Saturday, 5 April 2008

For God's sake (cont'd)

My encounter with Hillsong doesn’t end there. Just a couple days later the church comes up in conversation at work. My colleague Laura is talking about someone she knows that attends the church and is quite, shall we say, enthusiastic about it. It’s this element of these organisations that people don’t like – the attempt to recruit, no matter how subtle. People are scared of being ‘brainwashed’ so in fact the more subtle the attempt at getting tem involved, the scarier it all is. My colleagues are stunned when I tell them I went to a Hillsong concert this weekend. One of them describes Hillsong as a bit culty, and I have to say there was an element of ‘recruitment’ at the concert I attended.

Half way through a man who I assume to be one of the head guys of the church came on and gave a big and I suppose what he imagined to be inspirational speech and during that he mentioned that he knew some Hillsong members had brought along family and friends. He said that if they felt they could benefit from the love of Jesus then to raise their hands and someone would come over and give them information about the church.

This despite earlier proclamations that tonight was all about celebrating and worship, not a normal church service. No opportunity is missed it seems, and I sat there with belligerently folded arms wondering to myself why they found it hard to understand why people were so cynical about them.

Reading up about them it’s hard not to become more cynical. As the size of the event I attended suggests, they’re a pretty big deal. Their Hillsong Music albums sell by the bucketload, even topping the mainstream charts. The Hillsong Television program is seen in over 160 countries and Hillsong International Leadership College is attended by over 900 students from many different countries. Hillsong currently claims that it is attended by over 20,000 people each week. Judging by the amount of people at the concert they’re not at all exaggerating.

But then there’s the stories and controversy surrounding them. The church is currently led by Brian and Bobbie Houston, but its history reveals a first cliché – Brian’s father Frank, who founded the church, was found to be a paedophile and was ousted from the church by his son.
This has done little to taint Hillsong however - under Brian’s leadership the church has become the big deal it is. There has been the odd controversy however. Perhaps inevitably Hillsong has enjoyed the support of the conservative right in Australia (you wouldn’t believe how American Australia is sometimes – you’d never catch David Cameron supporting a religious organisation in the way former Prime Minister John Howard and various other members of his party have supported Hillsong).

In 2004 a politician for the right wing Liberal Party (how ironic is that name??), Louise Markus, won the seat Greenway seat and was elected to the House of Representatives. Markus had before run Hillsong’s drug and alcohol outreach service, Hillsong Emerge (what Hillsong calls its ‘public benevolent arm’ – there’s something quite self-righteous about that), and was still a prominent member of the church. Nothing wrong there, you think. But accusations were made (in the New South Wales State Parliament itself) after her election that she had used her rival (one Alan Cadman) for the seat’s Muslim background against him in her campaign. Also, two candidates from the Family First Party were allegedly featured in a Hillsong circular, which asked members to pray for them.

Blimey. And yet Hillsong deny any affiliation with political parties and publicly distance themselves from advocating any: “One thing we are not is a political movement,” says Brian Houston, “…The Assemblies of God in Australia does not have a political vision and we don't have a political agenda. I think people need to understand the difference between the church being very involved in politics and individual Christians being involved in politics. There is a big difference.”

But the controversy with Markus didn’t stop there. The following year Hillsong Emerge offered the Riverstone Aboriginal Community Association the chance to partner them in a bid for a grant of nearly $500,000 for a crime prevention program. The bid failed, then Hillsong made their own bid for a little less and got it. This outraged the RACA, who claimed Hillsong had used them to get funds for their own ‘purposes’. They made accusations in NSW Parliament that Hillsong had deceived them and then tried to buy their silence with a $280,000 pay-off.

It’s hard to see what their problem is at first. They failed, Hillsong didn’t. But the RACA claimed that Hillsong’s second bid plagiarises proposals made by the RACA and dresses them up as their own. They also claimed that Hillsong blamed a lot of the problems in the local area on Aboriginal gangs, exaggerating the situation heavily.

There’s more. Hillsong’s successful bid also lists RACA, the Blacktown City Council, federal Labor MP Roger Price and NSW Labor MP John Aquilina as stakeholders. All four said that this is untrue. None of them had been asked by Hillsong.

