They do things big in the outer eastern Melbourne suburb of Wantirna. The adjacent Knox City Shopping Centre hosts the largest cinema complex in the southern hemisphere. Only a few blocks away the CityLife church may well be the divine equivalent, a kind of holy megaplex. The church is a stark, white, modern auditorium, where rock music and video displays entertain up to 2000 neo-parishioners at a time.
I attended a service there a couple of months ago, very much as a sceptic and nonbeliever. Maybe I thought I’d have an insight into something, like modern religion, or coercive techniques. Mostly, I admit, I was looking for some cheap entertainment. I figured it was only fair, though, to have an open mind.
Margaret Court laying hands on a congregational member
As we walk through the carpark, I realise my two friends probably aren’t going to take that attitude. S, who’s wearing a dog collar, says loudly, ‘Fuck, I hate Christians,’ in front of a scared, polite-looking family.
We’re a bit late and inside the auditorium well over 1000 people, listening to a sixteen piece band with backing singers and horns, are already getting into a soft-rock euphoria. They sing thank-you mantras like ‘I could sing of your love forever’, while the three large video screens display the lyrics over cross-fading nature photos. It’s all very positive, uplifting stuff – nothing at all biblical or in anyway Christian-specific. We could be singing to Krishna or Sai Baba. After a while some people start putting their hands up and swinging and letting loose as in reverie. My companions are laughing and being a little too enthusiastic with the clapping and hand waving, to the confusion and discomfort of the more faithful around us.
The music fades and we’re told to stand up and meet the people around us. There are people of all ages and races, true to the image the church projects on its promotional material. I’ve got to admit, that’s an achievement.
I speak to a nice-natured guy next to me who looks a bit like Guy Sebastian. ‘This is kind of like show biz isn’t it,’ I say. ‘Yeah,’ ‘Guy’ acknowledges and tells me that the band recently did a cover of the Black Eyed Peas’s ‘Let’s Get Retarded’. ‘Um … that sounds like a drug reference,’ I say. ‘Yeah, they changed the lyrics.’
After a while, it’s time to for the preachers: one of the singers and a charismatic husband and wife tag-team. They are jokey and informal and talk anecdotally about God’s love, and what it can deliver to us personally. We’re encouraged to think about all the things in our life we have to celebrate and give thanks for. There are no Catholic guilt trips, and no boring Bible readings.
Just as I get to wondering how they pay for all this, the preacher reminds us that ‘giving money is just as important as giving love.’ I let slip a loud groan, as this seems so jarringly conspicuous. Surely half the audience must think so too?
We’re told a story of a woman who gave $1400 only to have God provide her with exactly $1407 later that same week as dividends on her shares. The message is that you can’t actually lose. The more you spend, the more you save (and are saved). Co-ordinated teams of uniformed ushers move along the rows and money sacks are passed along for the first, and not the last, time.
Tonight there’s a special guest act: Margaret Court, 1960s tennis superstar. She tells us her life story, from her early years as a tomboy with alcoholic parents, through to winning sixty-two singles titles. Towards the end of her career she was born again, and later established Margaret Court Ministries Inc. She says if she knew back when she was playing, what she knows now about God, she would have won six Wimbledons, not three.
It’s perfect material for a motivational speech. Which, I realise, is exactly what it is.
Court says she feels that some people in the audience are angry. (I’m certainly starting to get that way.) ‘You’re angry with God,’ she says. ‘You’re having doubts. You’re suffering hardships and you don’t think He has been fair to you. Who’s been angry with God? Questioning Him? Put your hand up.’ But no one puts their hand up.
‘So you’re all completely secure in your faith? You know your faith is pure and that you will go to heaven?’
Now at this point, the Christian thing would be to admit that no, perhaps you may not be completely pure of faith; you are an imperfect sinner after all, because only Christ Himself is perfect. Time’s passing and she’s starting to tense up, so the pressure is really on. It’s a cruel tension between either the embarrassment of admitting to your sin, and exhibiting it by sitting in shameful stillness. Eventually one guy puts his hand up. But he refuses to come to the front when she asks him to. ‘I guess you don’t usually do this here,’ Margaret says. It’s an awkward failure which puts her on edge. She tells the musicians to stop playing in the background and, caught off-guard, they stop erratically.
Later she yells, ‘Mohammed didn’t die for you. Buddha didn’t die for you. Only Jesus died for you.’
She channels that anger inward for the climax of the whole show: the healing. It operates at first like a demented game of bingo. Margaret calls out a lucky ailment and uses what presumably are her God-okayed psychic powers to detect the pain. ‘I feel…’ she says as she looks around the audience, ‘I feel there’s some people out there with pain in their hip … right hip … put your hand up …’ Some people put their hands up. ‘OK, come on down to the front.’ This time people rise. Neck pain gets lucky too.
The sore and wounded line up, with a row of people behind them. After some quiet talk to each patient off-mic, Margaret puts her hand on their heads meaningfully, as if banishing a bad spirit. The believer, shaking, falls back into the arms behind them. It’s like electroconvulsive therapy except the current is God’s love channeled through an ex-tennis player from Perth. Not everyone seems to feel it though, and despite the burst of Godvolts, some remain standing, not looking at all convinced that they feel as better as Margaret insists.
And that’s pretty much the weird and creepy end of the show. Part concert, part friendly club, part motivation speech, part pseudo-mystic medical theatre. There’s some closing music, an invitation to some ‘life training’ courses, to the Church’s over-30s singles club, and a business leaders’ luncheon.
The whole event has passed and I’ve noticed only two or three short verses from the Bible quoted the whole time, and these were incidental to anecdotes. Jesus himself did not get a single word of his own in, nor were any of his actions, except dying, ever mentioned. I guess He rather improperly threw money lenders out of the Temple, resisted the empire and had other such seditious tendencies. Instead, they portrayed Jesus as a kind of nondescript divine love engine.
And so this feel-good soft-rock modern Christianity-without-the-Christ meshes neatly with the competitive capitalist message of personal goals over class and community solidarity. The preacher is your coach and Jesus is your mascot on the dream road to riches and success. In the suburb of Knox City, this is the dream that sells.
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