Thursday, March 29, 2007

Alpha and What is the "bad news"?

So last night I attended week ... 5 of the alpha course. The subject was prayer. Here's some of the things that Nicky Gumble said--sorry it's all a bit disorganized.

He said we must pray "To the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit" Under the "through the Son" vein, he specified that "We don't have a right of ourselves to come to the creator of the universe." I don't buy that. It's so ... connected to annihilating self hatred, which Brennan Manning says is far and away the foremost problem which he has needed to help people deal with in 30 years as an itinerant evangelist.

Plus it's *so* exclusive! Saying prayer only works *through* Jesus *could* be (and I suspect by *many* Christians *is*) understood to mean, for instance, that more than one billion Muslims have totally ineffective prayer lives. I just don't buy that. It strikes me as ludicrous.

In the "by the Spirit" vein, Nickey very briefly (and typically out of context) quotes the passage from Romans (8 or 9?) where Paul says "the Spirit helps us" in our prayer. But Nicky leaves out the monga kewlness of this passage, he just moved right on!

N.T. Wright gets it much better: From "Simply Christian"

God himself is groaning from within the heart of the world, because God himself, by the Spirit, dwells in our hearts as we resonate witht the pain of the world.

Intriguing, isn't it, that Jesus Christ is not mentioned at *all* in the model prayer which he himself gave us, commonly called "The Lord's Prayer"

Listed under Nicky's "reasons to pray section": To get rewarded, joy in god's presence, peace.

Nicky said of God "He satisfies the spiritual thirst and hunger in every human heart" Which is observably untrue. (but Nicky, along with a host of other Christian leaders, say this sort of thing all the time!) (One of the reasons, for instance, that I find Dr. Dan Allender so refreshing: "Is Jesus enough?" he asked at one conference I went to. "NO, of *course* Jesus isn't enough in this world!" (Benjamin sighed with enormous refreshment at that point))

He talked at some length about answers to prayer. He (agreeingly) quoted someone who said "The power of prayer depends on the apprehension of who we pray to" He rhetorically asked "Does God always answer prayer?" and replied to himself "YES, but God cannot act against his own nature." He used an example of two children asking their parents for permission to have a fight with the carving knives. the implication was that of course good parents wouldn't allow such a fight for the sake of the children's protection. I thought this story actually operated against Nicky's constructions because in reality, God refuses to stop the children from playing with the carving knives, otherwise known by the lovely military euphemism "conventional weapons" (as in, well, yes, we've killed 600,000 extra iraqi's, and we're still dropping cluster munitions that will be killing and maiming Iraqi children in 2045, but hey *at least* we're not using *nuclear* (oops, I mean "nucular") weapons!!!)

The thing that bothered me *most* of all was the way that Nicky was propogating a very western, very me-centric, very scopeless version of christianiy. Nicky's version of christianity is very very focused on the private, individual relationship with God. You don't even have to pray the prayer out loud, for fear you might be embarrassed. It's all about "my personal relationship with God." And so prayers become about my life, what I want for my life, what I want for my relationships, and what I want for a smallish handful of people that I love. Nicky spoke of seeing god's kingdom come to England and explained that by this he meant "seeing people come to christ, and thusly seeing people be set free" So he mentioned for instance, a prayer he made for a ride to London, which got answered. (I was sitting there thinking "what if we were to pray, and encourage other christians to pray, instead of for personal internal joy and peace and rides to London and parking places and healing of their marriages and reconciliation with their mothers and so forth--what if instead we were to pray, and teach other christians to pray "please god, could you do something about thirty thousand children who will die today from lack of potable water and enough calories?" "Please god, could you do something about 25 million internally displaced persons, many of whom have been living in horrific conditions in camps for generations!" Please god, could you do something about places in africa where an entire generation has been completely wiped out by aids, leaving only the very old and the very young to try to carry on.?" what could maybe happen then?)

