August 2007

Arts & Letters

Faith healing

By Craig Sherborne
Tanya Levin’s ‘People in Glass Houses’

What a stirring notion it was, that old Christian edifier: the poor would ascend Heavenward as if on a spaceship called Getting Even, while the rich stay behind on Earth with the camels to try and work out how to pass through a needle's eye. An idea poetic if comical, decent sounding and just, yet with such a terrifying blood-curdle of vengefulness about it. One that from the world-weary perspective of 2007 makes the names Christ and Lenin interchangeable in the imagination for a moment. No wonder those Chaucerian pardoners were run off their feet lobbying God to let their clients into the blissful Kingdom of Kingdoms. But that was the fourteenth century. Surely we don't have pardoners anymore?

Of course we do. The Catholic Church, for instance, has been absolving rich gangsters and fascist dictators of their murders and misdeeds for centuries. Light a candle, say some Hail Marys and get on your way until next time.

The Pentecostals, on the other hand, want wrongdoers spiritually overhauled for good, not just at sporadic confession-time. A noble-enough ambition. They want you reborn, as they call it, just as John the Baptist dunked sinners in river water to wash their old stained lives out to sea. They don't want you running back into the world as your old mischievous self. For them, life is divided into two parts: (1) the life you lived before you gave yourself to Christ as your personal Saviour, who is like those invisible friends people conjure to talk to in their loneliness; and (2) the life after you and Christ became soul mates, a bonding that to Pentecostals elevates you to a higher state, a special friend to Christ and his representative on Earth.

Religions traditionally sort people into classes: the high lords of Godliness who lay claim to special powers of revelation; and the rest of us, dully ignorant of all except our own appetites and senses. With Pentecostalism you don't need to go through years of study and contemplation to reach a spiritually aristocratic state. Plenty of bible classes, yes. But no complicated philosophical, theological, historical or literary texts. There is really only one true book. Well, not quite one. There are also the books of the Pentecostal pastors - lifestyle advice for the born-again in-crowd.

One crucial piece of advice? Do not feel guilty about being rich. Rich is good. You've been a success in life? God wanted you to be a success. God picked you out among the surly hoard and made you rich so that you had money to do his work, spread his word. It's called Prosperity Theology. Nothing new in that. The pardoners used the same argument to put their clients' minds at ease. Dante placed money-makers on Circle Seven of Hell to be tortured for all time, but he was a lovelorn, bitter old sadist.

Christianity's traditional deification of poverty is meant to transform its debasing effects on the sufferer into a fate instructive and divine. Tell that to the poor! The churches did, and the devout too often swallowed it, in lieu of food. I, for one - an atheist, for the record - prefer William Blake's attitude from Auguries of Innocence: The beggar's rags, fluttering in air / Does to rags the heavens tear.

 Prosperity Theology, therefore, shouldn't offend folk. But how many truly good works come of it - the holy wealth generated, the people made rich? If you don't pay tax because you're deemed a church, you'd better be doing the right thing by the broader community. You'd better not build an empire for the Heaven-happy few and little more.

Tanya Levin ponders as much in her new book, People in Glass Houses: An Insider's Story of a Life In and Out of Hillsong (Black Inc., 273 pp; $29.95). She takes a while to get to it. First she wishes to establish her own narrative as a former member of Hillsong, the politically influential wing of the Pentecostal movement in Sydney, headed by the apparently magnetic spruiker for Jesus, Brian Houston. Levin gives us an insider's hatchet job on Hillsong, though not before expressing amusing backhanded gratitude for the small mercies the group showed her: "I have to sincerely thank Hillsong ... for propelling me into the person that I am. For giving me a confidence that in a psychiatrist's office would have been called delusional." She means it. This is a strange hatchet job. The hatcheter is obviously in love with the hatchetee, and yet the blows she delivers are clearly expurgatory for her.

But the book's strengths are not found in her attempts at idiographic revelation. Certainly she is a traumatised soul. Raised as a born-again Christian, indoctrinated with "detailed and programmed fears" about damnation, her life has been a troubled journey. Her love life has been a disaster, we gather. That aspect of her narrative is dealt with in almost cursory fashion, even though it surely would have provided considerable insight into her psychological profile. We may then have been able to measure against her natural self the effect on her of religion. Her gullibility status, if you will.

I for one wanted to know how it is that someone clearly intelligent and well beyond infancy could, in this day and age, be filled with those programmed fears of hers and still give themselves over to an animist-pantheist jumble of beliefs where "every mountain range, every sunset, every laugh from a child, every moment of peace was created by God." Fear may engender obedience, but surely only a masochist would experience reverie from it. Mind you, she does theorise that Pentecostals are "drama junkies". Perhaps that explains the fear-love trope. It's the theatre of the self.

