Sunday, 30 October 2011

Alpha Course, Week 3: Why Did Jesus Die?

I forgot to remove my chewing gum before I arrived for the third session of The Alpha Course at Brighton’s St Peter’s Church.

I went straight from work this time, which meant I didn’t get a chance to collect a book I’d been handed the previous week. The book is called “Why Trust the Bible?” by Amy Orr-Ewing and it had been lent to me by the lead-helper of the group, with whom I’d shared a lovely apres-Alpha pint of Harvey’s after the first session. He’d dug up the book for me after I declared that their God had some terrible things attributed to him in the Old Testament. In particular, I had referred to God’s instruction that the returning Israelites slaughter every single one of the Canaanites, with no mercy for the women and children. After reading the recommended chapter I felt unsatisfied to put it mildly, and disgusted to put it accurately.

A more detailed account of what I read is appended to the end of this post as it’s not quite in keeping with my main mission here, which is to relate the Alpha Course to you as I experience it.

I’m not usually a chewer of gum, therefore I’m not very well practised at disposing of it. It stuck to my fingers as I tried to drop it into a bin near the food tables. Those who witnessed this did not laugh at me, for which I was grateful. Tonight’s meal consisted of jacket potatoes with a range of fillings. I did not partake. We usually sit and catch up with each other as people drift in over the first 20 minutes or so, which results in those of us that arrive early repeating ourselves quite a bit. Three new people join our group this week (which spices up the group discussion a bit!) but with a few others not showing up, our circle is still 10 strong. We are given enough time to eat the food and then the session begins.

The Alpha Course Residential Weekend

The Vicar was away so we were welcomed by a chap in his early thirties who reminded us about the forthcoming Alpha Weekend. It starts on a Friday evening and goes through until the Sunday lunchtime. It costs £90 for an adult, but a bursary is available for those who cannot afford this. Partners and children are welcome too. At first I thought the weekend might be a step too far for me, but I’ve changed my mind and I’m pretty certain I will go along. It’ll make my account of the course truly complete. I’ve been on a pilgrimage to Lourdes for goodness’ sakes; of course I can handle a little C of E residential in Bracklesham Bay! Part of the weekend includes a group walk down to the beach and do you know what you always find at low tide at Bracklesham? Fossils. Loads of them. How can I resist?

The congregation stood to sing hymns at this point. The words were shown on the large screen and the guitar man sang into his microphone. The first hymn was “Amazing Grace” which is one of those grand old songs I enjoy up until the point I take heed of the words.

As usual, I was one of a tiny number of people that chose not to stand for the hymn. When I look back to the first week, I’m surprised that I thought so seriously about whether to stand or not, as now I feel very comfortable indeed just sitting there. Straight after Amazing Grace, they went into another hymn called “You Alone Can Rescue”. This one features the lyric “You alone can lift us from the grave” which I think is a rather odd sentiment to set to music. Being in a room full of people all singing that sentence made me feel slightly hopeless about the future prospects for mankind, but as ever, I quickly got over that.

For those subscribed by email, for whom the youtube links don’t work, the verses of “You Alone Can Rescue” have a melody almost as generic as it’s possible to imagine, with a chorus seemingly propagated inside the obsidian heart of Simon Cowell.

The Sermon

With the singing complete, we were introduced to our stand-in speaker for the night; a blonde, curly-haired lady with piercing eyes and a generally vibrant demeanour. At a guess I’d say she was in her early thirties. She told us that she would be talking about why Jesus died. I felt comfortable enough to take notes now, as I usually see some of the believers doing so too. I’m glad about this as the talk turned out to be jam-packed with some surprisingly traditional Christianity. This might make for a rather turgid blog entry but my main aim is give you an accurate idea of what these sessions consist of, without clogging it up with my response to everything.

The Cross

I will call her Jay. After Introducing herself, she started by lightheartedly asking us “What do the following people all have in common? Wayne Rooney, Madonna, Elton John, Jennifer Anniston, Naomi Campbell, the Beckhams and the Pope.”
The answer, we are told, is that they all wear the cross. This hung in the air for a moment. Jay wondered if this might be a little strange, these people all wearing what is actually an execution device. Comparing the donning of a crucifix to wearing earrings with electric chairs or gallows on them, she wondered if we might think her a little weird if she were to do this.

