By Sarah Puryear
The recent Amazon Prime documentary Shiny Happy People is a devastating and incisive examination of the form of Christianity followed by the Duggar family and millions of other fundamentalist Christians. In 2015 I wrote an essay urging us to tap into the formative power of subculture, especially for the spiritual formation of our children. Even then I briefly acknowledged that “subculture does come with risks — the possibility of insularity, of legalism, and of hypocrisy, to name a few.” Eight years later, I am more aware of the downsides, due to the trend toward “deconstruction” among my evangelical peers — for some, deconstruction of their Christian faith entirely, for others the dismantling of certain teachings extraneous to the gospel that in the long run have proved unhelpful and damaging. With the rise of social media, the stories of the impact of those negative teachings are legion, leading to a clearer picture of the downsides of an insular religious subculture.
Most Episcopalians who watch this documentary will feel like they are peering into a foreign religious culture to which they can’t relate. As someone who grew up in evangelical circles, while I don’t recall hearing of Bill Gothard or Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), I find the bulk of his teachings are very familiar, because many of his teachings seeped into the wider evangelical groundwater.
In his book Powerful Leaders? Marcus Honeysett offers a biological analogy for religious communities’ relationship with the wider world. He describes how “a healthy culture is like a biological cell in that it is semi-permeable. It can take in positive outside influences while filtering out influences that are harmful.” There are certain pitfalls when the membrane between community and world is too thin or porous, to which Episcopal culture would be more prone. Different problems arise when that barrier is too thick, as in fundamentalist communities. The pitfalls of the movement highlighted in Shiny Happy People may not be native to Episcopal culture, but there are at least three lessons for us to learn from this cautionary tale that delves into the complex dynamics at play in highly controlling religious environments.
- The documentary serves as a caution against the insularity and authoritarianism that can develop in religious communities.
Shiny Happy People looks at the Duggar family, featured on The Learning Channel’s show 19 Kids and Counting, and then conducts a broader analysis of their brand of fundamentalist Christianity led by Gothard. The documentary serves as a caution against the insularity and authoritarianism that can develop in religious communities. These two characteristics are mutually reinforcing; a closed-off stance toward the world creates a lack of outside accountability and enables the abuse of power. Insular religious communities breed authoritarian leaders who abuse their power over others by creating high-control environments. This insularity creates an environment similar to that of a Petri dish in scientific experiments. A Petri dish is a container that is sealed off from the external environment in order to foster the growth of bacteria and other organisms. While this is an excellent way to grow bacteria, when we seal off our human communities from the outside world, it tends to breed not godliness but abuses of power. In these cases, a religious Petri dish community needs the antiseptic power of light shining in on the darkness it is harboring.
The Christian monastic tradition at its best demonstrates that withdrawal from the world in the name of Christ can be done in a way that promotes human flourishing, but doing so requires safeguards and checks of power that prevent these toxic dynamics. Even cloistered monastic communities make provision for external accountability by belonging to a larger religious order, scheduling regular monastic visitations by outsiders, and offering temporary hospitality to visitors. Those desiring to join these communities spend years in discernment before making a full commitment; they only make this commitment once they have reached an age of maturity; and perhaps most importantly, they only take on vows for themselves — not for spouses or children.
This tendency towards too “thick” of a subculture membrane is, for better or worse, not a part of our cultural DNA as Episcopalians. The Anglican tradition has a very “live and let live” approach: we don’t require binding membership contracts, we don’t grill people on all their exact beliefs before they receive baptism or Communion, and we wish people well if they decide to find new pastures. This attitude may draw some people who want to hold on to their Christian faith but are looking for a less controlling church environment. At times our tradition’s low implementation of church discipline may be a source of frustration, but it can also be refreshing to those who have been wounded by churches that have attempted to play God in their lives. We should be mindful that people coming out of fundamentalist backgrounds may still carry those wounds, as they sift through what they will jettison from their background and what they will carry with them. Understanding their religious baggage will be important pastorally, as well as understanding the gifts their upbringing has given them, which for many is a genuine faith paired with deep wells of biblical knowledge.
