Mediawatch: 'The Monthly' publishes myths about Hillsong

It’s inevitable that a non-Christian media outlet will publish critical stories about Christians – and we should be broad shouldered about that – but it is worth also remembering the media motto of The Guardian‘s great editor C.P. Scott: “Comment is free but facts are sacred.”

It would be good if that other progressive publication, The Monthly, would bear that in mind with its growing series of articles about Hillsong Church.

Strange Tides: Hillsong in the age of climate Change and Coronavirus” is a well-meant attempt to describe attending a men’s event at the Brisbane campus of Hillsong. Well meant in the sense it portrays the dynamism and growth of Hillsong, and the enthusiasm of its followers. It also presents the evangelistic success of Hillsong in reaching unbelievers. But The Monthly‘s article suffers from a lack of fact checking and repeats some old errors and rumours.

Here is a list of myths about Hillsong contained within the story by Lech Blaine.

Myth 1: Brian Houston is a mentor of Scott Morrison. Blaine repeats the line that “Scott acknowledged him [Houston] as a personal mentor in his maiden speech in parliament.” Blaine adds a line that Scott Morrison is Houston’s “personal protege.”

In his maiden speech Morrison thanked a lot of people, starting with professional colleagues, the “many staff, colleagues and industry leaders I worked with during that time, in particular Peter Verwer and … Tim Fischer, who provided great guidance and support.” He then talks at length about his family, and adds “growing up in a Christian home, I made a commitment to my faith at an early age and have been greatly assisted by the pastoral work of many dedicated church leaders, in particular the Reverend Ray Green and pastors Brian Houston and Leigh Coleman. My personal faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda.”

Morrison and Houston would describe themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ, not each other.

The idea that Houston was a mentor to Morrison actually comes from an article by Nick Bryant in a 2012 edition of The Monthly, which refers back to Morrison’s maiden speech and posits: “The founder of Hillsong, Harley Davidson-riding pastor Brian Houston, is one of Morrison’s mentors.”

Bryant’s line has been endlessly recycled.

So, either Morrison has a heap of mentors – all the people listed in his maiden speech – or it is a convenient exaggeration.

Blaine breaks new ground and describes the Liberal leadership spill of 2018 this way: “The spoils of Malcolm Turnbull’s crucified leadership were fought over by Peter Dutton, Murdoch’s apparent preference for prime minister, and Morrison, Brian Houston’s highest profile disciple.” That sentence would offend many Christians – and it is certain that both Morrison and Houston would describe themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ, not each other.

Myth 2: Houston “sang from a similar Trumpian hymn sheet” about that Washington invite. Not quite. Scott Morrison dismissed the stories about attempting to get Houston invited to the White House as “gossip”, before making a later statement that he had sought to have Houston invited.

Houston, on the other hand, simply said that he did not know anything about the whole affair. As reported by Eternity, Houston responded to the controversy with this statement: “I have had no invitation to the White House and I have had no discussion with the Prime Minister or anyone else about this. Hillsong Church received no inquiry from any party as to my details or availability. As far as I’m concerned this is baseless rumour and totally false news.”

Myth 3: Hillsong spearheads a pentecostal surge for political influence. “[Kevin] Rudd is unequivocal: Pentecostal churches with Hillsong the most prominent have made a strategic decision to assert influence within the federal Coalition, rather than crusade from the sidelines through minor parties like Family First, or pressure groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby.”

Family First was created by another big Pentecostal Church, Influencers Church in Adelaide. Its  leader Andrew Evans created Family First and was one of its first MPs.

The minor parties have been heavily hit by reforms to the Senate. Coupled with disappointing election results, this led many activists to abandon Family First, Australian Christians and smaller groups, to then (re)join the Liberal Party.

Houston is quoting the Bible, just as Morrison did.

The SA-based Family First entered an ill-fated merger with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. In NSW, the Christian Democrats have had a major split within its board. Many of those involved have been Pentecostals – but there is no evidence that Hillsong is herding these cats.

Some Liberal branches have been stacked with these activists. Other branches have refused to sign them up.

There is still strong support for the Australian Christian Lobby within Pentecostal churches including Hillsong.

Myth 4: (actually an error) Houston’s New Year’s speech was based on Morrison’s maiden speech. Blaine writes “He peppers his new years address with a dozen references to the closing quote from Scott Morrisons’s maiden speech to parliament: ‘Your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.'”

This quote comes from the Old Testament book of Joel, chapter two. It also is quoted by Peter in the New Testament book of Acts chapter 2 to explain what is happening at the famous Pentecost event when the Holy Spirit descended after Jesus’ ascension.

Houston is quoting the Bible, just as Morrison – who also provided the Bible reference in his speech – did.

Myth 5: Hillsong is obsessed with end times theology. “What is the emotional weight of continually anticipating the end of the world?” asks Blaine. He correctly points out that the judgements in the Book of Revelation are “eerily resembling the anthropocene: a third of the earth caught fire, a third of ocean life died” and so on.

There is an ecological aspect to apocalyptic writing in the New Testament. But Hillsong are not noted for the endgames emphasis of earlier pentecostal movements. Eternity is not aware of recent Hillsong songs with that theme, for example.

In fact, Blaine tries to link the Joel/Acts quote to some sort of end times concern, but Peter’s sermon applies it to the in-between times whih the church lives in.

“Your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” is for the now, in classic Pentecostal theology.

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