She told us that crucifixion was so cruel that even the Romans eventually stopped doing it and asked why the cross has effectively become the logo of the Christian church; its central image. This evening we would look at this question.

A third of the New Testament, she tells us, consists of the Gospels, three of which describe the death of Christ. During communion services they remember the cross and death of Jesus. Significant people, such as world leaders, usually have the content of their lives remembered, but Christ is remembered, according to Jay, for his death. She pondered on what it is about his death that is so very significant and how his death is significant for our own lives. How can a real understanding of his death lead to a revolutionary change in our lives?

Perhaps, she said, we need to ask ourselves this question first:

What is Humanity’s Greatest Need?

According to studies by psychologists, we are told, humans mostly desire security, belonging and purpose. Surely such things can be obtained from our loved ones, she suggests, so where does Jesus come in to it? Well, Jay tells us that the reason we need Jesus is adequately described by Paul “All have sinned and have fallen short in the glory of God”. We have all sinned, every last one of us. Even Jay’s 3 and 5 year old kids are definitely sinners because one blamed the other for a recent spillage of water. Sin!

“We don’t find it easy to admit that we’ve done things wrong, but sin - by definition - is to fall short of the Glory of God.”

To explain this, Jay envisaged a scale of goodness, asking us to imagine people like Stalin and Hitler at the bottom, and Mother Theresa at the top ( Yes, this Mother Theresa ). We would be somewhere in the middle. The ultimate standard is:

“..the Glory of God. That standard is Jesus, the man who do did nothing wrong. Jesus was perfect. It says in the bible he never sinned”.

When we compare ourselves to Jesus, we are obviously below his standard; we’ve all done things wrong.

So why does sin matter? Jay asked. She said there are 4 serious reasons that sin is important. I’ll list them here and then go over what was said about each one:

Sin pollutes.
Sin is powerful.
Sin has a penalty.
Sin makes partition.

Look! they all begin with P - that will help us to remember them! How serendipitous!

Sin Pollutes

Jay informs us that pollution is the “big topic” in the world; how are we going to fix the problem of pollution in the world? Making one of those little hops of logic so common in such sermons, she immediately tells us that it is possible to “pollute our own lives, our own souls”. In Mark 7:20, Jesus himself says:

“What comes out of you is what makes you unclean.”

Jay elucidates by telling us that this means:

“from out of our hearts come evil thoughts; sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly. All of these things come from inside and they make you unclean.”

We are told that committing only one of these sins pollutes our entire soul. There is no room for self-satisfaction if we do not commit all of those sins, as even committing a single one is enough to sully us. We are given an example of finding ourselves in a court of law on charges of theft. Saying: “well I haven’t murdered anybody” will not affect the outcome of your theft trial.

Sin is Powerful

Sin is powerful. According to Jay, Jesus says “We are slaves to sin” and also that it is possible to become addicted to bad temper, arrogance, pride, envy, selfishness, lust, gossip etc. These things can grip our lives.

Sin has a Penalty.

Jay asks us:

“When you read the newspapers, what are the things that make you angry? Cases of child abuse? An old lady being mugged? Something within us rises up and says that’s not fair.. something in our nature cries out for justice - we’ve been made that way, to cry out for justice”

If you recall, last week I expressed incredulity that Christians did not seem to think that a sense of justice was a natural human trait, born of an innate sense of empathy. This was after The Vicar had claimed that Jesus had practically invented the concepts of justice and fairness. In this instance however, the inbuilt human sense of justice is restored by the speaker and directly invoked in support of the point she is making. Would I have noticed this inconsistency if I had not written it down? No.

Jay goes on to say that this is how God sees our sin; with his own natural sense of what is wrong. “He sees how the sin is hurting us and he hates it - he can’t live with it, and because he’s God, he does something about it”.

