Revelation: documentary on the Alpha Course

Channel 4 recently screened How to Find God, Jon Ronson’s documentary on the Alpha course. You can watch it online for a few weeks. Edited to add: Ronson also went on the Alpha course himself back in 2000: you can read about it in the Grauniad, and find some interesting discussion of his article on Metafilter.

The documentary follows one group of people taking the course at St Aldates, Oxford, a charismatic Anglican church. The group were a mixed bunch, from Dave, a psychology student who was feeling a bit guilty about drinking 12 pints in an evening; to my favourite, Ed, the unemployed freegan who liked to look for spare food round the back of supermarkets.

What we see of Alpha’s apologetics is pretty bad: there’s Josephus‘s reference to Jesus, Lewis’s Mad/Bad/God argument, as appropriated by McDowell, and what ophe1ia-in-red‘s own review (which you should also read) rightly calls a false dichotomy between a life of meaningless debauchery and Christianity. At one point, the male small group leader says that God once spoke to him in his head to tell him he didn’t have to give a talk he was nervous about. When the non-Christians ask how he knows it was God and not his imagination, his wife gets annoyed and accuses them of calling her husband stupid. A rationalist with too much time on their hands could probably have a bit of fun attending an Alpha Course, and it seems some have.

Nevertheless, I doubt that these arguments have a lot to do with Alpha’s success rate (quoted as being about 1 person in each small group of about 8). As Ronson says, “Alpha is all about rigorously structured, almost mathematical, niceness. And this structure is a huge success.” The free food (and the attractive Christian ladies serving it), friendly people and small group discussions are the most important parts of Alpha’s methods.

Despite accusations of bias from the commenters on Channel 4’s site, Ronson’s style is non-confrontational. Rachel Cooke’s review in New Statesman describes it as “like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first.” I found it a bit like the “who’s going to die this week?” stuff you used to get in the opening scenes of Casualty: Bob’s using the threshing machine and once felt a “sort of energy” when he was a bit down, Alice is on the motorway behind a tanker full of petrol and is unemployed and a bit directionless: who’s going to get Jesus’d?

The “Holy Spirit weekend”, where the potential converts go off on a weekend break and are encouraged to try speaking in tongues, is the most controversial part of Alpha. Indeed, it’s partly what lead the more conservative evangelical churches to replace Alpha with Christianity Explored (that and the conservatives’ feeling that more emphasis is needed on the fact that we’re all sinners who deserve to be tortured forever, and will be if we find ourselves unable to radically change our lives on the basis of insufficient evidence: this is what conservatives call “the Good News“). It certainly made for the most interesting part of the documentary.

After a few explanatory shots of the Toronto Blessing, we follow the group on to a conference centre near Oxford, which it turns out they’re sharing with a conference for Ford GT40 fans. There’s a Derren Brown Messiah suggestion session where everyone stands with their eyes closed, but alas, it’s interrupted by the noise from the GT40s outside (modern day iron chariots, as one of Channel 4’s commenters has it). They carry on, with the Christians singing songs and the pastor singing in tongues, but one of the non-Christians feels he’s been manipulated and walks out of the room. However, the beer-drinking psychology student likes the atmosphere, asks people to pray for him, and says he’ll be going on another Alpha Course. In the end, two of them walk away saying the experience has put them off Christianity, and the freegan says he respects Christians more now. I’d call it a no-score draw.

36 Comments on "Revelation: documentary on the Alpha Course"

  1. I’m pretty sure that many evangelical Christians can not only speak in tongues, they can also think in tongues.

    And why is Nicky Gumbel always auditioning for the role of Uriah Heap?

    How can they have a conversion rate of 1 in 8, when less than 1 in 8 participants are non-Christian?


    1. My immediate thought about the 1 in 8 conversion rate was that it’s probably mostly a comment on the sorts of people who self-select by going on Alpha courses in the first place. For instance, I think it’s extremely unlikely that one would convert me if I went on it, but I’m not going to show up in their statistics because it’s also pretty unlikely I’d think that going on it in the first place was a worthwhile use of, er, however much of my time it would use up.


  2. The Christianity Explored book says ‘In the next chapter we’ll
    see exactly how Jesus achieves that rescue, but
    for now I want to focus on the assumption Jesus
    makes: that we are all rebels in need of rescue,
    even if we believe we’re basically good people.’

    My friends believe I am basically a good person.

    Is Jesus not my friend?

