People In Glass Houses by Tanya Levin

“The eighties were my formative years, and while other teenagers were gyrating to rock’n’roll, we were praying for revival. We were taking communion, not cocaine. We treated virginity like a wedding present, not a cold sore.” — Tanya Levin

It’s difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t live in Sydney, Australia, the influence of the Pentecostal church known as Hillsong. From fairly humble beginnings on the north-western fringe of Australia’s largest city, this church has become the nation’s pre-eminent — or at least its best known — church. Its annual CD release of worship music tops the Australian album charts without fail. Senior politicians of both major parties have addressed their annual conference (attended by thousands of Christians from all over Australia), courting their influential support. In a largely secular, agnostic nation, it’s curious to see the cultural impact a young church can have.

Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston has achieved this remarkable growth in a similar way to many of his contemporaries in the United States — relentless positivity, slick production values, and a focus on material blessings and prosperity. Even Australian churches that eschew the blatant materialism of Hillsong (Houston has even written a book entitled You Need More Money) look to it for musical and stylistic cues.

Yet it is not without critics, both from within and without the Christian fold. Other major churches and leaders rail against its simplistic message, consumerist gospel, and shameless poaching of believers from smaller congregations. Secular Australians are troubled by the church’s political influence, its social conservatism, and its questionable financial dealings with Government agencies. Nothing this big can leave people indifferent.

Someone who was part of the church in its early days yet is clearly no fan is first-time writer Tanya Levin. As a teenager in the ’80s, Levin attended the then Hills Christian Life Centre with her family. Adulthood brought with it doubts and distractions and Levin drifted from the church. Over time, she reflected on her experiences and those of people around her and she began to be increasingly concerned about Hillsong and its influence.

People in Glass Houses is the result of Levin’s reflection, a curious mixture of memoir and journalistic expose. In reality, it’s more like an exorcism than anything else.

As with the casting out of demons, Levin’s struggle is troubling to behold, but mesmerising. Levin is never less than compelling when she relates her story. Her prose is lucid, self-aware, and even transcendent in places. Few writers have captured the dizzying heights and soul-crushing lows of fundamentalist faith with the effectiveness displayed here. There is so much blood mixed in with every typeset letter, it’s difficult to consider the personal cost that it comes at. Levin is exposing herself and her journey to outsiders, with an equally brave and suicidal disregard for the consequences.

This is the book’s greatest strength and why it is one of the essential non-fiction reads of 2007. It is also its greatest flaw.

When the book moves beyond the personal to address the theological and sociological issues around the Hillsong phenomenon, Levin’s emotion comes through at the cost of accuracy and fairness. Levin is simply too involved and damaged by her experience to be even remotely objective. Her level of personal investment gives her story resonance but also robs her of the ability to sift and weigh evidence and argument. It feels as if she is in a violent row with someone — the church, Brian Houston, her teenage self — and is hurling every allegation and slur she can find without pausing to reflect on their validity.

In fairness, many of the criticisms she levels against Hillsong are well-documented and verifiable. The misuse of indigenous program funding by the church’s social action arm, Brian Houston’s father’s sexual offences involving children, and Pastor Pat Mesiti’s sex-worker scandal are all on the public record. But Levin’s allegations regarding Hillsong’s attitudes to women and homosexuals and her comparisons to mind-controlling cults seem hyperbolical. The examples provided simply do not go far enough.

Another difficulty is the amount of time that has elapsed since Levin’s significant involvement with Hillsong. The church has changed markedly from the fiery angels-and-demons Pentecostalism of the ’80s to the slick, mass-marketed pragmatism of now. And unfortunately Levin’s critique is weakened by seeking to hit both targets with the same arrow. While she recognises the changes in the church, her criticisms relating to recent and historical Hillsong are not sufficiently distinguished. It was the rampant judgmentalism and insularity of the early years that did Levin the most damage and yet it is the corporate manipulation of today that incenses her. Both are deeply flawed models in need of criticism and analysis, but they require a more nuanced approach than we have here.

Every organisation has its embittered former members and it is for this reason that their views have to be subject to additional scrutiny. Their evident bias and generally emotive language force a serious critic to take a closer look. No one expects that someone’s ex-husband will provide the most accurate character assessment. Levin’s work is persuasive, but less so than a more impartial assessment may be. She may be entirely correct in all the particulars, but her polemical style cries out for skepticism.

Naturally, this is all unfair on Levin. Asking a survivor of a Soviet gulag to write a balanced and fair assessment of Stalinism would be a bit too much. Unfortunately, Levin has set the terms for assessing her work, by venturing beyond the (relatively) safe world of personal memoir and into the world of social criticism. The memoir component is an astonishing piece of literature — the broader swipe at Hillsong, somewhat less so.

So in the final analysis, People in Glass Houses is unlikely to add much to the debate around Hillsong. The newspapers and bloggers and commentators will continue to scrutinise its dealings and teachings. And hopefully its worst excesses will be curbed by increased accountability. But in the meantime, Tanya Levin has given the whole exercise a human face. And for that we should sing “hallelujah”.

RATING 7 / 10