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"Shiny, Happy People": Of Cults and Overcorrections
I didn’t even begin to name, let alone process, the reality of my extensive history of childhood sexual trauma until I was fully 18 years old.
I didn’t have fancy words for dissociation or trauma bonding. All I knew is that I was an emotional mess, and I needed help. So my dutiful parents booked an appointment for me with our pastor, a widely respected, always cerebral, encyclopedia of a man with a body of work extensive enough to have landed him his own Wikipedia page.
When I met with him, he was genuinely kind and not without empathy. But though I’m relatively certain he had the entirety of the Heidelberg catechism committed to memory, he had very little to offer me by way of guidance in the mental health department.
His counsel was this:
Modern day counseling has little to offer you and will likely lead you astray.
Forgiveness will put you in the driver’s seat. You will never heal until you forgive.
Then he handed me some reading assignments from Francis Schaeffer, promised to pray for me, and sent me on my way. I felt like I had just been tasked with climbing Everest in a pair of flip-flops. I was completely and utterly overwhelmed and not a whole lot more hopeful than I had been when I entered his office.
In retrospect, I have a whole boatload of mixed feelings about his counsel that day. I know that it did not come from a place of malice even if it did come from a place of unwitting arrogance. (Most pastors have no business whatsoever presuming to assert themselves as any kind of authority on mental health, and it’s downright dangerous when they do, but that’s a discussion for another blog.)
His concern was that, in seeking secular therapy to restore my soul, I might accidentally end up forfeiting my soul. He worried that, as I was already floundering in my faith, I might abandon it completely and end up even worse than where I started it. He worried I might trade one skewed view of God and His justice for a view of justice devoid of God.
And I can’t say I entirely blame him. It’s objectively true that a huge faction of the psychological world is straight up godless and loony tunes. Anyone see the most recent guidelines for handling kids with gender dysphoria? They’re a trainwreck.
But the fact remains that it was poor counsel, and, had I heeded it, it would have short-circuited my healing. But the experience caused me to view recovery through a different lens, with a keen awareness of how difficult it is to find true north in the healing journey.
I think a lot of people can identify with this struggle, though perhaps on a less extreme scale. It’s the entire basis for the new Christian pastime of “deconstruction.”
The questions, “What is actually true?” vs “What was just a lie wrapped in Bible verses in order to control me?” are central to thousands and thousands of peoples’ personal narratives. They’re questions I’ve routinely asked myself in my own deconstruction process, and they’re questions I heard many people posing in the recently released documentary Shiny, Happy, People when I binge watched it on Amazon this morning.
For those who aren’t aware, I’ll bring you up to speed.
Shiny, Happy People is basically a much-needed indictment of the insidious abuse of the Bill Gothard cult, as played out on a national stage by the now scandalized Duggar family. The Duggars, as you may know, were the stars of another TLC hit reality show “19 Kids and Counting,” which documented the rise and fall of the fundamentalist Quiverfull family.
For years, viewers were invited to watch the Duggars bake casseroles, homeschool their ever-compliant children, and procreate as often as physically possible, all in the name of ministry and biblical obedience. And they looked good doing it. There was a heavy emphasis on duty and diligence, and modesty. And oh, the performative gender roles! Viewers were invited to believe in a very concrete plug and place formula: Patriarch+ submissive wife+ dozens of children= happy, healthy, holy family—the countercultural solution to all the world’s ills.
Meanwhile, the Duggars were hiding a really dark family secret, which, it turns out, seems to be a feature, not a bug, of the whole Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) way of living: their son Josh had molested at least five girls, including four of their own daughters, and they largely swept it under the rug, convincing their girls to whitewash and minimize the offense when it finally did come to light. In the absence of any kind of actual accountability, Josh’s sex addiction grew until it ultimately landed him in prison with a conviction for the possession of child pornography.
Shiny, Happy People forces viewers to take a long hard look at the IBLP cult, an abusively patriarchal ideology marketed to the unsuspecting masses as wholesome Christian living, when, in fact, it’s little more than a cleverly packaged global dominion strategy that preys upon the vulnerabilities of well-intended people who seek a paint-by-numbers faith in lieu of the uncertainty of Spirit-led living.
