I’ve been continuing to watch all the recent evangelicalism exposé documentaries. It’s a lot. I’m talking The Secrets of Hillsong (some reflections here and here). I’m talking God Forbid (on the Falwells, yikes). And I’m talking Shiny Happy People (on the Duggars, Gothard, and IBLP).
This week, I wanted to share a few thoughts from Shiny Happy People.
1) In last week’s post I reflected briefly on how Hillsong might seem more mainstream-evangelicalism than the IBLP, but really, IBLP is not not mainstream. And, as out-there as it might seem (or as we might want to think it is), it was not totally disconnected from the branch of the evangelical world I used to be a part of.
Watching Shiny Happy People, I was reminded of one time, maybe ten years or so ago, when a guest speaker came and told my church young adult group that Christians need to have more children. Why? Well, to out-breed the Muslims, of course.
I wasn’t there when this speaker spoke, so I’m not sure exactly what he said. But it was something like that. I heard about it afterwards from our young adult pastor—who was clearly embarrassed by the whole thing and found it ridiculous.
I feel like this story reflects the weird context I was in, in the conservative-but-not-that-kind-of-conservative evangelical church I was a part of in my twenties. Our pastor thought it was ludicrous for a guest speaker to tell us that it’s our Christian duty to maintain Christianity’s numerical dominance by having more children. And yet, someone had invited this guest.
The have-more-children speaker wasn’t really part of my world and my context—but he also wasn’t clearly not part of it, either.
2) I also mentioned briefly last week that Gothard and the IBLP, bonkers as they might seem, influenced the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) deeply. And the SBC in turn holds a great deal of sway in the broader evangelical world. (It’s also still the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.)
After I posted those thoughts last week, the news broke about what the SBC has been busy with these days. They voted to reject two churches’ appeals of the convention’s previous decision to expel these churches (along with three others who did not appeal) for having female pastors. And they voted to add an amendment to their constitution that more clearly prohibits women from serving in any sort of pastor or elder role.
(Here’s a news article summarizing what happened last week, including a few female pastors’ brief reflections.)
I’m not saying that SBC’s awfulness is all Gothard and IBLP’s fault. But the SBC wasn’t always as anti-women as it is today. From the 1980s through the present, a particular group of proponents of patriarchy have waged a terrifyingly effective campaign to take over the denomination’s leadership and push the whole thing in an anti-egalitarian direction.
By now, they’ve pretty much won the war. I could be wrong, but I don’t really join recently-expelled SBC pastor Rick Warren in trusting that “change will happen at some point,” and it just takes a lot of time.
They don’t really seem to plan on changing. At this point, I think a (continued) mass exodus from the SBC is (past) what is called for.
3) A friend from my former church who also watched Shiny Happy People recently asked me, “Do you think it’s an accurate representation?” I definitely think so. And so does she.
Her question, though, helped me think more about what evangelicals might take away from these kinds of documentaries. I’m concerned that they might be more worried about evangelicalism’s image than its substance.
This is a reaction I’ve often seen. And I think it’s a general attitude many evangelicals tend to hold: If something looks bad for evangelicalism, we need to make it look better. We need to defend it—or at least defend ourselves—against the accusations coming against us.
At our worst—like Gothard, and like Brian Houston from Hillsong—we call it “spiritual attack” or “attacks of Satan.” We pretend it’s all lies. And we double down on the harmful things we’re doing that people are rightly trying to call us out on.
I saw this in some of the books I was assigned in seminary. Christian authors explored some of the reasons younger generations have left church, which is great—but then, at least sometimes, it felt like the main take-away was that we need to present a better-looking face to the world. (A shiny happy face, perhaps?) As opposed to acknowledging and addressing the very real issues that people leaving Christianity have been raising for a long time now.
I also see this in the way popular evangelical magazine/website Christianity Today speaks of its mission: “beautiful orthodoxy.” Their mission statement web page includes this line: “We actively argue for the beauty of the Christian vision in places where it is lambasted as oppressive.”
Yikes. Dare we consider that perhaps (a certain version of) Christianity is “lambasted as oppressive” because it is oppressive?
I’m not saying there is nothing good in the Christian tradition. I am saying, though, that instead of “actively argu[ing]” with people who critique Christian theologies or share their harmful experiences of Christianity, maybe Christians could listen. We could acknowledge the harm. And try to do better.
4) Shiny Happy People included interviews with several people who grew up in IBLP and have now left the organization and its teachings behind. I’d be curious to hear more from some of these people about how they were able to leave.
The documentary highlighted the brainwashing aspect of the whole thing, which makes sense to me. But how do people get un-brainwashed? What was the process like? What sparked it initially? What helped them keep going?
What did it take for them to be free—and what can we all learn from that, including anything that might help others get un-brainwashed too? How are they rebuilding a life outside of the cult they were inculcated in—and in some cases helped lead?
Well, that’s what I’ve got for now. If you watched the documentary or have thoughts related to any of this, I’d love to hear!
Wishing you peace and freedom from cult-like indoctrination this week,