November 23, 2018

Questions of Life


“Yet in the case of Jesus, he fulfilled over 300 prophecies (spoken by different voices over 500 years), including 29 major prophecies fulfilled in a single day – the day he died. Although some of these prophecies may have found fulfilment at one level in the prophet’s own day, they found their ultimate fulfilment in Jesus Christ.”


When someone says “Alpha”, I have seen a number of responses. Some warmly acknowledge the internationally-acclaimed evangelistic tool. Some are more wary of what they see as Christianity Explored’s dark cousin. Exposure to this spectrum gave me an expectation that the book itself would be equally divisive. Instead, Alpha, which is essentially a collection of talk transcripts from the course that bears the same name, is an intelligent book that (primarily) sidesteps secondary issues. Of course, the work of the Holy Spirit as outlined here will be up for debate (as always), and the theology at times definitely has a charismatic flavour, but there is far less to offend than I had, perhaps foolishly, expected. Warner probably says it best: "Alpha can…be summed up as [summer] camp rationalistic conservatism combined with Wimberist charismatic expressivism.”


And there is much to admire. Gumbel’s writing is first-class and genuinely unique. Very informal, but not condescending, Biblically peppered (showcasing an unashamed attitude to Scripture as his authority), but not inaccessible, intelligent, but not arrogant. The simplicity with which he writes about familiar topics is refreshingly profound, clear and winsome. A card-carrying graduate from the school of quotable prose, he has provided me with numerous pithy phrases that will be indispensable in explaining some concepts. He grounds what he writes in examples after example, many of which are helpfully autobiographical. Some fall flat, but most do not.


I have deliberately sidestepped Alpha’s content thus far because I am not sure that I have got my head around it. Why is Gumbel writing? Apparently, for those who are not yet Christians. But non-Christian friends of mine struggle to find time to read John’s gospel, let alone 220 pages of material that includes “does God heal today?” in its scope. Of course, it is the same gospel that saves and builds (affirmed by how much of the content fed my soul), but with so many pages devoted to topics that I am not sure non-Christians think about, coupled with a marked absence of some discussions that they do wrestle with, such as the scientific method, I think that it works much better for new Christians.


Critics hoping to find that Gumbel preaches a distorted gospel will find it tricky to substantiate such a claim from this book. The gospel is faithfully presented, and in technicolour too; penal substitution is explained, but so is the richness of what the risen Jesus’s lordship means for our lives. There is quality advice about how to read the Bible and there is a welcome mention of the experiential sphere of life with God. Hints of a therapeutic gospel irregularly peep, but do not enter.


Because the book is not quite specialised enough in what it is looking to achieve, I am not entirely sure what to do with it. I do not think that it would be the first resource that I would suggest to a new follower of Christ, but I would certainly be willing to recommend it as a resource to somebody who has come to know Jesus in a charismatic setting.



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