Sunday, June 28, 2009

Channel 4 Alpha Documentary

Watched Jon Ronsons documentary on an Alpha group in Oxford earlier this evening. Lots of twittering going on during and after, quite a lot of it negative. A few thoughts:

- fair play to Alpha, who are usually seen as quite tight and controlling on their publicity, for giving Channel 4 of all people access to a course. And to the people involved - I'm not sure I'd have been too keen on talking about God with a camera stuffed up my nose.

- It gave a reasonable impression of the course, but then zeroed in (as Alpha does, to be fair) on speaking in tongues, with some wacky footage of the Toronto Vineyard during the 'Toronto Blessing', and Charlie Cleverley (leader of St. Aldates, Oxford) trying to encourage folk to speak in tongues as raucous sports cars zoomed past the window of the hotel.

- The documentary didn't follow the full course, stopping at the 'Holy Spirit weekend', which normally happens just over halfway through. Ronson made an interesting point: he was impressed that Alpha did something as potentially controversial as covering speaking in tongues (most of its alternatives don't). One participant pointed out that if he'd known that was involved at the beginning, he'd not have done the course.

- I was quite uncomfortable watching the part where the Holy Spirit was invited to come, and folk were encouraged to speak in tongues. Partly because I felt the presence of the camera probably inhibited people, but also because there are some things Christians do that aren't supposed to be done in front of a camera. Jesus tells people to pray behind a closed door, and Paul tells the Corinthian church that if they all pray in tongues in worship, newcomers will conclude they are bonkers (cue Dizzee Rascal). I guess a documentary needs to show people what happens on the course, but watching it I felt so uncomfortable at that point that I had to physically restrain myself from switching channels for a couple of minutes.

- the overwhelming impression of the Christians was that they were 'nice people', folk seemed to enjoy the human interaction. It would be interesting to catch up with the participants after a few weeks, rather than in the heat of the moment having walked out of a communion service. I guess the documentary has to play up the drama - whether of conflict or conversion - when the real story may have been a bit more gradual.

Final thought: is it just me, or do other people watch documentaries on Christianity with half a feeling that the documentary makers are giggling behind their hands? I'm quite sure Ronson isn't - from the comments he made during the documentary, and his own reports of doing the Alpha course himself a few years ago - but maybe it's just me.

Update: if you missed it and can't spare an hour to watch it on catchup, Rachel has a blow by blow account of the programme with her own reflections.

Other thoughts from the blogosphere:
Ceridwens cauldron thought it was indoctrination of the gullible
Zoomtard seems to have had the same reaction as me: ok until the Toronto bit.
Simple Pleasures has an interview with Jon Ronson about the programme, which is a fascinating read, and blows away any suspicions you might have about why he did it.
Interesting view from chameleon102, whose vicar is trying to sign him up to an Alpha course.
Missiome also not sure about the way the programme covered speaking in tongues etc., but thought it 'well worth watching'.


  1. 'Jesus tells people to pray behind a closed door, and Paul tells the Corinthian church that if they all pray in tongues in worship, newcomers will conclude they are bonkers...'

    I wonder if Paul or the Corinthians had ever heard of a whole group of Christians suddenly talking in tongues in front of a crowd of unbelievers.

  2. Alastair Duncan6/7/09 10:59 am

    What concerned me most is that they were trying to get people to speak in tongues who weren't Christians, and had shown no signs of faith in Christ. It seemed like they were trying to convert them through forcing an 'experience' of the Holy Spirit rather than trusting in Christ.

    I'd go for Christianity Explored any day- much more biblical in its approach and content!

  3. Paul was right about warning the Corinthians, as the people speaking in tongues in the documentary sure looked bonkers. If I had been a doubting Christian, it would have sent firmly in the ranks of unbelievers. But I am already an unbeliever, so it just confirmed me in my atheism.