May 24, 2001
Is Alpha the Omega?
-- R. Jonathan Moore
Having recently concluded its second season, CBS's "Survivor" has insinuated itself so seamlessly into the American mind that even those of us willfully ignorant of the show know what it means to be "voted off the island." The wild success of this so-called "reality television" program has spawned a host of imitators on other networks. Fox has been most aggressive, offering up "Boot Camp" and the more risqué (and, predictably, more successful) "Temptation Island," where somewhat committed couples are challenged to remain faithful under, shall we say, trying sexual circumstances.
Beginning in July, viewers in Britain will be able to watch a new incarnation of reality television. This time, rather than cash prizes, souls seem to be on the line. Call it "Religious Boot Camp" or "Surviving Temptation." On Sunday, July 29, England's Independent Television (ITV) will begin a ten-week series documenting the journey of ten people through Alpha, an introductory course in Christianity. Hosted by David Frost, the show will track a group aged 22 to 37 as they spend time together considering their metaphysical options.
Charles Marnham, an Anglican cleric, created Alpha in 1977 at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London, where the television show will be taped. It moved along quietly until the early 1990s when, under the direction of Rev. Nicky Gumbel, it spread quickly throughout England, where separate focuses on adults, students (sixty British universities have Alpha programs), prisoners, and youth have made it a familiar cultural presence.
The program also has a strong toehold in the United States, where almost three thousand separate, officially registered courses have engaged over a half-million participants. New regional offices have opened in Houston and Minneapolis to complement the North American headquarters in New York, and the organization plans 42 conferences for this year with 16,000 people expected to attend.
So, what exactly is Alpha? It's best understood as a Christian primer, a ten-week introduction to the faith's foundations. Session topics include "Who is Jesus?" "Why did Jesus die?" and "Does God heal today?" Many people, including its participants and teachers, have christened it "Christianity 101." In a Newsday article by Richard Ostling, one wag dubbed it "Agnostics Anonymous" due to its deliberate appeal to the unchurched and uncertain.
Alpha's format is also pretty basic. It gathers inquirers together for an "Alpha supper," which is followed by either a video or a live speaker, and then small-group discussions. Given the high number of skeptics and uninitiated, the early discussions are designed to be free-wheeling explorations of difficult issues; later sessions lay out more concrete answers. There are fifteen total sessions, interrupted in the middle by a spiritual retreat where participants are schooled in and pray for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
That last element provides more than a clue to Alpha's distinctive theological flavor. The program's publicity trumpets its ecumenical character, and indeed it's been successful in convincing all kinds of Christian denominations, from Baptists to Roman Catholics, to sign on. But Alpha's offering up a clearly conservative Christianity, its evangelical bona fides certified by the imprimatur of key American evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and Campus Crusade for Christ's Bill Bright.
In England, where fewer than 10 percent of the population attend church, publicity and a quickening of the faith are undoubtedly the primary reasons why Alpha organizers consented to the television program. The "everybody's doing it" effect can't help but excite those religious bean-counters who turn to numbers to measure just how hale faith is at a given moment. As well, once-suspicious viewers, after observing a group engaged in examining those existential questions that keep almost everyone awake at night, may feel more inclined to give semi-organized faith a chance.
Is there anything for Christians to fear from this television exposure? Some critics may decide that the old saw about being better off not seeing the making of either sausage or legislation may apply here. Less exuberant Christians may shudder at the thought of having nonChristians watch the Alpha retreat and mistake the conservative emphasis on healing and the Holy Spirit for the essence of faith. (A retreat at Holy Trinity in 1994 led to episodes of religious ecstasy and laughing of the kind that have elsewhere scandalized even some religious conservatives.)
But even if something unpredictably lively occurs, televising Alpha need not be the Omega of civilization as more liberally inclined Christians perceive it. How many fingers does it take to count the number of occasions people of faith are shown on television engaging serious religious issues? (I can still wave goodbye with both hands.) Even those nervous about Alpha's conservative bent should celebrate this kind of exposure. If critics want equal time, they can always develop their own shows.