Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yet more from the bookshelf

Almost two weeks ago I went to Dymocks in Collins Street in the city for the launch of the controversial book, People in Glass Houses: An Insider's Story of Life In and Out of Hillsong, by Tanya Levin. This isn't a book review; I'll post that when I've finished reading it. For this reason I wondered if it would be better to wait until then to write this post, but wanted to do it whilst it was still fresh in my mind. This is simply a summary of Levin's remarks on the night. Based on what I've read so far, while I may share some of her concerns about Pentecostalism, I don't necessarily agree with everything her book says. For now I'll confine my comments to what happened at the launch, and my conversation with Tanya Levin on the night.

For many years, Hillsong has been well known in Christian circles mainly for its prolific output of praise and worship music, which is used in churches around Australia and overseas, and sold in Christian bookshops. It has only been in recent years that it has become known to the general public. Hillsong and the Pentecostal movement of which it is part have become active in the political arena, mainly through the Family First Party. Further, recognizing the value of the evangelical Christian vote, politicians from across the ideological spectrum have sought to actively court the denomination, even to the extent of accepting invitations to attend its annual conference, which draws thousands of delegates. To some political commentators, this has raised questions of the separation of church and state.

Against this backdrop comes Levin's book, which has drawn much interest from the general public. She has been interviewed on radio, television, and in print. Tanya Levin spent most of her childhood and adolesence in Hillsong, which she attended with her family. Sadly, her experiences left her badly disaffected, not only with that church in particular, but more generally, also with Christianity, as she understands it. She now leads what she refers to as an evidence-based life, no longer allowing anyone to tell her what to think.

Levin describes Hillsong as as cult. I don't know if this description is accurate, so I'll withhold my judgement for the time being. Jill Singer, her interviewer at the launch, asked Levin to describe how cults differ from religions. Religions emphasise freedom and encourage their adherents to question and debate. Speaking personally, while this isn't necessarily a Baptist distinctive, rather than dictate to people what they should believe or think, the churches I've attended value the principle of encouraging their members to seek the truth of God for themselves, and to make sure that what is taught from the pulpit stacks up with Scripture. On the other hand, Levin said that in Hillsong, questioning and debate is discouraged or stifled. To ask questions is to show that your faith is lacking.

In writing her book, Levin read up on organisational theory and cult psychology. She notes that cult leaders exercise power over their followers by getting them to do what they want. This is done through thought reform and behaviour modification. There is an element of deception involved, where people are recruited into the movement without knowing properly what they're getting involved in. To Levin, this amounts to brainwashing. Hillsong actively recruits. Rather than serving the needs of the client and supporting their needs and choices, as she found when working for a Salvation Army womens' refuge, Hillsong's social services are geared towards recruitment of new members.

I was surprised to hear Levin describe Hillsong as patriarchal, especially when you consider how well known the church is for its womens' ministry. This is the message she got from her involvement in this ministry, where Proverbs 31 was strongly emphasised. Women were taught that their role was to be helpful like Eve, being submissive and obedient, supporting their husbands. In the context of marriage, while I believe in male headship, I also believe that submission is mutual, so that the relationship is based on interdependence and mutual sacrifice motivated by love, and not being domineering or overbearing. I wouldn't want to be married to a meek doormat. On the other hand, in their roles as husbands, men were taught that they needed to be 'heroes' and the decision makers. This often put pressure on them, and even more so if they're pastors, who are expected to show the virtues of faithfulness, integrity, and longsuffering. Sadly, a high rate of marriage breakdown was the result.

Historically speaking, many denominations have handled the problem of sexual immorality poorly, especially among their leadership. In her book she mentions a couple of incidents where offenders were removed from their leadership positions, but on both occasions, the Hillsong congregation was never properly informed. An announcement was made with a vague reference to a leader being involved in a serious moral failure requiring his resignation from leadership, and that was as far as it went. No stance was taken against child sexual abuse, nor was a commitment given to dealing with this problem.

In observing these problems, Levin was made to feel that she was the problem. She was a misfit; a square peg in round hole. She couldn't live up to the expectations and demands that were placed upon her. Obviously she suffered from spiritual burnout, and eventually stopped going to church altogether. If I recall correctly, she caused a disruption at a womens' conference. I haven't reached this part of the book yet, but as a result, she later found herself banned from Hillsong altogether. When she tried to return, she was escorted off the premises. If Levin is to be believed, those who question the church's doctrine find themselves ostracised or frozen out. Behind the healthy attendance figures, which number in the thousands, is a high churn factor, with a fifty per cent turnover every five years. I'm all for respecting your leaders, but this shouldn't mean unquestioning obedience.

