Has the Shine Worn Off? Processing Shiny Happy People With Beth Felker Jones

by | Aug 1, 2023 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 13 comments

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Have you been grappling with the docuseries Shiny, Happy People?

This summer, as I’m taking some down time for a month, I wanted to use the opportunity to introduce you to some amazing women that I “met” on Twitter, and whose writing inspires me and makes me think.

Today I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Beth Felker Jones, who has a Ph.D. from Duke University, and who is a professor at Northern Seminary. She writes at her substack Church Blogmatics

While Dr. Laura Robinson has written at length on Josh Butler’s Beautiful Union, and Chelsea from Holy Tension has written at length on Gary Thomas’ book Married Sex, so Jones wrote a wonderful piece on Shiny, Happy People that I think everyone should read. 

Beth starts by asserting:

Unlike Duggar faith, Christian faith is not afraid of exposure—is not afraid of being placed in the sunlight for all to see—for Christian faith should have nothing to hide.

Beth Felker Jones

Truth for when the shine wears off

In her post, she writes on 7 big picture doctrinal mistakes that the docuseries Shiny, Happy People exposes from Gothard and the IBLP. 

She writes them beautifully and clearly, covering things like hierarchical relationships; the nature of providence; the nature of sin, and more.

I’d like to share just one with you, on what the gospel actually is:

  1. Distorting the gospel into a story about our purity, in which we must do the right things, instead of a story about what Jesus does for us in his life, death, & resurrection. So denying salvation by grace.

There is a whole complicated conversation about how exactly to define the word “gospel,”2 but I hope we can agree that the good news of Jesus is not “do things right so that I will approve of you.”

Let’s just take, instead, one definition of the gospel from Paul:

“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

So the gospel is about who Jesus is. It is not about human families maintaining purity.

But all that “faith-sharing” in the Duggars’s TLC reality shows is not focused on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s about the “gift of children,” “obedience,” “modesty,” and the like. The news being shared is a set of rules to follow, not the good news of Jesus, to whom we’re invited to belong.

All the business about modesty and sex is just one example of the be-good-and-achieve-purity message of the Duggar world. First, modesty is defined in an extra-biblical way, as a mandate to hide women’s bodies. Then, said modesty is policed ruthlessly, and rule-breakers are punished. Instead of the gospel that salvation is by grace, we have a system of exacting rules and punishing standards.

Again, I think of Luther, who groaned over the weight of the rules on his shoulders, until he was set free by the grace of Jesus Christ. I imagine his reaction to a “teacher” like Gothard imposing rules and rules and rules again.

Beth Felker Jones

Truth for when the shine wears off

Please read the whole thing– I found her discussion on providence and the thought of “trusting God with the size of your family” so fascinating as well. 

Dr. Felker Jones also wrote a wonderful series on Christian sexual ethics. 

She spends some time in part 2 centering sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians 7, and Paul’s admonition over and over again that it’s better to be single.

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And Felker Jones tells us what that may have meant for women:

Some early Christian women got so excited about Paul’s advice that they were willing to face martyrdom rather than submit to marriage. Before we assume these women were prudes or had problems with embodiment, we might want to consider what a choice for Jesus over a husband might have meant in the ancient context. In the Roman empire, the women had a purpose: produce children for their husbands and the empire. To choose Jesus over marriage, then, was to claim to have a purpose beyond that defined by the state.

Imagine that your whole culture and society tells you constantly that the very reason for your existence is to belong to a man and to make babies. (Imagine, in ancient Rome, you’re a 13 year old girl and the man your family wants you to belong to is 35 and assumes absolute patriarchal authority over you.)

Then, Paul comes along and tells you that the reason for your existence is Jesus.

Women’s bodies are not for their parents or their husbands. Women’s bodies are not for babies. Women’s bodies are not for Rome or Caesar or the homeland or the people. Women’s bodies are not for the culture war or for capitalism. Women’s bodies are not for Instagram.

Women’s bodies are for Jesus. (Men’s bodies too, of course, but that part was and is less startling than the part about women.)

Beth Felker Jones

Reframing Paul on Sexual Ethics Part 2

Again, I encourage you to read the whole thing!

I’m so grateful to find such wonderful rich theologians to read, and I hope you enjoy being introduced to them too. I find Beth’s writing gentle, compassionate, and faithful to Scripture. She and Laura Robinson and Chelsea all have very different “voices” and styles, but all contribute something important, and I hope you enjoy “meeting” them too!

What do you think? What stands out to you in what Beth said? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Em

    I cannot wait to read this. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Phil

    Beth says “Unlike Duggar faith, Christian faith is not afraid of exposure—is not afraid of being placed in the sunlight for all to see—for Christian faith should have nothing to hide.”

    Michelle Duggar says “We have always believed that the best chance to repair damaged relationships, or to reconcile differences, is through love in a private setting,”

    So the Duggars spread their garbage publicly and made lots of money from it and now they are exposed for the truth and they want to hide in private.


    • Codec

      I find it interesting when she talks about enclaves. I figure that in a sense we all want to build communities and belong.

      I figure that if I am honest with myself I could have ended up like the Duggars or Gothard. I figure I could have become some Mad Max Ghenghis Kahn style warboss building up my own clan. As a teenager I sometimes felt like I would be happy if I was a volcano god.

      Interesting stuff really. Kind of terrifying.

  3. A

    I wonder if a contributing factor in the focus of the Duggar show was TLC editing. Perhaps the cult like environment was an easier sell for a network and ratings than talking about Jesus?
    Just a hypothesis. I never actually watched the show, haha!

    • Codec

      You could have a point. People are fascinated by the morbid and the sensational.

      Look no further than how many people found Richard Ramirez attractive.

