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The book corner: Beyond belief

  • 12 August 2022
  Eureka Street considers the phenomenon of fervent faith, and speaks to journalist and author Elle Hardy on the rise and nature of Pentecostalism. Growing up as a ‘church kid’ in the ’80s, I came across many Pentecostal people, and occasionally engaged in their pastimes and peccadillos. Some of the happiest of ‘clappies’ I knew were loved ones, mates and acquaintances. Most were palpably sincere.

Three memories stay with me. A then-20-something mate of mine recalls going out to the front at an ecumenical rally to receive prayer, only to be whacked forcefully on the forehead by the preacher. Confused, he just stood there and was struck twice more, before choosing to fall over to avoid further blows to his noggin. While he was laying there, bewildered, he was congratulated on being ‘slain in the Spirit’ (being physically overcome by the Spirit of God).

When I was a teenager, a girlfriend’s family was sporadically embracing the local Pentecostal church. She confided that she’d scored major brownie points with her mother and aunties once she’d learned how to effectively pretend to speak in tongues.

As a young adult I portrayed Jewish priest and prophet Isaiah in an onstage biblical drama at the Brisbane City Hall. Isaiah’s visionary encounter with God, with the purifying symbolism of coals hot from a celestial altar couriered to his mortal, ‘unclean lips’ by freaky angels, is a well-known trope on mission and calling. A charismatic relative came up to me to offer affirmation in what they felt had been a revelatory word of knowledge I’d received during the performance. (My response, that I was acting, was an unwelcome one.) 

People are strange; Jim Morrison had it dead right. But that’s not to say that Pentecostalism is not a meaningful, inspiring and attractive pathway for many Australians. It is a source of community for people, if they conform.  

'In Australia, according to the 2016 census, more than 260,550 of us are Pentecostals. Until recently, numerical growth seemed the only outcome.'

In his 2019 autobiography Tell Me Why, the late singer-songwriter Archie Roach recalls that as a troubled high school student wrestling with his identity, he started going to a huge Pentecostal ministry with some friends from school. ‘An early precursor to the modern mega-churches like Hillsong, the ministry had little organised structure and instead was dedicated to letting the spirit of God flow through the parishioners. We would sing modern, soulful music and speak