One of Australia’s most published critics of Christianity, Professor Marion Maddox, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Macquarie University, has launched a broadside on Hillsong.
In ‘Prosper, consume and be saved’, an essay in a new journal Critical Research on Religion, Maddox alleges that Hillsong has gone beyond the prosperity gospel and invented theologies directed at women: ‘Envy evangelism’ and ‘Born to shop’.
Maddox sums up ‘envy evangelism’, saying “Hillsong makes a religious duty of conspicuous consumption—one’s body, image and lifestyle are a walking evangelistic billboard.”
She cites Hillsong’s Bobbie Houston, speaking on a CD resource for women in 2004 (She Loves and Values Her Sexuality), where Houston says, “We need to be good at sex ourselves so that if the world happens to come knocking we can tell the story of God in our lives.”
Maddox claims the message to be “A styled home, honed figure, elaborate grooming, lavish wardrobe and unmatched sex life stimulate one’s unsaved friends’ envy and, hopefully, their interest in Jesus, to whom all this is credited.”
In common with most critiques of Hillsong, Brian Houston’s early work with the unfortunate title, You Need More Money: Discover God’s Amazing Financial Plan for your Life, is prominently cited.
Maddox correctly identifies that earlier generations of Pentecostal women were discouraged from wearing makeup or fashionable clothes. But, referencing the ‘Shine’ course run by Hillsong in schools, Maddox notes the church has left that dowdy image far behind.
“Advertising materials for Hillsong women’s events often depict young, beautiful women wearing tiaras and references to princesses as ‘daughters of the King’; some attendees at the events I attended wore plastic tiaras; T-shirts and other merchandise for sale at the many stalls were decorated with diamante-studded tiaras and swords.
“Princesses are an obvious fit for prosperity theology: they are, by definition (at least in their popular, Disney version), automatically associated with wealth.” Maddox argues that this princess motif places Hillsong women on a “very clear side of the producer-consumer divide.”
She alleges that at Hillsong, “Buying into the ideology and lifestyle of consumerism can be salvific in itself”. Maddox further criticises the Hillsong brand of complementarianism—a theology that teaches male leadership in the church and home, in a manner familiar to many conservative churches.
For Hillsong, Maddox’s latest essay could be seen as refreshing: rather than being accused of encouraging worshippers to give too much of their income to the church, Hillsong is now accused of telling them to spend it on themselves.
(To reconcile the messages of uplift and support for church and missions, Maddox—who identified the holiness movement roots of Pentecostalism—could look at John Wesley’s sermon number 50 on the use of money: “Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then ‘give all you can’.”)
Maddox’s criticism seems to be a dated view of Hillsong, citing Hillsong conferences from the 2001-2010 decade. Other critics have updated their view, for example the Sydney-Anglican-based The Briefing magazine notes that the “prosperity gospel” has faded.
“Explicit prosperity gospel teaching was absent from the [Hillsong] conference,” Sam Freney reports in the May 2013 edition of The Briefing. While remaining critical of the way the Bible is used in Hillsong preaching, Freney is positive about Hillsong’s major export: the songs.
While Maddox highlights the presence of T.D. Jakes, who does preach a prosperity gospel and is a ‘oneness Pentecostal’, she misses the emerging tendency of Hillsong conference to feature mainstream evangelicals such as Nicky Gumbel and RickWarren.
A response to Maddox comes from a surprising source: Matthew Del Nevo, senior lecturer in Philosophy at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
“Hillsong Church in Sydney is what is called ‘an easy target’ because they do not retaliate”, writes Del Novo responding on a blog.
“There are a host of Australian media outlets, newspapers and television channels,that periodically publish or broadcast against Hillsong Church over the last 25 years and they have done everything in the power of their investigative journalists to bring it to its knees. So why does Hillsong Church keep getting bigger? In what many regard as one of the world’s most secular cities, why do 25, 000 people show up for Church there on the weekend?”
Del Novo takes aim at Maddox’s critique of Hillsong’s vision of women.
“Maddox’s stance is critical theory pre-1985 when one could—as Theodor Adorno did and he could—take the moral high ground and look down on people with disdain(“holier-than-thou”).
“All these stupid deluded women wanting to feel good about themselves! Allthat clinging onto femininity. But femininity is much older and broader than consumerism and indeed than Western culture. So glib criticisms of the feminine as if it were a recent and localized construct are by the by.”
Hillsong reaches battlers with a message that can help those lost in consumerism, says Del Novo.
“The idea of the so-called Gospel of blessing (Prosperity Gospel for its disparagers) is a rediscovery, after the Second World War, within Pentecostalism (above any other Christian denomination or movement) of the Jewish roots of Christianity.
“Basically these are books [from Hillsong writers] that do not separate the spiritual and the physical and that is all there is to it. This non-separation is not traditionally Christian, which, like Maddox [does], wants these kept apart in different worlds (heaven and earth); but Jewish teaching binds heaven and earth. Essentially this is what these books articulate. Otherwise they are conventional Christian messages, but in plain English not written for scholars, but for people lost in the madness of consumer culture, and as I have said, the victims not the victors, this is why the churches build as consumer cultureruthlessly creates more and more human “collateral” in our midst.”
A couple of further comments from Del Nevo in a blog discussion give his view on how Pentecostalism fits within Christianity, and where Maddox’s analysis is incomplete. “For me, (i) Pentecostalism is not fundamentalism but theoretically speaking is a reaction to fundamentalism, in that it has to do with spiritual experience, not belief-based religion. (ii) Pentecostal churches are activist entities that are part of a global network of activists that cross all cultural and religious and ideological divides, because the concerns cross them. (iii) Ideological interpretations of Hillsong (like Marion’s) are appropriations and this is part of the unconsciousness of the ideological thinking, that it is pre-hermeneutical, it is unable to interpret or even analyse, because it isreally “screen” thinking. The screen through which the world is ‘interpreted’ is really a mirror and this is Marion’s big problem”.
Del Nevo concludes that Maddox’s ideology has got in the way of seeing Hillsong as it really is.
“The model of pentecostal churches in our society is the business model, but that is the outside of the car, get it in the car and anyone who knows about Hillsong knows that central to its ethos is *service*. It is all geared to that. I don’t think Marion mentioned this word because ideology is about Bible bashing with superior more politcally correct knowledge of appropriateness and the like and her whole article was about how awfully inappropriate it all was.”
- Maddox’s most famous work is God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2005). ’Prosper, consume and be saved’ is available for purchase at crr.sagepub.com The editor has made it free for at least a limited time.
- Many of Del Nevo’s comments appeared at http://shaneclifton.com/2013/05/17/hillsong-church-and-marion-maddox/
- The Critical Research on religion journal has further discussion here: http://www.criticaltheoryofreligion.org