The course is ten weeks, and each session is structured in the same way. You show up at 6:30pm and they cook you dinner. That’s followed by a video featuring Alpha Course inventor Nicky Gumbel, and then a group discussion. The course is free, though they ask you to donate $5 for dinner.
I could do without the dinner. The food’s pretty good, but the whole dinner, video and discussion takes nearly three hours, and I’m precious about my free time. The dinner also requires a lot of small talk, which isn’t a strength.
The course seems to be seeded with a lot of Christians who have already taken the course or are otherwise just kicking around. The first week, we sat next to Ruth, who’s been coming to the church since it opened in 1959. She asked when Julie and I were married. We said “1997”, and she said “oh, me too.”
We were thinking that Ruth’s elevator wasn’t going to the top floor any more. However, it turns out that she was a widow and remarried. Good for her.
The videos are essentially lectures on a particular topic (“Why did Jesus Die?”, “Why and How Do I Pray?” and so forth). Gumbel is a remarkable orator and storyteller. He never seems to stutter or stumble, and has a gift for simplifying puzzling topics. I couldn’t find any of the Alpha videos online, but here’s Gumbel’s scholarly response to The Da Vinci Code. He does an admirable job of debunking the book’s claims.
I was most looking forward to the group discussion, as I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to ask questions about the faith. Unfortunately, the group facilitation is pretty poor. Clearly the group leader is inexperienced, and so there are constant long, awkward pauses. I know somone else who took an Alpha course elsewhere, and she had similar bad experiences with the facilitation.
I guess I asked a pretty tricky question, because nobody had a satisfactory answer. My question was, essentially, “if God is eternal, omnipotent and omniscient, and Jesus was both God and man on Earth, how was his dying on the cross truly a sacrifice?” Eventually the church pastor stepped in with an answer about how we can’t fully understand the nature of God, which seemed like something of a cop out.
So, while it’s far from perfect, the course is giving me the kind of hands-on introduction to a religion that I was looking for. We’ll see if I last for the ten weeks.