the Spirit Watch
Fellowship Of The Bling: How The Remnant Fellowship Cult Uses The Media
by Rafael Martinez, Co-Director, Spiritwatch Ministries
“If it works, it must be O.K.”
How many times have you heard that before? If some new way of doing things gets results, so this popular wisdom goes, who are we to question it? Whatever works, right? Different strokes for different folks – testimonials can’t be wrong, either! It’s an almost universal response by those who encounter some unconventional wisdom that seemingly achieves amazing results. And nothing engages the attentions of Americans more than the allure of new diets that offer hope to men and women seeking the health and happiness that a new, slender self must surely bring. Billions of dollars annually spent in our nation show that there are millions of people willing to give “whatever works” a try to shrink waistlines and sculpt bodies. One such diet that promises “permanent weight loss” not to mention an inner makeover of the heart and spirit has been making the rounds across American media markets that we believe should be looked at very closely. Complete with heartfelt testimonials of dramatic weight loss and an ensemble of well dressed, slender and enthusiastic people praising the program, it does indeed seem to “work.” But does that mean it really is “okay?” We at Spiritwatch Ministries believe an alternative perspective on its accomplishments needs to be seriously considered by those contemplating involvement with it.
On July 20, 2006 Gwen Shamblin, the founder of this program called the Weigh Down Workshop (WDW) appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” (click to watch clip) with host Matt Lauer (1) in a promotional spot. Along with them appeared a young couple who lost over 500 pounds between the two of them while on the diet. What wasn't explained at the same time is that Shamblin is also the “prophet” and leader of the controversial Franklin, Tennessee-based religious movement called Remnant Fellowship (RF). This is one of several facets of Shamblin’s background that are usually overlooked - or ignored - by those features editors who interview her for their publications or broadcasts. Since 2001, Weigh Down’s results have won it attention from many newspapers, in several magazines and in August, 2005, on the CBS “Morning Show” (click to watch clip) as well with former Miss America Debbye Turner interviewing Shamblin and some of her Weigh Down participants for a health spot. On August 23, Shamblin dropped in on the Fox Network's "Fox And Friends" morning show (click to watch clip) with a radiant testimony of how you can "pray your pounds away." Some true believers of Weigh Down see its ability to gain media attention as almost providential ... even as a new movement of spiritual awakening.
While we realize that diet programs are a perennial focus for media attention, in Weigh Down’s case, there is profound reason for caution as well as concern – for not all that glitters is gold, no matter how laudable the results may be. We are reminded that the now defunct Enron Corporation also had impressive results, as did the inspirational mulling of James Frey’s self-recovery bestseller “A Million Little Pieces.” Both seemed to be “working” and working well for so many people until the hard truth behind the “results” became public. When the smoke and mirrors were finally cleared away, the reality behind the overstatement, distortion or outright fabrication could then be seen by a world stunned by the breathtaking deception, then sobered by how empty the claims turned out to be.
The Weigh Down Workshop (WDW) has gained the following it has because of its simplicity of approach. It promotes a stabilized food intake regulated by what Shamblin calls “God’s boundaries” of “hunger” and “fullness”(concepts pioneered by the Christian "Thin Within" diet long before Shamblin even finished college). You eat only when your stomach growls and signals actual hunger and you stop eating when you feel full. In Shamblin’s approach, no food is off limits, meaning you can gobble all the broccoli or chocolate you want so long as the “natural” impulse to stop eating when full is obeyed. You can then minimize one’s portions to accelerate weight loss as desired. But above all there must be complete faith in Shamblin’s homespun spiritual teachings that she says will enable anyone to undercut urges to binge or overeat. The basic principles of her revelation proclaim that a “genius God” has created humanity to eat according to these boundaries, stands ready to help it abide by them but who will also hold it accountable for not doing so.
While the Weigh Down diet may facilitate weight loss by curbing appetite through spiritually motivated self-discipline, it is by no means a balanced program. The primary factor for weight loss is a scrupulous attention to one’s digestive cues that they are physically hungry: Shamblin explains that “the body was made perfectly - you will be learning to listen to it and trust God’s programmed signals” (2). Scrupulous attention to these “signals” are part of a required obedience to what she calls “God’s rules for eating .. (which show) you the futility of man-made rules.” (3). Even though she is a dietician by training, she discourages attention to counting calories and limiting foods of high fat or sugar content, nor is there much concern for planning balanced diets with nutritional value. Weigh Down dieters are excused from reliance upon a personal exercise regimen also – these are all downplayed as being part of a worldly wisdom that ultimately falls short of “God’s rules.” All of these underlying deficiencies, however, render the diet’s approach as questionable at best since more conventional dietary wisdom takes into account both food content and exercise which Shamblin intentionally neglects (read her biographical paragraph in this section).
