Now that I’ve gotten my latest editorial out of my system, it’s time for another review of a Lifetime movie. I have written a few reviews of Lifetime movies. If you’re a regular reader, you might already know that, in general, I’m not really a fan of the way Lifetime TV tells stories via its movies. I find that they’re usually heavily watered down and given inappropriate comedic spins, particularly when it comes to true crime. Nevertheless, I decided to watch the Lifetime Movie adaptation of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s life after seeing Jen review it on YouTube’s Fundie Fridays. Below is her excellent review…
Gwen Shamblin Lara, for those who don’t know, is famous for starting her own church after writing a very successful Christian weight loss book in the 1990s. She later got very rich, let success go to her head, and died before her natural time in May 2021, when Gwen’s second husband, Joe Lara, crashed the plane he was piloting when Gwen and her entourage in it. Gwen’s church was notable, as it focused a lot on image and weight loss. It was also notable for its emphasis on the so-called importance of physically disciplining children. I wrote about Gwen Shamblin Lara’s championing of using glue sticks in corporal punishment sessions. You can read that post here.
The Lifetime TV movie about Gwen Shamblin Lara is called Starving for Salvation. It stars Jennifer Grey as Gwen. Yes, Jennifer Grey, as in the very same one who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in Dirty Dancing, back in 1987. She is unrecognizable in this movie about a weight loss guru. Mad props to the hair and makeup crew, as well as the wardrobe professionals, for making Grey into such an incredibly realistic replica of the real person. But not only did Jennifer Grey look the part, she also sounded like she was born and raised in Tennessee, which is where Gwen was from. I really thought she did a great job in this movie, especially given that it’s a Lifetime production.
The story itself, as presented by Lifetime, is typically pretty watered down. Remember, it’s a cable TV channel putting this together, and they have time constraints, viewers, and advertisers to appease, so they can’t be too graphic about what they present to the masses. I suspect the real story behind the Remnant Fellowship Church is a lot weirder and disturbing than what is presented in Lifetime’s film, which is typically campy.
Remember, Josef Smith, a young boy, died because his parents followed Gwen’s discipline advice. Josef and Sonya Smith, the boy’s parents, are now sitting in prison in Georgia, having both been sentenced to life plus thirty years on February 12, 2007, which would have been the younger Josef’s 12th birthday. In the movie, this notorious and horrifying incident is a bit glossed over, because there’s a lot of ground to cover in the time allotted for the movie. I found Jennifer Grey’s performance entertaining enough that I wonder if this movie shouldn’t have been a two part miniseries. I bet people would have watched it.
Gwen Shamblin Lara apparently suffered from eating disorders. I will not say that she definitely did, since I’m not a doctor, but I do think the signs and symptoms were all there. I saw clips of her preaching, wearing dresses that were obviously way too big for her. According to the Lifetime treatment of Gwen’s story, Gwen went from being a sweet, demure Christian lady who taught college to a megalomaniacal religious wingnut. She also tried to force her employees to join her church. It reminds me a little of Dave Ramsey’s organization, that is very intrusive into people’s personal lives.
I know there is a documentary/other movie in the works about Gwen Shamblin Lara. I will try to watch it if I can, but what I’d really like to see is a very well researched book about her… one that doesn’t water down or sugar coat anything.
Anyway, as Lifetime movies go, Starving for Salvation is pretty decent. I even watched it on my computer, rather than Apple TV (which is giving me errors on new content). I couldn’t wait for the issue to be fixed before I saw the movie. People are obviously looking for comments about Grey’s turn as the weight loss “prophetess” (as they called her in the movie).
I also highly recommend watching Fundie Fridays’ review of this movie, which goes into a lot more detail than mine does. This is obviously a very campy treatment of the story… and some people might find it disrespectful. I did see one person who was involved in the church commenting on Jen’s review. The person said that movies like this cheapen the terrible experiences Gwen’s victims had. That may be true… but let’s face it, Gwen was a pretty bizarre character, and movies about such people are often entertaining as hell.
