Culture

Shiny Happy People: A Not-So-Thinly-Veiled Attack on Conservative Christians

David Harris

At the age of 17, while sitting in a doctor’s office, I read the book Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris. It was a sort of revolutionary battle cry for what has been called the “Joshua Generation” of millennial, Christian homeschoolers. The basic premise of the book was broader than applying just to homeschoolers – that premise being that the years of adolescence needed to be reclaimed as the “launch pad of life,” and this was to be done by “rebelling against low expectations.” 

Do Hard Things affected me profoundly. I purchased the book for many friends and tried to start study groups. I was deeply inspired to capitalize on early adulthood and became very animated about trying to take risks, learn skills, educate myself, and accomplish big things for the glory of God. 

I didn’t really hear or see much from either of the Harris brothers past Do Hard Things. They ran a conference circuit for a while, but their brother Josh definitely stole the limelight when he publicly deconstructed from roughly 2017-2020. So when I saw Alex on the final episode of Amazon Prime’s docu-series Shiny, Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets (SHP), to say I was taken aback would be an understatement. However, the fact that I had made it to the fourth episode of this series was an example of doing “hard things” in and of itself. 

Here are what I hope are some useful thoughts on the series. 

The Disclaimer Section

I don’t have any particular feelings about the Duggars. I never had any interest in their TLC show and never watched it. I had never heard of Bill Gothard until seeing SHP. I don’t share much of the Duggar’s theology, and I definitely empathize with those who fell victim to the errant parts of it. If I had a nickel for every time a prominent, celebrity-level evangelical self-destructed or deconstructed, I would be able to quit my day job and write full-time, so I was not rocked or surprised by anything in SHP. Basically, I’ve no emotional attachment to the Duggars, but I sympathize with those who do because I did have an attachment to the Harris brothers, so my disappointment in their individual trajectories has been much stronger.

A Note on the Flow

First a few notes on the quality of the series. I didn’t find SHP to be all that well-edited. It jumps around awkwardly, leaves major questions unanswered, and very obviously cuts very important information out of the interviews with the people closest to the Duggar situations. The best example of poor editing is when Jill Duggar is explaining that they never received any monetary compensation for their part in 19 & Counting. Just as she seems to be getting to the crucial part of the story, the episode suddenly cuts back to Bill Gothard, and we never really get any closure on what happened.

Another issue is that the series doesn’t know if it’s about Bill Gothard, the Duggar Family, or radical homeschooling families that are friends with Republican politicians. Some of the most important points lack sufficient evidence. For example, one of the key charges against Bill Gothard is that “he hears directly from God,” but the filmmakers couldn’t seem to find any footage of him saying anything even remotely articulating this (which is not at all to say that it wasn’t true, it seems like it probably was, it’s just sloppy filmmaking).

The Real Target

I probably never would have watched SHP, but I saw a lot of interest in the evangelical community and a degree of shock about Bill Gothard’s influence and teachings. What really got me to sit down and watch all four episodes was the end of Amazon Prime’s description of the series: As details of the family and their scandals unfold, we realize they’re part of an insidious, much larger threat already in motion, with democracy itself in peril.” It’s very clear that the series wasn’t merely about exposing the corruption within a large family from Arkansas, but about extending that corruption to a much wider group of people that “threaten democracy.” Who are these “threats?” Well, Christian, I’m here to tell you, it’s you. You are the threat. 

What is the proof of this? Documentary filmmaking is powerful. In this way, the producers of SHP were actually quite genius in that they mix in enough regular conservative Christian ideas, doctrines, and practices with the problematic elements of the Duggars and Gothard. The series is essentially an extended straw man argument. It basically goes like this: Duggars are corrupt and hold to dangerous ideas. They got the dangerous ideas from Bill Gothard, who’s a cult leader. The dangerous ideas are: having large families, going to the Creation Museum, homeschooling, spanking your children, men-led families, and being involved in Republican politics. The proof that their ideas are dangerous is all the abuse that surrounds them (Gothard’s improprieties, Josh’s abuse/sexual deviancy). 