No critique of Hillsong is complete without a discussion of its emphasis on the prosperity doctrine and word of faith teaching. Members of the congregation are strongly encouraged to generously support the work of the church. This is how you show your faith, especially if you're struggling in life in some way. Advancing the Kingdom of God means advancing Hillsong. This means more buildings and facilities. If you give money to the church, God will bless you in return. As far as Levin can see, this amounts to financial exploitation. People are being promised things that won't happen.

Hillsong preaches that Jesus is about giving Christians self-esteem and helping them to be the best people they can be. On the other hand, in the Gospels, we find that Jesus called Christians to a life of self-denial and sacrifice for others. Levin never heard this sort of teaching. What she heard in church was very self-centred.

I didn't plan to buy Levin's book, but felt compelled to in light of what I'd heard that night. I also wanted the chance to speak to her in person. During our amicable conversation I told her a little about my background, explaining that although I've been brought up in the church and work for a Christian organisation, that doesn't blind me to its shortcomings. There is a very real need for constructive and valid criticism of the church where necessary, and in Hillsong's case it appears that it is. As I said to Tanya on the night, I respected her point of view, and shared some of her concerns. When I finish reading this book, I might donate it to Kingsley College, or at least order a copy to add make available for loan for our students to read, for which she thanked me.

The reaction to Levin's book has been mixed. She mentioned that she's received a volume of hate mail from sections of the Christian community. In response to the publicity surrounding it, Hillsong's leadership posted an open letter on its website, advising its members to continue serving the church. Her motive in writing it was to get people to ask questions. By reading her book, I hoped that I could start to find answers to some of my own. I'm not necessarily anti-Pentecostal. I have friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who attend Pentecostal churches, and I've always respected them for their passionate faith. but I have issues with any church that appears to stifle dissent, subjugates people, lacks accountability in leadership, exploits them financially, and promulgates questionable teachings. When a church is as influential as Hillsong, not just in Pentecostal circles, but in the wider evangelical movement in Australia, this is real cause for concern.


James Garth said...

This is an outstanding post, and should be compulsory reading for anyone who attends a megachurch, or wannabee-megachurch.

Most of all I respect the fact that you had the guts to actually talk to her in person, and to do so with courtesy and respect.

Her plight seems to be a complicated one which is representative of the human condition in general. Part of us aches and yearns for relationship with our Creator, and yet part of us wants to raise our fist in defiance to him. Perhaps in her case, the latter component was strong enough to cause her to discard her Christianity entirely. The counsel she received within a hype-based, image-focused community was obviously not sufficient to provide her with the deep answers she craved, so she threw it all in.

I would love to sit down and have a follow-up conversation and coffee with her (though not at Gloria Jeans, I suppose. ;) I'd be intrigued to know what she thought of Jesus himself. What about his teachings? What about the wonder of the created order we see around us? What about such intangibles as love, beauty, meaning, morality? Though she discards Hillsong, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, surely this does not mean that all theistic thought must be discarded?

Interesting you mention Jill Singer too. I once started to draft a long e-mail to her, in response to her "Truth is Crucified" article in the Herald Sun, which I felt contained an aching desire for answers that were real and compassionate, yet didn't seem to be forthcoming from her religious colleagues. It seemed so symptomatic of a wounded soul yearning for God yet burned by humanity's failings and staggering to make sense of God's purposes through it all. Maybe it's time to dust off that e-mail.

Belinda said...

That sounds interesting Ross. James and I saw her interview on Denton too. I'll be interested to hear about your thoughts once you've finished reading the book.

I'd also be interested to hear from anyone pro-Hillsong to gain their impression on her book ...

Ross McPhee said...

I'll have more when I've finished reading the book.

Based on what Tanya Levin said at the launch, and on what I've read so far of the book, I feel sorry for her. It appears that her experiences have left her without any faith or spiritual belief to speak of. It hasn't been a pleasant book to read, but I've found it very illuminating, if also disturbing at the same time.