No matter how much a faith has been ground into your identity from birth, how is it that despite being told that Revelation 8 and its attendant apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ would happen in the year 2000, you still have respect for your religion when that event doesn't happen? Indeed, how could you have respect for your religion for wanting it and its carnage to happen in the first place? I guess the answer is vanity, that irrepressible shepherd of all human behaviour: in this context, vanity whistles for the devoted to come and die and go to paradise, to sit among the angels as one of God's courtiers. The ultimate power trip, and Christianity's tasty bribe for earthlings proud and ambitious enough to map a career path for eternity. Or is the vanity less strident? As in Philip Larkin's elegant poemFaith Healing', where supplicants blubber ... thinking a voice / At last calls them alone, that hands have come / To lift and lighten ...

Levin publishes diary entries that at times evoke an erotic, if again masochistic, relationship with her Christ. He has smitten her to the point of obliterating her self-worth. These passages of the book set up perfectly her disturbing portraits of Hillsong women as second-class citizens within the church structure. Buffed sex-bombs whose job it is to stand by their men above all other duties: "I'm in love with Jesus again," Levin writes. "I'm ready to die for him, I really mean that, I don't value my life. I want God to be pleased with me."

Change Jesus to Allah and such sentiments could be out of an Islamic terrorist handbook. Ironic that such death-wishing words come from a devotee of a church with links to the federal government, whose leader and treasurer are rightly quick to denounce religious fanaticism, though they tend to concentrate solely on the Islamic kind. Both have given supportive speeches to the Hillsong congregation.

Two years ago I attended, for journalistic purposes, a Pentecostal service at Storey Hall in Melbourne. The congregation was a youngish crowd of 1500 saved souls, early to late twenties, beautiful, orthodontised white smiles. They fisted the air to the beat of rock 'n' roll lite, with lyrics along the lines of "Go Jesus / You're number one / Earth and sky, yo!" No hushed contemplation and monkish chanting of a prayer. It was an hour-long party, a clubbing session where they gave it up for DJ Jesus. Middle-aged men with gelled, spike-cropped hair and pop-star microphone technique: hold with two hands to yell the loud Amen bits, then rest the mesh end against the lips for the quieter, ballad-like parts about how they used to drink and take drugs and lie down with many women, but Jesus said to them, "Dude, like, what are you doing with your life? Like, get with it, dude. I'm your saviour. Like, take my advice. Clean up or cash out. Cool?" The crowd swore themselves to live for Christ the "so awesome" one.

Later I interviewed an Anglican clergyman and sociologist, Professor Gary Bouma, about Pentecostalism. I said I thought the Storey Hall service was laughably shallow - just kitsch Heaventainment born of the wilful philistinism of America's strong-arm Right. Not about God or Christ at all, but just another commodity or gadget to add to a want-it-all existence: mobile phone, iPod, hair-straightener, an afterlife. "Who cares?" he said. "Who says it's got to have intellectual depth? That's the old-style religion's judgement of a new-style religion." Maybe a few of the new-stylers will go on to learn more about 2000 years of complex Christian history, theological interpretation, conflict, lore, he suggested. The Baptist preacher and head of World Vision Australia, the Reverend Tim Costello, told me much the same.

Yeah, and priests might fly, dude. People in Glass Houses was meant to be published by Allen & Unwin but the company let it go. This made me read the book anticipating perfidy and scandal in its pages, allegations that Hillsong is merely the organisational equivalent of Molière's Tartuffe, a fake prophet simply out for profit. Not so. Not in this book. Levin reminds us that Frank Houston, Brian's late father who himself was a preacher, was a self-confessed paedophile. But that's hardly news. It's been on the public record for years. Brian Houston and his pastors are portrayed as firm believers in their Lord.

It's the way they use their power over individuals, and the ethics of their business structure, that Levin questions. She argues that Hillsong is like a cult, and its teaching processes manipulative to the point of brainwashing. She claims that there is a "huge rate of suicide and attempted suicide in fundamentalist churches all around the world". She provides no fatality figures. She claims the average duration of church membership is only two years. Again, no evidence. My Encarta World Dictionary gives several definitions of ‘cult', including "a group of people who share religious or spiritual beliefs", and "excessive adulation for a person". All religions are cults, in that case. And that's not their only commonality. They've always teamed up to proselytise the flock towards virulent homophobia. Hillsong is no different, going by Levin.

I suppose the section of People in Glass Houses that readers will most relish will be that concerning Hillsong's business affairs. Pentecostal churches are money bags. Levin doesn't like their ethics: the salary-sacrifice packages of the pastors which, she implies, exploit the welfare system; the way government funding for Hillsong projects is allocated in-house; the tax concessions; the Houstons' private finances. Prosperity Theology is not necessarily Probity Theology, she contends.

Whether Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or Methodist, you name it, faith's children have contributed invaluably to literature by recounting their escape from oppressive God-fearing cultivation. This book is far from Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Very far indeed. But given Pentecostalism's increasing popularity among Australians needy of religion, and the political kudos Hillsong appears to have from the government, it's as good a document as any to exercise your worry.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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