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A Brutal Journey to Freedom (A Christian Review of Shiny Happy People)

Your voice matters. Your story matters. YOU matter. These three, binding statements reverberated in my head like a shotgun blast in a canyon. As the closing credits for Shiny, Happy People faded onto the screen, I began contemplating the hurt I’d just witnessed, some of which I could sympathize with, but most of which was only hazily familiar. The 4-part docuseries offers a peek behind the radiant veil of the Duggar family’s life, showing that not everything was as it seemed in the lives of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, and their 19 children as shown on TLC. Sinister secrets, troubling teachings, and horrific coverups lurked just behind the white chiffon.

            I had minimal knowledge of this docuseries before watching it and was only vaguely familiar with the Duggars. I could have recalled a clip or two of their show and was aware of the sexual abuse allegations against Josh Duggar, but I didn’t follow either one closely. To be transparent, “reality” TV is not my cup of tea. I began hearing rumblings about this series on social media in early June, with my first reaction being best described as indifference. “It’s yet another show portraying ‘Christianity = bad’ and ‘everything else = good!’” I thought to myself. As I began seeing more Christians posting about the series, my mind shifted from indifference toward wary curiosity

I grew up in Fundamentalism. I earned my bachelor’s degree from an institution that would identify as Fundamentalist. During my undergrad and up to the present, I made a point to distance myself from the Uber-Fundies(you know who you are), but I had no qualms with the title Fundamentalist. To me, Fundamentalist meant I upheld the Fundamentals of the Christian faith (the Deity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, etc.). Without these truths, Christianity is no longer Christianity, because Jesus is no longer God, and the Bible is no longer trustworthy. I don’t hold these claims arbitrarily; in fact, I think the most logical conclusion based upon the available evidence is to uphold these claims as true, but that’s a discussion for another time. 

Yet, I began to learn that the term “fundamentalist” carried with it a truckload of baggage for people who’d been the recipients of its darker side—the side that treats women as less valuable than men; the side perpetuating marital trauma by refusing allowances for divorce even in the cases of fierce abuse, desertion, and neglect; the side that denounces interracial marriage; the side that espouses ferocious assaults on children as ‘right’ and ‘proper’ means of parental discipline; the side notorious for ignoring sexual abuse allegations—that side. The more I became aware of these issues, the less I desired to be identified with fundamentalism. Words change their meaning; sadly, the definition I’d been using for fundamentalism was no longer in vogue; and, therefore, it was no longer applicable in our modern context.

Why am I explaining all of this? I think it’s important to nuance these things slightly, as the docuseries broad brushes fundamentalism as one massive entity, existing AS a cult, instead of multiple, smaller entities, simultaneously existing together bearing certain resemblances while ALSO possessing stark differences. This is a crucial point to grasp before watching the series, especially if you’ve been a victim of abuse at the behest of a fundamentalist church, institution, etc. Otherwise, this series may leave you thinking that the only answer to your pain is to renounce Christianity altogether; or to say, “Organized Christianity is bunk! I don’t need the church. All I need is God and my family.” Both responses are understandable, especially if you’ve been hurt by the church, its leaders, and their teachings time after time after time—and the last thing I’d want to do is minimize or suppress your pain. It’s a part of you. It’s a part of your story. It must remain a part of your voice.

I’m thankful this series opened the mic for victims of abuse to speak against their abusers. It is my hope and prayer that justice will continue to prevail. Yet, I am exceedingly disappointed at the producers’ misrepresentation of Christian homeschool education, biblical ethics, and—really—conservative Christianity as a whole by broad brushing everything as “fundamentalism”. The producers’ anti-Christian agenda becomes more apparent with each episode, revealing itself unashamedly in the finale. Homeschoolers are painted as ignorant; parental authority is diminished; and people upholding the biblical view of gender and sexuality are inferentially mocked. Beliefs the church have held for centuries—the sanctity of life, Christ’s Kingdom, the creation week—are painted as “fringe” and belonging to “the older generation” (suggesting that they should have no place in the present one). This episode troubled me the most, as its conclusions—if legislated—could create major inroads for increased governmental control over the family dynamic, and cultural antagonism toward Christianity. Time will tell if the producers’ opinions are more widespread, or if they themselves are on the fringe of society. As the docuseries currently holds the #2 slot on Amazon Prime in the US, we might not be waiting very long to find out.

            Christian, I hope you watch this series. I hope it makes you uncomfortable. I hope you find solace in your Savior’s arms if you see your own story reflected in the victims’. I hope you are bold enough to run from the tyrannical control of men who claim to speak directly “with and for” God. I hope you learn to see your Lord through new eyes: ones that show his love, compassion, and—most importantly—forgiveness. I hope you battle against bitterness’s grip on your heart. I hope you are led to a church family overflowing with grace. I hope you are overwhelmed with God’s goodness. And, most importantly, I hope you use your voice to tell your story to the world. It may be exactly what someone needs to finally break free from the chains that once held you.

Your voice matters. Your story matters. YOU matter.