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Inside Hillsong

By Andrew Prior - posted Wednesday, 14 January 2009


Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus uses this saying in response to temptation in the stories in Luke 4 and Matthew 4. It is a key insight from the Hebrew Scriptures. Demanding of God, as opposed to humble dependence upon God, is an unsafe course.

Obviously, from a theological viewpoint, we people are in no position to demand anything of the Divine. If the concept of divinity means anything, it surely includes the notion that God cannot be ordered around!

Some streams of Christian expression especially need to hear this. Where an emphasis is placed on "signs and wonders" as indicators of God's reality and presence, there will always be a temptation to force God to perform. In desperation, one might even manufacture something. Technically, demanding God provide a sign is to step out of the Christian faith, and into the realm of magic. It essentially says that saying the right words, or doing the correct rituals, will manipulate reality.

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We have a good "magic" in our culture. It is called science and technology. These two are properly used with great care. We understand we have gone beyond science into something else (e.g. metaphysics, the arts, religion or superstition) when we enact ritual acts or words, which experience shows are not repeatable and independently verifiable. We have all sorts of peer regulation, and legislation, and consumer protection laws to make sure science remains scientific.

More than this, we recognise that science is without moral content. Just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done, we say. The ability to manipulate and create says nothing about the worth of such an act, as humanity has learned to its cost. We subject science, at our best, to moral scrutiny.

The damage done by people purporting to be "scientific" without the discipline of the scientific method, and without a clear ethical base, has been great. No wonder then, that we reserve the term magic for something far removed from science, and more often associated with charlatanry.

This is not to say that science and superstition are the only two options in life. Only those who have gone from science to scientism refuse to recognise that there are aspects of human experience which science does not describe well. Hence the arts, metaphysics and religion; and it must be said, in each of these endeavours there also exists abuse, superstition, and denial of reality.

If you work magic by putting God to the test, there is a necessary corollary. Other people have to "work their credulity" to accept the magic. A world view needs to be created and fostered, which suspends the "common sense" which has been freed from so much superstition by the scientific method. By definition, this suspending of common sense, in the face of valid scientific critique, is a denial of reality. It must then, be abusive. We know that if we bang our heads against a wall, or cross the road without looking, reality will not be denied.

Karen Armstrong says that religion is an art, and that just as there is bad art, there is bad religion. (See here and here.) Among other things, bad religion denies the legitimacy of science, psychology and ethics, in their own areas of authority. For me - a former fundamentalist who, fortunately, could never stop asking questions - Tanya Levin's story has familiar echoes. I escaped much less woundedly, but saw enough to know the truth of the symptoms she describes. People in Glass Houses is subtitled An Insiders Story of Life In and Out of Hillsong. (Published by Black Inc. 2008) All names and particulars aside, it is the story of religion gone bad. She says "But we were the puritans, the simple Bible-believing Christians with no stained glass or statues. It was supposed to be different for us."

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She does not write the tight analytical prose of a textbook. This book is a personal testament; she takes us on a deeply, healthily emotional and honest journey. We hear the confusion, the pain, and the rejection. She is surprisingly lacking in bitterness. It is impossible to avoid questions about abusiveness and the use of money: in this telling of the Hillsong story, God has been put to the test, and they seem to have reaped the harvest.

In her own journey, Levin ends up in agnosticism. She finds definitive atheism beyond what can be legitimately argued.

... why ... is the whole charade of church allowed to go on? But, goodness, this is crazy talk. We couldn't possibly live without organised religion, and all the benefits that are added unto us.

I think she is doing more than echoing a sarcastic answer to the question "Why?”

Science makes its hypotheses, and at its best, knows when to wait for more evidence, and when to own that a subject is outside its methodology. Religion should use a similar methodology. Be agnostic; the biblical word might be humble. Listen to science where it has authority. Beware of magic. Do not tempt the Lord your God.

We Christians should let this book speak to us; not as a text book, but as a scalpel probing our honesty. It will be a good health check.

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People in Glass Houses: An Insiders Story of Life In and Out of Hillsong by Tanya Levin is published by Black Inc. 2007.



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About the Author

Andrew Prior is a Minister of the Word in The Uniting Church in Australia with degrees in Agriculture and Theology. He has worked in Aboriginal communities, on farms, in Uniting Church congregations and in Information Technology.

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