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In the second part of his interview with Tanya Levin and Tanya Riches, Randall Frederick discovers that Hillsong remains a subject of debate.
Part 1 of this interview can be found here.
I want to focus now on where your lives have taken you. Riches, you went to seminary and are in the process of gaining a doctorate. Levin, you became an author. How have the subsequent years made you into different people? For instance, do you still attend church? Have you converted, become an atheist, or is your faith nuanced?
Levin: I’m still unsure of the concept Riches presents of God – how can He be so benevolent given the explicit depictions of his terrifyingly jealous, murderous, spiteful and inconsistent nature, throughout the very text that Christians use? We’re talking about a God that wanted to wipe out everything he’d ever made by the fifth chapter of the entire book! He realised he’d made a terrible mistake early on, which raises all kinds of questions for what comes after, from rolling dice with Satan over Job to the great fiery lake in Revelation. Those are not very appealing for album sales or church , so they don’t talk about it anymore.
There is minimal reference to sin or hell anymore, which is what the point of Christ’s life was. Nowhere did I read that Jesus was sent to be the boyfriend that holds you through the night or gives you self-esteem. Maybe they should call it something else, because I don’t understand how it’s related to Christianity, when only some parts of the dogma are deemed true.
My best advice would be for people to sleep in on Sundays, save at least 10 percent and watch wealth creation seminars on YouTube. There are much better motivational speakers out there to help you manage the regular ups and downs of life.
Riches: . Well, I think everyone’s faith nuances over time. As we grow up, we grow, and change on some things. I still have a commitment to the biblical text. But I think I read it now less like an appliance manual, and more like a sacred and ancient map. I’m sure some people I grew up with and who left the church think I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. But I’m always happy to reconnect and have coffee. We shared our lives. I genuinely love Hillsong, and try to worship there as regularly as I can, to be a part of things. It’s hard while studying an international PhD, and doing music, while my husband works in a full time capacity with street kids. We don’t always feel chirpy! But we are committed to our friends and our faith.
It seems the unlikeliest of friendships. People might ask how the two of you could be friends, or would say it’s not possible for women of different religious persuasions to be friends. What do you say?
Levin: Tanya Riches is one of the most genuine human beings I have met in my life. She sincerely cares about the people in her life deeply, and treats them all as equals. She doesn’t play favourites. And she cares about me. Whatever happens, she does what she can in her power to make a situation the best it can be for everyone concerned. She leaves no one unaccounted for. That’s the kind of Christianity that is so rarely seen embodied.
But mainly, she’s kind to me. And that’s what a real friend is. Overall, she is too kind and it worries me that she doesn’t keep enough for herself. She’s brave, strong, outspoken and open minded. She’s not afraid of being wrong. And those are qualities that inspire me to do the same.
Riches: I know this will be hard for some Christians to read, but I do love Levin. She makes me laugh. She can be ridiculous, over the top, and her comments can hurt people, but I think a lot of our understanding has to do with our similar upbringing, having similar Pentecostal teen experiences, and maybe, also as women attending the same university. We both know we are privileged and that we have to reach to listen to more voices than only the ones we grew up with in our comfortable Sydney suburbs. We both try to make a difference. She’s a single mum and author. I’m a student and writer. We share a love of written words.
Levin: I know what binds us together the most is the passion for social justice and the deep distress that becomes a part of us when we encounter the unfairness and cruelties of life. We’ve both committed a fair amount of our lives, personally and professionally, to trying to make a difference to inequality. And it’s not like Riches wouldn’t be like this without Jesus. She’s just a great human being.
Riches: Here’s a story to illustrate Levin. She’s often thinking about things going on in the media. She’s highly aware and involved. But one week she was pretty quiet, and I got worried about her. Turns out, she was incredibly upset. She had heard about the relocation of some of the poorest people in our city, as the government housing had been sold. Most were elderly and some had lived in their houses for decades. One of these ladies had escaped Tiananmen Square, was in her eighties, and was suicidal. Levin didn’t see her as a “dole bludger,” she saw her as a beautiful human, and a brave story that needed protecting. Of course, most Australians would say people should be grateful for any housing the government provides. But Levin humanises people. Her attacks on Hillsong are worst when she perceives it as a machine.
Do you ever talk about Hillsong Church? If so, what do you say?
Levin: The topic seems to come up mostly through Riches’ Facebook posts. Scrolling through my newsfeed, I come across posts that celebrate Hillsong and I believe strongly that if you post on Facebook, it’s fair game. I usually regret any response I make though, because I always sound nasty. Then I think, “Well, these people are adults, they need to be responsible for their delusional thinking, and the problems it causes.” So it’s an ongoing cycle we go through.
I feel that people perceive me as someone who enjoys telling little kids there’s no Santa, which (laughing) yes, I also think is important, but I don’t do it for the tears. I do it because I think truth is important, even if it’s not welcome.
Riches: (laughing) Well, if we do talk about it, I already know what she’ll say! What I say back depends on how I’m feeling. If I’m fragile, I usually say “don’t go there” or I just ask questions until I’ve properly heard her out. I am happy to listen to Levin’s perspective, but that doesn’t invalidate mine or the church’s. What is the truth? We may never know on some things.
Levin: Ha! Riches could make a fabulous atheist one day! She’s almost there, thinking-wise. “The Family” won’t let her go for a while yet – while she’s still useful and pretty. And I worry that they will because they dispose of people easily. Especially the true believers. They’ve let far greater stars crash after ten times the service.