The film gives voice to at least half a dozen former IBLP cult members as they share horror story after horror story of the harms they experienced in their culture of male supremacy and female compliance. It deep dives into the myriad pitfalls of purity culture, of voiceless women and the egomaniacal men who puppeteer them via religious manipulation.. As the trailer succinctly put it, “Gothard turned every father into a cult leader and every home into an island,” and “world domination was the goal.”
Gothard was ultimately revealed to be a perverted creep who resigned from IBLP after more than 30 women accused him of sexual harassment, but not before significant damage was done to countless people.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither the Duggar parents nor the IBLP at large offered any sentiments anywhere close to resembling the godly repentance or grief that should accompany such egregious public sins. Jim Bob and Michelle issued a gaslighty statement about their “triumphs and trials” (but never their failures) and about how these conversations should be kept “private” even though they personally placed all of their children on public display for financial gain for years on end. The IBLP’s response was even worse. A guy I follow on Twitter explained this a lot better than I could ever hope to here.
The highlights of the film, for me, were the brave young Duggar women, who have found enough courage to boldly speak out against the harm they suffered without losing their mooring to their faith. I was encouraged to see them speak unapologetic truth to corrupt power on behalf of other people.
It’s a message worth heeding, and I wholeheartedly recommend the film to people everywhere, especially since cult creation is a repeat problem, one that always seems to find a method through which to worm its way into evangelical culture and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. As we speak, “Christian” patriarchy is making a massive comeback using many of the Gothard tactics, and it’s not leading anywhere good. I’m hopeful the film will give a lot of people some very necessary pause.
If I had one minor but notable criticism, it would be this: I could not help but read into some of the filmmaker’s subtext and the not-so-subtle framing of standard Christian orthodox positions on things like abortion and political engagement as cult-like fundamentalism that should be held in deep suspicion, if not fully discarded. If you pay attention to the narrative that’s paired with the B-roll footage, you’ll notice the subliminal messaging all over the place, misappropriating IBLP behavior and transferring it onto all conservative Christians as a group.
For example, in one segment about the harms of fundamentalism and patriarchy, filmmakers zero in on conservative social media influencers complaining about drag queen story time and preferred pronouns. It’s a pot shot that subtly implies conservative concern over these very real issues is manufactured outrage without basis in reality, when, in fact, in Houston, there was actually a sex offender arrested as a drag queen in the library, and in countless locations across the west, the trans movement is wreaking havoc on so many women and girls.
You undermine your credibility as advocates against sexual harm if, in your advocacy, you whitewash and poo poo concern about actual documented sexual harm.
Throughout the film, there are also quite a few digs at homeschoolers in general, as though all the homeschool families in all the land are doing it Gothard style.
It’s not hard to understand why people who’ve been injured by a dangerous cult will often overcorrect the problem and run full speed in the opposite direction. It’s an entirely human response to injury. But for all of our flaws, a lot of religious right-leaning people are not inventing the very real harms of the things we oppose, and we have the evidence and the receipts to prove it. It’s really dishonest to frame any historic moral standard as abuse.
It made me think of my pastor’s counsel all those years ago, about his concern that in seeking healing outside the church, I would come to embrace an even crueler set of beliefs than the ones with which I was wrestling.
The antidote to the patriarchy of the Gothard cult is not the patriarchy of progressivism. The antidote to the patriarchy of the Gothard cult is surrender to the lordship of Christ.
And increasingly, as I walk alongside people limping out of bad church experiences, I notice this is happening; the wounded are throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater and wearing their injuries as identities, cementing resentment firmly into place to the degree that they’re rendered unable and often uninterested in actual healing, which would require further exposure to some of the truths they now rail against. I saw a degree of this in the subtext of the film, so I feel somewhat obligated to gently caution against it.
Overall, I think the film has a lot to teach us, and I think people should prayerfully consider the stories it tells. A friend said it best when she asserted: “It’s like seeing a story arc from start to finish. It was ugly all the way through, and we are right in the middle of a new arc with Doug Wilson. We desperately need a different ending.”
Amen, sister. Amen.