I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a book that gives this story a more serious treatment. In the meantime, I would recommend this movie, especially if you want to be entertained. Just don’t think too hard about what the victims endured.
I don’t remember what prompted me to download Kate Bowler’s 2019 book, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. Maybe someone in the Duggar Family News recommended it. Or maybe I saw something about it on YouTube. I imagine Jen of Fundie Fridays could have suggested this well-written and researched book about the wives of high powered evangelical leaders like Joel Osteen and his ilk, and women who are high ranking evangelical leaders themselves, like Paula White-Cain and Juanita Bynum. In any case, Amazon tells me I bought this book in July 2022. I just finished reading it this morning, and that seems fortuitous, as it’s Sunday– the Lord’s day. 😉
I have never been a very religious person myself, although I grew up going to the local Presbyterian church. I do come from a very Christian family, with musical parents who were avid churchgoers, although church was never a family affair for me. My mom was always the organist at some church, so she never sat with the family. My dad was always in the choir. My sisters are much older than I was and out of the house for much of my childhood. Consequently, although I was compelled to go to church, and even had a job working at a church camp for two summers, I have never been particularly devout.
However, even though I’m not much of a Christian, I do find religion interesting. For over half of my childhood, I lived in Gloucester, Virginia, a once rural county about an hour’s drive from Pat Robertson’s Christian mecca, Virginia Beach, Virginia. I watched a lot of television in the 80s, and back then, we had independent Channel 27, WYAH, which was owned by Robertson, who also owned the Christian Broadcasting Network cable channel. Because Channel 27 was owned by a Christian evangelical leader, a lot of religious programming was aired. I would occasionally watch some of the shows, mainly getting a kick out of the over-the-top televangelists and local programs. For example, the late John Gimenez and his wife, Anne, of The Rock Church in Virginia Beach used to air their services every Saturday night on Channel 27. I would watch in amazement, as the church had a full band, complete with electric guitars and keyboards, and Gimenez would dance and sing. This was not something I had ever seen in my very conservative whitebread Presbyterian church, which was quite traditional, and at least for me, as a child, extremely boring.
As time went on, religion became more polarized… and polarizing. I noticed extremes on both ends. It seemed like a lot of people were abandoning traditional “boring” churches for megachurches or fringe religions. Or they were going atheist, or embracing non-Christian faiths. I started noticing a lot more mainstream programming on television, like Joel Osteen’s broadcasts from his Lakewood Church. When we were living in the States, it was a rare Sunday morning that we didn’t catch at least part of his show– lots of feel good prosperity platitudes from the Houston Astrodome, his gorgeous wife, Victoria, at his side.
In her book, The Preacher’s Wife, Kate Bowler explores the women who are married to famous celebrity evangelical church leading men. After all, even though they aren’t typically the ones leading the church– as many religions require that men do the leading– the women are often the ones prodding their husbands to go to church, rather than staying home and watching sports or doing chores. Bowler rightly points out that the wives of church leaders are role models to the women and girls of congregations. They are expected to lead by example, and sometimes they even get involved with actual leadership roles. For example, Bowler writes about how, as Joel Osteen delivers his folksy, feel good sermons, Victoria follows up by imploring people in the 40,000 strong congregation, as well as those watching at home, to support the ministry with “love gifts”.
I shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of Bowler’s work, by the way, or the comprehensive scope of her research. She has a PhD, teaches at Duke University, and has written several well-regarded and top selling books. The Preacher’s Wife is her third book exploring the “prosperity gospel”, and how it’s used to sell faith based lies to a public desperate to believe. She can also be found on YouTube. Below is Kate Bowler’s TED Talk, which was very well received, as it accompanied her first book by the same title, Everything Happens for a Reason– and Other Lies I’ve Loved.