But the “before/after” pictures of Weigh Down participants are legion. Bright-eyed teens and excited adults aglow with passion still beckon in the introductory videos. If it works, it must be O.K. Weigh Down’s testimonial subjects, featured everywhere in Remnant websites and media kits, press home the challenge: “Look at the fruit! Look at the changed lives!”
We couldn’t fully agree with them more. The fruit should be inspected most carefully. The “Change” should be looked at most closely. Let’s see the flip side of the peel ..
Since 1999, Shamblin’s unveiling of her Remnant Fellowship church vision has profoundly changed her WDW focus: the underlying motivation for weight loss as she now advocates it is nothing less than one’s personal salvation. It remains an unspoken truth held implicitly by Weigh Down Workshop coordinators but who say nothing to their new recruits during orientation – who would stick around a diet program if they discovered their diet “coach” really believed you were in sin for being overweight and in danger of hell fire? There were faint suggestions of this in her early program curricula, but after Shamblin’s Remnant Fellowship church was founded that year, it became clear that in her mind those in churches struggling with weight loss are guilty of the sins of gluttonous self-indulgence, carnal rebellion and hypocrisy. From that year onward, she continually condemns the Christian Church as apostate, accursed by God and in the bulls-eye of His impending judgment – and extols her Remnant Fellowship chapters as the only gatherings of truly sinless and righteous people, where mortal overweight is assigned a crushing moral weight. In this Remnant worldview, this “insider doctrine” is a cherished belief she has indoctrinated her flock with which they won't admit to outsiders for all too obvious reasons.
What many prospects are completely unaware of is how “Ms. Gwen” has transformed her Weigh Down enterprise into a recruiting tool for her new religion. (click to watch an RF member's testimony demonstrating this). Every Weigh Down participant hears Remnant Fellowship upheld as the only possible support system for the program: “As you’ve learned by now, Weigh Down is simply mere Christianity, and the seminars are simply gatherings of the sheep or lambs of God.” (4). With this anointing of Weigh Down members as divinely chosen, Shamblin defines in her book Rise Above what this “mere Christianity” actually is: “(a Weigh Down class is) .. really just a gathering of ‘the called out’ who study God’s Word and practice repentance. .. We can meet with the group assembled every week and confess the food we overate.” (5). Swayed into joining Remnant by social contact, WD members' personal weight loss then morphs into a public issue for group censure: indeed, virtually all of its members joined after becoming involved with WD seminars. Repentance and confession from the “sin” of eating “one bite past full” and the exaltation of personal weight loss as a test of Christian “fellowship” have been in place since these initial “suggestions” were made. And Shamblin endlessly advocates recruitment for the diet seminars as Christian evangelistic work her Remnant flock must be about doing: "Remember that your outreach can be ministered through the basic Weigh Down Workshop seminars. It is God's evangelism for His Remnant of Believers. He is snatching people out of the fire and saving them from the flimsy whitewashed walls that have been built by the false prophets. Keep these outreaches going at all times" (6).
By resorting to this manipulative socializing, Remnant betrays itself as being a cultic group using “whatever works” to attract and retain its members. Alternating applications of both praise and condemnation are employed to coerce compliance to Remnant ideals. Members can experience the sweetest expressions of concern one minute and be verbally pistol-whipped the next by “Weigh Down saints” for failure to meet the purely arbitrary social standards of the group(7). In assuming the mantle of a prophet of God, Shamblin preaches her apocalyptic vision in which everything not under Remnant’s control is accursed by God and dismissed as Satanic, beneath attention or concern (click link to hear Shamblin herself affirm this). Who could dare question her? The weight loss proves she’s right! Her feral prophecies of the destruction of New York City after September 11, 2001 and the obliteration of a post-Katrina New Orleans by hurricane Rita in September, 2006 were fearful oracles meant to reinforce and further exalt her authority to dictate to her followers what is true and false, how to live, how to think. The assumption that Shamblin's feigned prophetic power underlies her ability to identify the "idolatry" in one's life that keeps you overweight is what draws, indoctrinates and binds her followers to abusive allegiance.
