Monday, August 31, 2009

On Alpha

Nicky Gumbel interview transcript | Adam Rutherford | Comment is free |

We've got something that works in practice, and we're trying to work out how we can make it work in theory. So, why is it? I think there are a number of things about it. I think it's a low key, relaxed, unthreatening, non-confrontational way for people to explore pretty big questions. I think a lot of people do have questions about life, 'What's the purpose of my life?', 'What's the meaning of my life?', 'Why am I here?' … It's hard to find a place where you can discuss those issues. You can't go down to the pub and say, 'What do you think the meaning of life is?' It's hard at a football match to discuss those kinds of issues. But actually, most people have those questions, somewhere in the back of their minds. And if you can find a place where you can discuss it with a group of people who, like you, are outside of the Church, and it's a non-threatening, relaxed environment, quite a lot of people want to do that.

Alpha looks awfully like the Nondenominational Evalgelical-Lite packaged for an upscale clientele that's become the industry standard in the US: "low key, relaxed, unthreatening, non-confrontational way for people to explore pretty big questions." Think Rick Warren, Obama's paradigmatic representative of the People of Faith special interest group. We speak in tongues, but not in a scary, crazy way--and we don't handle snakes. We don't approve of homosexual activity but we love everybody regardless of sexual orientation.

There's clearly a market for this style of religiousity, which churches recognize. Alpha was promoted in my area as a church-growth tool. The market hasn't been saturated yet because evangelical-lite churches are growing in the US, though not as fast as the fastest growing "religious group": the unchurched.

I still wonder how big a market there is for this kind of religion overall--when the mega-churches will max out. What we've seen in the US has been (1) realignment, (2) consolidation and (3) "hollowing out." (1) Traditional denominational divisions came to be perceived as unimportant as (2) affinity groups--liberal, conservative, evangelical, charismatic, etc. consolidated across denominational lines. Religious Right organizations drew conservatives from various denominations, consolidated and, for a time, exercised political muscle; charismatics in traditionally pentecostal churches aligned with charismatics in the Catholic Church and other denominations; "non-denominational" churches grew.

Then (3) the "hollowing out": liberals dropped out to join the unchurched, gutting traditional "mainline" denominations, including the Episcopal Church. Others were drawn into more conservative evangelical outfits, including non-denominational churches and evangelical para-church organizations. As the evangelical movement grew it became more polished, more culturally mainstream and more "unthreatening and non-confrontational" picking up some of the folkways and cultural preoccupations of the upper middle class. See those good-looking, 20-somethings in the picture? Clearly not gun-totin' snake-handling rednecks from the boonies. I'm sure they re-cycle their trash.

So now you have the hollowing out, the bimodal distribution on the religious continuum: the unchurched in one growing bump; evangelicals at the other end in a growing bump (though not growing as fast as the unchurched); and traditionally liberal mainline denominations in the sinking valley between between the bumps dying out.

This hardly suggests that "God is back." It suggest realignment and consolidation: the total number of religious believers is going down and those who are left are consolidating in the evangelical-lite orbit. So you see growth in Alpha, Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, etc. In the end, leaving aside ethnic religious groups and peripheral cults, we'll have just two options: pure secularism and evangelical-lite Christianity which will become our culture-religion--if it hasn't done so already. Very depressing.

It's depressing to me not only, or primarily, because the total number of religious believers is going down but because with that consolidation the religious options are disappearing. I have no interest in the evangelical style--whether lite or heavy. What a miserable bore. But I've finally had to admit to myself that, at least in our current cultural context, this is the kind of religion most people enjoy--this slick, boring, platitudinous crap. I just can't fathom why. Admittedly, de gustibus: I can't fathom why people watch soap operas or sports. What I find most puzzling is that this kind of religiousity is billed as "experiential" because that's exactly what I find it not to be. I've been to revivals and even went to a couple of pentecostal services where people were speaking in tongues and to me it was just incredibly boring--not in the least experiential for me. Now high mass in Latin at St. Marks when I went to Venice, with choirs in separate balconies singing in stereo under 42,000 square feet of mosaics: that was experiential.

I've been reading Robert Taft Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It. This is what I was always after in religion: over-the-top, all-the-stops-pulled-out high church and unabashed mysticism--splashy, flashy liturgy and metaphysical thrills, church as acid trip. I thought that this was what everybody wanted--but that the moralizing, killjoy clergy who threw away the old Prayer Book didn't want us have it because it was too tasty and yummy: no banana splits with whipped cream, nuts and a cherry on top; eat your broccoli--it's good for you. No Elizabethan English or fancy stuff: shake your neighbor's hand and smile; follow the words on the screen and make nice noises about "justice, freedom and peace." The Church is People. We do community-building and goody-goody projects, rummage sales, youth groups and Activities.

The shocker for me, when I actually got involved in the church (as opposed to going to church, blurring out the people and fantasizing Byzantium, Hellenistic mystery religions and Mediterranean Folk Catholicism) was that people actually liked the hand-shaking and rummage sales, and all the dull, platitudinous, moralistic crap. And didn't seem to want the over-the-top mystical/liturgical acid trip. I still can't fathom how anyone could not want that.

The hardest thing for me now, having left the Church over 10 years ago, is accepting that they just don't, that the Church does not have anything for me because it can't--because my taste, my interests and my spin on religion is anomalous. This is really the death of a dream. I still can't believe it: how could anyone in their right mind, anyone who isn't completely dead of soul, prefer those sanitized mannequins in the picture having a pleasant chat about the Meaning of Life to the outdoor-indoor liturgical extravaganzas Taft describes, the processions, the public grand opera, the crowds in the streets milling about, jostling, fighting, flirting and stampeding to the altar for communion?


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