Thursday, September 24, 2009


You may have seen the billboards, or the signs plastered to the side of the bus that just drove past: a question, phrased vaguely by intention - "Does God exist?" or "Is this all there is?" - followed by a set of check-box answers, yes, no, maybe, perhaps, I don't know. It is meant to be passive and indeterminate, to draw you in with a simple but profound premise and equally simple but profound responses. The posters are purposely indirect; one would be put off by assertion.
The posters, billboards and signs are all part of an advertising scheme for the Alpha Course, a ten-week guided course of, if you will, spiritual discovery. I'd know nothing of them were it not for a colleague of mine inviting me to dinner.
Several churches in the area were sponsoring the course, and the room at the Jaipur Spice restaurant was packed full of nearly a hundred people, chatting, sipping drinks, eagerly awaiting the offerings on the buffet. After dinner, an introduction, a short speech about "asking questions," and hastily-edited video of past participants. I felt uncomfortable. It was the kind of sales pitch which is heavy-handed precisely because it purports to be "no pressure." When the people are so nice, they just wonder if you'd consider, well, you know, you don't have to come... and in the end you are guilted into attending by your own mistaken conscience. It is insidious, this "feel-good," embarrassing, individualistic and "tame" brand of Christianity. No matter how intellectual the course organizers claim it to be, in the end it still comes down to the "you have to just take it on faith" argument. You begin with the same questions as everyone ("what is the meaning of life?") and end with the answers they want you to have, because they make it feel as though that's the only solution. It isn't called "Alpha" because it sounds good. It's called alpha because it leads you to omega, and that's the design.
I wondered, as I sat there listening to the speaker spin the same old web of scriptural infallibility (though in the guise of questions - "surely the Bible can't be really, totally true, right?"), what the restaurant employees thought of it all. Did the waiters see Christianity as a threat to their mother religion? Were they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or perhaps nothing at all? Had they heard it all before, as I had?
At the conclusion of the evening, there was not much to complain about, as there had not been much of substance up to that point. There was only dinner and a sales pitch, slightly less over-the-top than the typical timeshare broker, but all the more underhanded for not being overt. A friend of my colleague's asked, "so, do you think you might come next week?" I lied. I told him I couldn't, as I'd be out of town. I resisted the urge to lecture him - I have been down this road before, sir, and have no desire to regress - and instead just made pleasant conversation about what it's like to be a scientist, just as earlier I had resisted the urge to laugh at the man who claimed he took a "scientific approach" to religion.

"Great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses. And now, as all the world is in error, how shall I, though I know the true path, how shall I guide? If I know that I cannot succeed and yet try to force success, this would be but another source of error. Better then to desist and strive no more. But if I do not strive, who will?" - Chuang Tzu


  1. Hi, Kelly-

    What a fantastic quote!

    Sounds like your friends have learned a few tricks from the scientologists. Getting back to their origins as a cult, I dare say! And what a comedown from the era 200 years ago and more when it was the best and the brightest who entered the theological professions.

  2. These sneaky mega-churches and alternatives to "normal" church......

    In the battle of culture, secularism has won. Free pizza and "you can wear what you want" has trumped a feeling of holiness each Sunday.

    Now they're offering conferences apparently, appealing to the intellect, or trying to. You are right - it comes down to a subjective feeling, "holy spirit epistemology" as William Lane Craig and others call it, after which any intellectually argument only needs to retreat to the possible. It's plausibility over probability.

    It's enough to turn me atheist. ;)

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. Burk, you're right, it reminded me of a hilarious commercial I saw for scientology once (it's posted on youtube somewhere - the scientology "Truth" advertisement). Steven, I agree that the progressive church, in trying to "win back" the masses, has turned from sanctity to comfort. Part of what I liked about the Episcopal church, actually.

  4. I should add that I think much of the "strength" of the program comes from its allowing participants to feel as though they came to those conclusions on their own. As we know well (and Huxley stated so eloquently): "Being in a crowd is the best-known antidote to independent thought."


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