After several years of counsel with people abusively and heartlessly impacted by Remnant, I personally know of many documentable and heartbreaking instances of this. Time and again, Shamblin and her cadre of sycophantic “counselors” have preoccupied themselves with an illegitimate degree of near total control over the lives of many in Remnant. And who are these "counselors" and what professional qualifications for the counseling they give out? They are the ones personally proclaimed by Gwen as having achieved "purity" through their "permanent weight loss," the only credential for directing people's lives that seems to count in Remnant social circles.
That's the "fruit" and the "changed lives" Gwen Shamblin won't tell you about. She won't tell you about the marriages that have ended, the children who have been starved and the family relationships dissolved directly due to her application of "God's rules." Instead, the size 6 dress and intimacy with God are dangled before you. Who could then, being in the dark about the other kinds of "fruit" and "changed lives" that have occurred, ask for anything more? Who'd suspect such innocent engagement ultimately controls hearts and minds?
No one attends a Weigh Down seminar to be targeted by a cult’s recruiters: that’s the tragedy of the whole affair. No one directed to Remnant seeks to come under the psychological bondage of an abusive sect. But the inner compulsion to lose weight to look and feel better about one’s self in Western society is profound, deep rooted and for many, an overwhelming preoccupation with an industry filled with quackery. It drives them to almost any length to achieve an elusive personal transformation that would be a dream come true. The obese, unchurched homemaker and the plump, insecure Church of Christ soccer mom want change now. They want to do something and feel good about themselves now. If a loving God's divine aid is appealed to by equally loving, pretty people, who could refuse? This is why Weigh Down enjoys the hearing it gets: when it comes to one’s body image and self-esteem in conflict with the standards of a culture that despises fat physiques and demands slender figures, there’s very little to give desperate and overweight people pause.
And even if flickers of concern dance at the edges of their subconscious mind waving red flags and suggesting something isn’t quite right or sounds “funny”, many still reason themselves: If it works, it must be O.K. They move ahead and then embrace the Weigh Down perspective with a fervor that borders on the religious, buying into its’ product line, hanging on the persuasive words of those who say “Trust me, this really made a difference in my life!” When the results of any degree come, praised by a friendly group of fellow dieters that showers love and attention through phone calls, emails and home visits, the ends seem to justify the means. The innocent step into the religion of Remnant Fellowship is then only a breath away, with a “prophet” ready to “speak the truth” through her coterie of “Remnant saints.” And another man or woman, without ever suspecting it, is ensnared by cultism paving a road to hell with the best of intentions - and bringing along family and children.
Today's media mavens are subject to a fascination with pop trends that usually overrides responsible research or discernment simply because it sounds right and looks convincing. Madison Avenue knows this all too well. That’s all it usually takes for a fanciful new concept to go straight from the junk science that creates it straight into road shows where passionate, glamorous and attractive speakers hawk glowing testimonials of how awesome it all is. We see this time and again, so often that it long ago became part of the mundane fabric of culture today. We’ve seen the questionable pseudo-treatments of “New Age” alternative therapies like therapeutic touch and reiki gain and hold medical market share. Who can forget the apocalyptic shadows of the dreaded Y2K Bug that loomed over global infrastructure in the late 1990’s and created a vast industry to battle the phantom menace? In each of these cases, modern obsession with the fanciful yet seemingly convincing does more than enough to silence sober examination. If it works, it must be O.K, right?
These "professionals" we think should know better betray a shallow credulity. Too many editors and producers of media outlets devoting coverage to the fleeting trends relating to health, wellness and personal improvement have utterly failed to do enough background research into the WDW-RF connection. Googling "Weigh Down" on a computer desktop hooked to the Internet would have made that abundantly clear. But such critical examination is far too much like actual work to do, so the incredulous media treatment of Weigh Down as just another innocuous “faith based diet” despite its very real flaws and its past RF history is to be lamentably expected – but never excused. Every single media organization we've cited above - from TV networks to magazine editors - is guilty of a towering irresponsibility and an abysmal lack of journalistic objectivity. Their glaring obsession with ratings and audience market share sweeps aside any semblance of thorough research they certainly could have done. As always, it seems to be far easier for these people to simply believe what the all-important first impression communicates without asking too many questions.
It's the "bling behind the thing", said one unknown postmodern pundit about the draw of an audience to a shining, polished claim. Andre Agassi summarized it equally well in a commercial a few years ago: "Image," he said into a camera behind expensive sunglasses, "is everything." So it's no surprise that the dramatic WDW “testimony” of weight loss (complete with before/after photos of impeccably dressed subjects) is apparently the only criterion advanced to examine it's claims with. Knowing the image-consciousness of the media she's seduces, Shamblin knows how to play the game. The glaring rough edges of the “New Jerusalem” cultic trap door beneath the WDW are then completely unannounced and unexamined. Millions in the audiences of these same media outlets are exposed to the subtle deceptions of cultism magnified a thousand fold by it's powerful ability to manipulate imagery, exaggerate claims and mask itself as the next New Thing.
