01 March 2009

So We Need a Referee as Well as Rules?

Yesterday wasn't a bad day on the sport front. Despite Ronan O'Gara's kicking being about as bad as I've ever seen, Ireland still somehow managed to grind out a 14-13 win against what seems an increasingly and perversely ill-disciplined English team, and it was nice on the football front to see a battered Everton winning and a faltering Liverpool losing too. With Arsenal dropping points again, Everton is seriously starting to look as though they may well overtake them, despite having six senior players, including our most creative player and our most effective striker, injured.

Speaking of football, and bear with me, I've mentioned the Alpha Course and Nicky Gumbel a couple of times in the past here, but haven't talked about either at length. Last May I described Christianity Explored as a mainstream rather than charismatic Evangelical corrective to Alpha, and the previous November I expressed some concerns about a presentation on The Da Vinci Code by the Reverend Gumbel, noting that he had misrepresented some things, made claims that couldn't really be supported, cherry-picked his evidence, and ignored the implications of what he had said.

No, don't ask me for examples. It was a long time ago. I can't remember what I was referring to. I'd need to watch it again, and the time just isn't to be found.

So anyway, I've recently been reading Gumbel's Questions of Life, which is basically Alpha for people who can't do the course, and I've been far from impressed. It's very simplistic, and I can't see how it would work in practice. Not a page passes without me frowning at things that just don't make sense, at statements that don't hold up, at quotations that are utterly out of context... I don't see how this brings people to Christ. I mean, obviously it does, but I just don't see how. I guess it must be linked with other things -- regular Bible reading, perhaps, or attendance at Church out curiosity -- and I suppose that when it's done as a course people have opportunities to ask questions and get answers, rather than simply scrawling in the margins things like 'hmmm', 'not quite', and 'but even Paul was unsure of this - see 1 Cor. 9.27, Gal. 5.4, and 1 Tim. 4.1, also Heb. 3.14, 6.6, 2 Pet. 2.15-21, and Matt. 7.21!'

One bit that particularly bemused me was this passage, on page 75 for what's in worth, in a chapter entitled 'Why and How Should I Read the Bible?'
A few years ago, a football match had been arranged involving twenty-two small boys, including one of my sons, aged eight at the time. A friend of mine called Andy (who had been training the boys all year) was going to referee. Unfortunately, by 2.30 pm he had not turned up. The boys could wait no longer. I was press-ganged into being the substitute referee. There were a number of difficulties with this: I had no whistle; there were no markings for the boundaries of the pitch; I didn't know any of the other boys' names; they did not have colours to distinguish which sides they were on; and I did not know the rules nearly as well as some of the boys.

The game soon descended into complete chaos. Some shouted that the ball was in. Others that it was out. I wasn't at all sure, so I let things run. Then the fouls started. Some cried, 'Foul!' Others said, 'No foul!' I didn't know who was right. So I let them play on. Then people began to get hurt. By the time Andy arrived, there were three boys lying injured on the ground and all the rest were shouting, mainly at me! But the moment Andy arrived, he blew his whistle, arranged the teams, told them where the boundaries were and had them under complete control. Then the boys had the game of their lives.
The point of this story, Reverend Gumbel tells us, is that without rules there'd be anarchy; people, he says, would be free to do whatever they wanted, causing people to get confused and hurt. Rules are needed, he says; people need to know where the boundaries are, so they can be free to enjoy the game. In some ways, he says, the Bible is like that -- it is God's rule book, in which he tells us what is 'in' and what is 'out', what we can do, and what we must not do.

Think about that, and have a read of the story again. The analogy doesn't really work, does it? After all, in the story, the problem isn't a lack of rules, it's the lack of a referee. Sure, Reverend Gumbel did his best, but he realised that he wasn't as familiar with the rules as some of the boys, and the boys themselves didn't agree on how to interpret or apply the rules. What's more, without a whistle he didn't have the authority to insist that the rules be applied consistently, and so he had difficulty preventing things from getting out of hand and people getting hurt.

What Reverend Gumbel appears to be saying here, and it would probably horrify him to realise this, is that we don't just need a rulebook, we need a referee to definitively interpret them. In effect, he's made a fine argument for the Papacy.


Balthazar said...

A Korean man called Mr Lee had to have a liver transplant a number of years ago. Up to that point no one in Korea had survived the operation. Before the operation he said to God "if I survive I will dedicate the rest of my life to your service". He did survive. Sometime later he was asking God how he should serve him. About this time he read "Questions of Life". God spoke to him through it and he decided to introduce the Alpha Course to Korea. Since that time 1 million people have attended an Alpha course in Korea. Perhaps the book has some merit after all?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

That's not true, I'm afraid, and I wonder where you heard this. The first successful liver transplant in South Korea was carried out in 1988, and Lee Sang Joon's operation took place four years after that!

As for the rest of it, are you sure of those figures? Mr Lee says that 80% of those Koreans who do the Alpha Course become Christians, but unless they're doing Catholic Alpha, which is a bit different, this seems unlikely. Since the late 1980s all the growth in South Korea's Christian community has been among the Catholics, the religious group that has grown most in Korea over the past two decades. The number of Christians of other denominations, otoh, has fallen by about 20%, it appears, with there being something like 8 million non-Catholic Christians in South Korea now, when there had been more than 10 million before Mr Lee embarked on his genuinely laudable mission. So have the Alpha attendees become Catholics, or is Mr Lee doing heroic work in stemming the tide amongst non-Catholics.

