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Revelations: How to Find God

Jon Ronson rather breezed through his sojourn among the spiritually eager

Revelations: How to Find God
Channel 4

There wasn’t anything particularly amazing about the script, or the direction, of Jon Ronson’s film about the evangelical Christian Alpha course (28 June, 7pm), but for his access alone he must receive ten house points from the school of television critics.

The Church of England arm of the franchise is surprisingly defensive about its most successful conversion tool, as Ronson found out when he approached it for access. The first 20 churches turned him down. Then he got lucky. The Anglican rector of the excessively happy-clappy St Aldates in Oxford, Charlie Cleverly, agreed to allow Ronson to follow one group of agnostics through an Alpha course, comprising ten Tuesday evenings and one weekend away. Among this group of the spiritually curious were Ed, an unemployed “freegan” whose hobby is trawling through supermarket dumpsters in search of dinner; Dave, an ale-loving Oxford psychology student; and Ian, a comedy writer.

As an explanation for why two million British people have signed up for an Alpha course so far, and why thousands are reputed to have become Christians as a result, Ronson’s film was pretty much a failure. Yes, we saw a few, like, really deep conversations between our “don’t knows” and our “absolutely certains”, a sickly married couple called Sharon and Rich whose job it was to lead group discussion after one of Cleverly’s grinning semi-sermons; but the latter were inordinately wimpy, not to mention severely lacking in clinching arguments.

According to Rich, God’s existence could be proven by the fact that He once “told” him that he didn’t need to give a talk he was a bit nervous about. I wondered about this. Is it God who tells me to call my hangover “food poisoning”? The agnostics felt similarly, but when they said so, Sharon turned pink and accused them of being patronising.

Ronson’s approach in this film was to stand back and watch the action rather than to, say, go off and tackle Nicky Gumbel, the man behind Alpha, about his marketing techniques. So the whole thing was rather shambling and mild, like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first. This is not to say that Ronson has entirely abandoned his satirical impulse; on the weekend away, the comedy was rich. Our group found itself sharing a conference centre with a bunch of Ford GT40 enthusiasts.

Now, Ford GT40s have extremely loud engines and, unfortunately for Cleverly, just as he’d got his agnostics all quiet and settled and ready to, er, speak in tongues, the car owners decided to roar off en masse into the Oxfordshire night. (Yes, you read that right; speaking in tongues is the “climax” of the Alpha course, apparently, and no wonder they want to keep that quiet, for what sane person would agree to go on such a mini-break if they knew this was its aim?) Needless to say, the mood was broken but, undaunted, Charlie decided to speak in baby language – sorry, I mean tongues – anyway, pour encourager les autres. “Oh, Father,” he said. “Balala, dilly doodle, boogy bala . . .” Or something. Amazingly, no one laughed. I think they were too stunned to laugh. Call me old-fashioned, but what is wrong with a firm recitation of the Lord’s Prayer? At least it makes sense.

Meanwhile, how were our potential converts doing? Ronson, to extend my Springwatch analogy, did his best to sit on them, mother hen-style, so he wouldn’t miss a second of their spiritual awakening. But they would keep disappearing!

Dave went off and let a lot of St Aldates lovelies pray for him. Result? Not a conversion, exactly, but he is going to do another Alpha course. Perhaps he had the hots for one of the lovelies. Ian was repulsed by the vicar’s ga-ga-gooing, and was off. Ed, the most sceptical of the three, had been taking Communion on the mini-break. Was he about to crack? No, he said. In fact, he was a bit embarrassed to have found himself in the line for the Host.

Off camera, Ronson asked: “Were you after a free bread roll?” At which point, freegan and film-maker laughed uproariously, like two doctors about to come off shift in a lunatic asylum.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!