When a former member of the Hillsong congregation started asking hard questions, she was thrown out, writes David Marr.
By the miracle of YouTube, we can take a helicopter ride over Sydney any time we like with Pastor Brian Houston as he lays out Hillsong’s Vision 2007. In a voice that has coaxed fortunes from the faithful, he talks prosperity, vision, growth and God’s strategy as the helicopter swoops down on the “beautiful piece of property” Hillsong bought last year in inner-city Rosebery for $28 million.
“I think the finances are where we’re going to have to have the greatest faith.”
His confidence is absolute that the mortgage will soon be paid. To a sceptical outsider, Houston looks oddly like Spike Milligan with cans on his ears and a microphone to his mouth as he looks down on the suburbs where Hillsong’s “state-of-the-art worship centres” are booming already or will soon be delivering the goods for Christ. He shrugs off ridicule. The nation’s most triumphant preacher lives in a world without doubt and without dissent.
“Jesus said a house divided against itself cannot stand,” Houston reminds the thousands who have viewed this film clip and left adoring messages behind. (“Please come to Sweden! We need ‘fire’ here!!!!!!!!!”) Authority is a big deal at Hillsong. You don’t mess with Brian or his wife, Bobbie. “The great strength of our church has always been our unity. A single vision is critical to where we’re going.”
So Tanya Levin is a problem. She asks questions. She wants explanations. She challenges the vision of Hillsong’s leadership. In short, she’s trouble.
Two years into writing People in Glass Houses, her insider’s account of
The church wasn’t answering her emails about the book. Houston had ignored her calls. She defied orders not to turn up at the Castle Hill “campus”, until the night came when two security guards carried her from the church and “a very tall, handsome Maori man of about 24” called Dion walked her to her car.
“I cried at Dion,” she writes. “I told him about my dad, and faithfulness and loyalty €¦ whatever kind of Hollywood angel he was dressed as that night, there would come a time when he would outlive the usefulness to the Firm. And then he would lose that simple genuine look he stared at me with. I told him to go home and read his Bible and go ask the preachers why it doesn’t match what they say. He listened like one does to the ravings of a lunatic and I made him listen because that’s his job.”
It was the end of a long affair that began when Levin was 14, the daughter of a banker and his Jewish wife who were brought to God by Billy Graham back in South Africa. The family turned up in the early days of what was to become the behemoth of Hillsong.
“My impressions in September of 1985 were of a bunch of nice people,” Levin writes. They waved their hands and spoke in tongues. Houston preached. “Even today,” she confesses, “when I hear Brian Houston’s voice I feel better.”
People in Glass Houses is a naked account of the joys of religious infatuation and the messy business of re-entering the real world as an adult five years down the track.
Levin fitted the Hillsong pattern perfectly: “There is a 50 per cent turnover every five years. Hillsong is renowned for having a very big back door.” The churning of people through the church is not something they talk about. “Or they say people don’t have the faith to hang on; they’re unable to take it through the tough times. It’s always the fault of the person. It’s never the fault of Hillsong.”
But the ties were deep. University and then a child took her away from the Hills for a decade. She returned as a single mother with a job as a social worker in a Salvation Army women’s refuge and something more than curiosity about the fate of her old church and the friends she still had there. “I’d go sporadically just to have a look.”
Rumours of scandal sharpened her interest. After one hugely popular pastor was expelled in 2001, Levin began asking questions about Brian Houston’s father, Frank – a preacher so powerful he was thought to be able to raise the dead – who was being accused on the internet of pedophilia. But Hillsong was in the dark.
Brian and Bobbie won a standing ovation from the congregation when they finally broke the news that old Frank had an unwavering love of God and deeply repented his moral failings. His crimes were not named that day. Levin was furious: “I had a near-irresistible urge to yell out like the boys used to do in the old days, ‘What did he DO, Brian?’ ”
Levin was asking questions again, this time to write this book. Frank was not her target. She set herself the task of explaining the inner workings of the most successful religious operation in Australia: the joy and despair of faith; the mass hypnosis of worship; the Jesus-centric remedies offered in Hillsong’s outreach programs for drug addiction, domestic violence, unemployment and homosexuality; the ideological submission of women; and the bleeding of money from the faithful.
Hillsong, she was finally – and literally – shown the door. “There is no debate within Hillsong,” she says. “That’s fundamentalism. It’s not open to free thought and question, not at all.”
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Levin’s family is among the financial casualties of Hillsong. They’re out of the church now after more than 20 years and her mother’s sardonic joke is that People in Glass Houses might earn a little of their money back. Hillsong’s 19,000 members are expected to tithe – give a 10th of their income to the church – and make big donations on top of that. Levin wrote the book as a warning: “The intention was to tell people, ‘Hey, by the way, they’re taking your money.’ ”
A couple of years ago, Brian Houston boasted on ABC television that Hillsong’s income for the financial year 2004-2005 was $50 million. It’s tax-free, of course. Accounts are never published. Year after year, Hillsong’s music arm has albums high in the charts. When All of the Above faded after many months this year, Saviour King took its place. The earnings are enormous but the begging bowl is always out.
