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 viewing and downloading images of 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.”
Harris admitted some embarrassing abuse has occurred. But he doesn’t think the docuseries “fairly represents us or our faith.” And despite being raised as part of “The Joshua Generation,” which he and Shiny Happy People define as his generation rising up and attaining “positions of power and influence in government, law and beyond,” Harris says he had “a wonderful homeschool experience, for which I’ll always be grateful.”
“I know people who had positive experiences with IBLP,” Harris wrote. “These were homeschool families with parents who genuinely sought to honor God and do what was best for their children.”
Then, criticizing the series itself, Harris wrote: “On the few occasions the filmmakers try to connect Gothard’s teachings to broader themes in Christianity, the attempts are invariably heavy handed, often equating Gothard’s genuine extremism with beliefs held by the vast majority of evangelicals.”
“Harris and The Gospel Coalition cannot pretend to value listening to survivors of abuse when they merely give lip service to their suffering.”
But the outsiders Harris characterizes as throwing stones are women and children who were abused within the hierarchical tower conservative evangelical ministries have built. Harris and The Gospel Coalition cannot pretend to value listening to survivors of abuse when they merely give lip service to their suffering, as evidenced by the way they question their “agenda” and characterize them as outside stone throwers.
Design for God’s power to be glorified
IBLP builds its tower through seven “basic life principles.” And just as their statement of faith is virtually identical with mainstream conservative evangelicals, so are their seven principles, the first of which is “design.”
“The word ‘design’ has in the definition the idea of a plan,” explains one of their representatives. “Like if you build a building, you’re going to be, ‘Wow, that’s an incredible design.’ But the design of that building is actually the thought and intention and the heart and mind of the designer. Purpose is wrapped up in design.”
Like IBLP, conservative evangelicals always begin the justification of their rules by rooting them in God’s self-glorifying expression of power through the creation. Fundamentalist groups like Bob Jones University have historically defended segregation, prohibitions against most television shows and music styles, bans on interracial dating, and dress standards on their view of God’s design in creation. The Anglican Church in North America, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Presbyterian Church in America all begin their opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ relationships with their view of God’s design in creation.
This is why so many of these organizations, like IBLP and the Duggars, promote Answers in Genesis. During the docuseries, Jim Bob Duggar says, “We teach our children that evolution is something that a lot of people are teaching, but yet is totally unscientific.” While touring the Ark Encounter, Michelle Duggar adds, “You can see how the earth was formed and with the flood and all of the things that science really backs up what Scripture says.”
Of course, as Shiny Happy People clearly demonstrates, these groups tend to boast about their educational prowess while delivering mostly speculation and conjecture. The real reason these groups uniformly reject evolution has nothing to do with an honest assessment of peer-reviewed evidence but has everything to do with how their view of creation design justifies their view of authority to exercise power over and exclude others.
Delegated, gendered authority as the extension of power
“When we are rejecting God’s delegated authority, we’re also rejecting his authority,” another IBLP representative explains as a way of extending God’s authority down through man’s authority.
In Shiny Happy People, Bill Gothard is quoted saying: “We are living in a day in which we want to have equal authority. Sons and daughters want to be on equal level with the parents. Citizens equal level with government. I mean the whole attitude of our day is equal authority. But God didn’t structure life that way. And it doesn’t work that way.”
As everyone who grew up in the complementarian world of conservative evangelicalism can attest, the theology claims God’s authority extends through the authority of the father over the mother and of the parents over the children in the home.
“They turned every father into a cult leader.”
One person being interviewed says, “They turned every father into a cult leader.”
Again, this is no different than mainstream evangelicalism. John Piper says women should not be police officers or managers at work. He also warns against women working out because it might make them appear masculine and lead to bad sex. In addition to being worshiped at Desiring God, Piper is a highly sought after featured speaker at the most influential evangelical conferences. How is he any different than Jim Bob Duggar?
Just as IBLP and TGC responded to Shiny Happy People, a common evangelical response to horror stories of abuse is to claim it’s different when their group of men exercise power over others because their men are good protectors.
