You heard the rumors about the glue sticks.
Growing up in the local Church of Christ bubble, we all knew The Remnant Fellowship was trouble — "cult" came up a lot in descriptions, as did those eerie rumors about kids getting beat with glue sticks as punishment. It was enough to make your skin crawl and to clutch your Bible a little harder in your grasp.
The austere building, which has always resembled the kind of structure you'd expect to house a Lord of the Rings villain, stood on Franklin Road for so long with uncomfortable glances by every time you drove past it. You wouldn't be shocked if a high school buddy dared you to hop in his car full of folks to drive into the Remnant parking lot at midnight and speed out, as if you were taking a dare to walk into a graveyard. Churches shouldn't be haunted houses, but The Remnant was a scary as the slaughterhouse.
When The Way Down premiered on HBO Max, it struck a chord with locals pretty quickly. It centers on the story of Gwen Shamblin Lara, the late ’90s televangelist who parlayed weight loss to Gospel prosperity and turned that into an suspicious empire rooted in Williamson County.
Shamblin Lara, along with her husband Joe Lara and other members of her church, died in May in a plane crash over Percy Priest Lake, which likely sped up the timetable for this HBO Max docuseries to premiere its first three episodes (two more are in the works for a later date). It's plausible that some folks wouldn't have felt comfortable going on the record about Shamblin until after her death, which would speak volumes to the sordid impact she had on evangelism and her community.
Veteran documentarian Marina Zenovich (who made the quite good Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind) recounts various testimonies from former Remnant members, all troubling in scope, and a timeline of Shamblin Lara's ministry-turned-community. It's a lot of what you already know from following years of headlines about the church — NC5's Phil Williams and other local journalists pop up more than once in archival footage showing some of his reporting that's been done over the years on The Remnant.
To say the documentary is "explosive" would be a discrediting to those who have been around this story for years. While some of the more comical aspects of Shamblin Lara's ethos come on display (her higher-the-hair-closer-to-God coif has been the subject of some online kidding), the documentary's most harrowing moments come when we all get a reminder of the church's most troubling legacy: its involvement in the death of child Josef Smith, whose parents were convicted of killing him via untold amounts of abuse. His life ultimately ended with him being locked in a box as punishment where he died.
His parents were members of The Remnant, and, in its third episode, the docuseries succinctly connects the Smith's bewilderingly sick methods of punishing their child to Shamblin Lara's corrupt teachings about punishing children as means to draw them closer to God. Georgia vs. Smith was a landmark case at the time when studying child abuse and its connect to evangelical circles, a situation The Remnant has exacerbated over the years by maintaining the Smith parents' innocence despite two different medical examiners in Georgia labeling the case a homicide.
That's the legacy The Remnant continues to leave, and the best parts of the HBO Max series don't let the church out of any of its other controversies, including ones rooted in misogyny, covering for spousal abuse, mistreatment of members, improper use of funds and other uncomfortable allegations from former members.
One narrative in the film about the local Wingerd family, whose daughter became a member of the church and fractured their relationship, will break your heart. It underscores the troublesome nature of churches versus cults, and how the former can get away with actually being the latter.
The docuseries is pretty straightforward in approach and takes its time to get going. Its theological discussions are less edifying than its judicial ones, with a strange conversation about the Churches of Christ at the top of its first episode that attempts to root Shamblin Lara's basis in the denomination as clear conduit for her own practices.
The Churches of Christ, like any religious denomination, is certainly not without its faults (I say that as an active member), but the eerie filter put over the denomination feels a bit scandalized and overwrought. Like any denomination, the Church of Christ contains multitudes and evolves its attitudes as time goes on. Perhaps it's just a personal quibble, but discussing religion requires you understand the complexities of it in an ethereal sense, particularly when zeroing in on a sincerely problematic body like The Remnant Fellowship. Using, forgive me, hastily assembled b-roll for your discussion of a wide denomination that showcases a progressively minded organization Otter Creek Church (where I've just placed membership) with the same tension of a Wes Craven film is just lazy reporting and shows an inability to embed fully into the community you attempt to report on.
That's the downside of the series — it lacks, at times, the complexity really needed to tell this story outside of the buzzy headlines. While those headlines will make your stomach churn and the entire series deserves immense credit for being willing to shed a national light on The Remnant in the first place, you do feel that there's either more on the table that still needs to be shared or there's a deeper discussion that needs to be had with how churches like The Remnant come to be and how negatively they impact their parishioners.
Exploring the complexity of traditional churches, including how they have and have not over time been a foundation for a place like The Remnant, is part of what would've made this docuseries more solid.
You just wish the filming crew hadn't been so eager to find the obvious flash in the story and were more willing to dig for the nuance. Not just of The Remnant, where there are no doubt more subtle complexities at play in its operation, but for a discussion of religion as a whole and how there is a very, very clear distinction between a church and a cult. The series does some things clearly well, the dissection of the Smith case is a masterclass in docuseries examination, but it makes its missteps, too, in line with some of the more shallow true crime shows that Netflix produces.
More episodes seem to be on the horizon, so we'll see how The Way Down closes its examination of Williamson County's most infamous church. For now, it's a very good attempt, but lacking in some of the theological complexity and deeper digging to really make it root.