The Magnolia Story
By Chip and Joanna Gaines
Chip and Joanna share the story of their lives together, with a particular emphasis on their marriage and business. While it’s biographical in nature, it’s more precisely a memoir because it focuses on a few specific aspects of their lives rather than their complete stories. Inquiring minds want to know, don’t they? How did a seemingly normal family in a decent sized, but not major city become a TV sensation? Does their show, Fixer Upper in case you don’t know, present them as they really are? What’s the background of their story? In their own words, the book answers these questions and many others like them.
The book is easy-to-read and plenty of fun. The book conveys the same personality traits/quirks as their TV show. If it’s all a charade, they kept it going very well. But the more I read and watch them, it all seems to match up. Using different fonts, the book identifies who’s writing each paragraph and the sections capture their individual voices well. The narrative moves at a good pace and uses entertaining snapshots to give insight about their larger story. Again, the book presents them as normal, and quite endearing people.
The Part I Didn’t Love
Something’s missing. In the spirit of full disclosure, we (my family) are dedicated viewers of Fixer Upper. Perhaps I should be embarrassed, but I’m fairly certain we’ve seen every single episode. It’s wholesome, entertaining, and our kids love to watch with us. I realize that TV can hide the truth and we’re getting a highly edited version of each home remodel, but if you watch long enough and closely enough you can discern certain truths. They’re not normal, at least in the worldly sense of normal. They appear to trust in Jesus Christ and have a genuine desire to follow Him. Maybe not, but I’m betting it’s so. The problem is… the book doesn’t actually say it. I understand why they don’t share it more overtly on TV, but the book provides a perfect opportunity. Yes, they try to honor God in telling their story and they praise and thank Him clearly for their “successes.” But c’mon, the book is going to appeal to a popular audience so take two paragraphs and tell about when you trusted in Christ for salvation. For goodness sakes, if you’re not going to articulate the gospel, at least allude to it. And judging by the rest of the book, I’d venture a guess that there’s a pretty good story related to Chip’s baptism.
Why We Read It
The book’s success is owning to three primary factors. First, they have wide appeal. While every member of your Sunday School may know who Priscilla Shirer is, your unbelieving neighbor has never heard of her. But they know Chip and Joanna. In addition to name recognition, the Gaines family is mostly normal. They remind us of people we know. Despite their success, they’re not perfect and the flaws (however minor) show. But in the end, just like in each episode of their show, the good outweighs the bad and the finished product is beautiful. People want to read this book because the Gaines are known and likable.
Second, their story fits within the prosperity gospel narrative. ‘Member that time when I said this section would be offensive. Here goes. There is no indication that the Gaines hold to the prosperity gospel, either by their words or their associations. So let me be abundantly clear, I’m not criticizing them or their theology. But if you believe in the prosperity gospel (that is, that physical health and financial wealth are always God’s will for believers), you’ll love their story. Things are going badly, they pray, and God gives them $100k. To their credit, the Gaines don’t tell the story that way. However, if you believe that version of reality already, you’ll read it that way. Whether we want to admit it or not, this brand of Christianity dominates the landscape in our culture. No, it’s not the Creflo Dollar version with private jets, expensive suits, and exotic vacations. It’s a milder version with clean PET scans, job promotions, and granite countertops. While most reject the Creflo-version (thankfully), the book appeals to the part of us that hopes the more moderate version is true.
Third, it’s a good, old fashion, American, “Christian” success story. Normal people with a good work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit keep gritting it out until they get their big break. It’s the type of story we hope can be written about us someday. Plus, they’re poster-children for the book of Proverbs. Work hard, be honest, treat people well, be wise stewards, seek to honor God, and enjoy his blessing. The path was a little crooked and there were some bumps along the way, but in the end, you’ll have 20 acres and a gorgeous farmhouse. The Gaines family gives us a glimmer of hope that maybe everything will turn out well for us, too. Their story is found at the intersection of biblical morality and American nostalgia. This narrative can feed the inevitable pull to mix the call to follow Jesus with the desire to be successful by the world’s standard. While these two aren’t mutually exclusive, only one of them is worth pursuing. This type of book makes us think we can easily have both.
Read it and enjoy it for what it is, but also guard your heart against turning it into more than it is. The goal in life is not to get a photo of your kids’ playroom into a magazine, tile your bathroom like a pro, or move into your dream home. The goal of life is to honor God in both success and failure. As they make clear late in the book, the Gaines can’t take credit for their success, only God can. And thankfully they’re trying to honor God in it. I don’t begrudge them because of their success; in fact, I’m grateful for their perspective. But just know that for every success story in church history, there are dozens of stories of men and women who honored God while suffering extraordinary loss. Balance your diet by reading about the Judsons or the Careys when you’re finished reading about the Gaines.