“It’s a corporate organisation being run by corporately trained people to achieve economic outcomes,” Levin says. “Economic outcomes are the new measure of spiritual success and sign of blessing. The fact that Brian Houston is driving a Harley is a sign that God is looking upon him favourably.”
For Levin, the core lie of Hillsong is the claim that God will repay everything you give. And the longer you have to wait, the greater the return. “How do you actually stand in front of people and say if you give me your money God will give it back to you – and actually sleep at night when you’re taking old people’s money? It’s obviously the more desperate people who want to make an investment decision like that. Very vulnerable people.”
Four or five years ago Levin typed “ex born again Christian” into Google and found that “from Sweden to Nevada and back again there were people with the same story”. They are welcomed into a small, warm, friendly congregation with one or two charismatic preachers. But a few years later they’re out the door: “Kicked out and told they are the work of the devil.”
That early friendliness is part of the big sell. “They don’t preach against much. There’s a new movement that’s come through America called Seeker Sensitive – in other words we want people who come into our church to feel comfortable. And we want to be sensitive to their needs. So we won’t say anything too outrageous and we’ll tone the whole thing down.”
But tough rules – often about sex – are waiting to be enforced. “Painted into a corner, they’re explicitly homophobic, but up to that point they don’t want to be seen as an unfriendly, judgmental place. They want to be seen as warm, inclusive, loving, embracing. But they’re not. They are of their own kind: if you’re in the system and you behave accordingly, the system will reward you.”
Levin thought that with so many casualties of the system around, writing the book would be easy. “What I found – and what other media have found – is that it’s almost impossible to get other people to come forward and talk about this. People will write things on websites, they will send emails: ‘I’ve been through this, I’ve done this, I can help you, I know these things, I am the voice of expertise.’ Then they disappear again because it’s too painful and it’s too confrontational.”
Hillsong won’t comment on the result.
“We have no control over what people decide to say and write,” Brian Houston says. “We keep our focus on helping people with hope in Jesus Christ.”
But Levin has a fair idea what they’re thinking out in the Hills. “Bobbie Houston announced at the Colour Your World conference in 2005 that there the only three types of media about Hillsong. They are the positive, the neutral and the anti-Christ.”
Levin doesn’t fit that picture. She doesn’t hate. Something in her seems to yearn for those exhilarating years fighting the good fight against the devil in all his disguises right down to the voodoo beat of rock’n’roll. “We were told you can’t have it because it’s incantation and you’re going to raise all these demons.” How different things are now. Levin begins to sing some Hillsong Christian trance music: “Doof, doof, doof. Christ is the future. Doof doof doof €¦”
Is she entirely free of the place? If Houston rang today and asked her to dinner, would she go?
“Yes, very much so. My main aim is to keep the dialogue open. To encourage questions. To encourage debate. And when somebody or a group of people make you feel like family for a number of years, it’s difficult to shake that feeling even when reality tells you something different, and when relationships break down. Go do dinner with Brian?” She laughs. “It would be nice.”
A fallen leader of faith
Frank Houston was a charismatic preacher and a sick man. He won famous souls for Hillsong – jockey Darren Beadman was one of his scalps – and sexually abused young men.
He was about 60 when he undertook to cure 23-year-old Peter Laughton’s homosexuality. “My counselling sessions by the senior minister were nothing more than sexual abuse disguised in the form of the need of a father’s love and discipline,” Laughton says. “Through my naivety, I enjoyed the naked beatings, the eternal bum caresses and masturbating into bottles, among other things.”
Laughton was training to be a pastor. He says the abuse continued for about four years until 1984. “I look at it now and think, ‘God, I was really naive to fall for that.’ ” And believing himself cured, he married.
Laughton’s faith went first. He tells the Herald that before leaving the church in the early 1990s he gave an account to another pastor of the abusive therapy he’d received. But as far as Laughton is aware, no action was taken against the old man until he was forced into retirement by his son Brian after an allegation of pedophilia emerged in about 2000.
Houston denies categorically knowing of any claims of sexual abuse by his father before this time. He initiated a church investigation, which saw the old preacher’s credentials permanently removed. “I was completely devastated by the realisation that my father had hurt people in this way, and I believed it related to events more than 30 years before when he was a New Zealand credentialled pastor. Until recently I knew nothing of Peter’s claims.”
Laughton took a long time to come to grips with his sexuality. He’s now a university lecturer in his early 50s who finds it in himself to forgive Frank Houston. “Despite all his downfallings I think he was genuinely a good person. It is an important part but it still is only one aspect of a person’s life. I’ve come through the other side and appreciated how this man was trapped like many of us were in a system and in a place where you couldn’t really even talk about what you were struggling with.”
Burying his father in 2004, Houston declared him a man who made mistakes but a preacher “in a class of his own”.
People in Glass Houses (Black Inc, $29.95) by Tanya Levin was published this week.
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