.

Despite being a non-Christian, and totally unconvinced by the Christian claims, my fellow sceptic reveals that he occasionally takes trips with the long-standing male member (his next-door neighbour) to Christian festivals, mainly because he’s keen on the outdoors and enjoys camping and such. He tells us of the time he attended the “Grapevine Festival“, and how on that particular occasion, during a performance by a Christian rock group, the seating collapsed in the marquee, which housed 5,000 or so people at the time.

Fortunately no one was killed, but about a dozen or so were seriously injured. “How could this happen to people who were worshipping God?”, asks my fellow sceptic. He then tells us how flabbergasted he was as the tragedy unfolded to see people praying to God rather than rushing to help the injured. As my personal favourite writer, Robert G. Ingersoll, once famously said, “The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray”.

A quick Google search for the Grapevine incident reveals a few interesting remarks made by Christians on various websites. One states, “Most of all we want to thank God for being with us at Grapevine on this day and a very big thank you for all the emergency services and the volunteers involved in helping getting these people from under the seating”

It’s understandable that this person would offer thanks to the emergency services who actually did something to help. But why would God get any of the thanks? Thanks for what? For allowing a dozen or so of his passionate followers to get crushed by a seating collapse?

Another comment, on a different website, by someone who also attended Grapevine on that unfortunate day, states, “It was terrifying but I trusted in the Lord, and no-one was killed – most people were able to walk out”. God gets the thanks even when innocent people are hurt! If 25 kids had been crushed to death at that festival I could imagine Christians saying something like this, “It was terrifying but I trusted in the Lord, it was a miracle that only 25 kids were killed – it should have been many more. Thank God that most people were able to walk out”.

Better still, the same guy who offered the above quote goes on to say, “I think the devil is at work in lots of places… “. That’s right, the devil is to blame for the seating collapse!

Like I’ve said in a previous week, Christians have no difficulty believing that their God is pure goodness, even when he drowns the world’s population, infants and all [see Genesis]. They will not budge from the conviction that God is complete and utter love, even when he executes the dimpled-cheeked first-born babies of a certain people, all because he wants to punish the leader of their nation [see Exodus]. Mind boggling, isn’t it? I’m sure there’s some similarity here between this kind of mentality and that of “Battered Spouse Syndrome”, where the abused will actually defend the abuser if someone happens to point the finger of accusation in their direction. Sufferers of BSS will blame themselves for the abuse and hardship that is meted out to them, even though they are perfectly innocent and undeserving of the abuse they receive. Isn’t this somewhat like Christians who look upon themselves as worthless, miserable sinners who are deserving of eternal torture from their supposedly “loving” and “merciful” God?

It’s worth thinking about.

Suddenly the door opens and in walks a lady who I haven’t seen before. It turns out to be the pastor’s wife. She says hello and the pastor points to me and says, This is Stephen”. It strikes me as though she’s come to see the strange doubter who asks too many questions. She sits at the back and watches the proceedings. Unfortunately she’s picked the wrong night to come and hear what I have to say, as I’m taking somewhat of a back seat this evening.

The long-standing male member looks to his friend and neighbour, my fellow sceptic, and states “At the end of the day, when you stand before God and he asks you why you haven’t committed your life to the Lord, it wont be good enough to say “I didn’t believe in you because you allowed paedophiles to rape children, and that you allowed the seating to collapse at the Grapevine festival”. That is no excuse”

My Fellow Sceptic: “That won’t happen, because I won’t be stood there.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah, but what IF?”

At this point I interject and ask the long-standing male member “What IF it’s a different God when you get there?”. His response? “Then I’ll be the same as you, then”, he says.

So what was the point he was trying to make exactly? Did he have a valid point? I don’t think so.

Let’s go a little further with this. Who’s to say that there isn’t a god up there that rewards people who reject religious dogma? Maybe the “test” in this life is to remain an atheist? Maybe religion is the devil’s deception, the forbidden fruit? “What IF?” indeed. We can all dream things up and ask “What IF?” So what?

My fellow sceptic goes on to talk about the sad, gloomy atmosphere of most churches that he’s attended. And how there’s often a straight-faced, humourless old man stood at the front wearing a black dress, mumbling out a few drab words from an equally drab holy book. Wouldn’t it be better, asks my fellow sceptic, if these places were more accommodating to young people, and if the churches were headed by smiley-faced, fun-loving, energetic priests, pastors and vicars? He mentions that people like Lady Two would be better suited to such positions. “What would you rather see portrayed as the face of your church?” he asks. “I’m sure it would be [Lady Two’s] beaming, smiling face”, he adds.

My fellow sceptic then tells us, in a nice way, how after last week’s session Lady Two had collared him. “She’s obviously totally besotted [with God and the Bible]”, he states. I take from that that she’d given him a full frontal attack with her famed testimony. I wish I’d have stayed to see that!

The pastor picks up on what Gumbel had said in his presentation – that the Church is growing rapidly in places like Africa. “Why are Church attendances dropping off in Western Europe?” asks my fellow sceptic.

