The Cult You’re In
By Max Dunbar.
The Revelations, Alex Preston, Faber 2012
Before Alex Preston became a writer he was a City trader. In his 2007 Mansion House speech, Gordon Brown described the 2000s as ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.’ Of course, it didn’t work out quite like that; and Preston was glad to get out in 2010. The notorious excess of work and social life wasn’t for him. ‘I was getting into work at seven in the morning, usually working till seven at night, but sometimes till 10 or 11 and some Saturdays. I just didn’t see my children and didn’t like the thought that they would grow up without me around.’
The Oxbridge generation of the 2000s had grown up at a time where a career in finance was seen as the pinnacle of human endeavour. The priest David Nightingale welcomes new members to his Christianity Course by talking honestly about his pre-Course life: ‘I came to London… I suppose because all of my friends did, and because all of my friends were going into the City, I thought I should too…. I became a merchant banker, and I found it a dark and unforgiving experience. I remember getting terribly drunk in pubs on Saturday, just drinking for the hell of it, because the week had been so tough that we felt we owed it to ourselves… It was really a miserable life. I even thought about suicide once or twice, during the darkest days.’
Post crash, it all seemed so pointless. Preston: ‘When it all fell away in 2007 and 2008, those people had nothing to fall back on, they had no interests outside of making money, no real moral system, a lot didn’t even know their families. You saw people wandering around the City with this dead look in their eyes; I wonder how many of them had lost their jobs and didn’t want to tell their wives.’
The writer attended a local Alpha Course and was struck by the congregation: ‘All very beautiful young people: big-teethed men with flushed cheeks and girls in pink pashminas and blonde hair with surging hormones and tons of money.’ The course in Preston’s novel has relationships with the City and top universities, moves its money through nonprofits and Cayman Islands accounts, and is on the verge of breaking the US market. Sermons take place in a beautiful Chelsea church. The introductory session is attended by politicians and bankers: ‘Having recently won power by a thin margin, the politicians wore about them an air of restrained celebration. They were all very young, Eton-educated, near identical in sober suits and blue ties’. Marx said religion was a consolation for the oppressed. But the Course attracts people at the top end of society who are looking for some vague transcendence.
David tries to define this in that first session:
We are all looking for meaning… I feel, many of us here feel, that there’s something wrong with the modern world. That our age is one of greed and grasping and selfishness. We need a new way of living, a new way of negotiating life. The Course will give you a road map, it’ll show you guys a clear and fulfilling way to make sense of life in this mad, bad world.
The Course’s success is a testament to the empty inner lives of the elite.
We don’t know if Preston’s fictional Course is based on the existing Alpha Course. But Preston talks about Alpha in his interviews and many reviewers have made the link. Alpha began in a church in Kensington and spread during the 1990s. It operates in 150 countries and puts adverts on buses saying things like ‘Is there more to life than this?’ The demographic is 20-35 year olds and everyone agrees that there is a big social scene. According to the website, Alpha is ‘a non-pressurised, fun and informative course. It is a place to share your thoughts and explore the meaning of life.’ The course consists of ten weekly discussion sessions that culminate in a weekend away at a country house. Its growth coincided with a dramatic shift in literate opinion. After the chaos of terror war and capitalist crisis the old certainties of faith didn’t seem so bad. Pockets of spiritualism and quackery flourished and increased.
If you watch the Alpha videos, the course leaders have a similar style and mannerism to David Nightingale in the book. They tend to be young and good looking, with clear voices and an open, pleasant demeanour. A journalist dropping in to a Knightsbridge discussion group saw music execs, an ex cricket captain, and a former private secretary to Margaret Thatcher; the drive up was packed with Porsches and Aston Martins. Course leaders stress that they were once rebellious, even atheists. (Alpha boss Nicky Gumbel told a congregation that ‘Perhaps some of you are sitting there sneering. If you are, please don’t think that I’m looking down at you. I spent half my life as an atheist. I used to go to talks like this and I would sneer.’)
Surely only the most militant of secularists can object to this sort of thing? But people who have looked into Alpha in depth have discovered a few disturbing resonances. In 2002 the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association published a critique on Alpha’s attitude towards gay rights. The report was written by John Rose, a student at York University who objected to Alpha’s presence on his campus. Rose focused on Nicky Gumbel, the Anglican cleric who took over Alpha in the 1990s. In his Alpha text, ‘Searching Issues’ and elsewhere, Gumbel condemns gay people as ‘homosexual offenders’ compares homosexuality to paedophilia, and asserts that ‘homosexual orientation is something that is acquired or learned’ and therefore gay people can be ‘healed’. He backs up his arguments with medical texts written before homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organisation’s list of diseases, some that even predate the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
A New Humanist writer went on the course and found that it promoted similar prohibitions against sex outside marriage and relationships with non-Christians. Gumbel regretted the Enlightenment, when ‘revelation was made subject to reason’ and looked forward to a time where Britain could be ‘a nation where the laws of God will again be the foundation of society’. I watched a few of the videos on the Alpha website. In a video called ‘How Can I Resist Evil’ the speaker tells us that ‘The battle is not over yet. On the cross Satan, the Devil, was defeated, demoralised… But the Devil was not destroyed. There will come a moment when he is destroyed, when Jesus returns.’ There’s a surreality to watching this sort of thing spoken by a friendly, attractive young woman.
