From the Alpha course to the Book of Mormon

In the last few days, I’ve had two wonderful, if slightly contradictory, experiences. One was going on the Alpha Weekend, the other was going last night to see the Book of Mormon. I enjoyed them both immensely.

I’ve been going to the Alpha Course for the last five weeks, every Wednesday evening. As most of you will know, Alpha originated at Holy Trinity Brompton, an Anglican church in South Kensington. In 1990, the vicar of HTB, Nicky Gumbel, turned it from a Bible study course for Christians into a 10-week evening course open to Christians and non-Christians. It’s been very successful: according to HTB, there are now 66,000 Alpha courses in 169 countries, and 20 million people have done the course worldwide in churches of various denominations (those figures sound almost incredible...but it certainly has spread far and wide - a friend of mine in Beirut tells me he also started the course last month).

HTB and Alpha have become more and more influential in the Church of England too. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is former HTB and a friend of Nicky's from Cambridge, and the C of E's new theology seminary - the St Paul's Theological Centre - has as one of its four aims: 'Support HTB and Alpha'. The Spectator asked in December if Gumbel could be 'the man to save the Church of England'.

In December, I met the person who runs Alpha at HTB, Toby Flint, through a mutual friend. He’s my age, and a likable and funny person who does something similar to what I do - run courses on the meaning of life - but on a much bigger scale. Toby invited me to do Alpha and, partly out of journalistic curiosity but also out of a genuine desire to find a way back into Christianity, I went along. The first session, there must have been over 600 people packed into HTB, guided to the free food by the salubrious and good-looking helpers, then shepherded into our various small groups. The format of Alpha is you get some free food, then there’s some ‘worship’ (a few songs of Christian rock), then you gather in a room with your group and discuss the week’s topic (‘who was Jesus, how do we pray, what is the Holy Spirit’ and so on). Here, below, is the first talk of the course, by the painter Charlie Mackesy.

I’m lucky enough to be in a group with Nicky Gumbel and his wife Pippa, as well as Toby and another leader called Caroline. I like them enormously, and have become friends with them and the other people in our group. Nicky and Pippa have a great deal of generosity of spirit, humour and humility (Nicky's nick-name in HTB, apparently, is ‘Humble Gumbel’).  They are available- by which I mean they give a lot of their time, energy and care to their community and the people in it (which is the challenge for humanist chaplains). It must be tiring, but they seem to do all the things they do without stress, impatience or agitation.

Even when things go wrong, they go with it with good humour, grace and flow. That’s quite rare - I’ve met so many philosophers with more than their fair share of prickly ego (including myself!), none of whom developed a course now running in 169 countries. The grace comes, I imagine, because they really trust in God.  This enables them to let things go (although in other ways HTB is a very slick organisation). The Gumbels' marriage is also inspiring - they seem to have a great relationship and, as we're often told on the course, Christianity is all about relationships.

The real secret of Alpha’s success is that the leaders do not intervene or argue with the non-believers  in the group sessions - they let things take their course. They leave it to the group to discuss the issues and find their way to their own answers. That non-interventionist policy reminds me of Quaker groups, or the Cafe philosophy groups pioneered by Marc Sautet and others (in fact, one of HTB's recommended books is called Cafe Theology). It's relaxed, urban, cosmopolitan - but also gives you a space to discuss the meaning of life in a non-dogmatic way. You don’t feel hustled or preached at. You can have doubts all along the way. As Bear Grylls, an Alpha convert, puts it, 'it's almost ridiculously laid back'.

The Alpha weekend and the experience of the Holy Spirit

So, you may ask, if it’s more or less like a philosophy group, couldn’t you develop an Alpha course without God? In fact, many people have considered doing just that. I myself am teaching a course which discusses the different definitions of the good life - both theistic and atheistic.

The main difference between a philosophy course and the Alpha course is the Alpha weekend. Those who sign up for the weekend travel to a Butlins-esque holiday camp near Chichester, where we hear talks about the Holy Spirit: how it came to the Apostles during Pentecost, how the early Christians spoke in tongues, how the Holy Spirit gives people wondrous gifts of healing and prophesy and so forth. We discuss a passage from Corinthians 1:

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,and to still another the interpretation of tongues.

Then, on Saturday evening, we are offered the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit. We put out our hands to receive the Holy Spirit, and are told some of the physical manifestations we might feel (tingling, dizziness, crying, a warm glow, speaking in tongues, a feeling of incredible joy and love). We stand there for a bit, then the band starts to play a sort of melodic dirge and the lead-singer starts to sing in tongues (it sounded like a combination of Latin and Arabic). The lady behind me also started to sing in tongues. Her singing was quite beautiful, it didn't sound possessed, it sounded voluntary. Then people come round and pray for you, and they say things like ‘I’m sensing that you had a bad experience when you were a child’, or ‘Jesus says to you that he loves you...’ and so on.

