Nicky Gumbel.2016. Questions of Life: Alpha. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Books about the fundamentals of the Christian faith fascinate me. No two of these books are remotely similar even though they presumably cover the same topics. The topics remain similar but the manner in which we approach them needs to ring true in different times and places. This makes the Alpha approach remarkable because it appeals to so many different people in different times and places. Nicky Gumbel’s book, Questions of Life, sets forth these objectives:
“This book attempts to answer some of the key questions at the heart of the Christian faith. It is based on Alpha, which is designed for non-churchgoers, those seeking to find out more about Christianity, and those who have recently come to faith in Jesus Christ.”(ix)
Audaciously, Gumbel starts citing his own objections to the Christian faith: it’s boring, untrue, and irrelevant (11-12).
Background and Organization
Nicky Gumbel is an author, founder of Alpha, and an Anglican priest serving in one of the UK’s largest congregations. He studied at Hill House and Eton College, read law at Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Other books by Gumbel include: The Jesus Lifestyle, Searching Issues, and A Life Worth Living.
Gumbel’s Questions of Life is organized in fifteen chapters preceded by a preface and Foreword, and followed by endnotes. The chapter titles are:
- “Is there more to Life than This?
- Who is Jesus?
- Why Did Jesus Die?
- How Can I have Faith?
- Why and How Do I Pray?
- Why and How Should I Read the Bible?
- How Does God Guide Us?
- Who is the Holy Spirit?
- What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
- How Can I Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?
- How Can I Resist Evil?
- Why and How Should I Tell Others?
- Does God Heal Today?
- What About the Church?
- How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?”(v)
The chapters follow the Alpha course outline and provide content for small group discussion and sermon presentation. Some chapters include cartoon illustrations.
The Alpha focus on non-Christians and Christians who do not attend church regularly helps explain the plain-English language, the choice of topics chosen and the large number of stories suitable as sermon illustrations. This audience, sometimes described as seekers, stumble over “churchy” words and misconceptions of the Gospel story. Even among believers it is perhaps rare to participate actively in a small group.
Every effort is made to avoid placing people in an awkward position. A non-believer may find prayer intimidating or even discussing personal questions about what they believe or do not believe. Small group leaders are accordingly encouraged to giving everyone an opportunity to participate in discussions without being pushy about it or putting people on the spot. The illustration of a circle game of passing a beach ball around is a template for group discussions.
The Anglican origins of Alpha show up in the choice of topics. Among Presbyterians discussions about the Holy Spirit are usually brief—Alpha devotes about four chapters to the Holy Spirit (chapters 7-10)—have generally been skeptical about spiritual healing (chapter 13) and avoid discussions of sin and evil (chapter 1). The Anglican willingness to broach these subjects came as a pleasant surprise.
How and Why Do I Pray?
Gumble’s chapter on prayer provides a good illustration of this book’s contribution. Personal prayer is a Christian distinctive in that many religions suggest prayer, but it is a transcendent God and, for that reason, prayer tends to be formulaic, not spontaneous. Think of Moslem lined up for Friday prayer and reciting Surahs from the Koran.
Personal prayer is harder because it is a deeply theological activity. I have often said that my prayer book (Everyday Prayers for Everyday People) is my most theological book. Gumble notes that before he came to faith, he recited mostly child formula prayers and mostly prayed in times of crisis (62). Now he focuses on his relationship with his heavenly father (63). While some people find relationships easy, many people today find intimacy generally hard and especially hard in a. lonely, technological society that does not encourage development of social skills. What do you say to your heavenly father when conversation with your earthly friends and relationship is strained and infrequent? Gumbel walks his reader through the Lord’s prayer, petition by petition (63-73).
Nicky Gumbel’s book, Questions of Life, is an accessible and helpful book. Small groups may find this book useful even outside of a formal Alpha course. I used it to prepare as an Alpha group leader. I also appreciated the head’s up on sermon material, which helped drill the subject matter in more deeply. Nonbelievers may find this book an excellent way to become familiar with the Christian faith before walking into an unfamiliar church.
Gumbel Answers Faith Questions
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.