ANDREW DENTON: Please welcome Tanya Levin. Tanya welcome.
TANYA LEVIN: Thank you Andrew.
ANDREW DENTON: Tanya your book’s been controversial even before it’s been published and we’ll get to the controversy in a while, but I want to go back to January the 4th, 1987…
TANYA LEVIN: Ah…
ANDREW DENTON: Your diary entry the day you were freed from the spirit of rock n’ roll. What happened that day?
TANYA LEVIN: I was at church on a Sunday morning, and Hills Christian Life Centre as it was known then, had been advertising for a long time that rock n’ roll music was evil, that it was the work of Satan. And I recognised one of the leaders who actually was working in radio at the time, and I thought I’ll go up to him and I’ll say “This music’s okay, isn’t it?” And he actually turned to me and he said “I, I need you to be free from the spirit of rock n’ roll.” He said “I know that you are following one of the high priests of Satan, which is Bruce Springsteen, and you need to go home now and you need to destroy all of that material.”
ANDREW DENTON: So did you go…
TANYA LEVIN: But Bruce.
ANDREW DENTON: You went home and…
TANYA LEVIN: I went home and for about an hour and a half I cried and I cried and I cried and I ripped all the posters off the wall and I broke the records, they were actually old records and I, I broke them and I ripped out the cassettes and I cried and I prayed and I cried and that was 1987.
ANDREW DENTON: Your parents introduced you to the Hills Christian Church when you were young, about 13…
TANYA LEVIN: Hm mm.
ANDREW DENTON: And they both were…involved in the Pentecostal religion. Now I want to talk a bit about Pentecostal religion, that is where there is a belief of, it’s common to find the supernatural in every day life. And I guess an example of that would be talking in tongues. Is that right?
TANYA LEVIN: Glossolalia, it’s known as.
ANDREW DENTON: Glossolalia.
TANYA LEVIN: That’s its formal name…
ANDREW DENTON: There you go.
TANYA LEVIN: Pentecostalism is very much about a physical experience with the supernatural, be it waving your hands or praying over the people, or it’s a real embodiment thing and it’s, and it is also punctuated by speaking in tongues.
ANDREW DENTON: What’s it like to experience?
TANYA LEVIN: Well it’s…interesting in a church environment where lots of different people are doing it at once, then it can…really be a free-for-all that it can be really scary. Once you’re in tune with the culture though, it seems completely normal. I thought everybody did it as a part of their childhood.
ANDREW DENTON: Did you speak in tongues?
TANYA LEVIN: Yes, since I was eight years old. I had always been raised in a Christian household and I didn’t know any different when I was eight, that we were going to a Pentecostal church it’s…a lot of fun. I mean there’s a lot of happiness and fun and the joy of, of the Lord is, is revealed.
ANDREW DENTON: You write about it quite movingly actually, you talk about being on fire for God and how beautiful believing is. Can you explain some of what that beauty is?
TANYA LEVIN: It is. It’s a very…beautiful thing. It’s a very simplistic story to believe, but it’s all about a very personal intimate relationship with God. You know, you’re part of a big group that is there to save the world and is there to, you know. The Hillsong, for example has always portrayed themselves as a really fun church, very contemporary. And the music’s great. And, you know, who wouldn’t want to be there?
ANDREW DENTON: You actually say that you don’t think you could have written this book without Hillsong Church. In many ways they made you what you are today. How is that?
TANYA LEVIN: It’s incredible. You get taught to be absolutely invincible. You get taught that you can overcome anything, that you can achieve anything, through God. Ah and…it makes you feel incredibly courageous, and incredibly able to face the world, with the power, and the spiritual reinforcement, that you believe you’ve been given.
ANDREW DENTON: The flip-side to the beauty of believing that sense of invincibility was, was a fear you, you describe being terrified ah and that demons could come in many forms. Where would demons come from?
TANYA LEVIN: In the 80’s we were taught pretty much that demons were everywhere, they were hiding behind every tree and every bush and if you let your guard down for a minute, those demons will come in and possess you and make you do things that you don’t want to do.
ANDREW DENTON: Okay so when did the enemy, which is what you refer to Satan as, when did the enemy start whispering doubt into your ear?
TANYA LEVIN: I would have been about 16 and I was still at the Hills Christian Life Centre. It was still a fairly small congregation so there was still maybe 500 people there. And it was all I’d known for, for these years and then, I just started getting thoughts in my head, these people are crazy.
ANDREW DENTON: What was it that you suddenly saw that you thought was crazy?