Riches: Oh my gosh. Ridiculous. “The Family”?! I don’t even know why Levin thinks that highly of me! It’s kind of embarrassing. Maybe that’s the issue – it’s not a firm, it’s not a television series. It’s not Bold and the Beautiful. It’s just a congregation.
How did you reconnect as adults?
Levin: Tanya Riches has always been a part of my extended friends network. So she had never exactly disappeared. My clearest memory is that she acted as an arbiter in a disagreement I was having with a mutual (Christian) friend of ours. She could tell that we were both distressed about the situation, but for one of the first times in my life, I was not treated as the second class citizen because of my unbelief. My experience until then was that I was expected to defer to the Christians as the good guys, and take up my place in the heathen corner. But Riches is one of those people who treats everyone as equal. I sensed that she was genuine in her concern. You can’t help but respect someone who walks the walk they talk about.
Riches: Well, I don’t even remember that, but just to be clear, my story isn’t completely perfect or rosy. When we handed over the United band and choir, I found it hard. I found it difficult to sit in the back rows and sometimes not even speak with people I knew because by the time I got down to the stage, they had disappeared. I was invited to be a worship pastor at a different church that said it needed my help. I honestly believed there was no place for me at Hillsong, so I said yes. I realise now that I was incredibly burned out. I don’t think that’s an unusual story for Christian ministry.
So, I enrolled in part-time study. When I talked to my supervisor, it was clear she wanted me to study Hillsong music. I told her I would think about it, but I was secretly unimpressed. I pitched something about the Emergent Church, and she listened kindly but then said “Tanya, you might be the only person who could write on this.” And she assigned me Levin’s text to read.
I kept reading, then looking at the cover, and thinking “Did these guys really publish a book about my church?” At first, her writing made me laugh! But soon enough, I found myself crumpled on the kitchen floor, as the events got more serious, and she described a mutual friend’s death. That’s when I realised I had put all these interactions together into a friendship and was having a dialogue with this person in my head, so I might as well ring her and reconnect. I got her number from a mutual friend, and I rang. I didn’t really have a plan, I just rang to say “I’m sorry it sucked this much for you.” She was totally freaked out. She wanted to know who from the church had sent me. She kept listing names. I could honestly say, nobody. I just didn’t want her to be alone in that moment, and I didn’t want to be alone either.
Levin: Hillsong had contacted me, family members and friends under the guise of “catching up” when they became aware I was writing about them. But given they had shown no interest in catching up for the previous 15 years, and that their questions were about a book, I was cautious about many of those who came out of the woodwork.
Riches: It’s the weirdest thing to attend a church that people are actually interested in reading about. I’m sure the staff and leadership were upset about what Levin wrote. I don’t even pretend to be the official voice of the church, but I figure that we’re all the body of Christ, we all have a responsibility to represent Jesus as best as possible. When I look back on some of the things we did back in the day, sure, it was weeeeird. Pentecostal preachers wore bright blue suits, and yelled about music. We did altar calls for rock music. Ewww…but thankfully things are now a lot different.
What happens when you disagree on an issue? Give me a real example of something the two of you just can. not. agree on.
Riches: Oh my goodness where do I start? Most recently she’s flipping out about divergent theological opinions on hell! It’s impossible for her to understand when I say that there are multiplicities of Christian doctrines regarding hell. She only likes to admit the picture of a barbecue presided by a man dressed in red, wearing horns and holding a pitchfork. For some Christians, hell is a place where God exerts his wrath for eternity. But I can’t even reconcile this God that tortures people forever with the phrase in John, “God is love.” After an hour of Facebook chats, we’ve found slight resolution in the concept of Sheol, as a garbage dump. A waste-land, so to speak. But she’s disappointed I’m slipping in my commitment to the biblical text. I find that hilarious, that an ex-member would be disappointed I have thought the bible from multiple angles. I consider hell a mystery, and I leave judgement up to God.
Nah, but we don’t really push it. We often agree to disagree. We know we have differences. It’s nice to find similarities.
Levin: Apparently, you can believe whatever you want in the new Christianity. There’s no hell anymore, hallelujah! Not if you don’t believe in one, amen? That would be fundamentalism, and nobody likes fundamentalists anymore. One of ’em just told me that there may or may not have been Eden. Go figure.
So, now, according to the “Emerging Church” (who have been emerging for a while now, I hope they make it) there’s not even a set of rules to go by according to the Bible. It’s all how you read it. The context. The Old Testament is never mentioned except for tithing, of course, and the promises of long life and fertility. Not the bits about dashing pregnant women on the rocks. That’s out of context.
Why anyone would lead the nonsensical cheek-turning, self-demeaning lifestyle of a Christian if they weren’t afraid of hell is beyond me.
Riches: Ha! I guess it’s interesting for me, to see God through the eyes of an atheist. I had a bit of a revelation when she posted a comic about how many atheists feel like God is a scary monster under the bed. I realised how vulnerable our beliefs can make others. So, rather than coming at it as “you need to believe what I believe” I decided I needed to understand what it meant to be atheist. When I listen, I learn more than if I try to “correct” and “teach.” It’s actually more fun as well. If it’s true, we can explore it together and it will stand up to the test. I’m unafraid of God being shown up to be “not real.” I’m not here to vindicate Him. I know God to be real, and the most true and perfect love I’ve ever known. If that’s the truth, then what is there to fear?