OWhen evangelical Americans began talking about Donald Trump as God’s chosen president, the religious phrasing around his leadership – miracles, destiny, calling – sparked something in the memories of Lynette Wallworth, the Australian virtual reality filmmaker Emmy Award-winning. As a young woman, she had been drawn into a Pentecostal community and had come to have “extreme beliefs” about the will of God. She has become a “prophetess”; other members would come to her with questions to hear her “prophesy” from literal and serious biblical interpretations.
“My budding identity at age 17 coalesced into a belief system,” says Wallworth. Now 61, she is set to premiere her live solo show, How to Live (After You Die), at the Sydney Opera House and later at Melbourne’s Rising Festival, in which she recounts her four years with the sect. The core beliefs of the group were patriarchal: men were the “natural leaders” and women should never lead men. Music and films that lacked holiness were frowned upon, while clothing too was circumscribed: “God preferred us [females] wear skirts and petticoats.
During an artist residency in Los Angeles in 2019, Wallworth, whose recent virtual reality films have documented the spiritual practices of the indigenous Martu people in Western Australia and the Yawanawá in Brazil, began reading about how the Trump campaign had given the White House access to an evangelical advisory council; that Trump had his own spiritual adviser, Paula White. Some had compared Trump to King Cyrus, a liberating figure from the Old Testament.
This “community of believers” proved politically useful to Trump, Wallworth says, but “in their own way they used it” to pursue a “long-term agenda.” [around] culture, behavior and what is allowed”. This included appointing conservative justices to the United States Supreme Court during his tenure, such as Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, despite the latter’s sexual assault charges.
Returning to Australia around the federal election in May of that year, Wallworth was struck by the victory speech of Scott Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian. “When he woke up that night and said, ‘I’ve always believed in miracles,’ I thought, OK, I get it – all these people in a belief system understand what’s going on with them. said right now… Morrison was saying, thank you to everyone who voted for me – but God put me here.
By 2050, one in 10 people are predicted to be Pentecostal, with evangelicals becoming an “increasingly powerful political lobby”. With How to Live (After You Die), Wallworth aims to “indicate the impossibly rigid rabbit hole that evangelism can lead you into, coupled with social media that will algorithmically channel you to people who share the same system. of beliefs”. Her other goal is to stop teenagers from doing what she did.
“It’s hard to talk about it, because I know God is a comfort to a lot of people,” she said. “But I hate the idea that a 17-year-old tomorrow could find themselves trapped in this kind of thinking, where they could turn around to become something that they are not in order to belong, or feel bad .”
Wallworth grew up near Hurstville in Sydney’s southwest, one of four children in a Catholic family with social justice values. Wallworth suffered from epileptic seizures, the cause of which was never diagnosed. One day, at age 11, she had to be resuscitated after a seizure at her grandparents. Then she remembers seeing lights and “a feeling of not being in my body but of being myself”, an experience that “always made me want to search”.
She attended a Catholic high school for girls taught by the “radical” order of Ursuline nuns: feminist activists who Wallworth said were “dedicated to training us to be leaders.” But one day after graduating from high school and before taking his place at art school, Wallworth answered a knock on the door with a warm invitation to a new ecumenical youth group at a local church. .
It turned out to be a Pentecostal offshoot of a group that had started in Los Angeles. Wallworth was 17, still working on her identity, and being offered an “intensified sense of belonging” gave her purpose in life: “I was zealous, which suited my mindset. And yet, that’s why it was terrible for me.
For the next four years, Wallworth would have only one friend outside of his Pentecostal community. At that time, she only attended one social event at her art school and was always rushing to pray.
Today, her long dark hair falling over an Issey Miyake striped wool poncho, wearing red heels, gold bands and an emerald ring, Wallworth cuts a charismatic figure, but an undeniable sadness flashes across her face when she remembers how much she allowed herself to appreciate art at school.
“I didn’t move without reading the Bible,” she says. “Some people had mental health issues. Our solution to everything was simply to pray.
Decades later, Wallworth attended a Hillsong church (unrelated to the Pentecostal community she attended) in order to seek modern evangelism. “There were a lot of people in their late teens and early twenties who were overwhelmed with emotion and a sense of being part of this group and being chosen by God,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘If this little person standing behind me is gay, what is that going to mean to him?’
“You have to comply. I know Brian Houston [who resigned from the megachurch in March over sexual misconduct allegations], when he ran it, said “we accept everyone”. But what is the behavior to which you must conform? It is a different thing from ‘our acceptance of you’. What are you dropping?”
Wallworth says people need to ask political leaders about their belief systems, regardless of denomination. “We must not be afraid to dig into the deepest layers of this belief system, in order to understand if someone is resisting, for example, to make changes around the climate crisis, where does this come from ?” she says.
She recalls the moment when the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, talking about climate change, held his phone up to the heavens and said, “There’s a higher authority beyond our understanding, just up there in heaven.”
“What does that mean? It means I don’t have to be responsible and I can kind of relax,” she says. [Brazil president Jair] Bolsonaro, look [Philippines president Rodrigo] Duterte. Let’s look at where evangelical or Pentecostal Christians really support certain governments, and look at their policies on climate change, and their understanding of whether the world was created entirely for human beings to use as their inexhaustible resource.
On her show, Wallworth chooses not to name the Pentecostal group she was part of, which has since disbanded and morphed into other groups. After four years there, Wallworth left it all behind with help from an unlikely source: nuns. An encounter with one nun in particular would prove a “touchstone” moment for Wallworth, helping him “unravel” his mind by “remembering myself”: a young woman who had an “extreme” streak, but who also valued his own autonomy.
“She helped me remember the person that existed before I started asking everyday, ‘What does God want from me?'”