Two Documentaries Portray Religious Groups Capitalizing On Fear And Shame


(OPINION) Two recent documentary series offer distressing portraits of Christian organizations that, although unrelated, appear eerily similar.

Both movements gained prominence in part by instilling fear and shame in their members. Both have reaped abuse, scandal and decline.

One documentary series is “The Secrets of Hillsong,” now streaming on Hulu. It looks at the spectacular rise and fall of the Australian megachurch Hillsong, which became an international phenomenon with branches in various nations, including the United States. Most notably, Hillsong revolutionized Christian worship music.

The other series is “Shiny Happy People,” on Amazon Prime. It begins by exploring the famous Duggar family of “19 Kids and Counting,” then unfolds into an examination of the fundamentalist Institute in Basic Life Principles that — forgive the pun — spiritually birthed the Duggars and many other big-brood, home-schooling families.

Before we continue, a caveat: While both series are compelling, we should always approach such exposes with a healthy skepticism.

Too easily, filmmakers can construct one-sided narratives that promote their own undeclared agendas, and gloss over contrary or mitigating evidence.

So, if you watch these series, proceed with caution.

Still, the evidence presented in both series makes you shake your head again and again.

At Hillsong, the movement’s spiritual father, an Assemblies of God preacher named Frank Houston, is eventually revealed as a serial molester of underage boys.

His son, Brian, who built the Hillsong Church proper, has been accused by authorities of failing to report his dad’s abuse, a serious legal offense in Australia.

But Hillsong’s troubles run beyond the elder Houston’s crimes or his son’s alleged coverup.

Brian Houston, Carl Lentz — the charismatic pastor of Hillsong’s New York City megachurch — and others supposedly indulged in riotous living on church money, allowed their egos to override common decency and used nondisclosure agreements to keep insiders silent about their excesses.

Hillsong’s culture was also marred by the exploitation of college students and other low-level volunteers. These folks worked tirelessly for little or no pay and were subjected to an intrusive “purity culture” under which their sex lives, no matter how benign, were scrutinized.

Those who admitted to having strayed from the organization’s strict standards — no premarital sex, masturbation or pornography — were ostracized and humiliated.

Meanwhile, both Brian Houston and Lentz, as it turned out, were involved in extramarital sexual incidents of their own. (Neither minister still leads a Hillsong church.)

Among other things, “Shiny Happy People” echoes that same outsized obsession with moral purity — which usually boils down to sexual purity. The Duggars, based in Arkansas, avoided birth control. They disallowed their children from dating and even from kissing their betrothed during engagements.

The parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, were champions of the Institute in Basic Life Principles and its affiliated Advanced Training Institute for home schoolers.

Those organizations were the brainchildren of Bill Gothard, now 88, an exceedingly conservative Christian who didn’t believe in public education — but did believe in the generous use of corporal punishment and in every jot and tittle of an inerrant Bible.

Over the years, millions of people attended Gothard’s seminars extolling fundamentalist family values, even though Gothard himself never married or had children.

Among other things, his training materials urged girls to dress so modestly no boy supposedly could have an impure thought about them — curbing temptations apparently being the girls’ responsibility.

Suffice it to say this tale hasn’t ended well, either. Gothard finally stepped down from leadership amid accusations of sexual harassment by multiple women.

The Duggars’ reality show was canceled after it was revealed that as a teen, Josh Duggar, the oldest son, had sexually abused his younger sisters and a babysitter.

And in April 2021, Josh was arrested for possession of child pornography. He’s serving a 12-year-sentence.

There are many lessons a viewer might take away from these documentaries.

Here’s what struck me: Both Hillsong and IBLP promoted fear, guilt and shame at the expense of the good news of faith, forgiveness and wholeness. It also occurred to me, as it has before, that sometimes Christians turn sexual “purity” into its own fetish.

The reasons for these misdirected emphases are murky. Not being a psychiatrist, I can’t parse them all. But I suspect that at least two things played a role: legalism and power.

Legalism is a form of religion that judges humans by externals: what they say and how they say it, how many hours they work, who they do or don’t sleep with. Legalism pays little attention to the wounds of a person’s soul, his or her intentions or even God’s love.

Everybody involved keeps score with an inflexible checklist. It’s typically a checklist no one can actually live up to, so everybody great and small ends up lying, pointing fingers at others to deflect their own guilt and feeling secretly condemned. They live in fear of God’s wrath and of being exposed by other people.

In that milieu, “impurity,” however defined, becomes a powerful weapon for unscrupulous (or at least unhealthy) leaders. Their followers are pliable and obedient because they’re terrified of being called out — unlike those nurtured on grace, who aren’t so easily cowed.

Universal human longings get denied or demonized. Supposed sins slink into the shadows, where they fester. Then, inevitably, they return with a vengeance. Ministers and ministries implode.

It’s much better to have a culture that concentrates not on “sins of the flesh” but instead on common sense, mercy and redemption.

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