I went into the city the other day and spent the book vouchers I had been given and that had sat in my wallet since my birthday in May.
I had a few books in mind, ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ by Richard Flanagan, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Affluenza (I have read this but wanted a bookshelf copy) and Hugh Mackay’s latest, Advance Australia Where.
However none of these were available in the ABC shop, so I finished up buying Tanya Levin’s autobiographical account of her experience of her life in and out of Hillsong. However it would probably be more accurate to say it is Tanya Levin sharing her struggles with life, faith, family and her own self esteem. Hillsong was a player in all of that, but I wonder if Levin mightn’t be an unhappy camper even if she had never discovered the Hillsong brand of Pentecostalism.
I hesitated to buy a book that is clearly a swipe at other Christians, but I was also interested to hear her journey. I believe that “sometimes our critics are our best critics.” They will tell us the hard things our friends won’t dare to. I had seen her on Denton, and while I was not overly impressed, I was sufficiently interested to hear her side of things.
It seems Levin grew up in a rigid tight family that made sure she was well separated from the world and cocooned in a Christian bubble. If it weren’t for the Hillsong angle her story could be any one of many young Christians who found themselves in rebellion and reaction to the narrow paths chosen by parents. This is an all too frequent story and something we ought to be paying attention to as Christian leaders. Separation from the world does not produce healthier disciples. Often it actually produces fragile vulnerable people unable to survive in the ‘wild’, or young adults who choose to throw off all restraint. (Listen up advocates of closed enrolment Christian schools!) Or if you don’t like my words then listen to Bonhoeffer: ‘The church is at its most false when it seeks to preserve a separation from the world’.
Levin is a self confessed rebel and cynic, a questioner who doesn’t take anything at face value. This trait is valuable and yet does taint her story with some fairly crude sarcasm and invective. A regular smattering of proof texts are snidely woven thru the story as she seeks to offer the Hillsong theological position on different aspects of life. While the biblical references definitely ring true, a more skilled writer might have said the same thing, but with greater subtlety and a better result. I found myself both nodding in affirmation at the issues she raised yet also seeing her as something of a habitual fault finder. However given her many years of submission to and ‘not questioning God’s annointed’ maybe her sarky tone can be excused.
I appreciated her honest struggle to stay with the simple ‘black and white’ faith of her childhood. As a questioner she discovered early that the simple answers just don’t cut it with the big questions of faith. When she prayed God didn’t answer and things didn’t work out as the pastors said they would… No kidding…
She had the integrity to question both God and the church but in doing so perplexed those around her who saw her as a nuisance. Alan Jamieson affirms this as a problem with ‘Evangelical Pentecostal Charismatic’ churches in general (EPC). They tend not to allow people to easily progress thru stages of faith and seem to isolate / marginalize those who express real doubt on a consistent basis. Perhaps if doubt and mystery were allowed greater permission to exist then we wouldn’t have so many people ditching faith because it didn’t ‘add up’. Reality is that it doesn’t
always add up, but it’s probably only been the last few years that I have been comfortable enough to say that myself and still consider myself a true believer.
It was disturbing to read of her perception of God as the ‘vengeful’ one who would cause you to fail your TEE exams because you had been naughty at schoolies week. Levin grew up with an angry God who needed pleasing and appeasing. But it was personally disturbing because it reminded me of the world I grew up and the similar torment I experienced as a teenager wondering, each time I did something wrong, when God would punish me. I am not sure where I gained that image of God from, but I know it was pretty common in my teenage world and obviously retarded us in seeing him properly. Could it have been the image of God that fitted the era?
Someeone asked me recently ‘what is it with all the immorality and licentiousness in church these days?’ I told him ‘I blame Phillip Yancey’. In the 90’s we were long overdue for a pendulum swing and Yancey provided it with his brilliant book ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’. He wrote some brilliant stuff and in the process seemed to validate anyone who was failing and/or who couldn’t be bothered trying. So the church pendulum swung from hardline legalistic holiness to a ‘grace covers everything so it doesn’t matter what I do’ position. I don’t know which is more destructive, but I wonder why we just can’t seem to strike the balance.
Levin departed from faith at 17 years of age on her Schoolies week and did not come back except to investigate the Hillsong phenomenon. She was married briefly, and then paired up with a Maori bloke to whom she had a son. She returned to visit one of her old pastors when her Maori partner began manifesting serious demonic activity, but the response was underwhelming and only seemed to further her disillusionment.
While it is loosely chronological, the book is also quite erratic in its presentation with the Geoff Bullock story only getting a geurnsey in one of the final chapters. Levin seemed to like Bullock as he was a fellow sufferer and one who may understand her.
There is much that makes the book both interesting and concerning.
• Levin’s story of being banned from church and later ejected really doesn’t do Hillsong any favours, but it does read as a true account.
• The failure by Brian & Bobbie Houston to respond to her personal emails is rather poor also. If church is a corporation then it is understandable but if we are a family then it is nasty. That said I can think of some people from my pastoring days, who were genuine trouble-makers whose emails I wouldn’t have responded to either.
• Her comparison of Hillsong to Amway is not a first and has a little merit, although I genuinely doubt this would be in the hearts or minds of most of those involved.
• Her chapter on fundamentalism was kinda weird as I wouldn’t have perceived these guys as fundies, but then some of the behaviour and beliefs Levin cites would fit that category. There is a cult-like allegiance and devotion that ought to evoke some concern. However I don’t think she fits them in the right box when she uses the ‘F’ word. She does go on to describe them as a cult. Again I think this may well be pushing the boundaries of the definition. As I see it there are cult like elements in the focus on recruitment and $$, but people are free to come and go. That would surely rule it out.
• Her chapter on the ‘Colour’ conference was enough to make you want to vomit as she depicted a ‘princess’ culture in the making and what she believed was a call to women to get over abuse and allow their husbands to call the shots.
I realise that simply reviewing this book will piss some people off – ‘Why did you even give it the time of day Hamo?!’ while other will feel I have not been scathing enough of Hillsong given the content of the book. This is not me trying to carefully walk a middle line. I simply believe that Levin does write some interesting and no doubt accurate critique of the beast that is now Hillsong, but she does it with some serious baggage and there is no way she can be considered completely objective.
I believe she sounds a warning to all of us in churches that there are people out there not afraid to ask question and not afraid to blow the whistle when we start to look more multi level marketing schemes.
Unfortunately the writing in the book is a bit average, but it is very easy reading, so if you are interested you can probably digest the 269 pages in a few hours like I did on the plane this weekend.
If Tanya Levin happens to read this then I would want to apologise to her for the abuse she has suffered at the hands of us, the church, and the lack of dignity she has been shown. I would want to ask her to remember that some of it wasn’t intentional. It was people locked in a system genuinely doing what they thought was best – even if it was destructive and damaging. I would encourage her to keep seeking and questioning because I believe God is much more complex and mysterious than fundamentalism would like him to be, and yet at the same time he is knowable and personal. Tanya – not all you were told was bullshit. I truly believe God does love you whether you care or not…
And having read Tanya’s story of her experience at Hillsong, I have to confess that there have been people who have left church because of me – because they felt I didn’t treat the with dignity and respect, or that they were simply part of my plan for world domination. There haven’t been many but there have been a few. And I would have to confess that a couple are probably quite justified in their view, while others were projecting their own issues onto me. As I read ‘Glass Houses’ I sensed Tanya was both of these people at the same time.
I am interested in her story for what we (as the church and church leaders) can learn from the angry and disenfranchised in our midst. I realize you may not wish to read the book on principle, but I wonder if there may be a voice here that we need to pay attention to…