The only time I've seen first hand what Hillsong is about was seven years ago when I went to their conference in Sydney, so I'm far from an expert. I've yet to see any coverage of this book in the Christian media, either in print or online, so it will be interesting to see what they make of it all.

James Garth said...

I've now read a few reviews of the book, and a number of quotes and extracts, and from what I've seen it appears two things are evident.

1) Firstly, Tanya Levin appears to be a person of considerable passion and emotion. It does appear though that her opinions, many of which had already significantly developed by the time left the church at the mere age of 19, are based more on emotion than on careful scholarship. Also, her sympathy towards more left-leaning philosophies, including liberal sexual ethics, homosexuality, etc. seems to have been what initially set her on a collision path with Hillsong as much as other doctrinal quibbles.

2) Secondly, it also appears evident that Hillsong could have dealt with this situation better. Given their size and influence, one would have thought that they would have robust systems in place to publicly intellectually buttress their doctrines and practices. Their strategy of disengaging with disaffected members seems counterproductive to me, and merely adds fuel to an already combustible fire.

The question in my mind is not so much why did Tanya Levin leave Hillsong, as why she ever joined them in the first place.


Miss Eagle said...

First, a comment on James Garth's last post. If you had seen the Denton interview,James, you would know that Levin was raised in Hillsong. She didn't join with an adult's free will and volition. Ross, I guess I could be called part of the Hillsong churn. When I lived in Sydney I used to worship at Christian Life Centre, Waterloo, which, I believe, is now known as Hillsong City. I was there when Frank Houston retired and Brian and Bobby Houston took over. Am happy to talk to you about this. My current email address is at my profile on The Eagle's Nest. I enjoyed Frank Houston's ministry. I felt that his brand of Pentecostalism was tempered by his Salvationist background. Under B&B, power and ambition is all the go. Can give some instances of this. As for cult, well I think Christianity in general could meet some cult definitions. No, I don't think the Houstons run a cult. People are free to leave and I'm not too sure that there are any ill effects. However, the gap between Frank Houston's departure and Brian Houston's appearance at Waterloo was a period of about six weeks. During that time, Brian sent a video out to all the cell groups at CLC. It was a sermon/speech/talk by him at a previous Hillsong Conference. It's title was "How to be a good follower." And, yes, asking questions is not welcome. Bringing in rich people is. There is an overall impact which has gone across modern, mainstream Pentecostalism in Australia from Hillsong. You will not hear prophecy or messages in and interpretation of tongues. I heard Brian Houston in an interview on RN's Encounter program where he spoke of tongues only as a personal prayer language. This is a truncation of traditional Pentecostal doctrine. As well, I believe that the constitution of the Assemblies of God in Australia has had removed from it a long-standing clause supporting conscientious objection to war. Support for conscientious objection in the free churches, not just the Pentecostal tradition, has a long, proud, and historic tradition. It appears that such objection to war on the ground of biblically informed conscience can no longer be supported by the AoG.

Miss Eagle said...

Ross, thought you might find this story of interest:

Blessings and bliss

James Garth said...

Good point, Tanya's initial decision to go to Hillsong wasn't her own. But I'm intrigued as to why she went back after her hiatus.... I guess I'll have to read the book to find out!

Interestingly, about the cult question, I once had a very long chat with a mate of mine who argued that "If Christianity is false, then it is the biggest cult the world has ever known."

In some sense, he had a point, but I would argue that one of the key characteristics of a cult is that excessive control is exerted over the cult members, often resulting in damaging consequences.

I don't really think Hillsong fits that bill. As you say, people can freely go if they choose. I really do think those who attend do so because they're exceptionally passionate and genuinely think they're doing God's will. But it is possible to be both sincere and mistaken, and I fear that with churches like this there's too much frantic activity and not enough introspection. Time will tell how it all pans out, but I'm worried that Hillsong is a train wreck waiting to happen, and it would be sad if it came to that, since so much good has come from this church as well.

Ross McPhee said...

I finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago. It's hard not to read this book and feel sorry for this poor woman, but this won't keep me from reading it again objectively. Watch this space.

The Thinking Theologian... said...

Excellent blog, Ross.

I'll be honest; from reading snipets of Levin's book in the press I thought her writing style quite poor, so decided against buying a copy (I'm a snob, it's true).

But having read your thoughts, I'll definately have to find a copy.

I'm tempted to order a copy for Hillsong College's library, but I know they'd just throw it out.