On Monday evening, I sat in the almost deserted media box at the ACER Arena, a 20,000-seat stadium at Sydney’s Olympic Park, watching the opening night of the 20th annual conference of the Pentacostal Hillsong Church. Linda Morris of the Sydney Morning Herald was the only other journalist there, covering an event that has become as important for its political implications as its theological ones.
In recent times, Hillsong has given a platform to both John Howard and Peter Costello to address its huge congregation, which at around 15,000 is the nation’s biggest. The Labor Party refused repeated invitations to speak to the convention until last year, when it sent – inexplicably – the avowed atheist, former NSW Premier Bob Carr, rather than one of its own sincere believers, such as Kevin Rudd, Peter Garrett or Kim Beazley himself.
This year, Hillsong did not invite any politicians to speak to the assembled thousands – hence the absence of most media, including all the TV networks – although Liberal MPs Bruce Baird (an evangelical Anglican and leader of the ‘moderates’) and Louise Markus (a former social worker employed by Hillsong) sat, and sometimes stood, in the third row, clapping or raising their arms during the gospel rock numbers.
Perhaps Hillsong has sworn off politics, stung by recent criticism of the way its benevolent organisation, Hillsong Emerge, used a Federal Government grant for an Aboriginal economic development program? (Hillsong ended up returning another grant, intended for a community crime prevention project.)
I suspect Hillsong is deliberately moving to distance itself from the political Right (while retaining a biblically conservative position on sexuality issues), sensing an ever-so-slight shift among the public back to communitarian values, mainly in the slipstream of the harsh new Industrial Relations regime.
If that’s the case, Hillsong could not have projected a more hard-hitting message than with its choice of opening night speaker, the American evangelist Rick Warren.
Warren is the founder of the Saddleback Church, a congregation that grew from 4,000 to 45,000 in 25 years. His book, The Purpose Driven Life, has sold 22 million copies – ‘the best-selling non-fiction hardback in history’, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life – and he ploughs 90 per cent of the royalties into three foundations set up to fight global poverty and assist the victims of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
During his sermon on Monday night, Warren appeared to demolish the values that have helped prop up the Howard Government these past ten years. He tore into the doctrine of materialism.
‘Once you have settled the issue of salvation, you must settle the issue of stewardship,’ he said. (It is a declaration – from an evangelical, interestingly – that appears to mirror the 1891 Catholic social justice statement, Rerum Novarum, that faith and work are equally important.) ‘What you think you own is really just on loan. The purpose of your life is far greater than your personal happiness or fulfilment. It is not about passions, possessions, positions or power.’
Warren is a wealthy man but – in the style of some millionaires on America’s Left such as Bernie Rapoport – he continues to live in relative modesty, according to a recent New Yorker profile. He reserved special criticism on Monday for those who represent and serve major institutions of power, including multi-national corporations. ‘The purpose of influence is to speak for those who have no influence, not so you can be some big shot business leader,’ he said.
Warren is by no means a man of the Left, although he has forged a strong alliance with rock star Bono and America’s most prominent progressive evangelical, Jim Wallis, in their campaign against third world poverty. What makes his message so unsettling for those Right-wingers who thought they had evangelical support sewn up via the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ is that his thundering opposition to greed – annunciated before the same congregation that heard Howard and Costello celebrate materialism – is rooted strongly in scripture.
He drew particularly on 2 Corinthians, Chapter 9, which reads in part: ‘And God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work.’
In denouncing those who engage in conspicuous personal consumption, Warren directly contradicted the doctrine of debt-fuelled materialism that Howard and Costello have used to manipulate the support of aspirational voters. His message that wealth is only useful, and defensible, when spent on others, and his statement that ‘it’s not a sin to be rich, it’s a sin to die rich’, sit oddly with the ideology, and the personalities, this Government has courted.
One wonders what Howard-Costello favourites James Packer and Rupert Murdoch, both of whom have declined to divest themselves of their fortunes before they die, would make of it all.
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Host of Big Brother, Gretel Killeen
With predictable regularity the Prime Minister weighed into the culture wars this week, denouncing Channel Ten’s reality TV series, Big Brother, and calling for it to be taken off air.
Big Brother is unquestionably garbage. It adds nothing to our understanding of a complex world. Nor does it enrich our lives with stories of timeless quality. By all accounts, it is an excruciating blancmange of meaningless banter, Benny Hill-style ribaldry and, now, low-level sexual assault. Which pretty much sums up the times in which we live.
When Labor was in power, Channel Ten used to screen high-quality drama – mini-series such as The Dismissal, Vietnam, Bodyline, Bangkok Hilton, The Dunera Boys, Waterfront and The Cowra Breakout. The network told us stories about our history and culture, and they rated through the roof. (The Dismissal pulled a 40 per cent share; Bangkok Hilton, 38.)
There was, if you like, a culture of culture.
Now crap like Big Brother, and The Footy Show on Channel 9, coarsens our public entertainment. Why? Because for the networks they are cheap to produce and they yield vast amounts in advertising revenue. These days it costs a million dollars-plus to make an hour of Australian drama. Far cheaper – far better business sense – to install a few video cameras in a house and let the voyeurism begin.
That is the ethos of the Howard era: minimum investment, maximum profit; a society where, as Oscar Wilde said, we know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
I’m not sure John Howard should be complaining about a culture that he has nurtured.
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