Shiny Happy People: Learning to Untangle Sensationalism from the Truth

Jacob Tanner

a group of people standing on top of a sandy beach

Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets is one of the latest shows to gain notoriety recently for its criticisms of Christianity. Though the show carries itself as a documentary meant to shed light on the inner workings of the Duggar family, made famous by the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting, it is much more than its simple subtitle would suggest. By the end, it comes across more as a carefully constructed hit piece, meant to throw dirt on both Christian and conservative practices alike. The Duggars become almost an afterthought at multiple points, as attention is focused on conflating the cultish activities experienced by some former followers of Bill Gothard, works-based religion, and genuinely biblical Christianity. With a sensationalist bent on storytelling, by the end, the show writers almost seem to accomplish their task of persuading the less knowledgeable and easily persuaded that Christianity itself is bad.

This is not a review of Shiny Happy People. Others can review it far better than I can. This is not another piece written about the Duggars—my knowledge of them is very limited to begin with. This is, instead, an attempt to separate what the documentary has conflated. This is an attempt to examine the beliefs of the Duggars, which is focused almost exclusively upon the teachings of Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). This is an attempt to show that biblical Christianity is still good, true, and beautiful, despite the fact that many have tried to twist and distort it for their own means. 

Is Christianity a Cult of Religious Fundamentalism?

One of the things that the documentary tries to do is introduce multiple voices to comment on things like the Duggars, the IBLP, and men like Bill Gothard. The majority of these interviews come from either Duggar family members or former members of the IBLP.

Now, it must be pointed out that the connection of the Duggar family, and especially its patriarch Jim Bob, to Bill Gothard and the IBLP, is admittedly interesting fodder for a documentary. It makes for compelling drama, which seems to be the sort of thing that documentaries based on a reality show family would be after. Many of the short comings of the IBLP as well as the reported moral failures of some of the leadership, make for a documentary that is able to continually up the stakes as it details horrifying cruelties endured by previous members. And, most importantly, this allows for interviews that have been constructed in such a way to make the viewer believe the faults lie within Christianity itself, rather than the systems that are actually responsible. 

Let’s consider Bill Gothard and the IBLP. The documentary clearly takes a very biased position regarding its teachings and practices, insisting that the IBLP is a representative of all Christianity, and is a backwoods, antiquated, repressive, and misogynistic organization. But, before we deal with the latter claims, let’s first ask the following question: Does Bill Gothard, or the IBLP actually represent all of Christianity?

Of course not! Bill Gothard and the IBLP do not represent historic, biblical Christianity even if some of the teachings may overlap with the real deal. The old saying that a broken clock is right twice a day is appropriate here. Just because Bill Gothard occasionally said or taught things that every Christian would agree with does not mean he or his institution are actually part of the historic Christian tradition. Instead, Gothard and the IBLP are like a fusion of the teachings of the prosperity gospel and moral therapeutic deism. Gothard and the IBLP famously promised God’s blessings over the lives and families of those who put his teachings into practice. Two major problems exist here, though: 1) Not all of his teachings came from the Bible, for he errantly believed that he heard directly from God; and 2) adherence to the moral teachings of man do not bring God’s blessings.

Yet, the documentary continues trying to conflate Gothard’s teachings with the Bible’s teachings. At one point, a former IBLP member is interviewed who was part of a group called the Joshua Generation. This group was evidently concerned primarily with raising up future senators, United States presidents, and Supreme Court justices. Young people were instructed in morality and given the tools to become leaders of the nation. For what its worth, nothing here really seemed all that radical. Shouldn’t all people have the right to try and serve in the public sphere and influence policy? Shouldn’t Christians have the right, like every other group (religious or otherwise), to shape government? Apparently not, according to Shiny Happy People. And while differences surely exist between the two, the documentary again conflates all of the values of the Joshua Generation with biblical Christianity, casting both in the worst possible light, as though Christianity as a whole is a cult machine, pumping out robotic Shiny Happy People all over.

Perhaps the IBLP is run like a religious fundamentalist cult. Maybe Gothard is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a very misguided individual. But neither the IBLP nor Gothard represent Christianity. They may fall under the umbrella of Christianity in the same way that Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses do, but in the same way that we view these groups as heretical and not true Christianity, so we view Gothard and the IBLP as heterodox at best, and mostly heretical. 

How the Show Tries to Pull the Wool Over Your Eyes

To suggest that Gothard or the IBLP actually represent all of Christian teaching and doctrine is like saying that Starbucks represents every coffee house or cup of coffee you could ever possibly drink, or that Burger King represents every fast food joint you can possibly visit. It simply is not true, and common sense dictates that there will be different flavors and recipes to be found elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the show runners have tried to spin their tale in such a way to suggest that Gothard was a religious fundamentalist (and also hypocritical, according to multiple interviews and reports), and so too are all other Christians. While it is true that Gothard attempted to create an institution in which strict adherence to his teachings would secure good standing amongst others, simultaneously promising God’s blessings, that is not what true, biblical Christianity teaches. 

