Monday, June 29, 2009

Alpha males

I watched the first in a series on Channel 4 about religion, called Revelations: how to look for God last night. It followed a group of agnostics through the 'Alpha course'.

It was a documentary by Jon Ronson, who I don't know much about. He has quite an annoying, scornful-sounding voice, although I couldn't tell whether sneer is his default setting for everything or whether it was reserved for this topic, not having seen anything else he's done.

All in all I found it quite disappointing, just the style of it. Although we were following a group, really only three of them featured to any extent and those were men. We found out very little about them, and even less about the other members of the group. One woman did reappear a couple of times, but her airtime seemed less than her male counterparts. The hour-length didn't allow for any great depth, it seems, and it was mere scratching at the surface. I think it would have been better to have a couple of programmes following them really, or a much broader focus on the wider course, as this format was unsatisfying in that you just didn't know enough about the people involved.

I found it surprising that on the weekend away with the Alpha course, the participants were invited to speak in tongues as well as partake of communion and so forth. This seemed a lot more out there and charismatic-churchy than I had expected the Alpha course to be. (Of course, I'd never really thought too much about what the course would entail before, but I'd assumed it was more restrained and buttoned up than that.) According to Ronson, all Alpha courses follow the same structure, but whether encouraging speaking in tongues is the norm as well, I don't know. (I had never considered speaking in tongues mainstream Christianity, and whether it is or not perplexes me).

What struck me about the scenes where the leader was trying to get them to indulge in speaking in tongues, was the tone of voice and repetitions he used. These reminded me very strongly of Derren Brown in his stage show, when he's trying to get some of his audience into a trance. Amusingly this atmosphere was dispelled when another conference being held at the retreat broke up and drove away in their sputtering sports cars just at the (in)opportune moment.

Two of our featured group were seriously repulsed by this stage and left. The woman decided the course had actually put her off organised religion. But one young guy, Dave, was intrigued and moved by it all and said that he would attend another Alpha course in the future, seemingly on his way to Christianity, (or rather back to it, having been brought up in it).

It was an interesting documentary, but I don't think an hour was long enough really.

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