So, the second show was Jon Ronson’s documentary called ‘Looking For God’ and part of the new Channel 4 series ‘Revelations’. I only discovered the programme was on at about 4.30 and that it clashed with church. Typically!
From that advert it wasn’t clear which way the documentary was going to go. Would it be positive or negative? One shot of a guy talking about being repulsed, another calling the atmosphere moving and then shots of people being prayed for.
The premise was that Jon Ronson was going to follow a group of agnostics as they followed the Alpha Course at St Aldate’s church in Oxford. In the end it clearly attempted to bring a balanced view to the story. It gave us a back story to some of them, highlighted those who had issues in their lives, where they stood with God and cut in shots of bowed heads in prayer, or being incredulous at what was happening or wrestling with the Bible.
However, as someone with ‘inside’ knowledge of Alpha as it were, it was interesting to see how the programme was cut, to see the vaguely comical way in which Nicky Gumbel and HTB were presented as sinister, calculating or indirectly manipulative – the splicing together for example of St Aldate’s vicar giving the talk on ‘Why Did Jesus Die’ with footage of Nicky giving the same on the DVD was done to achieve the idea of a multinational organisation being copied at all levels with little independent thought. What Alpha attending non-Christians and Christians alike made of the film is anyone’s guess although the initial comments from participants online has not given it a ringing endorsement.
Rather than engaging with the idea of grace, or salvation, or the claims that Jesus made, Jon Ronson was at pains to point out that the message was that Christians didn’t like drunkenness, heard God speak in ways that could quite easily have been their imagination and of course he spent a good proportion of the film discussing tongues and the Toronto Blessing which is singularly the most likely topic to put people off (and a friend of mine has subsequently said that watching this programme has made him determined never to do Alpha).
What’s true, in all those things, is that these are things the church believes. Jon Ronson’s trouble with his material was attempting to condense 8 weeks into 48 minutes. And, unsurprisingly, he did that without discussing the Trinity. No conversation about tongues can work if there is no discussion of spritual giftings and there can be no discussion of the fruits of the spirit without engaging in some theology on Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Did Jon Ronson approach HTB? He approached 20 churches, 19 turned him down (I would love to know why those other churches did). Whether an interview with the St Aldate’s vicar is on the cutting room floor or not he didn’t look to raise any questions of theology or use his film to get to grips with what was being presented for discussion.
By the end of the programme two members of the 8 person group (who had been tracked in between weeks) had been absolutely repulsed by what they had experienced, and particularly the Holy Spirit weekend away. Some of the group were never interviewed, more of them found the idea of tongues objectionable and just one felt that something was stirring, due in part to someone’s prophetic gifting (which I have seen today being labelled cold reading). He’s going to do Alpha again, perhaps, but then he was the one with the Christian background.
Christine and I both found it slightly absurd in its reductionist approach to the course but what’s interesting is the response it’s getting online. The Christians, and those who have done Alpha themselves, seem to have found it quite a disappointing portrayal of what Alpha is. Although it is a disappointment tinged with weariness at knowing what to expect from Channel 4. Those in the middle are now wary of a course that has been ‘exposed’ in what it’s really about. Whilst, on the other side of the fence there’s a degree of crowing from the Athiest community who today also launched their summer camp (for the second time) and The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. There’s a lot of people talking about how sinister Alpha is, how much it has confirmed their atheism and what a sterling job Jon Ronson has done.
And I think that’s where my greatest sadness lies. It’s not in an opportunity missed for the church to engage with the world – they tried, they gave full access and let Ronson get on with it. It’s not in the fact that 48 minutes’ worth of TV has presented Alpha in a way that might prevent people from seeking God themselves. It’s not in the lives on that film for whom there was no meeting with God. It’s more in the way Channel 4 continue to approach matters of faith.
What is clear, from his past work, from his twitter followers and followed, is that this was not an agnostic following a group of agnostics on a course for people wanting to explore the claims of Christianity. It was an atheist, embedded with some agnostics, flagging up ‘questionable’ aspects of Christianity. As Jon Ronson himself has tweeted he didn’t pay any attention to the course, he was too busy with filming. There’s a mind made up, a position formed and a decision made.
A lot of the time we Christians are accused of being all about black and white, caring only about what the Bible says and not being open minded. Is there anything more prejudiced (a strong word but one that I think it deserves) of setting out to present a film about a group of people engaged with the concept of a personal relationship with God from a position that considers them all to be deluded? Engage with us, talk to us, let’s explore what Christianity means in an atmosphere of grace. If both sides consider that maybe not one of us has got the definitive answer on a lot of issues then that would be far more interesting to everyone around the table. Let’s see Christians and Atheists work together to do these films, to talk about the supposed tension between Science and God, to explore our histories, to ask big questions and put forward opinions.
Let us talk about the reasons for our faith instead of having them presented for us. It is, fundamentally, not because we’ve been manipulated, influenced, or coerced. It’s because we met, and continue to meet with, Jesus Christ.
It will be interesting to see what the remaining 7 episodes of the Revelations series are made of…