Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of Life In & Out of Hillsong

The week that I read People in Glass Houses Romsey and Lancefield almost didn’t get a sermon. The book was so absorbing that I found myself reading it during times when I should have been exegeting Isaiah. It is absolutely fascinating.

The author blurb on the back cover says only “Tanya Levin is no longer welcome at Hillsong. She lives in Sydney.” I can definitely understand the first. This is no objective history of the Hillsong pheneomenon. This is a personal, passionate and polemical description of Levin’s life growing up as a Pentecostal, and of the long drawn-out process of her loss of faith, culminating in a chapter halfway through the book titled “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last”.

In that chapter Levin describes Brian and Bobbie Houston’s reaction to the publishing on a website of accusations that Brian’s father, Frank (founder of the Christian Life Centre Sydney, which became the Hills Christian Life Centre and then Hillsong) had left New Zealand for Australia not because he’d had a vision but to avoid disciplinary action. “The rumours were that Frank Houston had been involved in paedophilia.” writes Levin. (p. 115)

This is how Levin describes what happened on one Sunday in November 2002.

Brian began swiftly. ‘About two years ago, George Agahajanian recieved a phone call from someone making some allegations about my father. I did the toughest thing of my life and went around to my father and confronted him. He broke down and confessed that the allegations were true.

‘I immediately stepped aside and let the investigators from the National Executive do their job. My father was found guilty of “serious moral failure” and his credentials were taken away from him.’ (At this point I was waiting for the punchline, and had a near-irresistable urge to yell out like the boys used to do in the old days, ‘What did he DO, Brian?) ‘This has devastated my family. We haven’t told our daughter yet, but the boys know and they’re doing okay. My son came into my room the other night, and he said, “Dad, I still love Jesus.”

‘You know, my dad loved God. And while he was deeply repentant for the mistakes he had made, it didn’t change his love for God.’

Once again, Brian took Bobbie’s hand and asked the church to pray for them and for their family, given the ordeal they had just been through.

That was it. The entire congregation responded by giving Brian and Bobbie Houston a standing ovation.

At exactly the same time as I was furious, I was as peaceful as daybreak. I had never felt so close to God. Hillsong was boasting a 12,000-strong congregation at the time. All I could hear in my head was ‘12,000 people are wrong and I’m right’. (pp. 116-7)

This is an angry book – it’s also a very, very funny book. Some of the humour comes from the horror of the Hillsong version of Christianity. Levin describes the Shine course for girls aged between twelve and sixteen in which, among other things, “Through skincare, makeup, haircare and nailcare, girls discover their value in their God created uniqueness.” As Levin writes: “If only I had known then when I was growing up what I know now. The answer’s been nailcare all this time.” (p. 197). There’s the fact that Brian Houston really has written a book called You Need More Money in which he says, “It’s true! – money is inevitably the bottom line of everything.” (quoted in Levin, p. 210)

(Interestingly, while writing this I checked out Brian and Bobbie’s homepage. Their verse for the day was Isaiah 32:8 “But a generous man devised generous things and by generosity he shall stand.” The NRSV translation is “But those who are noble plan noble things, and by noble things they stand.” The NIV is the same, without the inclusive language. The Message also uses ‘noble’. The King James is even more interesting: “But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand.” I think I’m going to read the King James from now on. After web-surfing, the only translation I could find that uses ‘generosity’ is the New Living Translation. But in a church as focussed on money as Hillsong, I guess this translation makes the most sense.)

Then there is Levin’s wonderful glossary of Pentecostal terms. For example and related to the above:

Blessed (v): Given money to: ‘They’ve blessed our church’

Blessing (n): Source of money: ‘They’ve been a real blessing to us’

Blessed to be a blessing: Getting money to give it away

Generous: Giving lots of money to the church

I also loved: Suffering for Jesus: Missing your connecting flight. (p. 150)

But Levin also gives Hillsong credit for giving her the courage to write this book at all:

I have to sincerely thank Hillsong and the crew backstage for propelling me into becoming the person I am. For giving me a confidence that in a psychiatrist’s office would have been called delusional. For telling me that the only person I have to keep happy is my creator. That I should rejoice when persecuted. Expect to be called crazy. Delight in being driven out of town. As long as it is in the name of Truth. That God has no favourites. That the strangest people are used in the strangest ways. And that God is powerful enough to save me from the fire, but that even if he does not, I still will not serve your gids or worship the image of gold you have set up. Without these things being drummed into my head, week after week after year after year, I would never have had the guts to write all this down. Even the bible agreed with me. (p. 6)

I think what I got out of this book was not a sense of superiority over Hillsong, although I have to confess that that was a temptation, but a sense of how vital it is for Christians to practice what we preach, to avoid hypocrisy. The Uniting Church has different faults, but we have faults, and if we don’t want people to leave us in disgust as hypocrites we need to know what we believe and live it out.

So, all in all, I can recommend this book as funny, moving, angry and thought-provoking.

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August 17, 2007 - Posted by | Ministry, Slightly Higher Culture

6 Comments »

  1. Another interesting book about ‘Christianity’ is Body Piercing Saved My Life by Andrew Beaujon, who looks at the mixed up world of christian rock which is starting to be dominated by Australian artists in the USA. A book I found myself enjoying if only to see the lengths that christian artists go to be succesful without being seen to be succesful.

    Comment by Pete | August 17, 2007 | Reply

  2. I second the recommendation – very glad that it was eventually published. And the glossary had me laughing while trying to drink a cup of coffee… not a good combination.

    Comment by Cat | August 17, 2007 | Reply

  3. Did you hear Tanya Levin on Late Night Live or see her interviewed on Enough Rope? Both available as ABC podcasts.

    Comment by Olivia | August 17, 2007 | Reply

  4. I read bits of that book when I was killing time in Reader’s Feast two weeks ago. It really is on my list once I have a book-buying budget again (which would be after I’ve paid back my parents for the move, and the costs associated with getting a new apartment…

    And at Jarrod’s birthday party the other night, he was asking me whether I’d seen Denton’s interview with Levin. He (Jarrod) was apparently quite impressed.

    Comment by Heidi | August 19, 2007 | Reply

  5. Missed the interviews, but am impressed with the book. You’ll just have to borrow my copy if you’re skint.

    Comment by avrilhj | August 19, 2007 | Reply

  6. I read the book over the weekend and then half of it again. Have been attending Pentacostal Churches on and off for twenty five years. Christianity in a sense saved my life. I was transformed by being “Saved” and was blessed by the state of mind that came with it but I usually sat on the fringes of the Church with a deep down suspicion that something is not right here – intuitively I held back being involved too deeply while being very much affected by the theology.

    Tanya has put words to my suspicions and I too must admit that this version of Christianity has not been working in my life for quite some time.

    She also says she can’t believe the Bible as being inspired by God and being emphatically true. I would have liked to have seen deeper attention to this area in the book as I think it undoubtedly is more than just another book – how else do you explain the accurate prophesy that have unfolded through the years – Birth of Jesus, the dispersion and re-gathering of the Jews to Israel – the goodness that is in it which inspired men like Newton, civil rights much that is right with the world.

    Above all this morning I face the prospect that finally I may be loosing my faith, a terrible dawining acceptance of how screwed up I may have been and how that has affected those who have loved me.

    Right now I am a very lonely man and quite scared for the future and how I will handle it.

    Comment by JohnnoM | August 26, 2007 | Reply


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