Just finished Alex Preston's novel The Revelations which is about goings on in an Alpha like course ('The Course' in the novel) and in a HTB like church ('St Botolphs'). The Guardian review (fairly favourable) is here. The FT review (rather lukewarm) is here.
Much depends on what you are looking for in a novel. If it is just to present a satisfying internal world, then perhaps this ticks all the boxes. It has a menagerie of characters calculated to appeal to a middle class twenty/thirty something, Guardian reading audience (bankers, lawyers, PhD candidates); lashings of bonking and exuberant rubbing of bodies; a general sense of the importance of spirituality but also of the obvious awfulness and inadequacy of any orthodox Christian answer. The 'Course' in the novel is portrayed as, at best, an overly simple attempt to provide answers to the strains of growing older in well heeled and educated middle classdom; at worst, it is a cynical attempt to make money out of the gullible. As a story of corruption within its own invented world, it's fine. Not great: just fine.
But presumably we are to take this as something more than a thought experiment about a possible world: it is, presumably, something about our world, the possibility of religion and (most specifically) about the sort of modern Evangelicalism that appeals to whatever we're supposed to call yuppies these days. Preston himself seems to emphasize the social aspects of the novel and indeed 'the (Alpha) Course':
With Nicky Gumbel, a charismatic Anglican priest, at its head, the Alpha Course offers a seductive outlet for those who have come to feel that there must be more to life than what they're daily dealing with. Not only that, says Preston, "it is a ready-formed social environment for people who don't have one." Whereas churches such as the one he intermittently attends attract congregations you could count on one hand, those such as Trinity regularly have to turn people away, and for not entirely spiritual or religious reasons.
"You meet people there you could not only marry," says Preston, "but who you could possibly work for as well. Also, it answers a lot of questions."
I can't say I've had much to do with either Oxbridge educated London financiers or HTB. So I'm perfectly prepared to believe that both sets are full of shallow, slightly desperate people who drink and smoke too much and really just want to meet some nice friends to share their lives with. If that's what Alpha in London is all about, then perhaps it deserves this novel.
But what you don't get from the book is much sense of why religion or God might represent a tempting way out of this. The priest leading 'The Course' is simply focused on boosting numbers: no explanation of why God might be really important to him and thus no real insight into what's gone wrong with his motivations. Loyalty is judged in terms of loyalty to The Course, not in terms of loyalty to Jesus or the Holy Spirit (which is what evangelicals of my acquaintance keep going on about). 'The Course' is simply manipulative: it's out to make money; it ignores immorality; it lies. But there's no real sense of what a good course might be like and what the actual course has betrayed. There are indeed the occasional gestures at suggesting there might be other, better forms of religion, but nothing really clear about what this might be. (Insofar as the book does contain hints on this, the perfect religion seems to consist in the reading of Middle English mystics whilst being brought to sexual climax by your best friend's wife. Whatever the Church of England's view on this suggestion (presumably it would require careful study and prayerful reflection) it doesn't really sound viable for Catholics.) What would have been interesting is some sense of what this God shaped hole in the lives of these people really needed to fill it. Instead you just get a story about how people who pretended to care really didn't after all. An oddly banal thought for a novel about religion.
I've known quite a few people who've been on (Protestant) Alpha courses outwith London. Certainly, the social aspect does seem important: for those for whom it's worked, and getting into a small bible study/social group does seem to be part of the successful mix of modern evangelicalism. But behind that is a desire for God and for something that transcends the everyday awfulness of human lives. I'm pretty sure that Alpha, with its profoundly unCatholic approach to the Church, is an extremely flawed introduction to Christianity. But it is still some sort of introduction: it's intended to pull people in and then (as evangelicals would say) to 'disciple them'. And it is the appeal of Christianity, not just attractive girls and networking, with which this novel singularly fails to grapple.
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