I came across an article about Tabitha Leggett’s experience as an atheist taking Christianity’s Alpha Course, which is a several-week program that runs in churches around the world. January of 2006 came rushing back to mind — when I enrolled in and attended the Alpha at the United Methodist Church in my neighborhood.
Billed as a hard-hitting course for Seekers, in which you can ask any question and explore the deeper issues together, Alpha is actually a dinner club for lifelong Christians who don’t even have any questions. Some of the people told me it was their fourth, sixth, or even tenth time taking the course. They were there for the grilled chicken and baked sweet potato, along with the “fellowship” (which is a word Christians use to mean socializing with other Christians).
Right away I knew I was out of place. First of all, I was the only non-Christian in the entire room. This was the larger room where we ate before being ushered into classrooms for small group discussion. Literally everyone else was already Christian.
The man who organized and ran the local program sat next to me for a few minutes and made small talk. I asked him some questions about the course and was surprised when he answered, “How much theology is taught?” with, “Basically, none. It’s a place for discussion.” We spoke a few more minutes and, when I mentioned my background in comparative religion, he said, “That explains a lot.” It wasn’t a compliment.
Eventually my dinner table was fully seated: there was me, a woman in her mid-fifties who loved dogs, and a young couple with small children. I had a new puppy at the time, and my own children were still fairly small, so I enjoyed talking with everyone. The couple said they were worried about leaving their children in the nursery because their little girl often cried if they weren’t around and they wondered if they’d get paged to go get her midway through.
The following week, I thought I’d sit with the same people again. I immediately sat down next to the woman who loved dogs, and then another woman she knew sat with us. When the woman I’d assumed I’d become friends with saw the young couple from the previous week, she pointed them out to the woman I’d just met and said, “Yeah, their kids are poorly behaved or something.” That’s when my guard went up, and I didn’t let it down the rest of my time there.
As for the course itself, after you eat, you watch a video on a large pull-down screen like we used to do in grade school. A British man talks from a podium in an Anglican church. So the person actually teaching the course is someone you’ll never meet and of whom you can’t ask questions.
After the video, you go to your classroom and sit with ten or twelve other people and a group facilitator. She’s not a theologian, minister, or religious leader of any kind. Her training is in group dynamics. She has a list of questions to ask and she makes sure everyone in the room gets a chance to share their thoughts.Some of their thoughts include, “I’m so glad I’m saved,” and “I feel sorry for all the people of other religions who think they’re right with God but are going to Hell because they don’t know Jesus.” Everyone nods vigorously at these assertions, and I simply press my lips into a fine line.
When the woman on my left asks why the United Methodist Church allows a prayer group during the day in which Catholics show up to pray the rosary together, I speak up. As a devotee of the Divine Mother, I have a special fondness for Mary. I told her that, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” is a direct quote from the angel Gabriel in the book of Luke. (In Hindi, the prayer starts: “Pranam Maria, kripa puran Prabhu tere sat hai.”) I myself have prayed the rosary, though I’ve never been Catholic. I consider it among the most beautiful spiritual practices in Christianity.
The woman went on an anti-Catholic tirade, spewing such vitriol that I recoiled in my seat. Fortunately, the facilitator reigned her in and moved on to another topic of discussion. I never did discover why someone else’s prayers could set a person off like that. We each have our own sadhana.
One of the topics that came up was: what is your favorite Bible translation? I had an answer for that. If I’m going to read the Bible, I love the New Living Translation. Everyone sort of sniffed and told me it wasn’t a “real” Bible. I had read the “about this translation”notes and I knew that, though it was the descendant of a paraphrase (The Living Bible), it was an actual translation by a team of scholars. Plus, I could actually understand what I was reading. I had read in Acts that the disciples were walking and, since something was only a quarter mile, they kept going. I know how far a quarter mile is. Other versions say that since it was only a Sabbath’s day walk, they kept going. The rest of the group agreed that they didn’t need their scripture watered down and they already knew what a “Sabbath’s day walk” was.
What was the final outcome for me?
I didn’t join their church, that’s for sure. I shelved my Bible. For about a year and a half, I had been attending their informal Sunday evening “Seeker-friendly” services, which involved free coffee and group singing. The singing is one of my favorite things about church; if it weren’t for the sermons I might go just for that. But after Alpha, I stopped attending. In fact, I haven’t set foot in a church since.
Did I find the meaning of life? Did I find the answers to any hard questions? Definitely not. No one else asked any difficult questions, and I felt more and more inhibited to speak each week. If I’d had any questions, I would certainly not have felt safe to ask them in that setting.
What did I get out of it? I want to say nothing. But that’s not fair. There was free food. I like food. Plus, it was healthy food, with a surprising focus on vegetables. If you have a preconception that “church food” involves heavy casseroles and things suspended in Jell-o, you would be pleasantly surprised by the light, nutritious dinners.
The best part of Alpha, to me, was their promo videos. If the tone of the course was anything like the tone of the advertisements, I think I would have enjoyed it.