The first time I ever really prayed, I was shocked by the affect it had on me. I found myself in tears, sobbing uncontrollably. I was alone in my room, in darkness, and I’d decided that what I was praying about was so important that I had to say it out loud; I had to make the air vibrate to be sure the sentiments of my prayer were real, though I was very careful to make sure no one else could hear. I would have died from shame if they had.
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett
I was reminded of this moment during a service at Hillsong recently, when I noticed a middle-aged woman standing beside me with tears streaming down over the broad smile that crossed her face. At a guess, I’d say hers were tears of some sort of joy. Perhaps she was experiencing some numinous sense of the love of God. As I looked about the Hillsong stadium, with its coloured lights and uninspiring God rock, I saw that people everywhere were crying. And most of those, in tears or otherwise, were holding out a one-armed salute that was frighteningly similar to the footage I’ve seen of the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg.
I can’t join in with organised religion because I think of prayer as a lonely conversation steeped in doubt. I can’t understand how any two people can share a similar sense of the unknowable immensity of existence. At Hillsong they call that faith and the pastor’s sermon backs it up with promises of miracles and success, as long as you have the requisite certainty of faith.
As a curious journalist, I’ve been back to Hillsong a number of times over the past year, and during every service I’ve been to there is a moment toward the end when the pastor asks the audience to bow their heads and close their eyes in prayer. In the hush that follows, he delivers a preamble reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’, the line that heralded the cultural revolution of the 1960s when the Chinese premier asked intellectuals to reveal themselves only to be executed later.
He begins by saying, ‘if there is anyone out there losing touch with their faith, please raise your hand and I’ll pray for you especially’. Later, when everyone has opened their eyes, those who raised their hands are invited to come down to the front of the auditorium for another special prayer. There is some more music and praying before this huddled group is shunted out through a side door. Believers and doubters are thus divided.
There are three Hillsong services each weekend and a group of forty or so ushers oversee the crowds of close to four thousand that attend each one. The ushers are dressed entirely in black and have radio receivers attached to their belts with little microphones that curve around from ear to mouth. When the time comes for heads bowed and doubting hands raised, each of these ‘black shirts’ keenly watches the crowd for raised hands. If a doubter is too shy to accept the invitation and come down to the front, a ‘black shirt’ will spot them, walk over and with a gentle tap on the shoulder, urge them out of their seat to the front. For me, it wasn’t going to take a tap on the shoulder. I knew where I belonged.
When the next Sunday came around I joined the doubters for a special prayer at the front. Standing with the others in front of the stage, I found an energetic young man with wide and slightly nervous eyes pulling on my sleeve. He was asking how I was. ‘Fine’, I said, and moved away. He followed. I tried to lose him again as we were shunted out the side door, but he pursued me all the way. What followed was a long explanation of his years of drug addiction and how joining Hillsong had saved his life. He kept reassuring me that it was my choice to be involved and that this wasn’t a hard sell, but I left him a little disappointed, I think, that we wouldn’t be catching up at the Thursday Bible study class.
When I turned up again a week later, I saw him seated nearby. When it came time for the doubters to come to the front again, I watched him jump out of his seat to be one of the first to run down the stairs to the front. There, he pulled on someone else’s sleeve and followed them out through the side door.
In his Answer to Job, German psychoanalyst C.G. Jung suggests that when God speaks to Job from the whirlwind [Job 38:2] and says, ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge’ he — or it — is actually speaking about itself. The Old Testament God is portrayed as an unknowing tormenter; an unconscious everything that might listen but will certainly do nothing. As frail creatures looking for certainty in a world that gives none, perhaps it is better that we get together and sing and hope.
And perhaps not. Josef Goebbels soothed this frailty in the German people with flaming torches, Wagner and other inspiring and artful symbols during the Nuremberg rallies and won from them a certainty of belief in the virtues of the Third Reich.
At Hillsong, people greet you when you arrive and afterwards there’s a coffee lounge where newcomers are invited to meet Hillsongers and chat about giving themselves over to the certainty of God. In the end, that certainty will cost them a tenth of their income as a tithe. This money accumulates into the tax-free hundred million dollars per annum that feeds the Hillsong corporate machine.
I dropped in on the coffee lounge, after my last visit to Hillsong, and met Mike who was proselytising with his very bored young son. After I listened to his story of redemption through the certainty of faith, his son piped up with a question that, I think, is the first sign of hope in a developing young mind.
‘But who made God, dad?’ he said.
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