How to find God
We had a little lunchtime sesh for staff at C4 HQ with Jon Ronson talking about his latest film (REVELATIONS: HOW TO FIND GOD) which transmits this Sunday at 7pm on Channel 4. It’s all about the Alpha Course, but not ripping into it or taking the piss, a gentle generous film matched by Jon’s gentle Cardiffian voice-over. None the less insightful for that – just not taking the obvious route, and in that respect very C4. It was commissioned by Aaqil Ahmed, outgoing Commissioning Editor for Religion, who I worked with on Osama Loves last summer and who is heading off for the Beeb, great fodder for the BBC anti-Christian plot conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories are of course very much the territory of Jon Ronson (e.g. The Men Who Stare at Goats) – he summed up the theme of his career in journalism, writing and telly as exploring “bubbles of irrationality”. Reminds me of a protest outside C4 HQ by the Moonies last year – after running the gauntlet through said Moonpeople a colleague of mine gave his definition of a religion – “a cult that got lucky”.
So Jon’s latest film is a look at the Alpha Course, the Evangelical Christian phenomenon that has been attended by an estimated 2 million people in the UK, and 13 million worldwide. The film has unique access to the course as it follows a small group of agnostics as they undergo the ten evening sessions and weekend away. For Ronson, it is the second time he has done the Alpha Course – the first was for a Guardian article eight years ago. Here, he reflects on his experiences with Alpha. He reveals how he was nearly won round, what he does and doesn’t like about the beliefs involved, and why he thinks the course has enjoyed such a phenomenal level of success.
Why did you want to make a film about the Alpha Course in the first place?
JR: The main reason was that I wrote a piece about the Alpha Course eight years ago, and I was really struck by how dramatic and powerful the Alpha small group thing is. That’s the masterstroke of Nicky Gumbel, who created Alpha – his use of the small group. Really dramatic things happen in small groups – like they do in Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought if we could get a camera into an Alpha small group and make people somehow feel unselfconscious, there would be a great film. That was my main reason for wanting to do the film. But also I knew that the weekend away, where people are asked to speak in tongues, is another really dramatic thing to capture, because some people are just horrified by the idea of speaking in tongues, while for other people it’s the moment when they dive into Christianity. It’s a moment of drama that I knew we’d capture and would be fascinating. And finally, I thought the idea of people becoming Christians might seem like a boring subject for people to watch, but I sort of knew that within the context of Alpha you could make a really interesting, dramatic film about becoming a Christian. If we could capture the moment an agnostic becomes a Christian, it would be jaw-dropping.
It’s watching someone’s life change completely in an instant, isn’t it?
Exactly. I think capturing that, and making it something you couldn’t take your eyes off, was something I wanted to achieve. And I think we have achieved it. I think it’s a really dramatic film. As you say, the structure of the course is key to its success.
How does it work? What happens on an Alpha Course?
Basically you turn up, you’re an agnostic, and the reason why you’ve been convinced to go is because you work in a bar and the person working with you is a Christian, and you have big fights about it late into the night, and finally they say “Well, if you’re so interested, come and do an Alpha Course.” So you turn up and it all seems very nice, and there are pretty girls at the door offering you Hobnobs, and then there’s a talk from the vicar, which is a talk that’s been written by Nicky Gumbel. And then you split off into small groups to discuss the meaning of life. And you do this once a week for ten weeks, and towards the end of that time you go off on a weekend away, where you don’t realise until you get there that they’re going to ask you to try and speak in tongues. And within that framework, salvation occurs, with extraordinary frequency.
What sort of frequency? What proportion of people on the course are converted?
Well, it’s difficult to come up with an exact figure, mainly because some people who do the Alpha Course are Christians anyway, so that kind of skews the figures. But from my own personal experience of having done Alpha twice and talking to a lot of people, the figure I came up with was about one-in-eight.
You’ve done Alpha twice? For research purposes?
Yeah. Although the first time it nearly worked for me. I got all swept up. It didn’t happen for me this time, because when you’re making a film you’ve got so many things to think about you don’t get into the sort of hypnotic bubble. But the first time, yeah, we’d just had a kid, and we’d had trouble conceiving him, and I just felt like Nicky Gumbel was kind of talking to me in strange ways. It’s all in the article I wrote at the time. It’s weird, it was such a personal thing that even though I wrote about it all in the article, I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about it. [In the article, Jon recounts how he was thinking about his son, Joel, being a gift from God. Just at that moment, Nicky started reading from The Book of Joel. Jon writes: “In the middle of the night it becomes clear to me that I almost certainly had a message from God, that God had spoken to me through Nicky Gumbel.”]
What kind of people do you get signing up for Alpha? Do they all have certain characteristics in common? Did they strike you as being lost souls?
Well, I think pretty much everybody in the world is a lost soul. There were one or two people in our group who were a bit Richard Dawkins-y, and really just wanted to have a bit of a scrap. I liked them very much as people, but I didn’t really put them in the film, because that’s not really what it’s about. And then there were one or two people who were more lost soul-ish than the others. But as I said, we’re all lost souls in a way, so you can’t really judge people on that. I don’t think you can really generalise about people’s reasons for doing the Alpha Course. I think that makes it very interesting. They all had a genuine reason for doing Alpha, but they were all very different reasons.
You found it quite hard to get a church to agree to filming this documentary, didn’t you?
