Amazon’s hit documentary makes for uncomfortable viewing, says Sophie Killingley. But she believes Christians should engage with it, and be mindful that such abuses aren’t confined to America’s Bible Belt. They could happen in a church near you too
“Shiny Happy People laughing. Shiny Happy People holding hands” sing REM on their hit 1991 song ‘Shiny Happy People’.
And that’s certainly the impression portrayed by evangelical poster family, The Duggars, in their TV show 19 kids and counting, a staple of American reality TV in the mid 2000s.
The show followed the exploits of devout Baptists Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar who believed God should determine the number of children they would have, and therefore avoided the use of birth control. It ran for ten seasons.
The new Amazon Prime documentary Shiny Happy People reveals the dark under seam of evangelical abuse, cover-ups and misogyny re-sold to a new generation. This expose takes a closer look at The Duggars, and the organisations they belonged to, the Institute of Basic Life Principle (IBLP) founded and run by Bill Gothard.
The docu-series has already enjoyed the biggest debut of any documentary series produced by Amazon.
That can tell us a few things. There could be a certain amount of schadenfreude in watching the veneer being removed from the Golden Family of evangelicalism. But for many who grew up in IBLP or strict fundamentalist circles, there is a certain validation that comes in seeing your experience being played out, and the darkness being exposed.
Many of the interviewees are ex-IBLP and each have shocking stories of abuse and control, including Jill Duggar herself.
Jill is the second eldest daughter of the family, and with tears in her eyes she recalls her upbringing and the trauma which she was forced to live out on camera, for the purposes of advancing the family’s brand.
Some have walked away from the faith because of their experiences, others are still following Jesus, but all are determined to bring this story into the light and show the harm that comes from coercing people into uniformity.
Bill Gothard founded the IBLP in 1961 with the aim of helping people to find success in their life through following biblical principles. His pronouncements were rigid and certain and he claimed to be able to guide Christians to victory over any sin in their life. The result would be a happy, obedient family.
His umbrella diagram of authority (pictured) showed how women come under the authority of their husbands, with the warning that stepping outside of the umbrella of authority is to allow yourself to come under the “realm of Satan” and be harmed. Women were taught from childhood that they had to obey any male in their lives, making them vulnerable targets for manipulation and abuse.
Gothard also founded the Advanced Training Institute, a homeschooling curriculum designed to protect children from “worldly influences”. This supposedly contained all the education needs for a Christian family…but has since been shown to be severely lacking! All the while, girls spent much time on domestic tasks. At one point we see Josh Duggar, the eldest son, sitting with his feet up while three of the girls mop the floor in the background.
Within IBLP/Duggarville, and purity culture at large, dating was eschewed in favour of courtship. The father’s authority over his children was paramount. Sexual purity was expected. But not just within standard Christian interpretation. It went much further. Girls had to save their first kiss for their wedding day, for example. They were expected to be gatekeepers of the man’s purity, with very prescriptive and strong messaging given regarding what they could wear. In one memorable clip, girls are warned against wearing shorts as it would be tantamount to “defrauding” their future spouse.
All this provides us with insight into a culture where male authority is to be obeyed and submitted to readily with a smile. Females are gatekeepers of male purity and Christian principles are used to keep women from speaking up about any red flags.
Next, the documentary details unfolding of events of abuse. Bill Gothard stepped down over many credible allegations of sexual abuse and one rape claim. Josh Duggar, who admitted to molesting at least two of his sisters, is currently serving 12 years in prison for possession of child sexual abuse images.
The fact that much of this was known before the family signed a TV deal shows how much this is a culture where the ends justify the means.
Should we as Christians watch this documentary series? Or just uncomfortably wish it didn’t exist?
Perhaps your instinct is to write the Duggars off as a fringe group – not like us! But I really do recommend watching. These teachings permeated a lot of the wider evangelical culture - from the spanking and instant obedience, to the sexualisation of women through purity culture. It taught women to fear themselves, with disconnection from their sexuality and body shame following them through life.
There’s now an almost constant stream of sexual abuse scandals dominating headlines both in the US and UK. We are reaping what has been sown over years and years - church cultures where women have not been heard, have instead been expected to be pliable and meek and where whistleblowers have been labelled as disruptors. The system is protected at all costs.
It’s tempting to look away from all this. But we must not. The reality is this can happen in your place of worship.
A church may not deny a key gospel truth or preach any obvious theological heresy, but it can still exert such control over your life, making you doubt your own mind, how you should have your hair, what you should wear, what is acceptable to watch on TV, what can be read. And acceptance in the group becomes dependant on this. This is cult-like behaviour. I have experienced it myself.
This is where the biblical example of the Bereans is so comforting. ”Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11)
Like the Bereans, we should be weighing up what we are told, trying to understand what is cultural and what is extra-biblical.
Jesus calls us to a life of following him and leaving the world. But he doesn’t ask us to suffer abuse, to avoid interaction with the communities around us or to become naïve to the world we live in.
Let’s not cover up harm as we play-act “shiny happy people”, but rather live in humble honesty as flawed pilgrims seeking God.
Shiny Happy People is available now on Amazon Prime