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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the job market
God under Howard

The thousands of kids who crowd Hillsong's rock concert liturgies each week are worth some study. Jumping for Jesus in the mosh pit and swept by emotion at every mention of his name, they sway back and forth, point fingers to the sky, chant mantras again and again and occasionally stop, heads down over marked and highlit Bibles to consider a text. Caught by aerial cameras, their gyrations are thrown up onto high screens, adding to the excitement. Onstage a line of musicians keeps the call-and-response songs charging along - there's no time of silence here. Nor are there any recognisable religious symbols at Hillsong, unless the mushy pastel backlights symbolise something. The men who teach here - "preach" seems the wrong word - are well suited to their congregation: young, casual, energetic, funny, self-deprecatory, they know that a sermon is not a lecture, that ideas are caught, not taught.

The night I worshipped there, we heard thirty minutes on the need for "conviction" without overmuch penetration of what it might mean. Musing in historical mode, I kept thinking of other rallies, other vast spaces overflowing with crowd emotions: they too had conviction. I snapped to attention, however, when a speaker advertised a future meeting. "You should bring your unsaved friends," he urged. The saved and the unsaved... a warning light went on. It went on again when the main speaker told a story about four Hillsong workers going out to lunch. One of them was on a fast, so when the waitress came they told her only three of them would eat because one of them was fasting. Oh, I'm fasting too, she said, it's Ramadan; I'm a Muslim. The four Hillsong missionaries leapt in. What's Ramadan? Why do you fast? What does it mean? And, what do you know, SHE COULDN'T GIVE SATISFACTORY ANSWERS. No "conviction", you see. To me, however, it sounded more like four Christian bullies picking on a casual worker.

There's a good book waiting to be written about Hillsong by an acute observer such as Jack Carmody or Margaret Simons or Michael McKernan. In the meantime we have God under Howard (Allen & Unwin $29.95) by Marion Maddox, a dense piece of research on the rise of the religious right in Australian politics in the light of parallel experience in USA. It puts Hillsong into the frame and it's crammed with teasing bits of information. John Howard's Methodist boyhood comes into it, for instance, rather than the social justice side: the organ of justice advocates, The Methodist, wasn't read in the Howard household. Then there are the findings of several Australian sociologists that people who go to church often are likely to oppose racism and being rough on the poor. Note: it's regular attendance, not nominal membership, that the sociologists find decisive here. I'd like to know whether this is true also of Hillsong worshippers. The reason I ask is the emergence of Hillsong's "prosperity gospel": the saved are going to get rich. (Although Maddox points out that Jesus was a homeless drifter who lived off charity.) The downside of the prosperity gospel is disdain for the poor and suspicion of welfare, as exhibited by politicians of the right - indeed, in a low mood you might feel that Hillsong is the western suburbs Liberal Party at prayer.

Right on the money here is Elisabeth Wynhausen's new book Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the job market (Pan Macmillan $30) in which she travels in the underworld of casual jobs. Taking leave from her work as a Murdoch journalist, Wynhausen picked up jobs on the fringes: waitress in a posh club, office cleaner, hotel housekeeping, behind the counter of a big store, trolley lady in a geriatric home and dogsbody in a chicken battery farm that produced 47,000 dozen eggs a day. Underpaid, screwed by management, forced into unpaid overtime, these marginal workers survive, if that's the right word, by looking at the world through dead eyes. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. They are at the mercy of management for regular work, pay and conditions and they live in a stressed environment unknown to the sleep spokespersons who appear on the evening news. Yet statistically, these half-lives features as complete numbers in the government's employment figures; but that's a lie, as Wynhausen shows. In the looming debate on industrial relations this will be a necessary sourcebook.

Elisabeth Wynhausen is a careful, observant writer who doesn't try to frig her reader's emotions. These stories speak for themselves and Wynhausen lets that happen without editorial intervention. Yet it's not mere description here: she's done hard work on the technical reports and professional studies underpinning her writing, as her endnotes show. She doesn't parade her research as, for instance, Barbara Ehrenreich does in Nickel and Dimed, a book she acknowledges as her inspiration. Wynhausen has more wit than Ehrenreich, she's better at sending herself up - Ehrenreich tells you at least three times that she's got a Ph.D - and she's a better writer; but each book has the same effect of convincing you how lucky you were not to have been consigned to these depths. I doubt if Hillsong would have been much use to you down there.

The Works:

  • Dirt Cheap
  • God Under Howard

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