I’m here. Probably for a long time – beyond foreseeable at least. Which means I’m not a visitor, a sojourner, a vagabond, even, throwing his hat on the hat stand near the doorway because all I have to do is pick it up again on my way out. I am therefore by default no longer quite able morally to visit Hillsong Pariswith quite the same insouciance and light feet. It’s never a good idea to dissect meetings – usually they turn out to be less than the sum of their parts, but just for a change and to make a point I shall on this occasion. We began the second set – there are now two meetings on Sunday morning – with people drifting in during the first – um – song. Truth be told, they’ve done it better, but the song – loud, anthematic and bouncy failed to raise me from my comfortable theatre seat, meaning that more enthusiastic members blocked my view of the stage. As it turned out, this was merciful of them, since the sight of a number of quite grown-up people gambolling around – I can think of no more apposite word – actually made me feel a little bit like getting up and slipping out the back.
There was a guest speaker whose reputation preceded him. Pat Mesiti is a Pentecostal pastor with a gift for motivational speaking – a member as far as I could see of the ‘name it and claim it’ fraternity. As long as the tithe is paid of course. It seemed to me that I was hearing about a new spin on Jehovah Jireh – The Vending Machine God: input faith, enthusiasm and unfailing optimism and out comes blessing, often immediate – jobs, money, houses, cars, beautiful spouses, clever kids, good neighbours, big churches, and holidays with poolside bars. On stage he seems almost hypomanic which might account for his ‘fall from grace’ over a moral issue some years ago. For the prosperity gospellers, we are The Happiness Machines: receive the blessings, rely on the promises, act on the commandments and put on a happy face – a big one. Every day, from the moment you get up to the closing of your hapless, gullible eyes, happiness is the aim of life. In the prosperity gospel, God is there for us; we are here for God to bless as the rightful inheritors of the Abrahamic covenant. You don’t really want to listen to a litany of biblical heroes who might have started to throw things had they been present and you know the stories as well as I do. Abraham had quite a long wait for the son of promise, Joseph was sold into slavery, Jeremiah spent most of his time in tears, and as for Job – let’s not go there.
|“God has a wonderful plan for your life…”
Hillsong has had its share of criticism and I’m not joining those who throw their hands heavenward in horror, or, like the prophet Ezra, ‘sat down, appalled’. I don’t care if churches get rich. I don’t care if the pastor has a Porsche and lives in a house five times bigger than mine. I do care if he solicits what funds I have in order to support it. They don’t, of course. Money collected goes to the causes and ‘ministries’ the organization supports and the bigger you get the more you need and it’s this alone which sometimes just sets some people’s teeth on edge. Cynically, such organizations may themselves be sources of additional revenue and are run by family members. Critics have suggested, with some justification, that prosperity theology cultivates authoritarian organizations, often with dominionist overtones, some going as far as to suggest parallels with shamanism and the sale of indulgences. I really can’t comment – nether being an anthropologist or a sociologist. But what is interesting to notice is a quite overmastering sense of belonging – the apparent commonality of purpose which pervades the meetings. I wonder if it is this that people are actually buying into. Not being much of a joiner, I’m not impressed but can see the logic driving those that are.
For a long time, I wondered what was missing. I assumed that people reached by Hillsong’s Sunday presentations – with altar calls – would be introduced at some stage to the rather quaint notion of repentance, since it seemed conspicuously absent. Every time. Will I go back? Probably, Joining? Er, no.