Nicky is not diffident in promoting the Holy Spirit - if you ask for it, he says, it will come to you. You could very well have an experience that changes your life. 'At this very moment, people in the room are experiencing the Holy Spirit.' One person in my group was left rather dispirited (literally) that they hadn't felt the Holy Spirit after that build-up. I think this is the risk of focusing so much on the emotional experience of the Spirit - it could leave out those who might not feel it in that full-on physical way (which probably includes many Christians). Still, I might be wrong.



The Holy Spirit session, Nicky told me, is the heart of the Alpha course, and also the most controversial part. Many people have said to him, we love Alpha, we love the discussion groups, couldn't we just have all that without 'Come Holy Spirit'. 'But that would be like a Mercedes without an engine', he says. 'Nice to look at, but lacking in power'. The difference between the evangelical wing of the C of E (HTB) and other parts of it, is that Nicky and co really believe all that stuff in Corinthians, and believe it's just as true today as 2000 years ago. To other parts of the C of E, their fervent embrace of the Holy Spirit seems cultish, while HTB see themselves as traditionalists. They worship with their hands in the air because they think the orans is the oldest form of Christian prayer, as in the painting of Noah praying on the right.

The Holy Spirit session, then, is the tot of whiskey stirred into Alpha's cosmopolitan cappuccino. Pretty different from your average philosophy course!  The Greek and Roman philosophers talk a lot about flourishing, but they do not talk much about love, or miracles, or the sudden supernatural sense of being connected to the Holy Spirit. Or do they? Pythagoras was supposed to have miraculous powers - of flight, of healing, of controlling the weather. Plato talks about being connected to God through love (or Eros). The Stoics talk about being connected to God and all beings through the Divine Logos. Both Plato and the Stoics also talk about us all having an inner daemon, a guardian spirit, and that we can achieve blessedness (eudaimonia) when we are properly aligned with our daemon. This more mystical stuff tends to be somewhat side-lined in contemporary philosophy, but it’s there in the original sources.

Yet how can we sideline love? How can we talk about flourishing or happiness and not talk about love? Love is surely the most important part of any philosophy of the good life. What helped me recover from mental illness when I was 22 was to some extent the Socratic method of becoming aware of my beliefs and how they were causing me suffering. It was to some extent the realisation that by looking to externals for self-worth (the approval of other people), I was relying on something fickle and insubstantial, and making myself into a leaky vessel, a house built on sand. But the thing that really helped me was the strange near-death experience which I described at the very end of my book, and also in this blog post, during which I had the ecstatic experience of being completely loved. It was that sense of a limitless reservoir of love within me and all around me, that truly healed me of post-traumatic stress disorder.

How can we access the love connection?

In the words of the great prophet, Burt Bacharach, what the world needs now is love. So the big question is: how to access love? How to make the love connection? The modern post-theistic answer has been either through your soul-mate, some poor girl or boy on whom you foist your desperate need for unconditional love. Or we look to therapy, which also promises us the experience of unconditional love. But it’s not really unconditional, is it - you have to pay for it. And it doesn’t necessarily teach you to love other people (though it may help). In fact, psychoanalysis may teach you to hate your parents, by seeing them as the cause of all your woes.  As far as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy goes, Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT, talked about the therapeutic importance of cultivating Unconditional Self-Acceptance and Unconditional Other-Acceptance. But these are dry, rational concepts - not the direct experience of God’s limitless love which the Holy Spirit supposedly brings us. Where is the love in CBT? Where is it, even, in Positive Psychology? Christopher Peterson, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, suggested that ‘love is perhaps the chief correlate of life satisfaction’. So shouldn’t we all be trying to work out how to access the love connection?

Back in 2001, an experience of complete love healed me of PTSD, and that experience seemed to me external and supernatural. It seems to me that the New Testament may give a better framework for that experience than Greek philosophy - although, strangely, after the experience I felt that the Greeks had best described the lessons I learnt from the experience, so I spent the next decade or so reading and writing about Greek philosophy. I still think that the Holy Spirit speaks through Greek philosophy, and it helps people overcome suffering, whether they believe in God or not - that's the great thing about it. The problem is that there are not really living and loving communities of philosophy, although I have looked for them and am to some extent involved in organising them. But the philosophical communities I have encountered are not hugely loving. And humanist / atheist communities can seem to harden hearts rather than softening them. They're defined more by being against people and things rather than being open and loving. Hence my attempt to re-connect with Christianity. I am trying to learn more about that experience of love, to experience more of it, to feel more loved and become more loving.