We anticipate more of Gwen's bewitching of the media in the months to come. Her new targets are new college students caught up in weight gain of the proverbial "freshman fifteen". NBC's August 25th airing of an expose of a cultic Puerto Rican pastor on the "Today Show" a month later after giving the equally cultic Gwen Shamblin a seat of honor on the same show is a demonstration of how hypocritical and misguided the media can be. We will not cease demanding a return to responsible examination of those who make such claims as Shamblin and her tribe. And we would demand that all media outlets cease and desist from providing her Remnant Fellowship cult the free promotion it craves that will only result in shattered families, religious abuse and a replication of her dangerous dietary doctrine. For the road to hell is often paved with good intentions and TV Guides as well.
This cultural lemmings' march to the sea is hardly new: it was anticipated years ago by Christian bard Larry Norman: although Remnant Fellowship and a cult based around weight loss as Christian purification were not in his mind at that time, his music captures perfectly just what kind of "follow the leader" impulse that makes this fellowship of the bling so appealing:
"We look to our leaders / They politely yawn / The press gives coverage / And the world goes on."
(1) The official "Today Show" website no longer has the page or video linked, but the Weigh Down Workshop wasted no time in posting to its site off camera pictures of Shamblin which you can see here.
(2) The Weigh Down Diet, p. 32
(3) ibid, p. 4
(4) Rise Above, p. 87.
(5) ibid, p. 128
(6) Remnant Resource, p. 8. This is Remnant Fellowship's "Rebuilding The Wall: Foundational Beliefs" handbook issued initially during RF's earliest years only to RF members that contained many of the "insider doctrines" kept confidentially by RF and carefully sanitized or obfuscated in dialogue with non-RF members. Circulation of the book is now tightly controlled - it may have been even discontinued.
(7) Note the preserved transcript of Gwen Shamblin's "counsel" she gave Laura Nichols as preserved in her testimony:
"Laura, I'm really scared about some things that I have been hearing about you. You called the office and talked with Jenny and said something about being pregnant and that you did not want to report your weight to Leadership...Let me tell you Laura that I was shock when I saw you in Houston…that you had not lost any more weight that you have since this past summer. Your body just can't go on in this state.... I need to have Charlie Crossland call and counsel you cause he lost 330 lbs in 18 months....There is no reason why you have not lost your weight.... Your weight should be coming off at nearly 10 lbs per week. Laura, I'm scared for you. Now remember Laura I could not be saying this to you if I didn't love you so much."
I heard David say, "Amen, Laura we do love you”.
Gwen continued: "Mark, you ought to be getting after her every time she is disobedient. You ought to love her enough and be scared enough to understand that if she dies, she is lost and you should be doing all that you can do not to let this over-indulging with food continue. Mark I want you to put Laura on the scales every week and call me with her weight loss. Laura I want you to get up in front of that Houston Remnant and confess your sin of greed of food to them and tell them that you are going to step down in leadership and show them who your God really is. Laura, get the weight off. I also want you to find someone in your WDA group to take over your class and you step down as a coordinator. Laura, I should have put a stop to you 5 years ago and I didn't. You should have never had this weight on your body this long...but I love you and I want to help you. Please understand Laura that I could only say these things to you because I love you. I want the best for you."
(Another "Amen!" from David Martin)
Gwen went on to say "O.K. guys! Mark are you o.k.?” Mark replied yes.
“Laura are you o.k.?”
I could hardly speak or even breathe. I didn't know what had hit me. I just knew that the words that were fixing to come out of my mouth, Gwen was going to take the wrong way. I managed to say "I need to get on my knees.”
She goes on "Oh Baby, I love you, I really love you, everything is going to be alright. This is going to be the first day of the rest of your life and I couldn't be more proud of you."
Of course, David just goes on with "Amen, Laura we do love you and we are behind you!"
I was so numb the only thing I remember was they said good-bye. I was the last one to hang up our cordless phone. I slammed in down on a table next to my recliner and nearly broke it. Mark came in and told me "I know that you are mad, will you talk to me?" I couldn't say anything to Mark. I couldn't even look at him. I was paralyzed. It was the weirdest state I had even been in. I was raped when I was 18 and this was far worse than any feeling I had related to that.
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