Chris Saliba is a Webdiary contributor. His archive is here. His last Webdiary piece was his review of Barack Obama's 'Thoughts on reclaiming the American dream'. His blog is here.
After a touch of controversy, former Hillsong congregant Tanya Levin’s book about her experiences in one of Australia’s uber-churches has been published by Black Inc. Allen and Unwin, despite promoting the book on their website a compelling insider’s story (‘a brave book by a courageous woman’), dropped People In Glass Houses when their publishing director Patrick Gallagher decided Hillsong exposed too great a defamation risk. Despite Hillsong spokeswoman Maria Ieroianni maintaining the church did not lobby the publishers, it appears the church is perceived as possibly litigious.
Tanya Levin doesn’t seem like your typical Pentecostal church swayer. Her Hillsong memoir has more wisecracks than Fanny Brice, Dorothy Parker and Ruby Wax put together. She quotes Joan Rivers, reads Paris Hilton’s Confessions of an Heiress as though it were revelatory scripture, and describes herself as a Jewish South African princess. To say that Levin is an ironic writer is an understatement. How then did she end up a member of Hillsong? It makes sense that she was booted out of this Christian church popular with the likes of John Howard, Peter Costello and Bob Carr. But the question that will occupy most readers is, how did she ever get in?
Perhaps the church learned too late about what type of character they had with Levin, and would have barred her at thirteen should they have known there was such a skeptic in their midst. Hillsong’s doors are now effectively shut on Levin. After attending the 2005 Women’s Colour Your World Seminar, doing research for this book, she caused a bit of an upset. She later wrote to Brian Houston, requesting an interview for her book. In response she received a very cool corporate style letter from the church’s general manager George Aghajanian. Levin was told to "refrain from attending any future Hillsong church services or events; including accessing Hillsong’s land and premises at any time".
Beneath the wisecracks, though, lurks the anxiety of a woman in search of herself after having filed for divorce from a decidedly patriarchal church. Much of Glasshouses reads like self-therapy. This is not to say it’s morbidly self-obsessed, just inward looking. Don’t expect a shocking blow-by-blow expose, following a straight narrative line of the young novice entering church, followed by the gathering clouds of doubt, and then the final act of apostasy. Following Levin’s story is like listening to a brilliant but eccentric genius talk to themselves. You have to pay attention, as she mixes insights with throwaway one-liners in equal measure. This is a serious book that often asks you not to take it too seriously.
Tanya Levin was introduced to the Hillsong Church at the age of 13 by her parents, Fred and Elaine. The family had immigrated from South Africa in 1977, when Tanya was six years old. Levin’s own time line of her involvement with the church runs thus: "Five years of attendance, twelve years of hell, three years of daring to suspect, and six weeks of watching it disintegrate."
Her suspicions first started at the age of sixteen, when she thought the people in the congregation speaking in tongues were all crazy, performing in a ‘charade’. Levin never completely quit the church after these first seeds of doubt, but rather maintained an ambivalent relationship. "I never quit being a Christian," Levin writes, "I just stopped showing up for work"’ While not showing up for work, the absentee Christian nevertheless maintained a troubling spiritual, intellectual and theological argument with Hillsong.
The final nail in the coffin came in 2002 when Hillsong’s Pastor Brian Houston came clean with the truth about the rumours that had been circulating about his father Frank Houston, considered the father of Sydney's Pentecostal churches. He had confessed to sexually molesting underage boys. Levin’s blood boiled. Not so much at the revelation, bad as it was. What made her gorge rise was that no recognition was shown to the victims of the crime. Brian Houston, holding his wife Bobbie’s hand, asked the church to pray for them and their family. They got a standing ovation.
To Levin’s indignation, there was no statement from Houston vowing that this would never happen again. No policies were to be put in place so that all those in positions of authority at Hillsong would know what their responsibilities were if they should ever witness anything inappropriate. Houston didn’t even ask for forgiveness from the victim’s families. It was like they didn’t exist.
‘My blood skipped from boiling to mercury. Watching people get had is upsetting at the best of times; watching them applaud a cover-up was heartbreaking. To digest having a paedophile for a patriarch so readily is no mean feat. How do you get people to comply like this?’
