“The Way Down,” HBO’s documentary about Gwen Shamblin and her Christian weight loss program, is the horror series you have to watch this Halloween season – except it’s a TV show. horror that is real.
Shamblin’s program made a mess of relationships, finances and even claimed the life of a child.
Shamblin’s untimely death in a plane crash in May 2021 that also killed her husband Joe Lara, son-in-law and other church members is the opening scene for this three-part story about the loss of weight, Jesus and control. Shamblin’s story of being an overweight young woman who made millions from a simple weight loss program is part of the American dream, but her story also speaks of the American obsession with God, appearance and discipline. Shamblin’s program made a mess of relationships, finances and even claimed the life of a child.
“The Way Down” is primarily about the control of the charismatic Shamblin over her followers and their families. The success of “The Weigh Down” led her to found Remnant Fellowship, her own church, in Brentwood, Tenn, at the behest of God. The church, however, was anything but pious. Led by Shamblin and a group of male alumni, it looked like any other church on the outside, but it was a facade for the scrutiny of the weights, behaviors, and lifestyles of its members. Shamblin surrounded herself with a group of people who were aesthetically pleasing in terms of weight, had the attributes of a wealthy lifestyle, and had to donate their time and money to church. Her obsession with looks even led her to divorce her husband and marry former “Tarzan” actor Joe Lara.
“The Way Down” says a lot about the role aesthetics play in religious movements. Being thin is not just about being thin. For Shamblin, it was about making “the church” beautiful and strengthening the products and materials sold with his program. With her blond bouffant and high heels, Shamblin’s aesthetic appealed to many Christian women and men who followed her because they recognized her. Religious leaders including Tammy Faye Bakker and Jan Crouch have used similar hairstyles and outfits to complement their husbands. These overtly feminized images of womanhood are recognizable by many Americans familiar with televangelists. As the saying goes, “the taller the hair, the closer we are to God.”
This emphasis on appearance, especially for Christian women, recently made headlines when a Baptist pastor from Missouri resigned as moderator after criticizing women for letting their looks fade after marriage. . So while Shamblin’s ministry may look like a scripture-based weight loss program, it is the aesthetic of a prosperous Christianity that has prompted women to feminize to prove their holiness.
The most devastating part of the documentary, however, centers on child abuse, particularly the case of 8-year-old Josef Smith, who was murdered by his parents Sonya and Joseph Smith. Shamblin reportedly told the Smiths, members of the Remnant Fellowship, to discipline Josef by hitting him with glue sticks. Shamblin’s emphasis on discipline, leadership and direction would have pushed the Smiths to the brink and they escalated the violence. Josef was found dead, with numerous injuries to his body.
Remnant Fellowship paid the couple’s legal fees and proclaimed their innocence in an effort to protect the church, but the Smiths were convicted and, in 2003, were sentenced to life in prison over 30 years.
As the saying goes, “the taller the hair, the closer we are to God.”
Viewers may be appalled by this story, but the reality is that strict fundamentalist religiosity can lead sincere people to follow a charismatic leader full of their own authority and power. Members recounted how their “disobedience” prompted excessive discipline and oversight.
Remnant Fellowship is not an anomaly. Nxivm, the cult of sex, which has marked its members with an iron and, of course, Jim Jones and Jonestown are reminders that religion, whatever its orientation, can be turned into a dangerous tool that leads people into situations where they and their families are at risk.
Many members of the Remnant Fellowship have reached out to documentary producers to tell their stories, and it remains to be seen whether the church, now run by Shamblin’s daughter Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, will survive the death of its founder. Oddly enough, whenever church members have died, Remnant hardly acknowledges their deaths. Perhaps this is a way for them to avoid facing the reality that bodies, no matter how much you discipline them, will age and stop functioning. Either way, “The Way Down” is a journey into a religious subculture that may look good on the outside, but is, in reality, a dangerous trap.