I add to the question by asking if there’s perhaps a correlation between levels of high education and the disbelief in God. In Western Europe, where education levels are higher than in most parts of the world, church attendance and religious belief are on the decline. Yet in areas where levels of education are poor, and where superstitious thinking is prevalent – such as parts of Africa and South America – church attendance and religious belief are on the increase.

And what about the surveys taken amongst top scientists, the crème de la crème of the National Academy of Sciences for instance? Of these highly educated people only 7% profess the belief in a personal god, and 93% of them do not.

Could it be argued that, on the whole, less educated people are more gullible and thus more susceptible to religious beliefs?

Pastor: “I think it’s because we [Western Europeans] think we have become self-sufficient and we don’t look beyond ourselves. When you have a comfy home, a nice car, a good job, and nice holidays you feel that you are more self-reliant. We must remember that Jesus came to a very uneducated place in Israel, and he chose lots of uneducated people as his disciples, such as fishermen.”

At this point the pastor changes the subject altogether and says, “Steve, I meant to bring you a book tonight but I forgot. I’ve been reading a book about the persecuted Church and I really felt that God told me to bring you it”. “Who is the author?” I ask. “Brother Andrew”, he replies.

Maybe he’ll bring it next week. I must say, though, it doesn’t sound particularly appealing unfortunately.

“Next week is the big, big finale”, the pastor announces enthusiastically. I jokingly ask if he has bottles of champagne on ice, and a fireworks display planned for the big occasion.

Tonight’s session is then brought to a close as the pastor says a prayer thanking us all for attending. He says a quick prayer for Lady Three, too, in the hope that she’s safe and well. I share his hopes and concerns, but I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Speaking of Lady Three he tells me that she’s been on the Internet looking up the ‘sons of god’ that I wrote down for her last week. “Yesterday she was here [using the Internet] for about four hours!” exclaims the pastor. Lady Three is obviously a studious sort, and I admire her effort. Maybe she’s compiled a dossier for me for next week? I get the feeling that I’m going to have to answer a lot of questions! Excellent.

As people head for the door the pastor walks over to where I’m sat and respectfully asks for me not to dismiss Christianity just because there are numerous other religions claiming very similar (and perhaps identical) “proofs”. I respond, in an equally respectful manner, that that is not the only thing stopping me from accepting Christianity. He then offers as an analogy my relatively recent purchase of a new car:

Pastor: “You chose a car to drive despite all the claims by other manufacturers. The fact that there are lots of claims, by lots of different manufacturers, hasn’t stopped you buying a car. Similarly, I don’t want the fact that there are lots of claims, by lots of different religions, to stop you from buying into Christianity and giving your life to Christ.”

I don’t doubt the existence of cars or their manufacturers. But let’s say that car manufacturers were making outlandish claims like for instance that their cars had a top speed exceeding the speed of light, or that they were invisible, or that they transcended time and space. But yet such manufacturers had absolutely no data whatsoever to support any such claims, nor could they demonstrate that such cars even existed in the first place. Then of course, yes, I’d probably tar all those manufacturers with the same brush. But what if one particular manufacturer invited sceptical members of the public to visit their head offices, where a group of employees promised to demonstrate the truth of their claims over a period of several weeks? And what if members of the public went along to such meetings, hoping that the employees could do just that – but discovered that in reality they could not?

If I were one of the sceptical members of the public who had gone along to be shown that the car manufacturers claims were true, when in fact no evidence was presented to support such a thing, then I’d hardly be in a position to open up my chequebook and commit to buying one of their cars. Similarly I am in no position to commit my self to Christianity when I haven’t been offered any evidence whatever in support of the outlandish claims that it makes.

Pastor: “You need to say, “Christ, I want you to be my Lord and saviour. I want you to forgive me for my past. I want you to be Lord of my life, and I want you to come and fill me with your Holy Spirit. And if you do it I’ll live the rest of my life for you””
Me: “But like I’ve said before, I will do that if I have good reason to do so. But, as yet, I don’t have any good reason for doing that”
Pastor: “A reason could be that you trust us as people that you’ve known for the last ten weeks. All I’m saying to you is not to keep using the excuse, that there are lots of similar claims out there, to reject it [Christianity].”
Me: “With respect, that’s not what I’m doing. It’s simply a case of me listening to, and reading about, certain claims that quite clearly do not add up. And when I question certain people about these claims – which they say they can defend – it invariably ends with them being unable to answer simple questions, or them continually contradicting themselves, or them offering the exact same “supporting evidences” as someone of another religion could offer, and in which case they would then deem such “supporting evidences” to be wholly unsatisfactory. In all honesty it couldn’t get any weaker”

The long-standing male member then tells me, “Yes, but it’s all about faith!” as if that somehow solves the problem altogether, when in fact all it does is support what I’ve just said. Anyone from any religion can say, “Yes, but it’s all about faith!”. I think now is as good a time as any to bite my tongue and decline the temptation to respond. It’s for the best.

“Anyway, Steve, thank you for finding those Bible verses and for proving us wrong”, jokes the pastor. We all laugh, and so the session ends, as ever, in good spirits.

It’s been a relatively quiet get-together this evening. But seeing as next week is the Grand Finale, perhaps tonight’s session was merely the calm before the storm?

We’ll have to wait and see…

November 15, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments