Bibliophile | Tom Tilley finds life after church in ‘Speaking in Tongues’

Speaking in Tongues
by Tom Tilley
ABC Books

Tom Tilley has shared other people’s stories on national radio for more than a decade, and now he shares his coming of age story. As the host of triple j’s nightly news and currents affairs program Hack, Tom spoke to half a million national radio listeners each week for 12 years. He’s interviewed prime ministers and senior ministers from all sides of politics, as well as people such as Melinda Gates, Al Gore, Pussy Riot, Tim Winton and Julian Assange.

Tom had an idyllic childhood, growing up in country town of Dubbo with lots of brothers, a loving family and an extended family of others in their close-knit Pentecostal church. There were camps, gatherings, theatrical performances and music. As his father rose through the ranks of the church, Tom realised that there were other people who lived by different rules.

“Obey God and inherit eternal paradise or disobey Him and go to hell” was the overarching premise, with the expectation that believers would receive communication directly from God and speak in tongues. While his father was quite lenient, the church’s teaching was very binary – either “you were saved or you were not, you spoke in tongues or you didn’t, you were in or out”.

Tom’s parents had lived fairly adventurous lives before repenting and being baptised but Tom and his brothers were born into the faith so all they had to do was speak in tongues to be baptised. This was a bit of a stumbling block for Tom because, apart from having difficulty with the speaking in tongues part, he wanted to go out into the world and have some adventures and make his own mistakes.

As he grew older, the rules stated that there was to be no drinking, no fornicating and no attending ‘worldly parties’ or dancing as it could lead to fornication. Tom was to find out it also meant no playing sport on Sunday when he had to attend church. When you turned 17, you were allowed to have a platonic relationship after notifying your pastor, and homosexuality was a sin.

University and travel only increased Tom’s doubts but his life had been the church. Tom and his brother were even suspended from the church for watching the Mardi Gras Parade in Sydney and their pastor father was excommunicated for attending the wedding of someone who did not belong to the church.

Instead of questioning the church, Tom had been questioning himself so he decided to explore other religions in order to find his place in the world. It is a fascinating journey as Tom escapes from a theology based on flawed assumptions and puts his energies into living this life, rather than securing a place in the next.

Lezly Herbert

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