TANYA LEVIN: I’d watched, I would watch people and it looked like they were participating in some kind of charade and I didn’t know how that was possible. Also the tongues didn’t make sense. Like I thought that’s really gibberish, that can’t be real. “Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba” is what you hear.
ANDREW DENTON: Yeah.
TANYA LEVIN: And I thought no, something’s, something’s not right here.
ANDREW DENTON: When you were 24 by, you got a social work degree and you ended up doing some work with the Salvos and very interesting phrase, you said “I was ah detoxed from toxic Christianity.”
TANYA LEVIN: Yeah.
ANDREW DENTON: That’s a very strong phrase, “toxic Christianity.” Is that how you view Pentecostalism at that point?
TANYA LEVIN: I…have to say I do now. I spent five years working alongside Salvation Army officers who have a completely different outlook on what Christianity is. And they’re very, very humble people, and they’re very, very committed to serving the community.
ANDREW DENTON: And how did you see that as different to what you saw at Hillsong?
TANYA LEVIN: The Salvation Army are very much geared towards charity and gospel and Hillsong was very much geared towards money, recruitment and fund raising.
ANDREW DENTON: I want to show you a bit of Brian Houston, this is from ah Australian Story in 2005.
ANDREW DENTON: You write in the book that even today when you hear Brian’s voice it makes you feel better. How does Brian work for you?
TANYA LEVIN: That’s funny. When you go to bible college apparently you…learn that when you say, tell the person next to you, it’s just a way, where for when the pastor’s lost his thought train. So “Turn to the person next to you and say you look great”. He’s…a very powerful speaker. His content is not very heavy but he’s very charismatic. And, you know, he’s a voice of my childhood. He’s a voice of, you know, leadership in my upbringing, so you know, and he always sounds so happy, and so pleased to be where he is and so proud of you, that you’re doing this thing with him, that you almost want to be a part of it all over again.
ANDREW DENTON: It was 2002, and in fact, it was the speech Brian made to the congregation. An important speech which really started your, I think it’s fair to say, your path to disillusionment.
TANYA LEVIN: Yeah.
ANDREW DENTON: Can you talk us through that?
TANYA LEVIN: He proceeded to talk about his father having, you know, having to have confronted his father over a serious, what he called a “serious moral failure”. These were allegations of sexual offences against teenage boys, which was never actually named on the day. So this was a “serious moral failure”. He’d had to confront his father about it, his father had confessed, the National Executive had then taken away his credentials, investigated, and taken away Houston Senior’s credentials. And that Brian Houston himself was crushed. And he asked for the congregation to pray for his family, for his wife and his children, and the congregation did. They stood up and they applauded him, and that was the end of that speech.
ANDREW DENTON: There was no reference to the people that had been abused or whose lives may have been damaged.
TANYA LEVIN: Absolutely no reference to the victims. There was no stance taken on child sexual assault, or child abuse of any form or care for children, ah there was no standing up and saying “Look, we will not tolerate this in our congregation”. And in fact what it made me wonder was, if this is how they treat these kinds of issues on the most public level that they’ve got, how are they treating them on smaller more, you know, in more private arenas?
ANDREW DENTON: You raise a number of questions about Hillsong Church in it and one of those is about prosperity theology, which is probably best summed up and the title of this book by Brian Houston ‘You Need More Money.’ Can you explain to us what ‘prosperity theology’ is?
TANYA LEVIN: Prosperity theology is the belief, the absolute belief, that according to the bible, according to the verses in the bible, God wants you to be rich. He wants you to have prosperity in every area of your life, particularly your finances. And that to not be that way is actually to be disobedient to the word of God.
ANDREW DENTON: Why would God want you to be rich, what does that achieve?
TANYA LEVIN: You know, if the Christians can have all the wealth then they can redistribute it as they wish to. You know, to the areas of poverty that they want to distribute it to, the areas of need that they see fit.
ANDREW DENTON: Well Hillsong has…a strong record of distributing to charity, this is what Brian Houston said on Australian Story about where some of their money goes.
ANDREW DENTON: From your viewpoint, is that the whole picture?
TANYA LEVIN: It’s very abstract. 60 per cent of their money goes towards helping people directly, that could mean any number of things.
ANDREW DENTON: Do you do you suspect ah that under closer scrutiny, that there is something questionable, ah the way Hillsong operates?
TANYA LEVIN: I can’t argue that there’s anything questionable. What I can argue that is questionable, is the lack of transparency. So, you know, as much as they might say their books are open, everybody that I’ve interviewed who has asked to have a look at the books is told that they’ve got a bad attitude or they’ve got doubts and therefore we get back to the story of sin and doubt so.