The Partition Caused by Sin.

In Romans 6:23 it says  “The wages of sin is death”. We are reassured here that the death referred to is not just physical death, (people sin every day, Jay says “and we’re not all dying left, right and centre”) but a spiritual death, a cutting off from God. This barrier between us and God is made by the wrong things we do.

She tells us that when we feel that our earnest prayers are not answered, this is because of the sins we have committed.

As long as we sin, we can’t attain the personal relationship with God that is being offered. I wonder how this relates to the statements of previous weeks, where The Vicar and members of my group spoke of their personal, close relationship with God. They acknowledge that they are sinners, but they also claim to have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. Perhaps they are talking about a subtly different type of personal relationship with him, otherwise this would be a contradiction.

Such contradictions seem to be easily assimilated into the Christian worldview when they are separated by a few days. It’s easy to gloss over the inconsistency between Jay’s statement:

“Christianity promises a living, dynamic, speaking, hearing relationship with God. A level of intimacy with the almighty God which changes everything. But we simply can’t have it while we have this barrier between us and God”

..and the statements made by The Vicar in the first week, where he spoke of his “real” relationship with God; or the members of my circle whose personal relationship with God is almost taken for granted.

We are being sold Jesus as the only way to God one week, and then sinlessness as the way to God the following week. If we are without sin, there is nothing blocking our path to God, so where does Jesus come in? I ask myself. My answer involves original sin, which is the one sin we can’t rid ourselves of. Thank you, God.

Back to the sermon, where, as it happens, Jay is about to tell us exactly where Jesus comes in. Referring back to her earlier question “What is humanity’s greatest need?” she says we have been separated from God and we need something that brings us back. She laughs as she suggests that we might all being feeling a bit depressed about it all right now, but she assures us that we shouldn’t worry, as we’re getting on to the good stuff. The good news is:

“God. Loves. You.”

He doesn’t just leave us, stuck in our sinning ways. He apparently wants a relationship with us and he loves us and he wants to do something about it all. Jay then quoted John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

So, Jay asks, what was the solution? What did God do? She tells us about the idea of the self-substitution of God:

“Basically, God came to Earth in the form of his son, Jesus Christ, to die for you and to die for me.”

She then quotes 1 Peter 2:24 “By his wounds you have been healed” and asks what this means. To tell us what it means, she relates a story. This is the tale of a Polish priest who, while incarcerated at a German concentration camp, substituted himself in place of a man who was being taken away for execution. . Jay tells us 150,000 people attended a mass in his honour in St Peter’s Square in 1982. This turnout was apparently “A victory like that won by our lord Jesus Christ” according to the Pope himself.

Jay concedes that this is not a perfect analogy of what Jesus has done for us, but Jesus has basically taken our place and died on the cross in our stead. If it isn’t a perfect analogy then why use it at all, I wondered, other than as an opportunity to tell a story about a selfless Christian; showing us how great Christians are.

Inserting an inaccurate analogy here seems like little more than product placement to me. At a point where the audience were primed and ready for an explanation of what God did when faced with the problem of our sin, we are diverted along the route of a story which does not answer this question, but gives us something that is suggestive of the sort of concepts that the answer might include.

The use of questions with no answer, or answers that don’t quite fit the question provides many opportunities for “mystery” to be involved and for the insertion of more tales of the goodness of Christians. It seems like a deliberate tactic. The sermon has asked questions, and offered answers but not in any attempt to further knowledge or to try to pin down a logical route to understanding. The questions are a framework upon which a series of favourable images of Christianity can be draped. You feel like you are going to have knowledge revealed, but you are given only a set of oblique references and propaganda. I digress.

Joachim Beaukelaer - Christ on the Cross (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sacrifice on the Cross

The crucifixion, we are told, also allowed Jesus to truly feel what it was like to be human. For the first time in his life, he experienced the existential pain of separation from God. Isaiah was recited here to explain that Jesus was like a sacrificial sheep from the old days. In those times, people would transfer their sins into a lamb which would then be slaughtered in sacrifice. Having chosen to be the designated sacrificial lamb, God has chosen to experience the pain and suffering we all go through, proving that he is not an aloof God.

