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Tom Tilley on growing up ‘hardline’ Pentecostal: ‘It was weird – it was speaking in tongues’ | Australian books

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It’s not unusual for an Australian journalist to write a memoir – but it is unusual for the memoir to not focus on their journalism at all.

Instead, Speaking in Tongues by former Triple J Hack host Tom Tilley is a family memoir of sorts, that tells of Tilley’s time raised in the Revival Centres – a small Pentacostal church that requires its members speak in tongues. It’s “a personal prayer,” Tilley says. “Using audible, indecipherable language to God.”

Tilley’s idealistic young parents came out of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s feeling a little empty-handed. They sought higher meaning and community more than fleeting pleasure and free love, and were attracted to what they thought would be a religious utopia.

Tilley’s dad, Andrew, became a pastor in Mudgee and the couple had four boys. Everything in their life was defined by the church, including drinking, socialising, entertainment, hairstyles, dress codes and dating.

Their oldest child, Tilley, 41, has been in the media for more than a decade, through his past career at the ABC, his current job hosting Triple M’s news podcast The Briefing, and his membership of the band Client Liaison. He first discussed his past in the church at a small event in Sydney around 10 years ago, he says, but “I’ve never told it in full before the book”.

Was he embarrassed by the church?

“Why be embarrassed?” he asks, rhetorically. “Because it was weird – it was speaking in tongues. It was separate. It was embarrassing to think that my people [in the church] thought everyone else was wrong – that’s a very arrogant position. I would never have wanted to justify that.

“If I had gone to the Catholic church or the Anglican church, that would have been socially acceptable. But going to a small one that no one heard of, that meets in the back room of the town hall and does speaking in tongues, that thinks that everyone else is wrong and going to hell? That’s not socially acceptable.”

Tom Tilley, 10, being baptised by his father
Tom Tilley, 10, being baptised by his father

Growing up in the Revival Centres meant that Tilley had a dual life. “Church friends were on weekends and on holidays, and school friends were Monday to Friday,” Tilley says. “Looking back, it was so hard to keep those clean lines.”

The Revival Centres felt like an entire world to a child. There were a tribe of adults and kids, conventions around the country and religious camps. But in reality, the amount of people involved in the church was tiny – at its height there were less than 5,000 worshippers, which has now shrunk to about 700 people, according to census data.

While the Revival Centre was an outlier among the larger churches, Pentecostalism is growing in Australia, with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, perhaps its most famous adherent as a member of the Horizon church. “I don’t think he’s hardcore Pentescotal,” Tilley says. “We were the most hardline.” (Morrison told the Australian last year that he doesn’t speak in tongues.)

“I thought it was really brave of him in the last election to bring the cameras into the church and show people what he does,” Tilley says. “I respected him for that – I’m sure there was a political calculation, but he was really owning it. He was putting the hands up, and that is delicate and personal – it is essentially prayer. He was showing the world what he believes in.”

The cover of Tom Tilley’s book, Speaking In Tongues
Speaking in Tongues is out now. Photograph: Harper Collins

Tilley began rebelling against the church in his early 20s, after moving to Sydney. In one of the most interesting sections of his book, he relates how word of his attendance at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras got back to the church, who temporarily banned him. Adrift without his faith, community and family (they sided with the church), Tilley started attending other churches, hoping to find a new tribe – but sooner or later he had to confront the fact that he didn’t believe in God.

“I worked out what it truly meant to be a Christian, but I couldn’t square the logic of the whole Bible,” he says. “I couldn’t square away the creation story and all the key elements of the New Testament – like Jesus being the son of God, and humans being preprogrammed with [original] sin … It was too fantastical.”

It wasn’t an entirely clean break, and one of the hangovers of his faith was his virginity, which Tilley hung on to for two years after leaving the church. At 23 years old, he moved to Amsterdam for a long-distance relationship and the sort of excruciating sexual behaviour that technically kept him a virgin – but only just.

