As a teenager growing up in a relatively secular Adelaide family, Louise Omer was so shocked to discover her parents smoked dope that she lost trust in their moral authority. An unhappy 15-year-old who felt “rejected and victimized, contemptuous of everyone – yet still wanted to be invited to their parties”, she followed her popular brother into the welcoming community at Hillsong. Later she followed “the Pastor”, a Pentecostal preacher with a “talent for validating teenagers through charismatic attention” into a breakaway sect. Another Hillsong defector was the hot guitarist in the church band with whom Omer was massively infatuated. He reciprocated. Christianity hastened them up the path to matrimony before youthful desire could lead them down the road of shame.
She believed that her husband’s job “was to protect and guide me”, and that hers was to submit to his authority. The relationship foundered. The sex stopped. They fought and he sometimes threw things, though not at her. He disliked her leopard-print hat, which she wore anyway. He was upset when, after telling her to use only cloth on the polished metal fittings of his new cafe, she scratched them with a scourer. When she sideswiped a parked car and didn’t leave a note, he admonished: “You really should start taking responsibility for your actions.” She bristled. She felt humiliated. She flirted with a lesbian co-worker. He called time on the marriage.
With a one-night stand under her belt and $500 in her pocket, Omer embarked on a pilgrimage to discover how women can become holy without submitting to male religious authority. Omer had read feminist theory at university. It would have been interesting to know more about how she had reconciled her feminism with her faith before losing the latter. Despite it being a central concern, this is one of many missed opportunities in the book to interrogate the nexus between religion – Christianity in particular – and patriarchy.
She quotes the third-century theologian Tertullian – “Do you know that you are all Eve?” – and observes that she “could go on about misogynist philosophers whose works were foundational in Christian philosophy … but that would take up too much space”. But wouldn’t that help us better understand the feminist critiques of religious-based misogyny that she does provide? Her own revelations, meanwhile, she tells us, “rolled in like furious waves pounding a cliff”: “Boom – God wasn’t always a man. Boom – the image of God evolved through history. God was constructed. Boom.”
Her quest takes her to Ireland, Mexico, Sweden, Italy, Bulgaria, Morocco and beyond. Along the way she considers the myths of goddesses and the legends of saints, interviews feminist theologians, reads furiously and learns to worship her vulva despite hating other parts of her body. Is the fact her Swedish Airbnb host wears shorts to greet her on a snowy day a sign he is a “sociopath”? (Spoiler: no. He’s very nice.) On viewing The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, she feels so “sick at their muscled bodies” that she has “a sudden urge to pierce these marbled corridors and the hushed awe with a violent scream”. (Spoiler: she doesn’t.) When she hears that her husband has had a cancer scare, her laughter “poured out like tar”. She later feels bad about that but also accuses him of having exercised “coercive control”. She embarks on an affair with a man in Morocco who chokes and hits her, including with her belt – but who does nothing she doesn’t let him do. She does question this. At the close of her journey, Omer finally begins to accept her body and its unruly desires. She unbaptises herself in a lake at a nudist park in Czechoslovakia. “I might not be holy. But I pronounced myself whole.”
She is less generous towards others, whom she judges freely and harshly, including for their looks – even “ugly children” spied in a cafe. Omer makes much of her money worries – skipping meals, denying herself hot chocolate in cold Dublin, staying in some dodgy places – and takes risks with her own safety. Yet when she meets a young Malaysian woman who tells her that she is couch surfing, she is appalled: “I hated her recklessness and didn’t want to be infected by her stupidity.” At a Hillsong service in Sweden, she is astonished at the sight of a pastor in “his late forties, balding and overweight”, commenting, “Not cool, dude. Where I came from, we knew the importance of image.”
Where she came from, sexy young pastors whipped young, vulnerable people like herself into a lusty frenzy for Jesus. Oddly, given the clouds of sex abuse scandals that have enveloped Hillsong and other churches in recent years, she neglects to interrogate that particularly perverse aspect of patriarchal religion or the sexual dynamics of Pentecostalism. Or, for that matter, the hollow morality implicit in her statement that “Men in the church excelled at performative goodness.”
It’s clearly not just the men. In Sweden, Omer consciously uses “deferential, saccharine language” to ingratiate herself with the Hillsong community. Of the generous hospitality of a woman there, she writes: “I had manipulated her social circle into providing me with free accommodation, and she trusted me because she thought we both loved Jesus.” Just as many sentences in Holy Woman beg for editing – “Tim’s long brown hair wove through the crowd…” – the narrative cries out both for a tad more grace and a good deal more critical reflection.
Scribe Publications, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Holy Woman, Louise Omer".
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