âWe just thank you for this teaching which gave us freedom and allowed us not to lose weight after all this time, my God,â said one of the praying women on her knees at the opening of the HBO Max’s new docusery “The Way Down”.
The series follows Gwen Shamblin Lara’s rise as an evangelical preacher through archival footage, depositions, and interviews with former members of the Remnant Fellowship Church, which she founded. The full title of the documentary – “The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin” – makes it clear that this is not the typical evangelical church account. Here, the diet culture prevails.
But before we delve into this particular aspect of the church, another detail makes this story particularly fascinating at this time. Shamblin Lara died suddenly in May at the age of 66 in a plane crash shortly after takeoff.
This grim turn of events had an unforeseen effect on “The Way Down,” which opens with footage of the search and rescue team sent after Shamblin Lara’s private jet crashed into Percy Priest Lake. in Tennessee, killing her and five other church members on board. And although director Marina Zenovich was never able to directly interview her subject for the series, many who were afraid to speak out about their experiences with Remnant Fellowship while Shamblin Lara was alive have now come forward. This sparked the need for two more episodes of the series, which will follow in 2022.
So far, HBO Max has released the first three episodes, which detail how Remnant Fellowship was controlling former members, including allegations of child abuse and, in one case, murder charges of a child by his parents. There are behaviors the show calls bigoted, like mega-worship services with a charismatic leader, that people both love and fear. But throughout the series, one of the strangest themes is Shamblin Lara’s obsession with the weight of his followers.
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Shamblin Lara, who is recognizable by her gravity-defying teased hair, earned a master’s degree in food and nutrition and was a registered dietitian who worked with the Tennessee Department of Health for five years. She changed the usual approaches to weight loss by developing her Christian diet program called Weigh Down Workshop, which suggests that devotees can lose weight by believing in God. While some would see it as a more spiritual departure from diets that typically focus on physical and behavioral approaches, the patriarchal aspects of evangelical teachings are beginning to reveal themselves.
The basics of Weigh Down are supposedly portion control (which is far from a revolutionary diet strategy) and devoting the rest of the time to prayer instead of food. Throughout the series, we see former members describing their experiences with Weigh Down that go beyond simple prayer: it is said to fast even after losing over 100 pounds. Another remembers ask permission from her husband to order Starbucks, and she was told she could have that or dinner. Another fasted for 40 days.
In an archive video, Shamblin Lara sits in a white dress with huge golden hoops in her ears.
“God has revealed to me that this is real deliverance,” she coos, “and that the key to permanent weight control is a matter of the heart.”
Other footage shows women proudly holding pants that don’t fit anymore, like before and after ads for services like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers.
Then the teachings of Shamblin Lara go further: the congregation of Remnant is told that a thin body means that you are “in order with God”. This meant that the overweight among the congregation was doing something wrong, that the people who put on weight after losing it were clearly not in God’s good graces (and that probably means they are ” descend “into the hereafter). For Shamblin Lara, the faster you lost weight, the more holy you were. As a former member said, if you weren’t skinny you weren’t saved. “It was a question of salvation. Nothing to do with Jesus Christ, it was about being thin.”
This intersection of faith and diet culture is a twisted version of the world of juice cures and intermittent fasting in mainstream culture. Replace the negative language Remnant uses to describe tall people with words like “lazy”, “weak will”, or “unintelligent”. as good as skinny feels. âThe stigma surrounding tall people is the same, repackaged in a way that Remnant believers understand.
Fatphobia plagues the way we operate as a society. It’s a standardized structure that if you don’t have a certain appearance, you can’t find clothes that fit, be comfortable on an airplane, or access proper medical care. According to the National Association of Anorexia nervosa and Related Disorders, 28.8 million Americans will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime.
Throughout the series, it is shown how Shamblin Lara used the language of manipulation present in many alleged cults to control believers. She adapted her teachings to an audience of devotees by making them believe that the message she spread had been communicated to her by a higher power. She told her followers that the people at Weigh Down who were not part of Remnant were gaining weight because they were not part of the true religion she preached.
“The overriding theme of everything she ever taught there was to be under the authority of God, who was she.” a former member said, âIt all fell around this. And then everything else was about the weight and what you looked like. . . she was the voice of God.
“She waved to people,” Reverend Rafael Martinez, a cult interventionist, said on the series. “She began to believe that the message of the Weigh Down workshop was the answer to all the evils in the world … Christian perfectionism could only be achieved by following her message.” This version of perfection may have looked different from how mainstream society would view it in everything but the size of its clothing.
Groups that portray what is interpreted as bigoted behavior are made entertaining in documentaries like “The Way Down” because their beliefs and actions are outside the reality of the average viewer. And in many ways, the series hits all the good points of a good presentation: anonymous talking heads in dark rooms. Images of people crying in prayer. Laugh at how ridiculous this all is, now that the old members are out. Sadness when you realize that Remnant is still in business, run by Shamblin Lara’s daughter Michelle, with no signs of a change. But the common thread of the Weigh Down workshops and the way this belief reflects our own societal pressures ultimately humanizes Remnant.
Diet culture and fatphobia are so pervasive that they can even creep into places you least expect them to be. The members of Remnant are not special for the way they interpret food culture. In fact, they are like us. It turns a ruthless gaze on the viewer who would believe he is above sectarian fanaticism: if we are able to ingest certain beliefs about others in our daily lives, what prevents us from going further? ? What would we believe next?
The first episodes of the “The Way Down” tree are now available to stream on HBO Max, with two more releasing in 2022.