Then there’s Louise Markus’s involvement. She’s listed in the application as having written a letter of support and people saw this as Hillsong Emerge getting the grant thanks to the political support of its members.

It’s not the only controversy to emerge about Hillsong. Other religious leaders have criticised the church for its unabashed pursuit of money and financial success, both for itself and its members. “The quickest way to degrade the gospel,” says Tim Costello, former head of the Baptist Union of Australia, “is to link it with money and the pursuit of money. It is the total opposite of what Jesus preached. These people have learnt nothing from the mistakes made by the American televangelists.”

Brian Houston, in an interesting article looking at Hillsong’s financial success,
disagrees: “When Jesus said it was harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, he didn't mean rich Christians, because all you need is God as your foremost priority. Jesus talks constantly of people's attitude to money but he never talks against money.” Yet another example of how you can interpret the Bible to suit your own views, I feel.

Houston goes on to say such comments come from people’s jealousy of his church’s success. Maybe he has a point, and as such I try to be objective. In the same way, a lot of my colleagues’ criticism of Hillsong is based on ignorance of what goes on. They won’t have heard all these stories. Instead they hear about a large religious (no matter what Druvis or Andy say about their personal beliefs, that’s what Hillsong are) organisation, see people’s fanaticism about it and file it under cult. It’s the same with media coverage, which is very much, ‘Ooh look at the scary religious nutters.’ But with stories like this floating
about, it’s no bloody surprise. I don’t think that Hillsong are a cult, but the more I learn about them, the more I think they do take advantage somewhat of people’s need to be spiritual.

I go round to Andy’s for dinner one night a week after the concert. On the way we pop in to his church venue in Waterloo in Sydney, just so I can have a look. Hillsong run a tithe system (which I also belligerently ignored at the concert), which is partly how they fund themselves, and it’s quite obvious they make a lot of money from it. They’re not afraid to show it off at all. The church is a state of the art venue, a cross between a concert venue and a particularly swanky dance studio. No expense has been spared. This place has been designed for both maximum comfort and, I speculate, to win over those who think Christianity is all about ancient churches and dusty pews. I realise that Hillsong doesn’t take Christianity and try and make it relevant for modern society, they’re merely dressing old ideas up in new clothes.

We go back to Andy’s. He lives with some people he knows through the church - a Taiwanese lad and a Kiwi couple who are a fair bit older. On the table are leaflets with titles like, ‘Is Carbon Dating Accurate?’ and 'Did Humans and Dinosaurs Co-exist?'.

The Kiwi couple is Creationist in their beliefs and Andy quickly points out that he’s not of the same bent. I pick up the carbon dating one. Incredibly it’s written by a scientist. A scientist that believes in the creation of the world by God. Intrigued I have a read. Although a lot of the science is over my head, I get the drift that, though a lot of scientists take carbon dating as scientific fact, you can poke a lot of holes in it because a lot of it is speculative. I’ll admit I was unaware of just how much was speculative and thought it was more of a sure thing that this leaflet reveals it to be. This annoys me. Do scientists rely as much on faith as those with a religious bent? But then I realise it’s not the case. Their speculation is logical and based on what they know is absolutely true. Creationists’ speculation is not logical – it’s based on a book of moral tales in which the level of fact is highly debatable and doubtful.

I chat to Andy about it. He tells me he’s not a Creationist as such. He believes the world was created by God but not in seven days. That seems somewhat ridiculous to him. He points out that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and that often the words used in translation don’t mean exactly what they would have done at the time. When it was written that the world was created in seven days, the term they used for ‘day’ might not have meant day as how we know it. They could be talking about a longer length of time.

This is another problem I have with the Bible. How can something so easily misinterpreted, or at least differently interpreted, be taken so seriously by people? It’s been translated again and again by many different people, all with their own agenda. How close is the version we have now to what was originally written? Even with the current version we have many different people, churches, with different ideas or agendas are able to use the Bible to back up their viewpoints. To me it just seems a very flimsy foundation to base beliefs on.