This is a question that Levin tries to answer, dipping into the psychiatric literature on cults. Yes, the author seems pretty adamant that Hillsong is a cult. These chapters will give the skeptical a smirk of satisfaction. Levin describes the recruitment techniques of cults, how they brain wash, the idea of ‘thought reform’, how schools indoctrinate, and so on and so forth.
Maintaining that Hillsong is in the brainwashing business, Levin writes:
‘So what inspires people to devote so much of their time and money to a group so soon after joining? How do you find yourself applauding the senior pastor’s cover-up of his father’s sexual misuse of the same role and powers? It’s actually not hard. Most importantly, whatever you call it, no one who has been brainwashed believes they’ve been brainwashed.’
Another beef Levin has with Hillsong is its attitudes towards sex. She doesn’t like the church’s attitude to women, who don’t register as far as she’s concerned, and gay men. With regards to Lesbianism the church takes a Victorian attitude: women simply wouldn’t do something so beastly. Levin’s dark humour is at its best when describing the sex scenes out of the Old Testament:
‘If the entire plot of the Old Testament were made into a movie, it could only be screened in Amsterdam. With story lines so violent and obscene, even to preach against them would require an Adults-Only timeslot. The children of Israel make the twenty-first century pornographers look infantile and unimaginative.’
Sex roles in Hillsong are simple and clearly defined. No one must deviate. "The sexuality of the fundamentalist is simple and totalitarian," we are told. The men have their own conferences, and the women have theirs. The men’s conference goes for two nights and one day. What do they get up to? We don’t know. The closest we get to the goings on of the men’s conference is from a monthly e-mail from the men’s group RealMen. When it comes to sex for real men, we are informed that anal sex is out for medical reasons (bad for your bum), but everything else on the menu can be savoured and enjoyed.
Homosexuality is a major preoccupation for the Hillsong church. The church cannot accept homosexuals because they are the ultimate rule breakers. And if you’re a woman, you’re basically just looking for a good Christian hubby. Beyond that, you don’t exist. Women appear nowhere in the Christian hierarchy. Women are Adam’s spare rib.
Anyone who has endured the rigours of a Christian education will recognise the above. My first three years of schooling were spent in a state school, followed by nine years of primary and secondary education in Catholic schools. The sex divide was the first thing that struck me about Catholic school after my experiences in a state school. For some reason the boys had their own massive paddock to play in. No girls allowed. The nuns would occasionally relax this rule – maybe once or twice a year – and the girls would be granted the temporary privilege of using the boys’ yard.
Then when I went to secondary school, an all boys Catholic school, cultivating masculinity was a high priority from day one. The brothers insisted we do everything in a big ‘manly fashion’. It seemed odd to me when my form teacher, Brother Michael, would exhort us to speak in ‘big manly voices’. I was only twelve at the time.
Perhaps this anxiety that men should be men, or RealMen, is used as a cloak to hide high levels of homosexuality. When it comes to Hillsong, Levin claims there are, ‘More homos than you can poke a stick at. Even the stories I verified added up to a disproportionate number.’ This despite the church’s claim to have no homosexuals, or at least active homosexuals, in their congregation.
Why is Hillsong so popular? Why are politicians like John Howard and Peter Costello keen to be seen as part of the Hillsong scene? For the latter I guess they go where the votes are, or where they think they can rustle up a constituency. The church’s ‘prosperity theology’ – the notion that God wants you to be rich – must be a very agreeable theology to John Howard.
As to why the church is so popular with regular folk, I’m guessing it’s because they’ve successfully co-opted two of the secular world’s most basic cultural and economic planks: popular music and capitalism. The bands and live performances at Hillsong make churchgoing more like a concert, rather than some boring conventional service, with uninspired readings from the New Testament (I speak from experience, church going in my day was one of unremitting boredom). Checking through the Aria Australian top fifty this week, I noticed that Hillsong has an album, Saviour King, at number twenty, down from seventeen. (Highest position was number six.) Prosperity theology hardly needs explaining. It’s akin to saying if money doesn’t grow on trees, then it should.
What happened to Tanya Levin’s faith? In the end she came to the conclusion that uncertainty was the best faith, and quotes Albert Einstein to explain her new found religion:
‘I believe in mystery and, frankly, I sometimes face this mystery with great fear. In other words, I think that there are many things in the universe that we cannot perceive or penetrate and that also we experience some of the most beautiful things in life in only a very primitive form. Only in relation to these mysteries do I consider myself to be a religious man.’
Amen to that.