Kevin DeYoung says, “Patriarchy, rightly conceived, is not about the subjugation of women as much as it is about the subjugation of the male aggression and male irresponsibility that runs wild when women are forced to be in charge because men are nowhere to be found. What school or church or city center or rural hamlet is better off when fathers no longer rule? … The choice is not between patriarchy and enlightened democracy, but between patriarchy and anarchy.”
In other words, God’s created design of men being in charge is ultimately a power driven by fear.
Responsibility fueled by fear of punishment
The motivation that fuels IBLP’s power is a responsibility that comes from the realization that “I will, one day, answer to God for my every thought, word and action.”
For IBLP and all conservative evangelicals, answering to God comes through the retributive violence of the Cross or eternal hell. John MacArthur claims: “Every sin ever committed by every person who has ever lived will be punished. That is required by divine holiness and divine righteousness and divine justice. It will either be punished everlastingly in the life of the sinner or that punishment will be borne by Christ.”
Evangelical views of hell as a justice of violence against the human body motivates their embrace of spanking children. Shiny Happy People exposes a world where fear of hell and destruction are used to promote spanking as “encouragement” in order to break “the rebellious spirit they’re born with.”
Voddie Baucham calls babies “vipers in diapers,” tells a story about spanking a little girl 13 times at church because she’s too shy to shake a male deacon’s hand, and recommends having “an all-day session where you just wear them out.”
If God plans to torture a child’s body forever if the child doesn’t submit to God’s created design through obeying their gendered authority, then evangelical promoters of spanking reason the parent’s way of protecting them from God’s violence is to inflict a lesser violence on the child’s body to break the child’s will.
Suffering by submitting to abuses of authority with forgiveness
Because evangelicalism’s tower of Babel glorifies the power of God expressing itself through men being positioned over women and children and motivating responsibility through fear of violence, the suffering of those below at the hands of those above them is inescapable.
One of the most common tactics men in charge use to secure their position in the tower is to create a dichotomy between forgiveness and bitterness within the minds of those they abuse.
Referring to the story of Haman being hung in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Esther, one IBLP representative says: “You know what happens when we harbor bitterness? We’re hung on our own gallows.”
“They promote the idea if survivors of abuse do not forgive, then God will not forgive them.”
Instead, they promote the idea if survivors of abuse do not forgive, then God will not forgive them.
John Piper goes even further than calling on survivors of abuse to respond with forgiveness. He says survivors of child molestation must see “God’s sovereignty … at the moment of causality,” and that if they don’t, “You will now be left with no God to help you deal with this … . You have just shoved him off … and in your pain you shoved him so far to the edge of the universe that for the rest of your life you are crying out to a God to do miracles yet you have pushed him away… . And so you try to say there is no sense in which the sovereign God willed that, you will lose God for the rest of your life.”
Of course, forgiveness is part of the journey of healing that survivors eventually wrestle through. But men who sacralize abuse have no right to wield God’s sovereignty and threats of violence to demand forgiveness. These are not the dynamics of healthy relationships. They are dynamics of being owned.
Taking ownership over what you have by being owned by those above
The IBLP principle of ownership begins by claiming, “The foundation of ownership is that God owns us and we are his.” One IBLP representative says, “God is calling us to yield our right to ourselves.”
John MacArthur agrees with seeing reality through the lens of ownership. In The Gospel According to Jesus, he said, “The gospel is an invitation to slavery.” Elsewhere, he claimed, “The Bible is abundantly clear — slavery is the heart of what it means to be a true Christian.”
Similarly, Bob Jones University has been led by men who see the students not simply as their children through a concept called “en loco parentis,” but as their slaves.
So when Jim Bob Duggar tricks his children into signing reality TV contracts and keeps the money for himself, or when he exchanges his daughter from under his authority to the authority of another man, he’s reflecting the same spirit of ownership that flows from evangelical theology.
