This article originally appeared at Baptist News Global on June 7, 2023.
Collectively watching Amazon Prime’s Shiny Happy People docuseries is foolish if we’re not willing to deconstruct the entire conservative evangelical tower of Babel it reveals.
Of course, individuals watching the series may have deeply sensitive trauma they’re reminded of and still processing. Rebekah Drumsta, a survivor of abuse from the Institute of Basic Life Principles featured in the series, explained, “Shiny Happy People is collectively pacing so many of us through our painful childhoods which were riddled with spiritual abuse, physical and psychological abuse and religious trauma.”
In the first weekend of its release, the series already is opening a conversation leading many to ask: “Is this simply the case of one extremist family? Or is this story a glimpse into a much broader framework of power and abuse in conservative evangelicalism?”
“Those of us who grew up in broader conservative evangelicalism are not surprised by anything in the series.”
While most people watching the series will be horrified at the Duggar family’s obsession with power and justification of abuse, those of us who grew up in broader conservative evangelicalism are not surprised by anything in the series.
The Institute of Basic Life Principles vs. ‘today’s culture’
IBLP, the organization founded by Bill Gothard that is responsible for building the theological blueprints of the Duggars, released a statement June 2 about how Shiny Happy People covered their organization. They believe Amazon’s coverage is a reflection not of a problem in evangelicalism or even in their organization, but of “today’s culture.”
“Its misleading and untruthful commentary mocks that which is good and moral in the most sensationalized way possible, both for shock value and for profit,” IBLP claimed. Instead, they point to “several million people” who have been “positively impacted by our ministry.”
IBLP points to its statement of faith, claiming the group professes historic Christianity, and they affirm that Jesus, the Bible, salvation and sanctification are humanity’s only hope, by grace alone through faith alone.
Indeed, there is nothing in their statement of faith any mainstream conservative evangelical ministry would take issue with. So is the entire theological structure they all hold in common to blame? Or is it enough for conservative evangelicals to wash their hands of IBLP, or for IBLP to distance itself from Bill Gothard or the Duggars?
We owe it to the survivors and to the children still suffering
Josh Duggar, the oldest son of 19 Kids and Counting star Jim Bob Duggar, is serving a 12.5-year sentence for child sexual assault. He also has confessed to sexually molesting young girls, including his sisters.
As Episode 1 closes, Jill Dillard — one of Josh’s younger sisters — laments, “I just hope and pray that this never happens to anyone else ever again.”
For survivors of abuse to agree to be interviewed, they are agreeing to re-enter their trauma and may not be aware of the complexities involved.
Reflecting on one moment when Dillard said, “No one was supposed to find out,” Drumsta wrote: “What I saw was a triggered Jill who fell back into her inner child. … It was her trauma, her hurt, her shame speaking. She was a victim. No one protected her. No one defended her. … It was a quick, yet very deep moment that to me, revealed a wounded child that still needs time to heal.”
“Their trauma is not fodder for our entertainment.”
If survivors are going to put themselves out there to share their stories with the hope the abuse they suffered never happens again, then we do a disservice to them and to the children still suffering within the towers of abuse if we are unwilling to connect the dots. Their trauma is not fodder for our entertainment. It is a prophetic warning about how power is pursued and abuse is sacralized by the most influential conservative evangelical ministries today.
The Gospel Coalition defends its tower
The Gospel Coalition wasted no time hiring Alex Harris, the conservative evangelical brother of former Sovereign Grace pastor Josh Harris who was interviewed for the Amazon series, to write a review of Shiny Happy People on the day it was released.
“It can be messy and confusing when outsiders poke around and try to tell a story about the church,” he wrote. “There will inevitably be examples of where these storytellers paint with too broad a brush or give a free platform to people eager to throw stones at a faith they’ve left behind.”