Yes. We went to see Nicky Gumbel, who liked the original piece I wrote, except for a line about him equating being gay with being a paedophile, which he says I quoted wildly out of context, and to which I say I quoted it entirely within context. But it caused him no end of trouble, as you can imagine. However, other than that, I think he really liked the article. I think he liked me, and I like him, actually. So I went to see him last December, and said I wanted to make a film about Alpha, and could I film a small group at his church. And he said no. He said he felt that a camera would be like a brick wall between an agnostic and God. Not only would it dissuade people from doing Alpha, having a camera there, but the people who did do Alpha wouldn’t do it properly. So I said to him “What if I find a church doing Alpha who let me film?” And he said “Well, if they phone me, I’ll advise them not to do it for the reasons I’ve just outlined.” And I said “What if they want to do it anyway?” And he said “Well, I can’t stop you.” So we went to lots of churches, and they all said no. Whether they said no because they phoned Nicky I don’t know. But then this fantastic church in Oxford agreed to it. The rector, Charlie Cleverly, phoned Nicky, or one of Nicky’s people, and decided he wanted to do it anyway, because he felt that the presence of a camera might actually encourage people to come. And I got the feeling, from speaking to Charlie, that ultimately Nicky wasn’t that down on the idea.
You seemed to like the people you featured in the film, both those doing the course and those running it. Would that be accurate?
Yeah, I do and I did. And that goes all the way to Nicky Gumbel. However, from a sceptical agnostic point of view, I think that the sort of Evangelical zeal where turning the agnostics to God is the all-important thing, and matters more than anything else, I don’t personally like. So I don’t really like the Evangelical zeal of Alpha. But, then again, they would say that that’s what they believe, that if you don’t find God you don’t get salvation, and it’s crucial. So I see that as a fault, but they don’t. But I wanted to make a film that didn’t focus too much on the negatives. I wanted to make a film that was enquiring and gentle and human. I saw it as a film about people.
The Alpha Course, and therefore the film itself, both take a major, dramatic turn on the weekend away. It comes a little bit out of the blue.
Yeah, that was deliberate on my part. I was worried that, in order to sell the film to the audience, we’d need to put something about that at the top of the film, and I was so glad when it turned out that we didn’t have to. I did it that way because that’s the structure of Alpha – they underplay the weekend away in the first few weeks of the course. So people on the course don’t really know what to expect when they turn up for the weekend. I didn’t want the viewers to know any more than the agnostics we’re following would know.
When the moment arrives where people are asked to speak in tongues, it’s a very polarising experience, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. And exactly the same thing happened last time I did Alpha. Some people stormed out in disgust, and said “I thought these people were nice, with their biscuits. I didn’t realise they were like some sort of weird cult.” Which I don’t think they are, because a cult is something much more restrictive. If you leave Alpha, no-one’s going to try and press gang you into coming back. But then, for other people, the speaking in tongues is ‘the moment’ – it unlocks something in their hearts. So it’s incredibly polarising, and that’s fascinating. Especially because the rest of Alpha is so un-polarising.
Do you think, then, that it’s a mistake to include speaking in tongues in the course?
It’s really interesting, isn’t it? Nicky would say “I didn’t make the rules, God makes the rules.” But I think, in a way, Nicky does make the rules. Maybe he just thought at some point that you need to draw a line in the sand, otherwise it’s too wishy-washy. But it’s an extraordinary out-of-the-blue structural thing. Maybe it’s not a mistake. To a lot of Christians it is a mistake, and it’s the thing they don’t like about Alpha. And some Alpha Courses have done away with the weekend away – I think much to Nicky’s annoyance. The weekend away happens three-quarters of the way through the course, but it marks the end of the film.
Why is that?
It’s just a natural climax to the story – and it’s a natural climax to the course too, really. The last few weeks are sort of a bit underwhelming.
You have a Jewish background. Was that an issue at all?
No, not at all. My agnosticism was more of an issue. They kept on getting me up onstage in front of the local congregation, to ask me whether my agnosticism remained intact, and always got really pissed off when I told them that it did! But besides the Evangelical zeal, which I find distasteful, I really liked the people. I think they’re good people, nice, funny, intelligent people who are just doing what they think is best. I certainly don’t look down my nose at them.
When you’re making a film like this, which is very observational, is it difficult to know when to ask questions and when to remain silent?
I think it’s sort of intuitive. I have made mistakes, and I kick myself afterwards, when I’m watching the rushes back and I think “Why did I stupidly say something then? They were about to say something amazing.” But the older I get, the better I am at that. It’s probably the most important part of film making, and in the end it has to be sort of intuitive. You learn from experience. When in doubt, shut up. If you ask someone a question – this is the sort of dark art of interviewing – and then they answer it and you don’t say anything, they’ll feel compelled to fill the silence by saying something else, and the other thing they say might be fantastic. So definitely, when in doubt don’t say anything.
Why do you think the Alpha Course is so successful?
I think it’s so successful because of a mix of two things. Firstly because of the invisible structure – everything from the pretty women serving you food through to the structure of when each thing is revealed every week. And then that dramatic lurch at the weekend away, when it all gets turned on its head. Some people might see it as a mistake, others think it’s the coup de grace. I’m kind of torn between the two.
A lot of people will tune in expecting a polemic, or a knocking film. It’s not, is it?
JR: I could make a knocking film. There are certain things I don’t like. But that’s not so much about the course as about Christianity. But we didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to make a film that was about the human dramas that went on within Alpha. To learn about these peoples’ lives as we went on was just fascinating. We didn’t have a clue about any of them when we started filming – it wasn’t like Big Brother where the producers know everything about the housemates when they choose them. It was so interesting finding out about the people in this film. If you want to make a knocking film, then you lose that human element in it, and we wanted to make a film about people.
AG: For me, that’s the difference between journalism and film-making. A journalist knows broadly what he wants to say and goes out to illustrate it with interviews and other footage. A film-maker knows what he wants to explore and goes out to see what he can find…