Why Are People Losing Faith In Christianity? ‘The Starling Girl’ Has Some Answers


(REVIEW) “The Starling Girl” is, at its heart, a visceral reminder of what it’s like to grow up as a girl in strict religious environments. It’s also a thorough picture of grievances about fundamentalist and evangelical Christian circles in two recent docuseries.  

It’s the coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Jem Starling, a dancer at a fundamentalist church in rural Kentucky. She’s a shining member of her church’s dance troupe, the oldest of her siblings and appropriately well behaved, if headstrong and something of a dreamer. 

The movie starts out on a memorable note: a dance, a church potluck and Jem being pulled to a private corner by the preacher’s wife and her mother to be chastised about her outfit. The lining of Jem’s bra is visible through her shirt, and it’s a concern that her immodesty may cause the men to stumble. She’s given a sweater to cover up and is immensely apologetic about her offense. She feels — because she’s told so — that she’s let everyone down, that she’s ruined the afternoon, that she’s a filthy sinner. She retreats outside to cry, body shaking with sobs and nose dripping with snot. 

It’s a setup of the movie’s most important focus, which is the ways that purity culture affects individuals within the church and religious communities at large. “The Starling Girl” does so in the context of fundamentalism specifically, but as with any cinematic story, the narrative applies further. 

It’s an alarming reflection of some of the real life harms depicted in “Shiny Happy People,” the docuseries about the Duggar family and Institute in Basic Life Principles, the organization with which they’re intertwined. It’s even telling of the mindset of churches on the opposite end of the cultural spectrum and offers insight into the downfall of Hillsong Church, detailed in news stories from the past several months and the docuseries “The Secrets of Hillsong.”

All three are parts of a current trend of questioning the church and determining that so many people have been driven away by hypocritical teachings that are often used to write off real harm. 

In the middle of her breakdown, Jem is reacquainted with Owen Taylor, the eldest son of the pastor, smoking a cigarette in private. They share a secret from the start: him, her shame, her, his sin. He’s the youth pastor, married in his mid-20s and recently returned from a mission trip to Puerto Rico. He’s handsome, too. 

He and Jem connect over their carefree spirits and unconventional views of God. Their friendship blossoms, but it’s difficult to watch. She admires him, makes excuses to spend time with him and maybe even has a crush on him. He unabashedly flirts with her, unleashes his frustrations about his marriage and family on her and takes advantage of her. 

They start sleeping together, and it gets worse. Watching it unfold, I kept leaning to the edge of my seat, then sinking down in it; I covered my face with my hands because it was painful to watch. I wanted first and foremost for her to get out of the relationship and far away from him — I also didn’t want her to get caught. 

It’s inevitable in this coming of age story, as it is in the stories of so many girls raised in a church that strictly adheres to the ideology of purity culture. What she’s doing with Owen makes her feel good because it’s beyond the confines of what she’s allowed to do and feel, but beyond that, it’s just objectively bad for her. 

Of course, she does get caught. Of course, the punishment is for her and not for the adult man who’s been grooming her. Owen gets the equivalent of a smack on the wrist, and Jem will be sent to a correctional behavior camp where kids are beaten into submission for their sins. 

In Christian cultures where the idea of purity is upheld over everything else, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence.

In “Shiny Happy People,” former IBLP member Laura Smith describes being at a camp when she was 16 and being punished because she wore shoes with a small heel. She was forced into a prayer room for four days, kept in isolation and told to repent. Another former IBLP member, Heather Heath, says she once had tampons confiscated from her because they were “a form of pleasure.” 

Especially when purity culture reigns over all, it becomes an internal metric for religious communities — a metric that’s used to punish women and girls for their “sin.” That mindset expands further to account for the church’s external perception: Christians and church leaders are supposed to appear pure rather than do good. 

It’s why churches (or, in this case, church networks) like Hillsong can seem so perfect one day and vile the next. Affairs, manipulation, fraud, sexual assault — all covered up to give the church a squeaky clean look. 

It’s unhealthy for the church itself, and it’s actively harmful for others. Those inside the church suffer if they’re condemned by leaders who are impure themselves, and those outside have no reason to trust the word of judgemental hypocrites. 

Jem is the focus, but the movie’s exploration of purity culture expands to each of the characters — notably her dad, who’s sweet and tries his best to be an advocate for Jem even though he regularly fails. He converted to Christianity after struggling with addiction and years in a semi-successful band. 

Part of becoming a Christian was getting sober, which was good for his health. The other part was giving up secular music, which the church considered just as harmful as his addiction. It’s just that the two of those things aren’t the same at all — much like having a visible bra isn’t comparable to having sex, or being pressured into it by someone older. What quickly becomes evident is that shame isn’t enough to produce good behavior. Jem’s dad drinks in secret. Josh Duggar sexually abused his siblings and watched child porn. Hillsong’s many transgressions came to light, seeping out like black bile. 

It’s no wonder that stories like these drive people away from the church. After all, what’s the point of pursuing purity if it’s a driver to allow the practice of evil? 

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