- This documentary offers a caution about how narcissistic leaders seek religious positions of power.
No religious community, regardless of how non-controlling it appears to be on the surface, is immune to the influence of narcissists who capitalize on the high levels of trust bestowed upon religious leaders. The documentary delves into the powerful role Gothard developed for himself as he launched program after program for families hungry to know “the godly way” to raise children. He created an entire world for families to live in, despite the unusually decentralized model of his influence, in contrast to other cult-like leaders who withdraw from the world with their followers close behind. Meanwhile, Gothard selected young adults to come work in close proximity to him at his organization’s headquarters, and dozens of stories support the allegations that he violated emotional, physical, and sexual boundaries with many of the teenage girls working in his offices. The insularity of the IBLP community led to further tragic consequences for victims of sexual abuse, when parents and leaders tried to deal with cases of abuse “in-house,” as in the case of Josh Duggar, rather than immediately turning to external authorities.
Even in contexts that bear little resemblance to fundamentalism, church leaders need to learn about the patterns by which narcissistic leaders operate, because they tend to work from a very similar playbook. Fortunately, there are helpful resources recently written to educate both clergy and laypeople to notice the common patterns abusive leaders employ and how to respond to them. While mainline churches such as the Episcopal Church are far ahead of many evangelical and fundamentalist churches in requiring comprehensive training for clergy and lay leaders to prevent abuse, we should never rest on those laurels.. The documentary is a sobering reminder of how devastating the toll of abuse can be, and how critical it is to use our authority to protect vulnerable persons.
- And finally, the documentary serves as a caution for parents, that parenting out of fear tends to backfire.
As parents, we must consider how fear influences our decisions. The piece of information that surprised me most in Shiny Happy People was how the parents who got heavily involved in IBLP did not grow up in closed, separatist, or highly conservative communities. Instead, they grew up pretty integrated into the common culture. Michelle Duggar, the mother of the family featured in 19 Kids and Counting, was a cheerleader in high school who was popular and even a little bit wild. Parents got involved with IBLP not because they wanted to replicate their sheltered childhood, but because they wanted their children to avoid repeating their histories that they perceived as misguided, sinful, or dangerous.
Gothard (who has never been married or had children) exploited those desires and promised parents that if they followed his teaching, their children would be kept on the straight and narrow. He could help parents train their children in such a way that they would avoid the heartache of sinful choices. While many parents participated in this subculture out of religious fervency, it’s likely most of them also did so out of fear for their children and how they would turn out. Listening to their fears required maintaining a high level of control over their children. In the world of IBLP, establishing high control over young children led to finding ways to control them even as young adults by requiring them to participate in only IBLP programs, placing restrictions on higher education, and requiring strict courtship procedures so parents could have a say over whom they married.
We might never dream of asserting such high levels of control over our children, but we too can be tempted to let fear dictate our parenting choices. It might look more like fear about who their friends are, where they’ll get into college, or what career they’ll choose, or whether they’ll keep going to church as young adults. We too must face the reality that the control we have over our children when they are young is temporary. Rather than trying to inoculate our children against ever making a poor decision, God invites us to entrust our children to him and his ability to work through both the good and bad life decisions they will inevitably make.
At our children’s baptism, we promise to see that they are “brought up in the Christian faith and life.” It’s not by accident that the liturgy references both the Christian faith and a Christian life. We aren’t just passing on a set of beliefs; we are to demonstrate a way of living; but Jesus’ way is one of invitation rather than coercion. We also pray at their baptism that as they grow, God will foster in them an “inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” The virtues this prayer holds forth for our children are incompatible with the view that Christian faith should function as a layer of bubble wrap, shielding them from the sin and hurt that are inevitable parts of life in our world. We cannot guarantee that our children will always be shiny or happy; but God never promised that we would be. Instead, we pray that their growth in the Christian faith and life will look like learning to ask good questions instead of accepting things thoughtlessly, to practice discernment instead of woodenly following rules, to develop an awareness of God’s work in the world; and to move beyond knowing correct doctrine about God to loving him in response to his love for us.