And I do mean heroic work, by the way, and I believe the mission is laudable. We have a job to do, after all, and 'Questions of Life' does play a part in that. I'm not saying it's without merit, not for one minute, just that it's very simplistic and in truth rather insubstantial. But then, Reverend Gumble himself apparently admits that it's not a perfect evangelisation tool.

Good work, though, can often be done with very imperfect tools.


Balthazar said...

You say "Catholic Alpha is a bit different...". I'm not quite sure why you distinguish. The Alpha organisation most certainly doesn't. They just had a conference in Korea attended by 11,000 pastors - of all denominations. My guess is the 1 million includes both Catholic and non-Catholic.

Questions of Life is deliberately simple. It is an introductory book - at which task it seems to do admirably. Can you name me a book more successful at it's chosen task?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Hi again,

Sorry I didn't confirm your comment asap; I wasn't online for very long last night.

I distinguished between 'Catholic Alpha' and regular Alpha because there must be difference between the two. When it's run in Catholic churches, Alpha is commonly referred to as 'Catholic Alpha', 'Alpha for Catholics', or 'Alpha in a Catholic Context'. It's as that that it's described on the main Alpha website, and it's the only strand of Christianity that Alpha recognises as needing a specific way of running the course. There's no 'Alpha in a Lutheran Context' or 'Alpha in an Episcopalian Context' or - somewhat puzzlingly - 'Alpha in an Orthodox Context', say.

The thing is, and without getting into rights and wrongs because that's a wholly separate issue, it's pretty clear that Alpha as it stands is decidedly unCatholic. It's not anti-Catholic, to its credit, but it is unCatholic.

What do I mean? Well, its substance has a clear theological agenda, which is that of Charismatic Evangelicalism. Look at the colossal emphasis placed on the Holy Spirit and on Faith Healing, for instance, the utter confidence in our personal salvation based solely on our Faith, and the interpretation of Christ's death on the Cross as penal substition.

So what? Well, again, without getting into rights and wrongs, none of this tallies with Catholic doctrine or thinking, and as a Catholic I find it troubling that 'QoL' says hardly anything about God the Father except in connection with his sending us the Spirit, and especially about the Church as the Body of Christ. Given the near-silence on the latter point, it's not surprising that 'QoL' recognises only two sacraments, and sees them as mere symbols rather than a real vehicles of God's grace.

So without getting into arguing about doctrinal differences, I think it's fair to say that 'QoL' and thus Alpha embody an understanding of Christianity that is in some ways seriously at odds with Catholic, Orthodox, and historical Christianity until a few hundred years ago.

As to your question about whether there's a better introductory book out there than 'QoL', I really don't know. I remember skimming a book a year or two back in Dublin's Anglican bookshop which argued that all research shows that Alpha really isn't 'sticky', that many of those who come to Christianity through it soon fall away. The writer took the depressing view that Alpha seems to be the best tool for contemporary evangelism that the churches have come up with, and that it doesn't really work. Certainly, that tallies with my anecdotal experience of the course - nine people I know have told me about their experiences of it, with one having her life changed, one thinking it utter rubbish, and seven being unimpressed to varying degrees.

Again, I've only read the book, and haven't done the course, but I found that as a book and allowing for its implicit anti-Catholicism, 'Christianity Explored' is certainly meatier, and for my money is better. And indeed, that tallies with what I've heard from the two people I know who've told me about having done both courses.

On the whole, though, I'm still inclined to think that Lewis's 'Mere Christianity' cannot be beaten as a genuine introduction to what all the major Christian churches hold in common, and does so without taking the existence of God for granted - something 'QoL' does, and which I don't really think we can do, especially not in a country with unbelief is the default mode of thinking for most people.

Gosh, this is turning into a long answer. Seriously, though, where are you getting that figure of a million Koreans from? I mean, if whoever told you this also told you that Mr Lee was the first successful Korean liver transplant recipient, when in fact the operation had been successfully conducted for four years before his transplant, I'm kind of inclined to doubt this, and wonder why you don't.


Balthazar said...

I have checked over the detail of some of the Alpha attendance numbers in my time (admittedly not the Korean numbers) and rather to my surprise they were carefully put together by an independent body and used a very respectable methodology - which is why I am inclined to trust their numbers.

I agree that Mere Christianity is a great book....the problem is that it may be be good for you and me but its quite hard for the average non-Christian.

I'm not a Catholic so I don't altogether "get" your reservations about Alpha - however, I have been provileged to hear Father Raniero Cantalamessa speak to an Alpha supporting audience about Mary and get a rapturous reception!

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Fair enough on the numbers - it is rather surprising that they've been compiled indendently!

Is Mere Christianity so hard for non-Christians? Certainly I like the fact that it starts by making the case for God in the first place. I think this is utterly crucial. Unless you're willing to acknowledge the possible of something that transcends the material world, I can't see how any discussion of Our Lord can go anywhere at all.

That's interesting about the Mary talk. I wonder what he said. To be fair, while Mariology can go to excess, this is something the Church does try to restrain, stressing the Christological nature of the Marian doctrines, their antiquity in one form or another, and their compatibility with Scripture.

As for my reservations, they're way too subtle and complex to get into in the comments, I think. I could do it, but only by oversimplifying to the points of inaccuracy and rudeness! I dunno. If you're interested, you might take a look at George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic, which is no apologetic, just a description of various aspects of the Catholic world and mindset. He's particularly strong on the sacramental view of the world, which I think might be the key issue here.