Shiny Happy People – “derogatory and sensationalized” or a reality check?
The recent docuseries Shiny Happy People has brought to light some of the disturbing behind- the- scene realities of the lives of the famous Duggar family and the teachings of Bill Gothard, the founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, which they promoted.
The Duggars (Jim Bob and Michelle) have responded to the docuseries with a statement on their family website, which reads in part:
“The recent ‘documentary’ that talks about our family is sad because in it we see the media and those with ill intentions hurting people we love. Like other families, ours too has experienced the joys and heartbreaks of life, just in a very public format. This “documentary” paints so much and so many in a derogatory and sensationalized way because sadly that’s the direction of entertainment these days.”
While this defensive posture is understandable, it further highlights some of the very issues that were presented in the docuseries. Denial only serves to perpetuate further abuse.
It is fair for Jim Bob to state that other families experience joys and heartbreaks, too. He adds that his family’s experience happens to have been in a “public format”, something which other families aren’t subject to. This is an interesting take, considering that he was the one who signed his family up for a reality show, despite the fact that he didn’t believe in TV.
Denial and blame shifting
Jim Bob Duggar announced his candidacy for a seat in the Arkansas senate, while his son was facing charges for child pornography, stating that he was running because of “out-of-control bureaucrats.” While people understandably questioned his judgment in doing this, he was quoted in a newspaper article, as stating that he would not allow the “liberal left, social media or fake news” to define his family. According to the docuseries, conspiracy theories were blamed for Joshua Duggar’s legal troubles, with claims that Josh’s trial wouldn’t have happened if Trump was still in power. This is a classic example of blame-shifting. Joshua wouldn’t be in prison today if the charges against him were simply “fake news”. Additionally, if he had received the appropriate professional intervention in a timely fashion, he may not have ended up in prison.
A participant in the docuseries says that Gothard turned every man into a cult leader. To understand the basis for this assertion, we need to understand his teachings on authority and the concept of the “umbrella of protection”.
The umbrella of protection
Gothard’s teachings had a strong focus on authority and he used the analogy of a set of umbrellas to illustrate this. In summary, the umbrella at the top represents Christ/ God; underneath that is the umbrella representing the man/husband and below that is the wife’s umbrella. Finally, the children are under their mother’s umbrella. The man submits to God, the wife submits to the husband and children submit to their mother. According to this theory, as long as everyone complies by submitting to their authority figure, they are protected from Satan. Once they remove themselves from the authority structure, they are subject to attacks from Satan. Outside the family unit, the man is expected to submit to the pastor/spiritual leader, who in turn is to submit to God.
Spiritual leaders often take scriptures out of context and use them to further their own agendas. There are many passages in the Bible that address submission to authority, but reading them in isolation can be very problematic, to say the least. I have addressed the topic of mutual submission, as taught in the Bible, in a separate essay.
When the leader can’t be questioned
Bill Gothard gave very prescriptive advice to others on how to behave in marriage and how to raise children, though he himself never married or had children, nor did he have professional training that would have qualified him to give such advice. Nonetheless, he was so highly revered that his followers viewed him as a modern-day Apostle Paul. He successfully created a scenario where his followers had him on a pedestal and followed his teachings, seemingly without question. It was a perfect set up for abuse of power. I have written about the allegations of sexual abuse in a previous essay. Several victims have spoken out on various platforms, and some have developed resources for other survivors, including websites like Recovering Grace and Thriving Forward.
The latter was started by Emily Elizabeth Anderson, who shares her experience in what she describes as “Gothard’s homeschool cult” in this podcast interview.
God’s umbrella is big enough!
The umbrella theory states that if you do all the “right things”, you and your family will be protected and bad things won’t happen. That is simply not true. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people – it’s a fact of life. Another problem with this theory is that it elevates the man into a position of spiritual superiority, as if the woman can’t relate with God directly. Finally, the theory really falls apart when you consider the fact that God’s umbrella remains in place if the others are “tampered” with. Since God’s umbrella is at a higher level than the others, it should still provide shelter for everyone underneath, whether or not the man’s umbrella is in place. A woman should be dependent on God, not her husband, for spiritual protection!
The docuseries was not an attack on Christianity, as some have suggested, nor was it derogatory or sensationalized. It was a reality check and a wake-up call. For abuse in church and other religious settings to end, the root problems must be addressed from within. Correcting wrong teachings is just one part of the solution. Submitting to authority does not guarantee immunity from life’s challenges and God’s umbrella is indeed big enough for all of us!
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