I also found a blog by a Warwick student who identified the crux of agnostic unease: for such a ‘non-pressurised, fun and informative course’ people find Alpha, well, a little cultish. The Warwick student was a little taken aback to find that the location of the retreat was ‘heavily guarded. But through either curiosity or stupidity I did get on that coach to be driven to an unknown location with a bunch of people I barely knew.’ There we reach the centrepiece of the Alpha experience: glossolalia.
This in mind, the worship quota is upped for the weekend, and whole notion of giving your life to Jesus and getting ‘saved’ is raised, with people going up to the front of the chapel and praying in a sort of ‘Christianity pledge’, with people collapsing and doing the (pretty amusing) speaking in tongues thing.
The Revelations focuses on four people in their twenties, who have been involved with the course since they were students, and are now stepping up to be course leaders. The first thing that strikes you is the uniformity of the personnel pool. All the main characters are white and Oxbridge educated. There are no LGBT characters and one, supporting Asian character. This isn’t meant as a criticism. There would be no point in Preston introducing a token black person, a token gay person, or even a token atheist. The insularity adds to the tension.
Preston was struck by Alpha’s puritanism (‘because telling young people not to have sex is a surefire way of getting them to do it, the sexual tension in that church was palpable’) and he burdens his characters with various sexual tics and dysfunctions. Full-time course professional Abby sees sex as a road to precreation and nowhere else. She is married to Marcus, a philandering corporate lawyer who is sexually obsessed with Lee, a willowy and promiscuous theologian stimulated by guilt as much as pleasure. Lee is best friends with Mouse, who she ‘discovered’ at Oxford; he loves Lee with all his heart but is, naturally, the only man she won’t fuck. A chubby Scotsman from an army family, Mouse is the best realised of the four characters, one of those big drinkers whose reckless bonhomie and positive sentiment conceals – and not that well – a chaotic instability and desperate sadness. Course leaders talk in rueful self-satisfaction about old lives where they looked for love in all the wrong places. Mouse’s problem is clearly that he needs some sin of his own.
The four course leaders are devoted to each other and comfortable in each other’s space. It’s a fierce heady friendship that is natural in life but hard to get right on the page. Preston understands that friendship isn’t always a good thing. It can trap people in a certain place and keep them from addressing urgent troubles. At Marcus’s wedding reception he and Mouse slip away to share a joint on a balcony. Conversation stops when the two men notice that Lee has stripped naked to swim in the pool below. In swift and silent unison both men open their flies and jack off.
In fiction many cult leaders turn out to be charlatans who seduce their most attractive followers while preaching abstinence to the competition. David Nightingale is powerful because he appears to believe everything he says. David likes Lee because she is so clearly confused and insecure – ‘Nothing pushes people away like piety. A certain fragility of faith, if kept in check, could be comforting.’ On the introductory session he is friendly, accessible, self-deprecatory about past naiveties and debaucheries (‘Tonight I’m going to tell you about a student at Durham University who was a committed atheist, a big fan of Pink Floyd, and the yard of ale champion of St John’s College bar. That student was me…’). By session two, though, it’s time to grow up: ‘Now I mentioned that this is a family. And families work best with rules.’
He touches on the question of sexual difference: ‘Some of the most depressed, disappointed people I know are those who chose to be gay in their younger years and realised, too late, that it is a dead-end lifestyle. Now they are old and full of regret.’ Word reaches the priest of Lee’s hectic erotic life, and he moves to neutralise the problem. He takes Lee aside and warns her that ‘if you backslide too far, if you let the Devil come too close to you, it may be that you are too distant for even the Course to reach you.’ And just to be clear: ‘If you become known as a slut, Lee, I might have to ask you to leave. For the good of the Course.’
The characters have long been cut off from life outside the course: they have lost touch with old friends and even fallen out with their families. There is no challenge to the course way of life, from inside or out. Some new members are clearly unnerved. But we don’t always speak truth to groupthink when we see it. More often we just walk away. Of the four new leaders, Marcus is the most sceptical – on some level he is puzzled that ‘the Course insisted on marketing itself as a forum for philosophical inquiry when it was so clearly focused on pushing a fairly narrow form of evangelical Christianity’ – but he does not contradict the course openly. Disorder increases in a closed system, and the action quickly spirals into disarray. Trying to reconnect with life outside evangelicalism, Marcus gets wrecked at a Hoxton art party. ‘Seriously, you need to get out of the Course,’ a hipster girl tells him. ‘Those aren’t good people you have been telling me about. You’re better than that.’
Preston doesn’t take a side on what passes for the God debate in this country. Perhaps he’d say that danger and disorder increase in all closed systems, not just religious systems. (He thanks Karen Armstrong in the acknowledgements). Still, the book is not just a story of friendship gone wrong but a powerful argument against zealotry. The cultists of this day and age won’t necessarily have ten-gallon hats, Party accents or flowing black robes. Sometimes they will be cool, serene, attractive young men and women, who come to you with laughing faces and voices that seem to promise party invitations and midnight feasts. But that cup in the outstretched hand will still be full of Kool-Aid, and the eyes above the wide open smile will still be the eyes of a lunatic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012.