On Alpha, IS, and the faith of the young

23 June 2017

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I PROBABLY should not have said to the Archbishop of Canterbury that Islamic State (IS) and the Alpha course used the same recruitment strategy, but who could resist the temptation? Besides, he is quick-thinking and unemotional enough to understand what I meant, which was that ideology was almost always secondary to social bonds when it came to recruiting people, whether for good or evil.

The outcomes of Alpha and of IS could not be more dissimilar; but in both the theological message is framed and transmitted through a profoundly social context. What you are inducted into is a fellowship before it is a credal commitment.

I had spent some time earlier that afternoon watching IS recruitment videos in a seminar on online radicalisation. These were not the gore and horror ones, which are aimed at a different audience, but the kind that show happy, smiling warriors with their families, sharing, caring — and later talking about their planned suicide attacks.

The normalisation of atrocity, and its association with the defence of all that is decent and righteous, is another technique that transcends ideology: there is an advertisement at the railway station in Ely for a book that stars a local hero, a boy who grew up in a village near by, described as “a foul-mouthed, one-eyed amateur boxer with an extraordinary capacity for killing” — but this man, Reg Seekings, was a member of the wartime SAS (and an “anti-terrorist officer” in white-ruled Rhodesia); so he is sold to us as a defender of English decency.

Perhaps he was that, too, among other things. Men who enjoy killing may be needed to protect those of us who shrink from it.

 

THIS leads to the most extraordinary story (and video) of the week, about another Special Forces soldier — but this one an American who left the army after ten years to go to the Fuller Theological Seminary, but did not exactly come out as a missionary.

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David Eubank was the subject of a story in the Los Angeles Times about his efforts to rescue civilians who were fleeing from IS during the siege of Mosul. After leaving the seminary, he was put in touch with Burmese hill people by his parents, who are also missionaries, and, with his wife, formed an aid group that delivers, he says, “medicine, supplies, and humanitarian support where other organisations simply cannot go”.

The LA Times story obviously relies heavily on material supplied by the group, but I can see no reason to doubt it as far as it goes. He, his wife, and their three children moved to Iraq two years ago, and are now working with some unspecified but heavily armed volunteers to rescue and assist civilians.

The video, which is shot in very high resolution, shows him sheltering with two armed colleagues behind a tank, about 15 metres from a bullet-pocked wall that has corpses heaped up against it, where families have been cut down by snipers as they tried to escape. There is a girl of about five still alive, sheltering beside her dead mother.

At a signal, Mr Eubank’s two helpers leave the shelter of the tank, and start firing at the enemy positions while he runs into the open, scoops up the girl, and runs back, carrying her. A bullet tears up a plume of dirt near the running man, but he gets back. The child is later taken to the hospital above which his wife lives and home-schools their three children.

If I were looking for Christian propaganda to show to teenage boys, I think this would be the most effective clip I could ever find. But it would not be an argument from words.

 

I THOUGHT of all this when I read Olivia Rudgard’s story in The Sunday Telegraph, about some research that appeared to show that one in six teenagers called themselves Christian, and that far more had been converted by the experience of church buildings than by Alpha courses, school missions, or even Messy Church.

This looked less interesting when closely examined. The research had been conducted by ComRes, and was part of the research project Talking Jesus.

The two things that leapt out from the figures were, first, that hardly anyone is converted in their teens at all — 92 per cent of the sample said that they had been Christians by the age of 11 — and by far the most important reason for being Christian was that your family was, too.

The second was the huge ethnic divide in teenage Christianity: white British teenagers were less than one third as likely to call themselves Christian as black ones — less likely even than Asians. The idea that Ms Rudgard’s piece tempted one towards — that thousands of teenagers were being converted by the aesthetic or inexpressible experience of church interiors — is enormously attractive, but there is no reason to suppose that it is true as well.

 

AND so to Tim Farron, whose resignation statement led many people who should have known better to suppose that he was being driven out of politics by liberal intolerance. But here, too, theology is overrated. He lost his job because he lost his chance in the General Election.

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