I was impressed by the scope of women Bowler profiled in The Preacher’s Wife. Yes, she mentions people like Ruth Peale, wife of Norman Vincent Peale– and parents of the man who taught my philosophy class at Longwood College (now University) in the 1990s. Ruth Graham also gets some discussion, as does the daughter of Ruth and Billy Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, who was arguably the most talented preacher of the Graham parents’ brood, but did not inherit the ministry because she’s a woman. But Bowler also writes of Paula Stone Williams, a well-known pastoral counselor who started out life as Paul Williams, and later transitioned to a woman. I’m sorry to say that before I read Bowler’s book, I had never heard of Paula Stone Williams, but I’m now listening to her TED Talk. She’s a great speaker, and I have Bowler’s book to thank for letting me know she exists.
This book is not about religion, per se, but it is about the business of religion. And make no mistake about it, today’s religion is very much a business. Bowler writes about how some of today’s megachurches have fashion shows, where congregants can shop for the beautiful dresses or statement necklaces worn by the “preacher’s wife”, who is often perfectly coiffed, manicured, and dressed to the nines. She includes photos of flyers for makeovers sponsored by churches, where makeup and fashion experts mix the proper Christian beauty image with Bible verses. But she also includes discussion of Christian leaders like Liz Curtis Higgs, who promote forgiveness, grace, and acceptance, even if they wear a size 22 dress.
I would not recommend this book to anyone looking for devotions or encouragement. That’s not what this book is about– it’s not meant for preachers’ wives who need to be uplifted. Rather, The Preacher’s Wife is more of a secular expose of powerful, influential, and frequently wealthy women in evangelical circles. Bowler also doesn’t just stick strictly to the wives of the preachers. She also mentions female preachers, like Joyce Meyer, who admitted to having had a facelift to make herself more appealing to her followers, and the late Gwen Shamblin Lara, who famously died last year with her husband, as they flew in their private jet over Nashville. Gwen Shamblin Lara is famous for her Weigh Down Workshop and her church, the Remnant Fellowship.
I will admit that it took some time for me to get through this book. For me, it wasn’t necessarily a page turner. However, when I did sit down for reading sessions, I was impressed by the quality of the writing and research, as well as the broad spectrum of evangelical women who were profiled in this book. There were so many that I’d not heard of before, as well as some who were very familiar to me. And the fact that I am interested enough to look up Liz Curtis Higgs and listen to Paula Stone Williams speaking on YouTube, shows that for me, The Preacher’s Wife was well worth reading. I think it would make an excellent resource for anyone doing academic research on this subject, as well as good reading for smart people who are just interested in what drives the world of evangelical Christianity– particularly those who are rich, powerful, and beamed to us on television and the Internet. This book was an eye opener for me, and I thank Kate Bowler for writing it.
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Until last week, I had never heard of Gwen Shamblin Lara, or her husband, former Tarzan actor, Joe Lara. I didn’t know anything about their “church”, either– Remnant Fellowship— located in Brentwood, Tennessee. The couple came into my consciousness a few days ago, when news reports broke about how their 40 year old Cessna 501 airplane crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Smyrna, Tennessee, just east of Nashville. They had been headed for Palm Beach, Florida, home of many wealthy people and white Christians.
I didn’t initially pay much attention to the news about the crash. I had heard that Gwen Shamblin Lara’s ministry focused on breaking people out of addictions– particularly food addictions. I had noticed Gwen’s crazy high hair, and realized that she reminded me a bit of the late Jan Crouch, who famously had big pink hair and was seen on Trinity Broadcasting Network with her late husband, Paul. Those factors alone should have attracted me like a magnet to Gwen’s story. But I didn’t learn much about her until yesterday, when I caught Katie Joy’s videos about the Remnant Fellowship. I was pretty gobsmacked by them.
If you are interested in learning more about Gwen and Joe, I highly recommend watching Katie Joy’s videos from Without a Crystal Ball. I know a lot of people seem to have a problem with Katie Joy, but I think she did a good job covering this story. I watched and listened with some shock and disgust as I learned more about this couple, who claimed to be Christians, yet lived in extreme opulence and evidently promoted abuse and eating disordered behaviors.