ANDREW DENTON: You also talk about Bobbie Houston and how you came to question some of her values. What is it according to Bobbie, and the teachings of Hillsong, that kingdom women should aspire to be?
TANYA LEVIN: Bobbie Houston, who’s Brian’s wife, is the women’s leader for Hillsong. And, she teaches from a proverb, ah from the Book of Proverbs, number 31, which is about a devoted wife. So kingdom woman should be a devoted wife, she should be a helper and a companion, which is what Eve was created for, for Adam. She should at all times be supportive of her husband’s goals, that is what a kingdom woman is there for, and if she doesn’t have a husband, she should be in training to get a good husband, so that she can fulfil his goals.
ANDREW DENTON: In 2005 you went to the Colour Your World Hillsong Women’s Conference…
TANYA LEVIN: Mm
ANDREW DENTON: And this is really the moment where you decided you want to write a book. What happened there?
TANYA LEVIN: Ah haaa. Hillsong…are running the charity, ‘Compassion’, which is on a child sponsorship model of and…they’re promoting very heavily child sponsorship, in Uganda. And they had a big photo of an African child with his hands… And the caption was, “Will you be my sponsor” and I thought next they’re going to put them in like bikinis and lipstick and then what we, like at what point is this exploitation.
ANDREW DENTON: Nonetheless it does seem to me to be perhaps…an overly strong way, but it seems to me to be people trying to do something that’s worthwhile.
TANYA LEVIN: It’s very clearly people trying to do something that will further the advancement of fundamentalist Christianity. This orphanage in Uganda is explicitly set up for the children to learn how to be Pentecostals, with hopes that one day there’ll be a Pentecostal leader in Uganda.
ANDREW DENTON: So you’re suggesting that Hillsong’s primarily set up for recruitment?
TANYA LEVIN: And fundraising.
ANDREW DENTON: And fundraising for itself, which would imply that the faith, that is apparently its core, is not necessarily a genuine faith. Is this more a question of you having lost your faith, rather than the church having lost its?
TANYA LEVIN: It took a very long time to take my faith away from me, it was really the last thing I wanted to do was to admit that all of this stuff was true. My opinions have changed again since I’ve been researching and I’ve met so many people, negatively effected by churches like this, that it just added up to be you know, too many people with the same kinds of stories.
ANDREW DENTON: You refer to them as the walking wounded, why are they wounded?
TANYA LEVIN: I found a very strong pattern in what happens when people show resistance. So everything’s happy and everything’s fine when you don’t show any kind of resistance. If you show resistance to the pastors, the leadership, the program, the teaching, you’re dealt with very severely.
ANDREW DENTON: What does severely mean?
TANYA LEVIN: Well, you know, in cases there are people who who have been told that they’re demonic, and generally what is happened is that eh once people are showing enough resistance, that is going to need to be quelled immediately. So they’re often ostracised, and other congregants are told not to have anything to do with them, because they’ve got doubts, you know, they’re, they’re not for us, they must be against us. It’s a very fundamentalist polarised point of view.
ANDREW DENTON: Okay. When you told Brian and Bobbie that you wanted to write this book, because you did, what happened, what was the response?
TANYA LEVIN: Well, I got a response from the General Manager of Hillsong, who said that I cause significant disruption, that I was never to go on Hillsong premises again and that no they won’t be helping me with the book.
ANDREW DENTON: I should point out that we have invited Brian and Bobbie Houston to respond to Tanya’s interview and they have an open forum on this show if they wish to take it. This is the first interview you’ve done, so the the wave is about to break over you.
TANYA LEVIN: Mm.
ANDREW DENTON: The consequences of your book, are you sure you’ve done the right thing?
TANYA LEVIN: I know absolutely that I’ve done the right thing. Every time I watch some Hillsong tape I’m convinced because when I started out I thought “Ooh where will I research, what will I do?” And now all I have to do is is watch Hillsong’s own promotional material, and they will say to you explicitly that they want to build more buildings but they need more money, to do it so, you know, there are no hidden meanings there, it’s very explicit. And when you have a biblical world view and you see the whole world through the, you know, the words of the bible or the the pastor that you’ve been trained by, you can’t see it as simplistically, and it’s obviously taken me years and years, to separate it all out.
ANDREW DENTON: Well Tanya, thank you for speaking so clearly tonight. Appreciate it.
TANYA LEVIN: Thank you very much Andrew.
Source: Tanya Levin, Enough Rope, ABC, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s1992756.htm, Episodes 30/07/2007. (Accessed 03/11/2012.)