He completely left out the phrase "on earth as it is in heaven" when he was going through the Jesus model prayer. And I think he seriously tweaked the meaning of the central phrase in that prayer "Forgive us as we forgive our debtors". Nicky talked about how this happens *becaus* we have experienced god's forgiveness, and thus we ... can't help but forgive those who have hurt us. "If God has forgiven me of all that, how could I not turn around and forgive others". Nikki called it at least twice by the name "a virtuous circle" (which really honestly just sounds *so* nauseating). I like Tom Wright's take on this phrase, and on Jesus model prayer in general, *way* better. He says "Notice how remarkable it is that, at the heart of the prayer, we commit ourselves to live in a particular way, a way we find difficult." (clearly Mr. Wright has a gift for understatement, but this is *so* much more tenable than Nicky's take on it.) Wright says, in his chapter on prayer, "We are called to live at the overlap of heaven and earth ... We are caught on a small island near the point where these tectonic plates--heaven and earth, future and present--are scrunching themselves together. Be ready for earthquakes!

It seems to me that Nicky and that whole brand of Christianity construct, in a sense, a bad news that I find doesn't really work for me, and so their take on "the good news", followingly doesn't work for me either.


Helen said...

I hear you.

I'm not sure I could handle those videos; but I went to hear NT Wright a week ago and loved his lectures.

stephanie said...

I wonder what you are getting out of going to the Alpha course and why you keep going if you say you hate it. For someone who isn't a Christian, your life appears to be defined by Christianity.

Benjamin Ady said...


I've glanced briefly at your N.T. Wright lecture notes. I must admit that N.T. Wright has two things going for him right now in my mind: 1. Helen liked him, and 2. He's being compared to Nicky Gumble. This is relatively funny because ... I think maybe Mr. Wright is at some level Mr. Gumble's "boss" (I could have this totally wrong though)


Yeah, I have noticed that too. I did get the free beer, and the person who bought it for me expressed that his understanding was that he was afraid it was one six pack per time. So I reassured him that that was not my understanding. Then later I realized that actually the six pack really only did work as an incentive for one time. But then I felt bad, so I decided I should go at least a couple more times in exchange for the six pack.

Honestly, that's *mostly* joking. Why *do* I keep going? Coupla reasons, all names: Megan, Tony, Diana, Renee, Tracy, and John--all people with whom my *main* contact is the alpha course and whom company I increasingly enjoy. I kind of wish there was some way we could just kill the Nicky talks (like ... take turns doing the talks ourselves!), but still keep getting together. I suspect this won't happen. Ah well.

Plus I do get some kind of (possibly perverted) joy out of the delightful feelings of superiority I get while listening to and blogging about Nicky's talks.

Yeah--funny isn't it. I'm not a Christian in my current understanding of the word, but Christianity and being a christian do intertwine themselves extensively in my story, and one can't really escape one's story (despite twisted understandings of forgiveness which contradict me here).

Helen said...

Benjamin, interesting point...I forgot that Nicky Gumbel's an Anglican.

Hmmmm...well, NT Wright is Bishop of Durham and that infallible guide Wikipedia ;-) says that means he's over the diocese of Durham, so technically he's not Nicky's boss because Nicky is a priest in London. There's probably a Bishop of London and he would be Nicky's boss.

byron said...

Keep cutting through the rubbish; there is treasure around here somewhere (though why does Wright so often seem to put his finger on it?...). Thanks for these posts - keep them up!

LP said...

this was a good post to read.

i agree about the prayer for things that are *actually* important, versus things that western christians, in their comfy lives, think are important.

also, about the "jesus satisfies everyone" bullshite, um, yeah. he never promised that...
have you read "new seeds of contemplation", by thomas merton? i think you would like it. there's a part i particularly like in it where he talks about how we want and think we deserve and should somehow have a sense of God's presence that makes us feel good, and how we hate God when he doesn't give it to us. merton says that an "addiction" to the feeling of God's presence is just as wrong/destructive as an addiction to beer.

also, there's a quote from the same book which i particularly like in my LJ profile:

byron said...

I was thinking more about this post in church yesterday (something that was said sparked the memory). In particular the question of whether Jesus is enough. Enough for what? Enough to satisfy every desire and make life easy and safe? Of course not and promising that it will be so is simply irresponsible and short-sighted. Enough to begin groaning for the liberation of the world (as the Wright quote points out)? Yes.

I thought you might like this quote.