The Duggars: 20 and Counting! by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar

Read: 16 January, 2012

My great challenge in writing this review is to critique the book itself, not the faith that motivates it. The two are so intertwined that sometimes it’s impossible to speak of one without speaking of the other. This book is, after all, part of the Duggar ministry.

This is never more clear than the structure of the book. Superficially, it chronicles the history of the Duggar family, from Michelle and Jim Bob’s childhoods until just before the birth of their 18th child. But the stories are told in such a way as to reinforce the thesis of their ministry: In each case, there is a problem or a crisis, the Duggars react by either “listening to God” or listening to their fears, or greed, or ambition, and then things suddenly and serendipitously resolve.

The lesson, of course, is that God can be counted upon to provide. This has the potential to be very dangerous theology, as we see in Prosperity theology, but at least the Duggars impose limitations, such as refusing to borrow money. Even so, this “leave it to God” attitude has a lot of potential for harm when they follow it to the point of making themselves responsible for 18 children. The Duggars have done well for themselves, but many Quiverfull families haven’t, living well below the poverty line and denying their children basic necessities such as health and dental care. To make matters worse, the repetition that God will provide if the family puts sufficient trust in him implicitly sends the message that those families that are not surviving are failing because they are not putting sufficient trust in God, which would mean that they should give up more control and have more children…

I also noticed that the Duggars have tried to fit parts of their story into a Biblical narrative, such as Jim Bob’s references to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as analogous to his political campaign. It isn’t bludgeoning, as I’ve seen elsewhere, but they certainly are speaking to their audience.

Further on that point, I noticed a lot of formulaic phrasing. These are phrases included in the narrative, ostensibly in the voice of Jim Bob or Michelle, but that are repeated frequently (either in the book itself or in the wider evangelical community, or both). For example, the words “Children are a blessing from the Lord” is repeated, without variation, multiple times and integrated into multiple different sentences. I’ve noticed the family use these little phrases in the TV show as well, and it’s always felt scripted and rehearsed, making the family seem insincere.

Speaking of the TV show, I feel that I can’t talk about the book without comparing it to the show (of which I’ve only watched the 18 and Counting season, which overlapped nicely with much of the topics discussed in the book). To its credit, this book never felt like just another TV show tie in. Rather, it had real content and was entirely readable even for families that do not have a television and have never seen the show – which I imagine was intentional given the Duggars’ TV viewing philosophy.

I found the differences between the TV show and the book interesting, and it speaks to just how media savvy the Duggars are. The TV show, clearly intended for a broader audience, focuses on the fuzzy family happiness. God is ever present, but more as an underlying principle. The goal, clearly, is to make the show interesting for “lukewarm Christians,” drawing them into the lifestyle with promises of the happy, close-knit family, without scaring them off with too much God-talk. The book, on the other hand, is clearly marketed at the converted, perhaps young couples who already hold Quiverfull values but who are afraid of taking that next big step. I imagine that this book is intended to be passed around in churches, recommended to new couples or given to new parents. As a result, the God-talk is front and centre, with every story coming back to God and to the Biblical underpinnings of Duggar theology. If the TV show is the infomercial, the book is the hard sell.

But given this, I found it interesting that any Biblical passages references were hidden away in the end notes, not displayed in the actual pages either as footnotes or embedded in the text. Given the audience and the fact that the Duggars are clearly not holding back on the God-talk in other ways, I found this detail very interesting.

In closing, I would like to share a recent post written by Libby Anne that was running through my mind as I read: From cog to individual.

The Duggars: 2o and Counting! was a better read than I expected, and it was interesting for me because of my interest in the Quiverfull movement. But the advice is all tied to the ministry, so don’t bother if you are looking for real tips for managing your household! The recipes provided, while interesting and great for bulk cooking, look awful and have very low nutritional value. Much of their advice for making money or being frugal relied on tales of their good luck (err… good “faith,” as Jim Bob prefers to call it), and many of their organizational tips are good but require substantial remodling of the average home to accommodate. In other words, I’d recommend this book for people with an interest in the movement, whether they are thinking of joining it or merely studying it. For anyone else, meh.

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