“One of the things that surprised me was how long it took to have sex after leaving the church. [My virginity] was one of the last things to go. It held a lot of meaning – it had a heaviness around it.”

Tilley knew that if he had sex outside marriage, it could be the final thread that cut him off from his family, who were still in the church at that time. While he had moved on confidently from Christianity, “I had such a pain [around] dislodging from my family,” he says.

As it turned out, he didn’t lose his family when it happened. “It wasn’t quite as dark a shift as I feared,” he says. And at 23, he moved into the next, more hedonistic phase of his life. There was a long period in the inner-city share house scene in Sydney. There were threesomes, there were parties, and there was almost being impaled on a fence in Redfern after trying to climb on to a mate’s balcony on New Year’s Day.

After having his first sip of alcohol at 21 (the Revival Centres forbade it), Tilley was making up for lost time. But in a way he was also trying to capture some of the spirit of his childhood, when he felt such a sense of belonging and connection with a tribe.

“I put a lot of effort into my Redfern and inner-city friendships. I had years of epic partying – I wanted to connect, I wanted to be out three or four nights a week, I always wanted to know where my friends were, and have those really intense friendships like I’d had growing up. I didn’t want quiet nights at home.”

This period also marked the beginning of Tilley’s long stint at the youth arm of the ABC, Triple J. As host of the daily current affairs show Hack, Tilley was successful in reaching audiences in the regions, but his approach came under fire from the left – with one of the bigger controversies occurring in 2016, when far-right extremist and United Patriots Front leader, Blair Cottrell, was invited on the TV broadcast Hack Live, to discuss patriotism and Muslim immigration.

Tom Tilley’s family at Christmas 1987
Tom Tilley’s family at Christmas 1987

“I’ve been hammered for that so much over the years,” Tilley says . “I’ve had so much criticism and abuse for a couple of editorial decisions, within 10,000 plus editorial decisions, so it’s not something I really want to talk about.” But, he adds: “From my background – having grown up in a very authoritarian, closed, anti-intellectual, illiberal environment, I kind of, when tested, lean more towards an open, liberal approach. And that has brought me under fire at times, and that was difficult. But I was very reluctant to cut people out of a conversation.”

Tilley started writing Speaking in Tongues in 2017, after a motocross accident benched him from the party scene.

I got a bit tough with myself after the accident – a bit down on myself. Did I spend an extra five years partying when I should have started a family younger? Has all the fun gone on too long?” He wrote the manuscript longhand in the park at Bronte and Tamarama beaches, sometimes through tears. Writing the book helped him reframe some of his childhood experiences with a more mature lens, although he knew he would never publish it if his family didn’t give him the all clear (which they did).

When he was a kid, Tilley never spoke in tongues, although he fervently tried to. He writes about trying to work out – for decades, really – if he was not chosen or blessed, or if the whole thing was sham. Now he sees the magic of it not as a mystical experience (“I ultimately think [believers] are deluding themselves,” he says), but as a communion with people together in a room that has a “similar payoff to meditation”.

“There’s something special that happens when we use our voices in this way – when we sing and chant in a room, particularly with other people. There’s something there.”

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Tilley’s entire family has now left the church – one following another, after clashing with the increasingly rigid rules. Some of the most affecting scenes in the memoir involve his family getting on the drink together for the first time, and after going on the journey with them in this book, you can feel what a monumental thing it must have been for Tilley just to have a beer with his mum and dad.

Now Tilley himself has become a father. “I’m figuring this out for myself now. How do I bring the good of what I found in religion to the family I’m starting? Nippers?” he asks.

“There was a part of me, when I was growing up, that thought sport was shallow and that the work we were doing in the church was tapping into something deeper. I was a bit critical of mainstream Australian culture, including sport … but now I’m not so cynical about it. I think those things that bring us together for the sake of it – like sport, even alcohol within reason – are great, because the connection is what matters.”

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