    Is this a new Christian slogan? ‘Christianity – It’s for scum like you’


    1. I don’t know- is Jesus your friend? Do you talk to him, spend time with him through reading what he says in the Bible?

      No? Well, you are actually an enemy of Jesus then- you are one of the rebels against God who needs rescuing because God is just and will punish rebels. The amazing thing in the gospel is Jesus came to rescue his ENEMIES! Despite our rebellion Jesus loved us so much that he came to take the punishment in our place so we can have access to a holy God, and then, yes, be a friend of Christ.

      Yes, I like your slogan!!


      1. Jesus took our punishment, but he is still going to burn in Hell.

        There is an interesting interview of Adolf Eichmann by a Christian pastor, just before Eichmann was executed.

        Eichmann did not accept that many people were going to Hell, as he considered that doctrine horrible.

        What the Nazis did to the Jews in the Holocaust was terrible, but even Nazis blanced at the thought of what Jesus is going to do to the Jews….


        1. Subject: Typing errors corrected
          Jesus took our punishment, but he is still going to burn us in Hell.

          There is an interesting interview of Adolf Eichmann by a Christian pastor, just before Eichmann was executed.

          Eichmann did not accept that many people were going to Hell, as he considered that doctrine horrible.

          What the Nazis did to the Jews in the Holocaust was terrible, but even Nazis blanched at the thought of what Jesus is going to do to the Jews….


          1. Subject: Re: Typing errors corrected
            God’s salvation in Christ is effective to those that have faith in him and those who trust in him have no fear of God’s judgement- if you believe that Jesus ‘is still going to burn us in hell’ then why don’t you turn to him and accept his salvation so you can have no fear but instead eternal life in heaven with no more death or mourning, crying or pain?!

            But yes, those who don’t believe face God’s punishment- it says in John 3:36 ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him’. I think it’s important to appreciate the Biblical definition of hell to understand it- hell is simply eternal separation from God- ‘they will be shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power’ (2 Thess 1:9). Essentially people will be getting what they’ve asked for- life without God. The Bible uses all sorts of imagery to describe the awfulness of this experience of hell- though it does not make clear exactly what it will be like.


            1. Subject: Re: Typing errors corrected
              Wow, an after death threat.

              I thought this god used to strike children down in this life, not in the next.

              2 Samuel 12
              Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.”

              15 After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill.

              But now, this God is rendered helpless by a Ford GT40, when he once could kill children without even a complaint about him in the local newspaper.


  3. BTW I am a Bible-believing Christian who does NOT like the alpha course! I saw the channel 4 documentary and the Holy Spirit weekend particularly concerns me as it seems to try and manipulate people into conversion through a ‘Holy Spirit experience’ rather than through faith in Christ. The advantage of Christianity Explored is that you simply go through the Biblical text of Mark’s gospel and are encouraged to evaluate the evidence for yourself from that.


    1. The ‘evidence’ is that the Gospels are the same frauds and lies that all religions are. See

      Mark’s Gospel has such utter absurdities as a convicted murdered being released each Passover.

      And this released murderer just happened to be called ‘Barabbas’ (Son of the Father), while the real Son of the Father was about to be killed, although innocent.

      And Mark lays on the irony by having soldiers put a purple robe and crown on Jesus, unaware that he was a ‘real’ king.

      Where did that purple robe come from? Did Pilate lend out one of his old robes to the soldiers so that they could spit on it?

      The Gospel of Mark is just nonsense as history.


      1. That website has some pretty far-fetched ideas by anyone’s judgement- these superficial similarities are not real evidence. If you can find a serious historian / Bible scholar who accepts these ideas I’d be very surprised!


        1. What? You mean serious historians do not accept that the Koran based some of its stories on a story from Judges, or that Joseph Smith did not steal stories from the King James Bible.

          I was applying exactly the same rules to the New Testament that Christians apply to other Holy Books.

          I gave photographic documented evidence of word for word copying.

          I know now that Biblical scholars refuse to believe the evidence of their eyes, considering photographic evidence of copying ‘far-fetched’ and ‘superfical’.

          No wonder Christianity is blind faith, when Christians discount the evidence of their own eyes.


        2. Hello anon. Can you sign some sort of nickname at the end of your comments so we know they’re from the same person? LiveJournal isn’t very good letting people without LiveJournal accounts put names to their comments.