Of course, the risk of focusing on the Holy Spirit and its miraculous gifts is you can get very irrational. You can start thinking you’re a superhero, that you can read minds, heal sicknesses, prophesy the future. During the Holy Spirit session, a very kind lady came up to me, laid a hand on my chest, and asked me if something bad had happened to me when I was seven. I told her it had...but actually nothing bad happened to me when I was seven. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I remain somewhat skeptical of my Christian friends' miracle stories...but I'll keep an open mind (I have to, considering my own experience of something-or-other helping me).

The Book of Mormon: is religion a ‘golden lie’?

So here’s the question I ask myself. Is Christianity a useful myth, a story, that helps us to access the love connection and to feel a sense of profound love both for ourselves and for others. Should we worry if it's 'made-up' or not, as long as it's socially useful in building ethical communities? This brings me to the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon is an amazing, funny and moving musical. That’s the first thing to say. It was such fun to watch. And it’s also a brilliant exploration of the sociology of religion, in the same way that Life of Brian is. It finds much of its humour in the sheer outlandishness of Mormon beliefs - that Christ came to America, then some Jews sailed to America, then one Jew buried some magic golden plates containing the Book of Mormon -  a third book of the Bible. Then these plates were dug up and found in 1823 by a 24-year-old farmer called Joseph Smith. He transcribed the plates into the Book of Mormon. The Book tells of wondrous things - that true believers will in the latter days get their own planets and even become gods to those planets. Despite the outlandishness of the beliefs, and the fact Smith could not produce the fabled plates, Mormonism became a big hit, inspired some enormous churches, and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints still motivates scores of cheery and polite young men in white shirts and black ties to travel all over the world spreading the Mormon message.

The musical tells the story of two young missionaries - a good-looking hero called Kevin and a hapless fat kid called Arnold  - who get sent to a god-forsaken village in Uganda, that’s being terrorised by a war-lord called General Butt-Fucking Naked. They discover that the locals keep their spirits up by singing ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ (it means ‘Fuck you God’). ‘We haven’t had any rain for days - Hasa Diga Eebowai.  80% of us have AIDS - Hasa Diga Eebowai’, and so on. The local Mormon mission has failed to convert a single villager. Kevin loses his faith - he can’t understand why God didn’t send him to Orlando. But then Arnold the hapless fat kid manages to convert the entire village, when he makes up his own absurd version of the Book of Mormon, complete with magic frogs, hobbits, Darth Vader and an angel from the Starship Enterprise.

The positive impact of Arnold’s ridiculous story makes Kevin realise that it doesn’t necessarily matter if the story is ‘true’ or not. He says: ‘We are still Latter Day Saints...even if we change the rules, or have complete doubt that God exists.’ What matters is not the ‘truth’ of a story, but the effect it has on people. The story that Arnold made up has given the villagers hope and self-discipline. It’s even converted the war-lord. By the end of the musical they have all become missionaries of the Book of Arnold. Maybe, then, religions are invented by people like Arnold, or Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard - people who to some extent make shit up, because they have big imaginations and they want followers. But that doesn’t matter, as long as the stories they make up help people and don’t harm them (like, say, Scientology harms people). So the authors of the Book of Mormon arrive at a postmodernist acceptance of religions: we doubt this is true, but it’s socially beneficial, and lovable in a goofy and slightly insane way.

Well, it’s a respectable theory. Maybe Christ just got a bit carried away, like Arnold. Maybe his Apostles got a bit carried away in their claims for Christ’s unique divinity (I put forward that very suggestion in my first Alpha session). But it doesn’t matter if their story is made up, so long as it's socially beneficial, does it? To me, it does matter. I don’t want to believe something just because it’s a useful delusion. And it's patronising to say, well, this is all nonsense but good for the masses. And I didn't make up that transforming experience of love I felt a decade ago - although it may have been natural rather than supernatural in origin. Anyway, I'll carry on trying to figure out what it meant, and carry on writing for everyone, whether they believe in God or not.

PS, a friend says that HTB believes homosexuality is a sin. We haven't covered that in the Alpha course, but it's not something I believe and it's certainly not something the ancient Greeks believed. Anyway, Nicky is interviewed and asked about that issue here, where he says HTB's position is the same as the Church of England. That must be...the missionary position! Haha! Sorry... He also wrote a free book on it, which you can get here. I haven't read it yet. I don't think HTB or Alpha is cultish at all, by the way - Nicky is not authoritarian at all, as far as I can tell, and the HTB community in general is open to criticism or dissent. The weekend Holy Spirit session is unusual but not freaky, and non-Christians in my group also really enjoyed the weekend without being converted.