Okay, yes, I did read this glossy author-on-the-cover reality TV star’s co-written faith ‘memoir.’ Guilty as charged. As a general rule, I avoid any book with the author on the cover like a slug avoids the salt shaker. I know what I’m likely to find behind the cover: smarmy tone, bland prose, predictable writing – But! There were extenuating circumstances, your Honor. You see, my wife, whom I love, watched the Duggar show for a while (and possibly I sat beside her at various points while it was on – who can say?), and so she was interested in the book, and we were on a long road trip, and we had free access to it via Scribd, and it purported to be a kind of reverse-deconstruction of the author’s faith, a topic which has interested me for some time. So you see? Anyone would have read this book in such circumstances. Good, I’m glad we got that out of the way.
Frankly, I had quite low expectations, so I can say it was better than I expected. The story, in case you’re not up to speed, is that Jinger Duggar grew up in a uber-conservative subset of American evangelicalism that had many elements of your typical cult. Centered around the person and teaching of Bill Gothard, a one-time Wheaton grad and inner city youth minister, it focused heavily on external issues of morality such modest dress, courting instead of dating, having lots of children, shunning debt and mortgages, not drinking alcohol, not listening to secular music, etc. Her family had a long-running reality TV show because they had 19 kids and seemed like a strange artifact of American culture. The whole thing took a dark turn when the eldest Duggar son, Josh, was accused of molesting some sisters and eventually got caught with child pornography and was hauled off to jail where he remains. Gothard was also accused by scores of the young attractive women he staffed his headquarters with of sexual misconduct of various kinds.
Gothard’s ministry was called the Institute for Biblical Life Principles (IBLP) and the whole thing sounds to me like a giant collection of red flags literally on fire. But clearly quite a few thousand people were taken in hook, line, and sinker. As with other legalistic and unbiblical religious groups, you can’t help but have a lot of compassion for the people raised in it. And it’s not surprising that a huge chunk of them leave Christianity behind completely, imagining it to be equated with what they knew growing up.
This book does a decent job of drawing important distinctions between the legalism of IBLP (and ultra-conservative fundamentalism in general) and the gospel of Christ. The story, such as it is, is pretty interesting and is written in a simple, straightforward style. The narrative is interspersed with lengthy treatments of Gothard’s teaching and explanations of Jinger’s new understanding. There is a certain irony in the fact that Jinger recovers from the fundamentalism of IBLP by landing at Grace Church in California, a place which many within evangelicalism would equate with a kind of quasi-fundamentalism. I wouldn’t totally agree with that characterization but there’s no denying that Grace is very conservative.
One thing I found particularly interesting was the author’s description of how her view of God changed as she ‘disentangled’ the beliefs she absorbed from Gothard from the truth of Scripture. I recently re-read Sinclair Ferguson’s superb ‘The Whole Christ,’ wherein he shows how legalism and antinomianism share a common rotten root, one which reaches all the way back to the garden, and that this root is a suspicion that the heart of God the Father is not one of love, mercy, and grace. So this God must be appeased with performance and religious duties lest he be angry and withhold the good things we want.
At one point, Jinger quotes Gothard as telling a woman whose life was a sinful mess that she needed to clean up her life before Christ could come into it. As Ferguson shows, this is more or less the same instinct as some in the Church of Scotland had during the Marrow Controversy and the debates over whether the gospel should be freely offered to all or only towards the truly repentent.
It is nothing less than an anti-gospel, and it enslaves rather than frees. It sees the Father as one who holds back the benefits of redemption through his Son until the person has made themselves worthy to receive them. But as Ferguson points out, this results in a grave error, the separation of Christ from His benefits, and it breeds spiritual sickness rather than health.
Rather, the Father has sent the Son because he loves us, and all who turn to Christ in repentance and faith receive Him and all the manifold gifts of redemption. The believer is united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the greatest gift – for in Him are all the benefits, and through Him we are reconciled to the Father, and it is His Spirit by which we are sealed and with which we are filled.
It’s hard to overstate the distance between this rich and glorious gospel and the paltry saltine cracker ‘gospel’ of IBLP and Bill Gothard. This book made me thankful for the wonderful teaching I found and received early in my Christian life which helped me grasp not only the pulsing heart of the gospel but the grand sweep of Scripture’s united narrative, the history of redemption.
I have to say there’s a certain amount of righteous anger I feel towards the people who run these legalistic religious systems based on the Bible. I was stunned to hear that Jinger, despite having grown up in a supposedly very ‘Christian’ environment for her entire life, had never heard decent expository preaching (only proof-texting), nor an explanation of how the two Testaments fit together, nor how Christ fulfilled the law, nor had she ever heard a real God-centered emphasis on His glory and character, nor been given any sense of the historical placement of her community’s tiny slice of Christian belief within the grand scope of Christendom, nor had Romans 14 or the concept of liberty over disputable matters or the Christian conscience ever been explained to her, nor had she been shown how all of Scripture is ONE story which all culminates in Jesus. What!? Was it really all about how long skirts should be and avoiding rock music? These poor people.
I’m glad Jinger managed to disentangle that mess and find that Christ is far better. Given the size of the audience for their now-ended TV show and the toxic level of interest many Americans have towards the lives of celebrities, I’m sure it will be read by many. I think it could be helpful for some, especially those who grew up in IBLP or similar legalistic groups. If some are thereby guided towards a living faith in the real Christ through a richer understanding of the gospel, then all I have to say is: Thanks be to God.