The Filmmakers & Cast

“There is an epidemic with sex addiction and patriarchy in this country that we don’t talk openly enough about.” So says Julia Willoughby Nason, one of the directors of SHP. Her most well-known previous project is 2018’s, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. Along with her co-director, Olivia Crist, Nason had a fairly limited scope of interviews for the project. Obviously, Jill Duggar sat down to talk, but so did her cousin Amy Duggar along with some family friends of the Duggars. There are then a number of victims of Gothard, which makes sense for the overall point of the series. However, there are two interviews that make the agenda very clear. One is Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the progressive professor from Calvin College and author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (no further comment needed). The other, Jen Sutphin, a pink-haired youtuber who is currently making her living mocking and ridiculing Christians while she does her makeup. Her expertise was only explained as far as she likes to voice her disdain on her weekly show, Fundy Fridays.

It’s notable that Paul and Morgan Olliges, two Christian, zoomer TikTok creators included in the series in the final episode have publicly voiced since the series was released that they were lied to by the producers of SHP. The energetic couple appears very briefly, only used as an example of how dangerous, Christian fundamentalism is being articulated to the next generation through TikTok and Instagram. 

The Final Episode

The fourth installment of SHP is essentially an apologetic for deconstruction. After somewhat sloppily building a narrative of the dangers of Christian fundamentalism (for example, showing the Duggar family visiting the Creation Museum interspersed with interviews of deconstructed Christians talking about how they were abused because they didn’t get a real education), the final episode ties in Gothard’s cult to conservative Christians at large. We see plenty of footage of Mike Huckabee, and we even get to see a little Donald Trump as well. The association is clear: corrupt, abusive conservative Christians are the driving force behind the greatest threat – global domination by the Republican party. And as ridiculous as it might sound, homeschoolers from Northwest Arkansas will be the vehicle.

What We Can Learn from Shiny Happy People

One can hardly blame the other Duggars for not talking to Amazon, and this is probably the prudent response. Jinger Duggar has become vocal about the problematic elements of Gothard’s teachings but has chosen to do so with friendly parties (Allie Beth Stuckey, Apologia Studies, etc.). 

It’s impossible to know where anyone who was involved with SHP stands with Christ – because the series is extremely careful to make sure that no gospel, grace, mercy, or hope ever comes through. The world of conservative Christianity is painted as a dark, miserable, abusive place in contrast to the informed, relevant, authentic world of deconstruction (though the deconstructed all seem miserable). It’s probable that Jill and Derick Dillard had plenty to say about their commitment to Christ and that the dysfunctional parts of their upbringing haven’t shipwrecked their faith. They seemed to have used SHP to launch their book, where their perspectives are more comprehensive.

For conservative Christians, it’s probably prudent to mentally replace the Duggars, Gothard, and “abusive fundamentalism” with you and your local church should you watch SHP, as it’s clear that’s what’s being not-so-covertly targeted. Paul and Morgan Olliges properly understand this and have articulated it well. It remains to be seen if the Duggars that still profess Christ and appeared in the series do. Alex Harris clearly does not, and only stands to gain from throwing conservative Christians under the bus. 

SHP should be a wake-up call for Christians who are committed to living biblically, teaching truth to their children, and trying to follow God’s design for their lives, families, communities, and nations. Not only will these things be increasingly unpopular, but it’s getting very difficult for mainstream media to veil their hatred and intolerance for Christian living while celebrating things that would probably make the Canaanites blush. While this is to be expected, it should also be noted that the source of the disdain will increasingly come from those who either formally or currently claim to be Christians.

Furthermore, as long as conservative Christians are accused of “world domination,” why not oblige the accusers? Why not continue the legacy of Do Hard Things by living for Christ, following his precepts, and continuing being salt and light in the midst of a “crooked and perverse generation?”

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