Dinner is served and I tuck in. A moment later everyone puts their hands together for prayer. Oooops. I’m mortified at my faux pas. I might not share these people’s beliefs but I do believe in good manners and I apologise profusely. Andy grins at me.

We chat more about Hillsong as we walk back to the train station. I tell him how I feel about the venue he showed me earlier. It seemed ostentatious to me, I say. It seemed to go against what I’ve read Jesus and Christianity is about. He seemed to keep his life simple and dedicate his time and effort to helping others. He didn’t make speeches in grand venues to great expense.

Christianity surely should be about following his example – keeping things simple and dedicating all resources to helping others. Surely half the money spent on that hall could have gone to something more useful – their outreach projects for example. Hillsong Emerge, I find out later, has a yearly budget of just $400,000. Where’s the rest of the money from this multi-million earning church going?

Andy agrees with me. There are elements of Hillsong he finds a little hard to take. He says he sees Hillsong pastors walking about with expensive watches on their wrists and wonders how much they pay themselves. He’s not really into the ritual nature of their worship either. Prayer before meals, for example, is something he does when he remembers, not something that has to be done before every single meal. He says he goes to church service on Sundays just because that’s when it is, not because he feels that’s when it should be. He’d happily go on any other day as well.

What about getting in a big room with loads of other people and singing songs together, I ask him. Is that not ritualistic? That, he says, he finds quite powerful. Of course, I think. Anyone who is in a room with lots of other people listening to music they enjoy finds that powerful.

Andy says he finds his church back home in Bristol more in tune with his personal ideas about spirituality. Where Hillsong is very American in its commercialism (as I've said before, like a lot of things in Australia), Woodland Christian Centre, or Woodies as it’s affectionately known, is a much more English take on the whole thing. It has an old school church for a start. No fancy pants venue for Woodies, but they do employ big screens and music and throw out the dog collars to make the whole experience more appealing to young attendees. And there are a lot of them – a good thousand when other churches in the area are suffering. It seems much more relaxed affair as well – you don’t have to have religious views that are strictly in line with those who run the place. It seems like a more adequate forum for discussion than Andy’s Australian replacement.

There are things that put me off personally – the use of the word evangelism always makes me want to roll my eyes, even if it’s not the kind we see on dodgy American cable channels. But what I do like is how much focus is put on helping the community and charity work. It’s not done as an afterthought, a la Hillsong, it’s an integral part of what the church is about. THAT, to me, seems to be more like what that Jesus bloke was banging on about when he was walking about preaching all those centuries ago.

I have total respect for Andy for taking these ancient ideas and making them work for him in a modern context. But it’s not something I could ever get on board with. There are just too many unanswered questions for me. As my friend Megan puts it later when I’m ranting to her about Hillsong, a belief in a sentient being controlling everything made more sense when we had no answers for how things happened. Like how the sun came up every day, how the wind blew, or why some people got ill. Now we have more clearly defined answers to the big questions about our world and yet we are left with these archaic beliefs.

People insist on holding on to the idea that there’s something more mysterious at work, something more magical. That’s great, whatever works for you. I think people should be able to believe and do whatever they want to make the world a better place for them to exist in.
But they should also take a leaf from Andy’s book and have respect for those who believe something different. Spirituality should be about your own ideas of yourself and the world, not someone else’s, and certainly not someone from thousands of years ago who had no concept of what your life is like. Hillsong reveals its true nature in its attitudes towards modern social issues – abortion should be banned and homosexuals are (of course!) unwelcome. Brian Houston also feels creationism should be taught in schools. (Isn’t it? Oh, of course. He means as fact.) But then this is a man who believes in speaking in tongues, which, for me, undermines everything he says completely. He’ll be speaking out against the rising social problem of witchcraft next.

Personally I think people’s spirituality should be fed by their own ideas and communication with other people about theirs, in ongoing and interesting debate that is fuelled by mutual respect, not ‘I’m right and you’re wrong and this is how it is’. It should not be about manipulation, corruption, greed, arguing, violence or hate. It’s a shame the latter is what people generally associate with such things.