In one clip Katie Joy provides, the skeletal looking Gwen is wearing a tank dress that is clearly at least a size too big for her. She stands with her hands in the air, the dress shifted to one side and the strap falling off her shoulder. Her voice is thick with a southern accent as she commends one mom for spanking her child. Another mom, Sonya Smith of Mableton, Georgia, followed Gwen’s advice to punish her son, locking him in his room with a Bible for days (starts at 8:20 in the second video). Gwen commends Sonya Smith for not “spoiling” her child.
In 2007, Sonya Smith, and her husband, Joseph, ultimately went on trial for the 2003 death of their eight year old son, Josef. In October 2003, Josef Smith passed out without ever regaining consciousness as the family had gathered in their kitchen to participate in a prayer session over the Internet. When Josef collapsed, father Joseph touched him, noting that the boy was “warm to the touch” but sweaty. He thought Josef was overheating, so he carried him outside to the carport and laid him down on the concrete. When that didn’t help cool off Josef, the family called 911 and Josef was brought into the dining room. Paramedics first encountered the child there; he wasn’t breathing and was without a pulse. They took him to a hospital, where he was determined brain dead. A day later, he was dead.
Medical examiners determined that Josef Smith had died having suffered extreme abuse from his parents. The police stated that the child was frequently locked in a closet and forced to pray to a picture of Jesus. His parents admitted to striking him with a glue stick, although they didn’t think the punishment was abusive. See the featured photo for an example of what a glue stick looks like. The ones in the photo are about a half inch in diameter and 12 inches long, but they come in different sizes and colors. Before I started learning more about fundie Christians, I had never heard of people spanking their kids with glue sticks. I always thought of them as being much smaller and in a plastic push up tube. Even the hot glue sticks I’ve seen were a lot shorter than the ones used by fundies to discipline their kids.
Many devout Christians are particularly enamored of the Bible verse about sparing the rod and spoiling the child and take it very literally. I’m not sure if Gwen and Joe were fans of Michael and Debi Pearl’s controversial book, To Train Up A Child, but that book is infamous for its strong emphasis on corporal punishment for the purpose of “training children” to be obedient Christians. It goes as far as advising parents what implements they should use for spankings. It sounds to me like the Remnant Fellowship, which, like the LDS church, claims to be the “one true church”, might be in favor of the Pearls’ teachings about breaking children’s wills to turn them into good little Christian robots.
If you listen to Katie Joy’s video, at around 9:19, you hear Gwen Shamblin Lara preaching about not spoiling children and being sure to “spank” them to show love. But then you look at how she lived. She and her husband had a huge mansion decked out with gilded furniture, and they owned their own airplane… which ultimately led to their demise. And here she is telling her followers not to “spoil” their children, when she herself appears to be very pampered, living a lavish lifestyle on donations from her flock. Ultimately, her privileged lifestyle led to her early death, didn’t it? What a hypocrite!
Sonya and Joseph Smith became members of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s church in 2000. The Remnant Fellowship Church is an offshoot of Gwen’s “Weigh Down Workshop”, which is a diet program she started in 1996. The church is known for its focus on saving souls from Hell and reforming people with addictions to drugs, alcohol, and food. However, according to Katie Joy’s expose, this church’s methods are extremely controlling and abusive and many people have been harmed by it. The Smiths’ case led to authorities raiding and investigating the Remnant Fellowship Church in 2004; the church supported the Smiths in their legal fight.
As for the Smiths, according to Wikipedia, they were “each charged with four counts of murder, five counts of first-degree cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of false imprisonment.” On February 12, 2007, which would have been Josef’s 12th birthday, a jury found them guilty on eleven counts: “one count each of felony murder, reckless conduct, false imprisonment; three counts of aggravated assault, and four counts of cruelty to children (two specifically pertaining to glue sticks and others to unknown objects).” On March 27, 2007, Joseph and Sonya Smith were each sentenced to life plus thirty years– the maximum allowed by Georgia law. The case was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court in 2010, but the original convictions and sentences were upheld. In February 2011, a petition was filed with the United States Supreme Court, asking the justices to review the decisions made by Georgia’s lower courts. The petition was denied.
