Holy Woman | The Saturday newspaper


As a teenager growing up in a relatively secular family in Adelaide, Louise Omer was so shocked to discover her parents were smoking drugs that she lost faith in their moral authority. An unhappy 15-year-old who felt “rejected and victimized, dismissive of everyone – but still wanted to be invited to their parties”, she followed her popular brother to the welcoming community of Hillsong. She later followed “the pastor”, a Pentecostal preacher with a “knack for validating teenagers through charismatic attention” to a breakaway cult. Another Hillsong defector was the popular church band guitarist Omer was massively smitten with. He reciprocated. Christianity rushed them down the road to marriage before youthful lust could lead them down the road to shame.

She believed that her husband’s job “was to protect and guide me,” and hers was to submit to his authority. The relationship sank. The sex stopped. They argued and he sometimes threw things, but not at her. He didn’t like her leopard print hat, which she wore anyway. He was upset when, after telling him to only use cloth on the polished metal fittings of his new cafe, she scraped them off with a scouring pad. When she swept away a parked car and didn’t leave a note, he warned, “You really should start taking responsibility for your actions.” She bristled. She felt humiliated. She flirted with a lesbian colleague. He called time on the wedding.

With a one-night stand under her belt and $500 in her pocket, Omer embarked on a pilgrimage to discover how women can become saints without submitting to male religious authority. Omer had read feminist theory in college. It would have been interesting to know more about how she had reconciled her feminism with her faith before losing the latter. While this is a central concern, it is one of many missed opportunities in the book to interrogate the connection 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 the misogynistic philosophers whose works were the foundations of Christian philosophy… but that would take up too much space”. But wouldn’t that help us better understand the feminist critiques of religious misogyny she provides? Her own revelations, meanwhile, she tells us, “unfolded like furious waves pounding against a cliff”: “Boom – God was not always a man. Boom – the image of God has evolved throughout history. God was built. Boom.”

His quest takes him to Ireland, Mexico, Sweden, Italy, Bulgaria, Morocco and beyond. Along the way, she considers myths of goddesses and legends of saints, interviews feminist theologians, reads furiously, and learns to worship her vulva despite hating other parts of her body. Is the fact that her Swedish Airbnb host wears shorts to greet her on a snowy day a sign that he is a “sociopath”? (Spoiler: No. He’s very nice.) The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, she feels so “sick of their muscular bodies” that she has “a sudden urge to pierce those marble corridors and the hushed fear of a violent cry”. (Spoiler: she doesn’t.) When she learns that her husband had a cancer scare, her laugh “flows like tar.” She later feels bad about it but also accuses him of exercising “coercive control”. She embarks on an affair with a man in Morocco who chokes her and hits her, including with his belt – but who doesn’t do anything she won’t let him. She questions that. At the end of his journey, Omer finally begins to accept his body and his unruly desires. She gets baptized in a lake in a naturist park in Czechoslovakia. “I may not be holy. But I made up my mind.

She is less generous towards others, whom she judges freely and harshly, including their appearance – even the “ugly children” spied on in a café. Omer does much of his money worrying – skipping meals, depriving himself of hot chocolate in cold Dublin, staying in dodgy places – and taking risks with his own safety. However, when she meets a young Malaysian who tells her that she is couch surfing, she is dismayed: “I hated her carelessness and I didn’t want to be infected by her stupidity. At a Hillsong service in Sweden, she was amazed at the sight of a pastor in “late 40s, bald and overweight,” commenting, “Not cool, man. Where I come from, we knew the importance of image.

Where she came from, sexy young pastors whipped vulnerable young people like her into a vigorous frenzy for Jesus. Curiously, given the clouds of sexual abuse scandals that have enveloped Hillsong and other churches in recent years, she neglects to question this particularly perverse aspect of patriarchal religion or the sexual dynamics of Pentecostalism. Or, for that matter, the hollow morality implicit in his statement that “men in the church excelled in performative kindness.”

It’s clearly not just men. In Sweden, Omer consciously uses “deferential and sweet language” to ingratiate himself with the Hillsong community. Of one woman’s generous hospitality there, she writes, “I had manipulated her social circle into providing me with free accommodation, and she trusted me because she thought we liked both Jesus. So many sentences in holy woman craving editing – “Tim’s long brown hair weaved through the crowd…” – the narrative begs for both a little more grace and a lot more critical reflection.

Scribe Publications, 320 pages, $29.99

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 under the headline “Holy Woman, Louise Omer”.

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