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The Alpha Course is a ten-week course about Christianity typically run by churches. The Reverend Charles Marnham started it in 1977 at Holy Trinity Brompton in London. Later Nicky Gumbel took over and completely rewrote the course in 1990, directly inspired by and cribbing from the Toronto Blessing.
The Alpha Course is promoted as designed for atheists, agnostics and the "unchurched", and as encouraging philosophical reflection on such heady issues as the meaning of life. This is completely false; in practice, it competes at the theologically simplistic Pentecostal and Evangelical end of the religious market. The aim is to "steeplejack" an existing church's membership for the Charismatic movement, using incentives such as funding for social programmes conditional on running Alpha.[note 1]
Sessions usually consist of a meal followed by 40-minute long videos of Gumbel ranting then about an hour of discussion in small groups. Attendees are issued with a copy of the Alpha Guide (a 90-page booklet covering the basic course structure), and are strongly advised to purchase copies of Gumbel's book Questions of Life, which is basically word-for-word the same as the speeches he gives in the videos.
The course features a weekend residential component (often at conclusion of the course but sometimes at the halfway point if the organisers think attention is likely to be flagging at this point) where everyone goes a bit bonkers and starts speaking in tongues, getting slain in the spirit and all sorts of other Pentecostal stuff that non-evangelicals tend to think is a bit over the top for the Church of England.[note 2]
Less strident Christians tend to think of it as cultish and don't really like it showing up in their C of E, sometimes taking the time to make sure it doesn't get a foothold. They are particularly troubled by the way people show up with great enthusiasm, get baptised, are enthusiastic for two weeks then disappear, and feel this is unhealthy and doesn't produce a very stable mental outlook (which is also the humanist objection). The first week's shaky and unsupportable claims of a solidly historical Jesus (using, e.g., Josephus) often fail to make friends with people who've read a book.
What people have said about the Alpha Course
“”Alpha... is probably the most interesting and incredible thing going on in our Christian world.
|—Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom|
“”Alpha is fantastic because it explains it so simply and you go, 'Wow, why didn't I think of that?'
|—Bobby Ball, comedian|
“”I’ve nearly thrown it at the wall three times in frustration whilst reading it since Monday evening; it’s the most appallingly-written piece of codswallop that no tree should ever have had to die to perpetuate, frankly.
|—one RationalWikian, a Christian, on attempting to read Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel, the main text for the course|
- Alpha male — a series by Adam Rutherford for the Guardian
- Alpha Helix — User:Yorkie goes on the course and blogs about it
- Alpha Course: Reviewed by Stephen Butterfield
- As an aside, churches are not the only place where one can run into Alpha Courses. At least in Finland, they are sometimes offered as a free time activity in the armed forces, with additional days of leave awarded for completing n lectures of it.
- This shit actually happened at the Alpha Course in Mid Wales one poor RationalWikian found himself on.