I received an email today from Matthew Del Nevo, a colleague from the Catholic Institute of Sydney, which included an attached article by the well-known Australian academic of religion, Marion Maddox. The article, “Prosper, consume and be saved” had been published in the academic journal, Critical Theory of Religion (http://www.criticaltheoryofreligion.org/blog/?p=419), and attacked Hillsong on a number of fronts; primarily, that the church’s prosperity theology promotes unfettered consumption, and its women’s movement encourages shallow and sexist gender differentiation. According to Maddox, “Hillsong women are literally born to shop – because not to shop is to thwart one’s God-given destiny.” She then explains the growth of Hillsong church as being the result of “envy evangelism.”
The article is methodologically inept and shows no understanding of the values and priorities of Hillsong church, nor the reasons for its growth. It attacks the church’s attitude to money without making any mention of its social justice work, nor its integration into some of the toughest parts of Sydney (Redfern and Waterloo). Of course, the church is not perfect and nor should it be beyond criticism. But scholars need to do better than Maddox. They need to ground their criticism on some understanding of the object of their study, and she has utterly failed to do that. Anyway, before I had a chance to draft a response Matthew had done so, and there is no way I could have said it better, so here it is:
Matthew Del Nevo, Catholic Institute of Sydney
Hillsong Church in Sydney is what is called “an easy target” because they do not retaliate. There are a host of Australian media outlets, newspapers and television channels, that periodically publish or broadcast against Hillsong Church over the last 25 years and they have done everything in the power of their investigative journalists to bring it to its knees. So why does Hillsong Church keep getting bigger? In what many regard as one of the world’s most secular cities, why do 25, 000 people show up for Church there on the weekend? Why did Hillsong London, which started in about the year 2000 become the second biggest congregation in the UK with a couple of years (now it has the biggest)? Why did Hillsong Kiev become huge within a few years? Its Senior Pastor was roped into play the drums for a Christian rock band because they didn’t have a drummer and overheard the messages, became a Christian, become a leader and ended up building a mega-congregation in Kiev which now reaches into Moscow and other parts of Russia because of Hillsong. Obviously it has nothing to do with consumerism. You can polish your nails and have a massage or shop without bothering to go to church – nor do you need to go to church to be helped or advised to do these things. Moreover, in church the sermons are 45 minutes. Why would someone bother getting up early on a Sunday when you could easily be doing something else, travelling all the way to church (never close in a city the size of Sydney) to listen to someone talk about the Bible for 45 minutes, unless they you thought it was really worth listening to, but even if you thought that, why would you keep going back week after week, because it is this persistence that builds a church, not some accident? People are not stupid and ignorant, they know all about scams and rip-offs, especially in Australia, a country with a jaded national temper to any kind of American spruiking of religion. Echoing the anti-Hillsong articles in the media, this article trots out soft “critical theory” platitudes – straight from script and it is a great pity because it perpetuates a myth (I mean a lie).
The reality is that most people who go to Hillsong are not middle class university educated men and women, but what in Australia we call “battlers” and over the years these battlers (working class and uneducated, but not necessarily without big houses and cars – Australia being “the Lucky Country”) have become what is now called aspirational. They want to make something of their lives, they do not just want to be at the bottom of the social heap. And why not? Is that wrong? Would Maddox, if she wasn’t already at the top of the heap do different? The social critical stance taken in the article that talks about consumption as if the author were not part of it or party to it (and Australian University academics certainly are, in Australia Universities are essentially extensions of Government policy targets, financially dependent upon Government and totally devoid of independence). Maddox’s stance is critical theory pre- 1985 when one could – as Adorno did and he could – take the moral high ground and look down on people with disdain (“holier-than-thou”). All these stupid deluded women wanting to feel good about themselves! All that clinging onto femininity. But femininity is much older and broader than consumerism and indeed than Western culture. So glib criticisms of the feminine as if it were a recent and localized construct are by the by. The hatred and banishing of the feminine is akin in our cultural and religious history to the hatred toward and banishing of the Jew, on which more below.
It was in fact Goethe who saw the feminine as leading modern culture through the grip of its addiction to Mephistophilean culture, what we recognize as consumer culture based around individual desire. Goethe’s point is profound and Christian teaching on the feminine may not be fully conscious of this (and you are unlikely to learn about it at University here either) but perhaps it is a good thing to be weighed more carefully that someone at least has something to say for the feminine? It is political correctness at its most virulent to tut-tut about talk of the feminine, and disparage it as if, just to take one example, the whole culture of China (Taoist where the feminine is understood) for 5000 years were irrelevant. To do so is parochialism at its narrowest. Hillsong Women’s movement helps women prosper in a man’s (and masculinized woman’s) world, within Christian values of love and meekness, which go for the men too. It is pitched to women and young girls from very hard backgrounds, often people with terrible lives and personal problems, people with poor parents and dim prospects, why should these women not want to shine? Young girls today are not stupid, they know if Shine is a good program worthy of them or not. Why do they not deserve it? They do, and they should! This is why Hillsong grows, because it is a place wide open for anyone, non-judgemental, totally accessible and recognizable to non-intellectual people (who American’s call “everyday folk”) as part of their world.
I said more below on the Jew. The idea of the so-called Gospel of blessing (Prosperity Gospel for its disparagers) is a rediscovery, after the Second World War, within Pentecostalism (above any other Christian denomination or movement) of the Jewish roots of Christianity. Catholicism acknowledged this for the first time in history at the Second Vatican Council. The Jewish idea is not traditionally Christian and traditionally Christians have despised it, and ridiculed it. Shakespeare’s Shylock for example is the stereotype. The book titles referred to in the article by the Senior Pastor of Hillsong, Brian Houston or his wife Bobbie, he has lived to regret, and he is the first to say so, not realizing (naively perhaps ) how they would be used as a weapon against him, as in this article, and endlessly in the Australian commercial media (with their double-standards, it is ok for them to exist on corporate advertising money, ok for University professors purporting to be “critical” to live at the tax-payer’s expense). Basically these are books that do not separate the spiritual and the physical and that is all there is to it. This non-separation is not traditionally Christian, which, like Maddox has, want these kept apart in different worlds (heaven and earth); but Jewish teaching binds heaven and earth. Essentially this is what these books articulate. Otherwise they are conventional Christian messages, but in plain English not written for scholars, but for people lost in the madness of consumer culture, and as I have said, the victims not the victors, this is why the churches build as consumer culture ruthlessly creates more and more human “collateral” in our midst. The books all aim to transform consumer culture from the inside, none of them collude with its worst aspects, and this is where the name Jesus comes in symbolically. How could Maddox miss this? In conclusion, her article colludes with the consumer culture she purports to criticize and Hillsong, if she had eyes to see or ears to hear is actually an alternative space.