Freedom by enslavement to God by obeying your authorities
According to the IBLP principle of freedom: “The reality is we’ll either be mastered over by sin and self, which is actually ultimately being mastered by Satan, a cruel, hard task master, or we’ll be mastered by Jesus Christ as our loving, kind heavenly father who’s also our Lord and Master.”
To submit to Jesus is to submit to the men Jesus has placed over them. And as Shiny Happy People demonstrates, these men are cruel, hard task masters.
World domination is the goal. Marriage isn’t freedom to have a mutually loving relationship, but a transfer of authority from a father to a husband. Parenting isn’t freedom to foster curiosity and wonder, but an exercise of authority from fathers through mothers to children.
Success defined by God accomplishing the chain of authority in our lives
In The Gospel Coalition’s critique of Shiny Happy People, Harris claims IBLP promotes a fundamentalist prosperity gospel by promising blessing and protection as a reward for obedience.
But while there are elements of the prosperity gospel that come into play, it’s a bit of a straw man for TGC to distance itself from IBLP by making that claim. IBLP defines success as God accomplishing the power play of hierarchical submission by “conquering me from the inside out.”
Again, this is simply mainstream conservative evangelical theology. With the Duggars, IBLP and Voddie Baucham, this shows up by women being required to stay at home and serve their fathers as adults until they get married and serve their husbands.
With the Duggars, IBLP and Kevin DeYoung, this shows up by promoting “a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: have more children and disciple them like crazy.”
DeYoung says: “Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle. You don’t have to be a fertility maximalist to recognize that children are always lauded as a blessing in the Bible.” He goes on, “Do you want to rebel against the status quo? Do you want people to ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you? Tote your brood of children through Target. There is almost nothing more counter-cultural than having more children.” Then he climaxes with, “The future belongs to the fecund.”
With the Duggars, IBLP and Al Mohler, this shows up by raising up politicians who will outlaw expressions of sexuality they believe the Bible prohibits.
Success, according to all these men, is God at the top designing a tower below that is structured through male authority over women and children, walled in by fear of violent punishment, cemented through a forgiveness that benefits the powerful, beaten into shape by identities of ownership and a redefinition of freedom as slavery, and mass produced by copying its blueprint in every home, church and government.
It’s time to admit the obvious
The stability of evangelicalism’s tower of Babel is so strong that it even showed its face in Shiny Happy People. Harris, who was interviewed in the docuseries, wrote his piece for TGC. He claimed that “Whatever wisdom or biblical insight was otherwise included in IBLP materials, the end result was a controlling, fear-based religion, where women and children were especially vulnerable to abuse of all kinds.” But he and TGC pretended like they don’t promote the same controlling, fear-based theology that makes women and children vulnerable to abuse.
Bobye Holt, who testified in the case against Josh Duggar and was interviewed alongside her husband in the docuseries, was awarded a 10-year order of protection in May 2023 against her husband, Jim, who was present with her during the filming of the documentary. And while the reasons for the order are unknown at this time, red flags are visible in Shiny Happy People. During Episode 1, Jim admits he started dating Bobye when she was 14 and he was 19. But he claimed that she looked older for her age.
“The Duggars became a beacon for the evangelical community, the fundamentalist community, and they finally saw themselves represented on TV.”
Jen Stutphin, host of the YouTube channel Fundie Fridays, observed, “The Duggars became a beacon for the evangelical community, the fundamentalist community, and they finally saw themselves represented on TV.”
Evangelicals watched because they recognized themselves in the Duggars. The Gospel Coalition responded because they recognized they are going to be categorized as part of the same theological framework as IBLP. And everyone who has deconstructed conservative evangelicalism recognizes the story of the Duggars and IBLP is our story, no matter what part of evangelicalism’s tower we grew up in.
We all recognize what’s going on here. Sure, there are some nuances between the Duggars, Bill Gothard, IBLP, The Gospel Coalition, fundamentalists, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, Al Mohler, and all the organizations they write for or denominations they are members of. But they’re not fundamentally different from one another. They’re simply contractors building the same tower, with different assignments.
So let’s stop pretending like the entire tower doesn’t need to be taken down.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
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