True biblical Christianity believes and teaches that sinners are always saved through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, apart from our own filthy works. True biblical Christianity believes and teaches that because we are saved by God’s grace through faith, our own good works flow out from the salvation we have in Christ. They are not a requirement of salvation. Salvation does not hinge on our doing enough good to merit God’s favor. While we believe God blesses and rewards faithfulness to his Word and Law, we believe faithfulness flows out from God’s grace.

Shiny Happy People ignores all of these distinctions. Instead, it tries to paint the picture that Christianity is a religion of works, wherein one tries to climb a moral ladder to earn their salvation. The documentary often makes appeals to something Gothard taught, shows how the same principle is basically taught in the Bible, and then constructs a narrative through the interviews to create a picture of Christianity as a cult of religious, fundamentalist nutcases.

Take, as an example, Gothard’s teaching on “purity.” The documentary makes a very big deal that both he and the IBLP made much about remaining a virgin until marriage, for sex is to be shared only between a husband and a wife. This, of course, is a good principle to follow, for it is biblical. The documentary, however, proceeds to try and paint this in the most disturbing light possible. Though the following isn’t an exact example, the documentary basically starts to throw as much information at the viewer as possible, without allowing time to process which information comes from the Bible and which comes from Gothard and which was only the unfortunate experience of the ones being interviewed: 

  • The IBLP taught that Fathers are to have control over their daughters until they are married, even having a strong say in who they marry.
  • Kissing before marriage is frowned upon.
  • Bill Gothard never married and may have molested multiple girls.
  • Space is to be kept between members of the opposite sex.
  • One woman was raped multiple times on her wedding night.
  • Once married, the couple should have as many children as possible.
  • Sexual abuse was frequent in the IBLP.
  • Virginity is a gift that can only be given once.
  • To remain pure and undefiled from the world is good.
  • Bible verses repress sexuality. 

The examples above, though not exact, act as a picture of what the documentary tries to do. By bombarding the viewer with new bits of information in quick succession, the audience is made to feel as though the problem does not lie with Gothard, the IBLP, or even the ones being interviewed; instead, the implication is that the problem is Christianity. There is no time to discern which information is good and which is bad; the documentary wants the viewer to see all of it as bad. 

But, out of the 10 examples listed above, only a few are actually biblical: Christians ought to remain virgins until they are married, fathers ought to lead their sons and daughters in appropriate ways until they leave the home, and remaining pure is good. Some of those examples aren’t necessarily biblical, but they still make logical sense, even if they come from a broken clock (i.e., kissing can be a serious temptation for some to lead to great sin.). And, some of the examples are things that were peculiar to the experiences of the interviewees. While I am thankful that the interviewees were able to speak out, and while I have no desire to discount their experiences, it must again be noted that their experiences simply do not represent all of Christianity. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the showrunners would like Christianity anymore if they understood the differences between the genuine article and the Gothard counterfeit. Clearly, they had an axe to grind and it was easy to use the popularity of the Duggars and their connection to the IBLP to create a hit piece against Christianity as a whole. 

The Enslavement of the Lost to Sin and the Freedom of the Saved to Obey the Law

Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets is trying to make a statement with its title: Beneath the surface of this evidently happy, Christian family are dark secrets that will change the way viewers think about Christians as a whole. 

Again, it must be reiterated that Bill Gothard does not speak for historical Christianity, nor does the IBLP, nor does the Duggar family. I am genuinely thankful that some of the Duggar family has shed some of the baggage of works-based religion, and that some (like Jinger Vuolo) have spoken about these things in greater detail and biblical clarity. But historic, true, and biblical Christianity is found solely in Scripture, and then taught within the creeds and confessions. So, let’s finally consider what Christians actually believe about God’s Law and why it makes us genuinely happy people, both inside and out. 

The Scriptures are themselves quite clear that the reason sinners hate Christianity and God’s Word is because they are enslaved to their sin. This is why Jesus said in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” Yet, those who come to Jesus in faith are set free. In John 8:36, Jesus promises, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

What Jesus is describing is true, biblical freedom. It is not freedom from God’s Law, but instead freedom from slavery to sin and freedom to obey God’s Law in a way that simply was not possible before. As Galatians 5:1 explains, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

True, biblical freedom is, simply put, having the opportunity, desire, and ability to do that which glorifies God and brings the greatest fulfilment to the Christian life. Only Christians possess such freedom, and it is a genuinely joy-filled freedom in Christ to live righteously. 

The Christian is free from sin and empowered by God to live righteously. It is obedience to God and living in righteousness that brings profound joy to the believer in Christ. 

To those who watch Shiny Happy People, I would merely say this: Christianity, as taught in Scripture, is far, far greater and better than anything you can possibly imagine. The IBLP does not represent the whole of Christianity. 

To those who created Shiny Happy People or were involved in its filming, who have either abandoned the Christian faith, or never followed Christ to begin with, I would simply implore them in this way: You must see there are clear distinctions between what the IBLP taught and practiced and what the Bible actually states.

Maybe Bill Gothard and the IBLP manufactured Fake Shiny Happy People with their rules and hypocrisy. Biblical and historical Christianity transforms sinners into saints through grace and, in doing so, creates free people who are genuinely joyful to obey God and his Word.

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Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.