Personally, I’d say that even if this act did suspend his aloofness temporarily, in the wider context of history, God is still for the most part highly aloof, to the point of his aloofness being indistinguishable from non-existence. A single incidence of non-aloofness does not a non-aloof deity make.

There are 4 results of what was achieved by Jesus on the cross:

One: The slate has been wiped clean. The sins of the world have been taken away, by Jesus: the one perfect sacrificial lamb.

Two: We can be set free from the both the power of and addiction to sin. “If the son sets you free, you are free indeed”. We are regaled with the supporting story of a hopeless local alcoholic being instantly cured of his addiction after he accepted Jesus into his life. Instantly. He said so.

Three: We can receive total forgiveness. Paul says “Through Christ’s death we have been justified”. Another story: Two childhood friends; one becomes a criminal, the other a judge. One day, the criminal is in court in front of this very judge, by chance. The judge fines the man £500 and promptly takes off his wig and writes out a cheque for £500 which he gives to his wayward old buddy. This is like God and us - he has to judge us but he wants to help us pay the price by killing himself in human form.

Four: We can come home and become part of God’s family, where we can feel relaxed and safe.

God was in Christ. If he wasn’t God, his sacrifice and the whole mechanism of the forgiveness of sin would not work. Jay reminds us one last time that God loves us - even if we were alone on the planet, Jesus would still have come down and sacrificed himself for our sake.

For the first time on the course, we were invited as a group to participate in a prayer with Jay. Here it is:

“Jesus Christ, thank you for dying for me on the cross.
I’m sorry for the things in my life that have been wrong
I now turn away from everything I know is wrong and I receive your gift of forgiveness.
I put my trust in what you did for me on the cross.
Fill me with your holy spirit and give me new life.

Jay leaves us with the sentiment that there might be a lot to take in from this talk. She’s not wrong, so I’ll share the content of the group discussion in my next installment. A lot of what Jay spoke about this week demands a point-by-point response, but I think I’ve commented enough for one week. I’d love you to give me your own reactions in the comments though. If you want a little more, then feel free to read my response (below) to the content of the book I was lent.

Next Week: The Vicar returns, to ask the question “How can we have faith?” You won’t by now be surprised to hear that there is no definite answer, it’s just a rhetorical gambit.


“What About All the Wars?”

Here’s my account of what I read in "Why Trust the Bible?" by Amy Orr-Ewing, for those that are interested.

The book consists of 10 chapters, each of which address a “tough question”. I didn’t read the whole book as I was reading David Aaronovitch’s excellent “Voodoo Histories” at the time. I did read the whole of the chapter entitled “What About All the Wars?” which had been specified as the best response to my queries. I won’t quote the entire sequence of fallacies but the chapter opens like this:

“I am often asked how I can believe in God when there have been so many wars caused by religion. The implication of this question is that if only people would leave behind their convictions about the existence of God, the world would be a much better, more peaceful place. Of course, very few people ever reflect on the fact that the very reverse of this was demonstrated in the twentieth century, which saw the rise of the atheistic communist and Nazi ideologies and more killing than the previous nineteen centuries put together”

She goes on to acknowledge that religions have indeed led to wars and that the crusades:

“..should never have happened and are certainly not a true reflection of what Jesus came to say and accomplish”.

In that first paragraph, she sidesteps the opening question by introducing the straw man that asking “How can you believe in God when there have been so many wars caused by religion” is the same thing as believing that without religion, war would disappear. This is a rather obvious fallacy; one can easily ask this question and know that humans fight over all sorts of things - such as territory, for example. She does not answer this question at any point in the chapter; surprising given it’s brought up in the very first sentence of the opening paragraph. My response to the equating of atheism and Nazism etc is to rest my face in the palm of my hand for a few moments.

The chapter goes on to inform us that the Bible came up with rules of war so that they can be fought honourably. The author refers to the “Kindness in the use of the sword” described in Deuteronomy 20, along with ideas such as the requirement for cities to be offered the chance “ capitulate before a full-scale siege and the destruction of the city.”