          You may be assuming that “Bible-believing” (which in the context of your other comments, I assume means “conservative evangelical”) is the only sort of Christian. In fact, Christians have noticed the Elisha/Jesus parallels, as you can find by searching Google for “elisha jesus miracles”. Some Christians accept the idea that the parallels arose because the gospel writers made up the story. Not evangelicals, of course, who tend to see Elisha as a type for Jesus (that is, they say both stories happened and God meant to teach something by the parallel).

          If you’re looking for respectable scholars, Raymond Brown saw the parallels, according to The New Testament in its Literary Environment (which I just found on Google).

          There’s a problem with the idea that anything which looks symbolic or similar to another story is necessarily a myth (that is, a story told for its symbolic meaning, which may not have happened): if we’re not careful, it is a technique which is powerful enough to explain anything, and which therefore explains nothing. See Are you a Solar Myth?, which I mentioned previously in the context of Richard Carrier’s theories that the gospels are mostly myth. Nevertheless, there are parallels between the OT and NT, and it’s likely that some stories inspired others. A Spot the Fakes test among NT scholars would probably agree on some of Carrier’s or Carr’s ideas, even if it didn’t turn up all of them.


  4. There’s an interview with Dr Chris Forbes (Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, and Deputy Chairman of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity, Macquarie University) on the Josephus quote.

    I remember when I did Alpha a year ago I was expecting to be annoyed about the use of the Josephus quote in the course, but I remember not being annoyed when it came up. I think this may have been a combination of being better informed about the quote itself (I think I’d assumed before that it was ‘inadmissible’) and how it was used not being unreasonable.


    1. Here is a reconstruction of what Josephus might have originally written, which is at least as plausible as other reconstructions :-

      ‘Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, who performed wonderful works, and he persuaded many who love the truth and the divine nature as taught by the customs and laws of our fathers.

      He taught that men must love the law and keep it with the same perfection as God himself, and that their word should be as strong as if they had uttered an oath. For he forbad the making of oaths, saying that one’s word should be as truthful as the word of God at all times.

      He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, out of envy and hatred for the Jews, sought to condemn him to the cross, the principal men among us could do nothing to distract him from his purpose. Those who loved him, including some of our principal men, did not forsake him after his death, and some claimed to have seen him risen from the dead some days after his crucifixion.

      But his followers, who are still with us to this day, turned against his teaching and joined the mad distempers of the times that brought us our miseries. They are the tribe of Christians, so named from him, for they also called him the Christ. This was an error, but not so egregious as one faction of this sect, mainly found among the Greeks, who even came to blasphemously worship him as God.

      But that Jesus himself taught no such thing can be seen from his teaching against blasphemy, as when he taught men not to risk the wrath of God by taking an oath in his name.’


    2. I’d heard that the first quote was a real reference doctored by later scribes (which is what the video and Wikipedia say), and I don’t think I knew about the second until I read the Iron Chariots page. Whether using it is objectionable depends on what they did with it:

      RONSON: But there is evidence, Charlie says, from a historian, Josephus, who lived soon after Jesus died and called him Christ.

      We don’t hear the vicar of St Aldates actually saying that, so it could be Ronson’s interpolation. But still…


      1. I haven’t watched the documentary, so I don’t know what the vicar of St Aldates says. When I did the course a year ago (well I did about half of the course) it was from DVDs so I got Nicky Gumble’s talks.


        1. So what does the DVD say? I hope Gumbel’s more careful than he was when Ronson did the course himself:

          [Gumbel] quotes the Jewish historian Josephus, born AD37: “Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works … the tribe of Christians so named after him are not extinct to this day.” I am with Nicky thus far. My knowledge of Josephus is sketchy, but he strikes me as a reliable source.


          1. There are no references to this ‘tribe of Christians’ line until it appears in a quote by Eusebius.

            Eusebius is the first person to say that Josephus referred to ‘the tribe of Christians’ . Eusebius also said Tertullian referred to the tribe of Christians. He did not. Eusebius also said Trajan referred to the tribe of Christians. He did not.

            Still, third time’s a charm….

            Josephus wrote in Antiquities Book 19 Section 346 ‘But as he presently afterwards looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger (Greek ‘Angelos’) of ill tidings…’

            Eusebius in his History (2.10) omits the words ‘boubona – epi schoiniou tinos’ (ie an owl on a certain rope) and retains only the ‘angelos’ or messenger. As it stands in Eusebius, the ‘quote’ of Josephus appears to support Acts 12:23 which mentions an ‘angelos’, but naturally does not say this messenger was an owl.


