GQ presents nuanced view of Hillsong, Justin Bieber and the cool cult of celebrity

Does Justin Bieber actually have a church?

Several readers dropped the GetReligion team notes that GQ just came out with a l-o-n-g feature on the Australian-based Hillsong Church and its Manhattan branches. As the prelude says:

“It’s where the cool kids spend Sunday morning after Saturday night at the club. For ye of little faith, it’s hard to make sense out of Hillsong. Is it legit? Is it a hipster cult? And why’s everyone wearing Saint Laurent? GQ’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner joins the flock to find out if Christianity can really be this cool and still be Christian.”

Who would not read this story after such an intro? Turns out that Brodesser-Akner is Jewish and visiting Hillsong, to her, is like covering life on Jupiter. But she does so nonetheless in a breathless, first person, words-piled-on-words style that somehow works in this quasi-novel of a piece. And atop it she asks the pertinent question: "What would cool Jesus do?"

We’re not sure how to answer that after finishing the piece, but we do know this:

About five years ago, Pastor Carl got a phone call. Carl is one of the lead pastors at Hillsong NYC, a mega-church so reputedly, mystifyingly cool that cable-news outlets cover its services like they’re Kardashian birthday bashes at 1 Oak. On the other end of the line was one of Carl’s best friends, Judah Smith, another mega-pastor who also happens to be the chaplain for the Seattle Seahawks. “I need you to help me with a young man,” Pastor Judah said, and Pastor Carl rushed to agree, because helping is Carl’s thing, and the young man was, yes, Justin Bieber …
One day, according to Carl, Justin looked in the mirror and he was ravaged by feelings of loss. He got on his knees and he cried. “I want to know Jesus,” Justin Bieber sobbed to Pastor Carl. And so together they prayed. Suddenly, Justin was overcome by the Gospel, and he said, “Baptize me.” And Pastor Carl said, “Yes, buckaroo” -- he really does call Bieber buckaroo, and now you should, too -- “let’s do this. Let’s schedule a time.” But Justin Bieber couldn’t be Justin Bieber for one minute longer. “No, I want to do it now.” And Pastor Carl saw salvation in Justin’s eyes, and knew that his baptism couldn’t come quickly enough.

The writer goes on to describe a weird Hillsong fad where church members wear the same nondescript black hat their pastor sports, then makes some very cogent observations on American church life. These are things that have occurred to a lot of us who hang out in these places and have wondered about such things, but have not been able to piece together why we are scratching our heads. For example:

The music of Hillsong is a catalog of Selena Gomez-grade ballads, with melodies that all resemble one another, pleasingly, like spa music. They call to mind deeply sincere love songs, if it were appropriate to put phrases like my savior on that cursed tree and furious love laid waste to my sin and suffered violence healed my blindness and facedown where mercy finds me first in a love song. Tonally and tunefully, it’s a Jonas Brothers song. Lyrically, it’s a hymn, and yet the singing is hot-breathed and sexy-close into microphones. It made my body feel confused.

Yep, others of us have noticed that too about the whole "Jesus is my boyfriend" school of pop Christian worship music. And:

I was witnessing the logical conclusion of an evolutionary convergence between coolness and Christianity that began at the dawn of the millennium, when progressive-minded Christians, terrified of a faithless future, desperately rended their garments and replaced them with skinny jeans and flannel shirts and piercings in the cartilage of their ears, in a very ostentatious effort to be more modern and more relatable. Which is why, today, you can find ironically bespectacled evangelicals in Seattle and graphic designers soliciting tithes with hand-drawn Helvetica flyers in San Diego. You can walk into mega-churches all over the country where the pastor will slap on a pair of leather pants and drop the F-bomb BOOM how do you like me now??

I think this writer has capsulized in a few paragraphs the reason why so many folks have slid out of their cool churches. That something-that-does-not-feel-right is perfectly captured by this secularized reporter who for a short time inhabits this universe of cool and almost-perfect human beings who make up the Hillsong empire.

It’s a most revealing read, even though the reporter goes into a side jag into her childhood that seemed to ramble, although her point was that despite her many visits to Israel, submersions in a mikvah and Orthodox Jewish camp experiences, her most transcendent experience had been when a Christian evangelist approached her when she was 13.

But then she goes on and on about her interior discussion about Christianity vs. Judaism and where Hillsong fits into that and I must confess that it’s a form of journalism that is foreign to me. Because the writer should never be the story. In her case, it is, and at the end she makes it work. (I read some of her other stories, like the one about sugar daddies and another one about Paula Deen and I'd say the Hillsong folks got fairly sympathetic treatment in comparison). Which is where long-form journalism seems to be heading and for those of us who cover religion, we wish we had the freedom to write about our topics like that. Then again, if we did, what would we have to reveal about ourselves? And would anyone care?

Usually I resent it when magazines select a skeptic to report on places like Hillsong that are hard to grasp from the outside. In this case, I think it worked to have a writer from outside the pale of Christianity because her observations are what a lot of us think before squelching such thoughts in favor of something more charitable.

And at the end, I don't think we have an answer as to what a cool Jesus would do. Because in a way, Hillsong's leaders resemble Jesus but in other ways, they do not, which leaves us readers tied up in knots as to where the Son of God would fit in New York City.

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