I will quote one more sizable extract so that you can see I am not being creative in my positioning of quotation marks. This is the part that refers specifically to the Canaanites. If you remember, I had asked during the first week “I don’t know what the Canaanite children could have been guilty of that would justify their slaughter”. Bear that question in mind as you read this extract:

“In this context the women and children were to be spared from death and were to be cared for by their captors (Deuteronomy 20:14) Only in the case of the particularly depraved inhabitants of Canaan itself was there to be total destruction. The reason given for this was the likely corruption of the moral spiritual standards of Israelite society, in areas such as child sacrifice: ‘they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). This is important as Israel had been chosen to be the bearers of God’s self-revelation to the world; they had been given the precious task of making God known.”

(Emphasis mine)

Where do I start here? Remember, this chapter had been recommended to me by a real, live, pleasant man so that I may find an answer to my concern that the God of the bible might be a capricious, murderous despot. I could go on for hours about this, so I will force myself into a few bullet-points:

  • The “Total destruction” of the “particularly depraved” is legitimised. Think of the persecution of homosexual people in Uganda, deemed depraved by their Christian tormentors.
  • Who at the time decided what depravity is? We know this concept to be subjective.
  • Is the “Likely corruption” of “moral spiritual standards” really sufficient justification for the total destruction of an entire people? Not even actual corruption, but “Likely”.
  • Couldn’t the Israelites have simply chosen not to “follow the detestable things they [the Canaanites] do in worshipping their gods”? I choose not to sacrifice babies every day; I don’t demand the slaughter of those who I am told might try to teach me that it was a good idea. This disdain for the Canaanites sounds like base racism backed up by myths perpetuated by bigots to justify hatred and murder.
  • So because God had “chosen” the Israelites for the precious task of making himself known, they were given licence to slaughter those who might try to corrupt them. Who, apart from the Israelites at the time, was saying that the Israelites were God’s chosen people? Effectively, any self-proclaimed “chosen poeple” can justify genocide, by using the bible’s example.

Pardon my language, please but this thinking is not just idiotic, but contemptible. This is the 21st century and yet still we can see a book full of these ideas being passed from one human to another as a serious attempt to make sense of a “tough question”.


  1. The sermon sounds like a very typical form of scattergun argument with bible verses plucked from all over the place with no contextualisation. If it was a wikipedia article it would have 'citation needed' stamped all over it. For example, the speaker talks about 'sin' polluting a 'soul' without explaining what a soul is, how we know it exists and how you can show the difference between a clean and a polluted one.

    The biblical quotes are backed up with weak analogies and unsupported anecdotes - did she tell you the name of the cured alcoholic and whether he is still sober? How many alcoholics have asked to be cured and not been healed? What's the success rate?

    The 'answer to the tough question' just shows how heartless the whole sordid business is. The liberal christians prefer not to think about such things and so pass it off to theologians who excuse brutality with weasel logic.

  2. I couldn't agree more, Neil.

    In this instance, the name of the miraculously recovered alcoholic was given - he's a local homeless guy. It's still just an anecdote, of course.
    Funnily enough, I heard exactly the same anecdote on this morning's "Sunday Worship" on Radio 4. I guess there's no shortage of recovering alcoholics who attribute their recovery to their faith; just as there is no shortage of those who do not. These tales don't get repeated in sermons though.

  3. As a liberal Christian (sorry Neil!), I am very confused by these attempts to justify reading the bible as though it's a history book. Any reading of the bible should come with a contextual understanding of its emergence from a group of people whose belief in the nature of their deity was significantly different from that of modern Christians. There is no unified consistent worldview here, which is why trying to fabricate one is only going to lead either to inconsistency or, at the very least, to coming off as utterly callous. Contradictions are only to be expected between a document rooted in Bronze Age practices (the Old Testament) and another coming from around 70CE onwards, both of which are being read from our vastly different late modern perspective. Trying to explain away the contradictions while continuing to represent the bible as literally 'true' is a losing battle.