I would not wish a plane crash on anyone. I’m sure the crash was horrific for everyone on board. Katie Joy said that the aircraft basically “broke” and there’s debris everywhere with no chance whatsoever of any survivors. However, after listening to Gwen Shamblin Lara speak and hearing about Josef Smith’s very sad case, I kind of feel relieved that Gwen will no longer be around to spread her particular brand of “the gospel”.
I’m sure the Remnant Fellowship won’t be going away, but at least now more people know about it and the potential dangers it poses to innocent people. It’s not hard to fall into abusive situations… whether they be abusive relationships with other people or abusive organizations like religious groups or cults. These systems thrive on attracting people who are weakened because they are in trouble. People with financial or health problems… people with low self-esteem or addictions… people who are desperately looking for a way out of a bad situation– these are all examples of folks who might be lured into joining falling into abuse. Sometimes, those situations lead to terrible tragedies involving innocent people like Josef Smith, or plane crashes that kill innocent people, like those who were onboard the private Cessna aircraft with Gwen and Joe.
As I wrote in yesterday’s post about culty churches, Shamblin Lara’s followers were required to close themselves off from other influences. They weren’t allowed to read anything not produced by Gwen or listen to music not made by Gwen’s son, Michael Shamblin. That raises some red flags, right? Gwen also says that her followers should not use antidepressants and they should disconnect from their families. More culty red flags!
For more information about this “cult” of starvation, check out Jen’s Fundie Fridays’ YouTube channel and its lengthy expose of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s “church” and weight loss program that combines religion with anorexic behaviors. This video below was made about a year ago. I wonder if Jan will do another video soon, now that Gwen and Joe are dancing with whatever they found in the great beyond after their plane crashed into Percy Priest Lake.
In the above video, I see clips from Gwen’s videos and they all depict her living the perfect, romanticized life, complete with music from Shrek (really?). All of the people are dressed to the nines and there are romantic gazebos and depictions of perfect family living… but that’s all it is. It’s just a facade– a highly staged, manipulated, fantastic facade– that sadly roped in enough followers for the Laras to be able to afford this very anti-Christlike church they promote. It’s obvious that Gwen was idolized by her followers, which is pretty much not what the Bible promotes, right? Idolatry is specifically forbidden, according to the Bible. See below, where it’s spelled out…
In yet another example of idol worship, Gwen Shamblin Lara even compared herself to Michael Jackson, claiming she was persecuted. But I think it’s fair to say that the criticism she got was warranted. People died following her… a child died! His parents are now in prison for the rest of their lives. She promoted pro-ana ideas, which are extremely dangerous, especially for people who already have tendencies to fall into eating disorders. And frankly, I think her hair was a crime against nature. So, while I don’t rejoice in the death of Gwen and Joe, I am glad that their toxic brand of “Christianity” has been dealt a serious blow. If the church continues, I hope it is run by people who are less dangerous and hypocritical… and culty.
Anyway… a week ago, I had never heard of Gwen Shamblin Lara. And now that I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, I’m glad I didn’t find her until she was dead. What a toxic load of shit her church is. I thought Teddi Mellencamp’s diet program was abusive and predatory. At least Teddi Mellencamp doesn’t marry dieting with religion. She just charges a lot of money to bully her customers into starving themselves down to a more “acceptable” size.
In other news… I was successful in getting my second shot yesterday. So far, I feel okay. My arm is a bit sore and I’m a little tired, but otherwise, no sweat. Bill suffered a lot more from his second shot than I have so far. But I hesitate to celebrate too much, since I have heard that the side effects can come on within a day or two. I may be down for the count tomorrow or over the weekend. We shall see. I’m just glad it’s done.
Edited to add: Fundie Fridays posted a new video about a half hour ago (as of June 5, 2021 3:30pm Central European Summer Time)
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