      2. But there is no manuscript evidence showing any real reference which was later doctored.

        Nor does Josephus list Christianity as being one of the schools of thought that Judaism was split into.

        If Josephus regarded Christianity (if he regarded it at all), as being something entirely separate from Judaism, why would he put the death of its founder in a section detailing disaster befalling the Jews?

        Why would he put a non-Jewish sect in his Antiquities of the Jews?

        And if he did regard Christianity as something worth telling about in history of the Jews, why is it not listed as one of the schools of thought?

        And why does he not suck up to the Romans by lambast Christians as people who say Jesus is Lord, rather than Caesar?

        Or call Christians blaspheming idolators?


        1. (you may have to register on the site) is an article by William Lane Craig showing the reasonable evidence for the existence of Jesus and reliability of the gospels.

          I’m going to leave this debate now as I’m not an expert in this area myself, but I do encourage you to investigate further and find out if the gospels are reliable and true- it’s so important because if they are true then yes, it’s matter of life and death.

          Al (sorry I didn’t ‘nickname’ myself before!)


          1. Well, they are not reliable.

            Craig just never bothers with addressing arguments such as in

            And it is just silly to say that these things are reliable when they portray the resurrected Jesus ascending into the sky and disappearing into a cloud on his way to Heaven. You don’t get to Heaven by going into a cloud.

            You may as well have had him riding a horse on his way to Heaven, as the story about Muhammad has it.



              Your argument that the evidence that the miracle stories of Jesus were taken from the Old Testament seems to ignore the historical evidence of who the writers actually were and their motivation. Why would they copy from the old testament- what would they gain? – apart from persecution! Yes of course there were some parallels with the old testament- Jesus said he had come to fulfil what was written in it.


              1. Nobody has the faintest idea who the author of Mark was and what his motivation was.

                And this idea he was persecuted for his Gospel is simply fantasy without a shred of evidence behind it.

                I am not ignoring ‘historical evidence’. I am ignoring made-up spurious rationalisations that Christians produce when the Gospels have been caught red-handed producing lies and forgeries.

                On the other hand, produces photographic, documented evidence of word-for-word copying, using exactly the same techniques Christians developed when analysing the Book of Mormon and the Koran.

                But , of course, it takes more than mere evidence of word-for-word copying when Christians can simply make up claims that the Gospel authors were persecuted.


                1. This copying argument isn’t convincing at all- of course the gospel writers used words and phrases similar to the Septuagint- it’s the same language and they were familiar with the text! The copying of the stories is not convincing to me- can you cite any serious historian / literary / biblical scholar who also believes this? (BTW not all biblical scholars are Christians, some avowedly not, so I would have thought one of them would have a solid argument taking your position, if indeed it is a credible one)

                  (BTW I never claimed Mark was persecuted- but Christians with the message of the gospel which he writes of were.)

                  You make no allowances for the oral tradition in the twenty years or so between Jesus’ life and the written gospels. Ancient historians think that the oral tradition was very important- in fact at the time was thought to be more reliable than written sources which were copied by hand. See – I commend to you the information on this website as a solid defence of Christianity and its sources- Dr John Dickson also has a video called ‘The Christ Files’ in which he looks at the documentary and archaelogical evidence for Jesus.


                  1. It’s a bit pointless arguing with Steven Carr. He doesn’t rely on reliable historians, he considers himself to be an authority.

                    He adopts positions that are far far outside of the mainstream academic / expert opinion (like that the gospels are entirely unreliable accounts).


                    1. No, it’s not.

                      I can’t think of an occasion where I’ve argued a point on your blog where I’ve tried to persuade you of that point by claiming that the Bible is inerrant.

                      I believe that when I argue about issues like the reliability of scripture on your blog, I tend to quote people who are academic experts in the area to make my case.

                    2. I can’t think of an occasion where I’ve argued a point on your blog where I’ve tried to persuade you of that point by claiming that the Bible is inerrant.

                      You are a true disciple of William Lane Craig 🙂

                      And I can’t remember any occasions when you’ve done that either. You and Steven Carr both hold views which aren’t supported by mainstream scholarship, but you recognise that you can’t use your ideas in debate without a lot of side tracking to defend them, whereas Carr makes defending his ideas the purpose of the debate (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: maybe he’s right).

                    3. When I engage in debate on your blog, and other blogs – yes I want to persuade people of my position, but I’m very open to learning more about what you think and correcting my views where they need correcting (and they do often get corrected, just not entirely turned around).

                      Carr is not as far as I can really very interested in discussing things. He’s pretty much just interested in trying to attack Christianity. The difference being that I (or at least I try to) get involved in the debates and actually take part, whereas (if you follow him around on the web) he pops in on every forum and blog where Christianity is discussed and leaves a few sentences trying to derail the discussion entirely. Compare the experience of discussing these things with you, brokenhut, etc, versus Carr.

                      If you follow what happens in other blogs, people tend to write the lengthy replies needed to his (often very out of the mainstream) statements, then usually give up when he just comes back with a handful of mocking statements and another few sentences aimed at derailing the discussion. In the few places where people persist in carefully responding he just gives up there and goes elsewhere. It’s almost like if you have sufficient defences in place he ignores you as it’s better to win the overall war by cluster bombing everyone everywhere else.

                      Another difference between myself and Carr here is that I will support my arguments with mainstream scholarship, whereas Carr ignores mainstream scholarship more or less entirely.

                      The difference is that while I hold views that are outside of the mainstream view (e.g. inerrancy), these views are not necessary for the arguments I make (that the gospels are more or less reliable historical documents for instance), so why bring them up? It’s just not relevant. Carr’s positions rely on mainstream scholarship being wrong. That’s the difference.

                    4. ‘If you follow what happens in other blogs, people tend to write the lengthy replies needed to his (often very out of the mainstream) statements….’

                      No links to these alleged refutations.

                      And naturally , there is no pointing out that I demolish these ‘refutations’ on a regular basis….

                    5. And robhu is right when I often do not reply when I see people posting ‘lengthy refutations’ which simply confirm that they are unable to answer my arguments and are simply parroting stuff that I already smashed.

                      Christians often do that.

                      If their arguments are taken apart, they simply repeat them.

                      But what they never ever do is produce any evidence that , for example, the following people actually existed – Judas, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Bartimaeus, Simon of Cyrene, Mary Magdalene, Joanna,Salome, the other Mary, Martha etc etc

                    6. I guess photographic documented evidence of frauds, lies and plagiarism just isn’t enough for Christians


                      But Christians are trained to degrade opponents with personal abuse and never examine the evidence of their own eyes.

                      Please find ONE Christian in the first century who wrote a document naming himself as ever having heard of Judas, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Bartimaeus, Simon of Cyrene, Mary Magdalene, Joanna,Salome, the other Mary, Martha etc.

                      These people never existed. Not even first century Christians had heard of them.

                      Except in an anonymous book, with no sources, no provenance and full of plagiarised stories from the Old Testament.

                      the earliest Gospel,that of the anonymous person later called ‘Mark’, only has 2 viewpoints, the narrators and Jesus.

                      Only the narrator and Jesus in Mark’s Gospels ever know what is going on in somebody else’s mind.

                      There are only 2 viewpoints.

                      This is a sure sign that it is a novel.

                      If ‘Arimathea’ appeared in the Book of Mormon, you would not be able to click on a Christian site without it gleefully ramming down Mormon throats the fact that no such town has ever been heard of…..

                  2. Anonymous naturally distorts the argument,as not even he can bring himself to write ‘of course the gospel writers used words and phrases and plots similar to the Septuagint’.

                    And, of course Joseph Smith used language similar to the King James Bible. He was familiar witht the text.

                    ‘Ancient historians think that the oral tradition was very important’

                    I guess that is why the authors of Matthew and Luke turned to a written source, Matthew using 90% of Mark’s Gospel.

                    And that is why all 3 writers turned to the Septuagint for their ‘words and phrases’, they were using oral tradition, so naturally used words written in a book.


              2. Of course the Gospel of Mark is non-historical.

                Where did the soldiers get a purple robe from to put on Jesus?

                Only kings and senior noblemen could wear purple, and they would not have allowed their old clothes to be used to dress up criminals in and spat on, no more than the Queen uses her old furs as dusters.

                And then there is the unheard of custom of a convicted criminal being released each Passover.

                Barabbas would have been crucified, not kept languishing in jail.

                And this convicted criminal just happened to be called ‘Son-of-the-Father’,and was released although guilty, while the real Son of the Father was about to be killed, although innocent.

                This is all as symbolic as the names in Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrims Progress’.


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