    That's why I'm glad the mainly secular-focused discipline of Biblical Studies exists. Evangelicals would still be arguing that archaeology backs up the Bible (*ahem* - finding what you look for, anyone?) if it weren't for its interdisciplinary approach. We also wouldn't have our current range of evidence that suggests Jesus may not even have existed, and that if he did, he was certainly not what the early church represented him as later on. The Q source, for example, suggests that (if he existed) he was an educated scribe with an emancipatory focus on the immediate needs of the poor people in his community, and that at least one of the early church communities did not believe he had risen from the dead.

    I can also tell you, thanks to a childhood wasted in evangelical churches, that the examples and illustrations cited above ('healed' alcoholics, judges paying the fine, etc) have been being trotted out for at least three decades now.

    I also think they've failed to explain some key points of their own Christian (or at least evangelical) theology in this presentation, from what you're saying. They either have no grasp on what theologians have understand Jesus' role as being, in relation to sin, or they have a very limited ability to relate that belief to people who are outside of their context.

  4. I think the core script of the Alpha Course is indeed based on a more comprehensive grasp of "what theologians understand Jesus' role as being", but it is necessarily diluted in order to be palatable to the target audience of the course: the believer with doubts, as opposed to the theologian.

    The way that the course seeks to fill the theological gaps is by recommending a couple of books each week. Those who require a more nuanced (finessed?) explanation may find them there. However, it does seem to me, in talking to my group, that a simple, blurry idea is perfectly acceptable to them, and there doesn't seem to be much of a demand for closer scrutiny.

    Jay did linger more on the specifics of Jesus' sacrifice than I did in the blog, but I don't want to end up effectively transcribing the whole thing. What I report here is what I take from the sermons; it may well be that others would take something different away.

    If you'd like to hear the actual sermon in its entirety, you can do so at their surprisingly up-to-date website, here:

  5. Hmm. I see your point, that providing books could fill the gaps. My concern would be, as you say, that most people following this framework would be content with the sketchy ideas given. That would be something interesting to research - what do people who attend Alpha courses end up believing, and how does their faith change over some years after? I'll have to look into whether that's been researched before.

    Thanks for the link to the sermon! I might not make it through it all, but I'll be interested to have a listen.

  6. The Alpha Course does intrigue me. Although it is advertised as being for non-believers, people with some sort of existing Christian belief seem to be in the majority. It also seems to be coming from a particular evangelical point of view, which is probably not representative of main stream Christianity.

    As I said earlier, they seem to be throwing a lot of ideas at the participants without going into any sort of depth to explain them. Following the logic of the sermon does mean accepting the existence of a soul before any of the other points make sense, for example.

    Thanks for the reply Naomi! I would say that even if you read the Old Testament as allegory rather than literal historical truth, you're left with a picture of a God commanding his chosen people to commit genocide on an epic scale. How are we supposed to reconcile this with 'God is love' without simply ignoring large parts of the bible? Even the new testament has problematic sections from a liberal perspective (although as a historical fencer I do like the bit about selling your coat to buy a sword :-) ).

  7. I'm afraid irony passes most Christians by, especially the evangelical types who think the Bible is a piece of reportage. The irony of punishing the Caananites for their depravity in sacrificing children, by killing them with their children really doesn't register with them. Deep down they object to child sacrifice not because it is cruel but because it is contrary to God's will. Whereas killing the lot of them is in accordance with God's will, so perfectly okay. Naomi's view is sadly out of keeping with anything you will hear on the Alpha Course. They adopt a near-fundamentalist view that everything after Genesis is literally true.

    Oh, and even though Alpha is advertised as being for non-believers, that's just PR. Most of the people who attend are already church members. The number of converts is tiny. If you want to know more, read Stephen Hunt's excellent book, The Alpha Enterprise. He is a sociologist and his study is thorough and serious.

  8. I am an atheist who, like you, has been posting experiences of the Alpha course. We share the same sense of incredulity at the course's content.

    I'd appreciate your thoughts on my series: