19 million people and one beagle have taken the Alpha Course. Designed for those who want to explore the Christian faith, Alpha’s tag line is,
If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?
I took Alpha three and a half years ago, shortly after my exit from evangelical Christianity. I had lots of questions that I had concluded were unanswerable from the evangelical perspective, but I thought I would give it one more go.
It turned out that my questions were not the ones the course was designed to answer, but I did make a couple of good friends, and I still get together with them every few weeks. When the church organized a reunion of the many Alpha classes they have held, I accepted their very warm invitation.
This is the story of how I got hypnotized at the reunion.
The evening was structured just like a regular Alpha meeting. We began with a truly superb pot-luck dinner, sang a few worship songs, watched a video, and finally broke up into small groups for discussion.
Our discussion centered on a question that was something like “How did Alpha change your life for the better?”
One after another, the people in my circle described in glowing terms how Alpha had improved their lives. One man said he had been a church-goer all his life, but Alpha taught him for the first time what Christianity was really about. A woman shared how Alpha had equipped her to find peace in the midst of some difficult personal circumstances.
I felt that I could not say a thing.
The group leader even encouraged “those who have not spoken yet” to say something, but I was rendered mute.
Normally, I have to hold myself back from hogging the floor. Why could I say nothing here?
Well, every aspect of the evening had been unintentionally arranged to encourage group unity. It was very uncomfortable to dissent from the “Alpha changed my life” party line.
I want to emphasize that unintentional part. No group of people could have been more welcoming, kind and sincere. Even what they said about unbelievers was refreshingly humble and sensitive. For example, my small-group leader, a scientist by profession, said that Alpha had taught him how to explain to his atheist co-workers “why these questions are important.” He did not say, “why Christianity is the only way,” much less, “why God’s justice demands that they go to hell.”
So what made it impossible to speak?
First, I had shared dinner with these wonderful people. Many of them had lovingly prepared truly excellent food. (This church really knows how to cook!) Who wants to bite the hand that has just fed you?
Then there was the worship: everyone in the room facing the same direction and singing, in unison, songs that were soothing and affirming.
You [God] are my strength when I am weak;
You are the treasure that I seek;
You are my all in all.
Seeking You as a precious jewel,
Lord, to give up I’d be a fool.
You are my all in all.
Next, we had the video about how wonderful and successful Alpha has been. As could only be expected, this was not a critical examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the program. It was 100% positive. Oh — and while watching it I was enjoying coffee and homemade pastries. The hand that fed me again.
By the time we got to the group discussion, I really didn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. If I had said the truth — that Alpha did not answer any of my questions, did not change my life, and only confirmed my conclusion that people become evangelical Christians for insufficient reasons — I have no doubt that the group would have received my words politely. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
If the evening had consisted of only the discussion, and if the question for discussion had been framed in a way that encouraged a variety of perspectives and critical thought, my response might have been different.
For example, the question could have been, “What were the high and low points of your Alpha experience?” I could easily have answered that the high point was making new friends, and the low point was that my questions were neither answered nor, ultimately, welcome.
But no, I was hypnotized by the meal, the music and the group-think.
Still, I’m glad I went. Good food, good friends, and I discovered my own limits.