Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Jon Ronson's one-hour Channel 4 doco on the Alpha course (a ten-week church-run introduction to Christianity) doesn't really portray anyone in a great light, including the film-maker himself.

His narration sounds quite condescending towards the whole thing, but despite this he never quite points at anything as actually wrong.

For example, he seems to have a problem with the table-leaders getting prepped in advance on the participants' most likely questions. Of course, that's just sensible planning, so having gleefully paraded some of the associated pamphlets on the screen, he then passes no actual judgement on them.

Then on week one, in an interview away from the group, table-leader Sharon is filmed saying the following:

Sharon: "I think it's in these first couple of weeks where it's about the facts about faith that the same old stuff comes up, like, err, why do we need the Bible? Why do we need Jesus? Erm… those things."

On a later day, Robson re-interviews her on the same subject, but this time, presumably recalling her opinion from earlier, he words his question in a way that will make her affirmative answer sound horrible. He also asks it to her jokingly. Unfortunately, she falls for it.

Ronson: "Do you think the people who are all sort of belligerent and intellectual in a kind of agnostic way in an Alpha course sometimes aren't as clever as they think they are?"

Sharon: (smirks)"Yeah!" (chuckles) "Definitely."

Ronson: "Many people think they come up with really clever original thoughts, but in fact it's the same thoughts that…"

Sharon: "Yeah."

Ronson: "…everybody has? So much that Nicky Gumbel's even done pamphlets?"

Sharon: "Sheets…"

Ronson: "Yeah."

Sharon: (giggles) "Say yeah, there y'go, there's that." (giggles)

Later on, Ronson's editing also endows himself with the power of foresight. Throughout he claims to have been wondering which one of the participants would be the one to make a commitment at the end. Of course, he couldn't possibly have known that one of them would make such a decision until after the course had finished, following which he would have written his narration in retrospect.

Despite all that, Ronson's claim in Radio Times that he "wanted to make [a film] that both Christians and agnostics would like" is largely borne-out. As I said above, despite his tone, he passes no actual judgement on proceedings, and everyone comes across as a fairly regular person.

I've never been on an Alpha course, though I nearly helped run one in Auckland once, (I clean forgot to show-up) but my main problem was that the course portrayed in this film appeared to be teaching just one strain of Christianity, rather than offering the diverse wealth of opinions that the worldwide church discusses.

For example, the answer to a question like "What about other religions?" here is given as that those believers will, unfortunately, be denied Heaven. A more honest answer would be that some Christians believe that, while others don't. Not everyone even believes in a literal Hell.

Had this Alpha group been encouraged to discuss some of the different and contradictory opinions that various Christian philosophies have about Christianity, then each person could have discovered which answers made the most sense to them personally. Were those who felt uncomfortable at the speaking in tongues section encouraged that there are many Christians who feel the same way as them?

It was sad to see so many members of the group, at the end, leave Christianity behind, apparently believing that this was the only version of it on offer. They had come openly willing to explore Christianity, but that searching had, on some level, been discouraged, it seemed.

Even sadder that so many TV viewers may have turned-off with the same blinkered misconception.

But maybe I'm the one with the misconception.

After all, it was TV.

Review of Revelations: Muslim School here.
Review of Revelations: Commando Chaplains here.
Review of Revelations: The Exhumer here.
Review of Revelations: Muslim and Looking for Love here.
Review of Revelations: Divorce Jewish Style here.
Review of Revelations: Talking to the Dead here.
Review of Revelations: How Do You Know God Exists? here.


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