    • Jim

      I would agree that this is a distinct possibility. I have worked in the video production industry and a good editor can make radical changes to a story. Especially when ‘reality shows’ have an abundance of footage, there would be a lot of video and audio to work with.

      We see this a lot today with sound bites being used to demonize people in public life.

    • Lisa Johns

      Only none of the children nor others in the show have come forward to say, This is not who the family really is. no one has ever contradicted the TLC portrayal of who the Duggars were. So I suspect that this was exactly wo they were. and TLC editing only clarified reality.

    • Phil

      I agree you make an interesting point however, I actually have a small story that would provide the opposite to the theory. Was on a tubing trip in western North Carolina 6ish-7ish years ago with a group. The owner came out to talk to us. It was just a thank you visit and some chit chat. During our conversation reality TV came up as a topic and the owner ended up telling us his story with TLC. They followed him and his crew around for 5ish months with intentions to have his/their story on TLC. One of the owners employees who was not even featured in the series got in a fight at a bar and through his arrest it was determined the man was wanted for sexual assault charges. TLC canceled the contract with the tubing company and shipped out as quick as they came in – zero negotiations. They wanted zero part of it. All that time and money spent on both sides – poof! If someone was able to prove TLC was editing to promote a cult you can bet your bottom dollar their would be a law suit. Pretty sure the way lawsuit happy America is TLC would be quite careful…

      • A2bbethany

        That’s an interesting angle! I personally have kept up with the Duggar doings and the “sister wives” from a YouTube channel. While they don’t necessarily have that much of an agenda, they only want money and drama. And as we know, the love of money corrupts.

        As additional thing to whole conversation: not only did jinger Duggar write a book, but Jill has a tell all coming out. Her experience was unique as she was a missionary, but her father and TLC forced her to return to America. Not only that, but had, via contract required her birth to be filmed.
        Her story is coming out next January.

  4. Cynthia

    I read the full article. While I agree with a lot of it, I’m going to gently push back on point 3. Granted, I’m not Christian and as a legalistic pharisee, I’m not qualified to talk about Christian doctrine of salvation, but as someo ne who watched the documentary I didn’t think that following rules per se was the problem.
    There are rules that SHOULD be followed. Rules like “don’t commit sexual assault”, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, and “don’t consume images of children being tortured”. The problem was that they didn’t see rules as being something that everyone had to follow. Rules were not applied to those with power. In fact, applying rules to someone with power was seen as a satanic attack on the entire religion. There was also a bizarre and awful tendency to make victims and abusers equally responsible. This was the opposite of judging actions based on responsibility and consequences.
    Similarly, the concept of “purity” wasn’t really based on actions. It was seen as a status. It wasn’t about how someone actively chose to act in every sexual encounter. Instead, it focused more on what was done to girls before marriage, and on what thoughts a boy or man might have.

    • Cindy F

      I appreciate your input! Thank you! It makes sense!

  5. Angela

    Well, I wanted to like the article you recommended but I didn’t really. It seems to be full of very bad Lutheran/Reformed theology and demands, as if that is superior than fundie- Baptist theology when there actually is more similarities than differences and most people would need to study the history of theology to be able to spot all the sameness.

    In survivor spaces we have seen how many go from IBLP type spaces straight to MacArthur/Douglas Wilson/Piper reformed spaces–like one of the Duggar girls and Tia Levings and it’s just as bad or worse. (And yes those aren’t Lutherans, but reformation theology leads to bad outcomes as history has proven over and over).

    And although she has a point about exalting the nuclear family over wider community, she wants us to trust “traditional historical church structures” which are entrenched with hierarchy, patriarchy, belief in magical sacraments/the saving power of correct theology or sacramenta by “ordained clergy” not the Living Indwelling Enthroned Person of Jesus, and massive amounts of their own rules about such things. And no matter how ancient they are, they are not commanded nor do they look anything like the church of the New Testament. So she says none of us can hear God’s voice or have a real relationship with a Person, just follow scripture, but at the same time follow church tradition that is nowhere in scripture. If we cant be led by God then neither could Luther or the apostles. The same traditional religious structures/church discipline practiced that murdered thousands of other faithful believers, and covers up abuse and molestation on a similar rampant level (or maybe worse?) than IBLP and fundamentalism? And abuses amd silences the victims? As I follow this issue, I have found that no denomination is exasempt. We need to follow the reformers footsteps in forming entirely new Christian communities that are healthy, non-hierarchical, include women in leadership as equals, every member ministry, and have protecting the vulnerable as a higher value than fame and wealth and numbers, and even more than so-called doctrinal “purity.” NONE of traditional churchianity/denominations has good fruit in this area of not abusing women and children, or caring about victims, even though Jesus has good fruit, and even if an individual local church might be scandal free and reasonably faithful. And even if modern Lutherans are super good in this area now, they still teach their Augustinian theology/Greek philosophy that has nothing to do with anything Jesus or Paul actually thought or taught, or any Hebraic thinker would recognize. I don’t know why any Protestant/Arminian/believer’s-baptism person would want to do something that’s a cross between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism and denies the practical priesthood of all believers. Lutheranism is still a cult following one man who was a pretty bad human being and theologian, and a terrible Christian totally disqualified from leadership/eldership by any Pauline standards.

    Reminds me of what I was reading of World Magazine’s review of Shiny Happy People, which was to refuse to take responsibility for the general conservative Christian zeitgeist that leads to this stuff, and also basically just say that if they had joined a reformed cult instead they would be fine…

    Sheila, I love you but this article disappoints compared to most of what you share which is usually terrific…

    • Joe

      So many mic drops in this comment. Thanks for writing it. I haven’t read the article, but I share similar sentiments with you about traditional denominations steeped in magical sacraments, ordained clergy, and Reformed theology… they make me wanna barf.


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