Shiny Happy Childhood – Judging

Me in 1971

I thought I was finished blogging about my reactions to the “Shiny Happy People” documentary series. But last night, I had dinner with a friend who had been involved in Bill Gothard’s training. (I’m finding many more friends than I’d ever suspected had been exposed to his teachings.) We did some unpacking together.

First, let me give links to what I’ve blogged about so far:

Background – My background as third of thirteen kids and going to Bill Gothard’s seminars many times in childhood.

Authority – Bill Gothard taught a strict hierarchy of authority is ordained by God, and if you “get out from under it,” you’re in danger of Satanic attack.

Spankings – They taught that God’s design is to teach babies on up to learn “instant obedience” with physical punishments. That didn’t work out well in our family, from my perspective anyway.

Legalism – Gothard promised to have universal principles for living your life all down in black and white. Rules, so you never have to exercise discernment! My Mom and I ate them up.

And that leads to Judging, which I’m going to talk about today.

If you believe that you truly have universal life principles that apply in all times and all circumstances, and if you are pretty good at following those rules — then that leads to becoming very judgmental. And a very set-apartness from those “other” people. It’s an exclusive attitude and way of life, rather than an inclusive one.

When our family moved to a bigger house in 1970, it was in a “bad neighborhood.” Basically, almost all the neighbors spoke Spanish. We did not get to know very many of them. (Except our persistently friendly Filipino neighbor next door.) We did not go to the local school, but began attending a Christian elementary school. (That was in 3rd grade and when I met two lifelong friends I moved to Virginia to be near!)

When you believe that you have the only right way to live — you end up thinking you’re better than other folks who don’t live that way.

I remember when I was teaching college math and one of my young adult students was having some issues with her boyfriend that were making her need homework extensions, I felt so sorry for her living with her boyfriend. Of course she was missing out on God’s best. No wonder they were having problems!

And I’ve already mentioned my mother’s scorn for women who work outside the home.

When I found out my husband was seeing another woman behind my back, I believed him that it was not an affair. And I figured that since I knew he’d waited to have sex with me until we were married, then of course I could trust he had self-control and wouldn’t have sex with anyone else.

I was wrong about that. And all the divorced people I’d judged for letting their marriage go? (Or something) Well, I learned to be a lot less judgmental about that, too.

So, yes, while the divorce was a terrible thing that happened to me – the humiliation it brought and the dismantling of my beliefs that doing right things will keep you safe from trouble and that people who got divorced obviously didn’t do right things — that whole ball of wax — all that was one of the good effects to come out of that awful situation.

Another thing that helped me become less judgmental was coming to believe the Bible teaches universalism. It happened from reading the sermons of George MacDonald, a 19th-century preacher. And I’ve followed up by searching the Scriptures and reading many more books, and I truly believe, with great joy, that God’s going to end up saving everyone. I think many may come to Jesus after death, but I do believe that one day “at the name of Jesus every knee — of beings heavenly and earthly and subterranean — should bend, and every tongue gladly confess that Jesus the Anointed is Lord, for the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, David Bentley Hart’s translation).

But if I can trust that God will save everyone, despite the other people’s path being different from mine — well, there’s simply not as much room for judgment.

As Paul says in Romans, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls, and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Now I really believe that the Lord will make “those people” stand.

I’m not here to argue Universalism. Another verse from Philippians says, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you — only let us live up to what we have already attained.”

What I’m trying to say is that one problem with saying you have universal principles — is that you are setting yourself up as the authority on how every single person on earth should live their lives. That isn’t very loving, and it definitely tends toward being judgmental — I’ve seen it in myself.

Now, I have by no means destroyed judgmentalism in myself. I definitely tend to be judgmental toward judgmental people in particular. (That’s the “measure they mete,” so it’s fair to give it back?) Though I think I’ve forgiven, I’m pretty darn judgmental about men who have affairs.

But still, I believe I’m going to see those people in heaven some day. I believe that God loves them and will correct and restore them. And I don’t want to be angry with God about that, like the elder brother of the Prodigal Son, or like the workers in the vineyard who worked all day long in the vineyard but were paid the same as those who only worked one hour.

Because it comes down to what it says in Psalm 103 — “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”

I’m not saying that any of “those people” will get off the hook. Correction and restoration may be very painful. But that is between them and God. May I learn to become more and more like my Father — compassionate and gracious.

Shiny Happy Childhood – Legalism

My family going for a hike in 1977

This blog series is about my reactions to the documentary series “Shiny Happy People.”

Post 1 “Background” explains why the documentary struck so close to home.
Post 2 “Authority” talks about the authoritarian teachings of Bill Gothard and how those affected my life later.
Post 3 “Spanking” works through why I was so horrified when reminded of that “spare the rod, spoil the child” teaching.

Today I’m going to talk about what that all adds up to – legalism.

When one of my brothers read my post about spanking, he said (among other things), “Mom was always the type that latches onto extreme rules to basically avoid having to ever use discernment.”

But that basically describes what Bill Gothard’s “Basic Life Principles” was going for — He pulled “principles” from the Bible so that you didn’t have to. From the documentary, he got more and more and more specific as the years went on about how you should live your life.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the best thing that our family got from those seminars was the idea to memorize whole chapters of the Bible. My parents started with specific challenges – for example, $5.00 if we could memorize Hebrews 11 — and eventually my Mom made a whole system of paying us 10 cents per verse to say a chapter word perfect, and then 5 cents a verse to review a chapter as long as it had been a month since we’d recited it the last time.

So — that was much more fun than doing housework for money — so I started working hard at memorizing, and eventually have memorized (a chapter at a time) the entire New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and more. (If you want to know more about that, check these posts: Memorizing Scripture and Three Tips for Memorizing Scripture.)

Now, I’ll talk about the good side of that in a minute — it was an overwhelmingly good thing in my life, because despite the fact I was doing it for money, the Bible got into my heart.

The down side? I, too, really like having a list of rules to follow instead of having to exercise discernment. I like doing things to show I’m a good person and a good Christian. Memorizing Scripture was one more thing I could do to be impressively good. And bonus: I went to Christian schools for third grade through college, and it was a big advantage for getting good grades in Bible class!

So yes, I was a very legalistic little kid — and that’s what I still have to push myself against.

Bill Gothard’s rules had a big attraction for me.

The biggest comeuppance was when I filed for divorce after my husband had an affair and left me. I had promised my kids, thinking I could make that promise, that their parents would never get divorced. And that was a big rule that I was proud I wouldn’t break.

But of course there were other things. As I said in the other post, Jesus switched from a long list of commands to a command that sums them all up and is far more nuanced: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And the apostle Paul said that’s a continuing debt — we can never be proud because we’re so good at loving people, because there’s always more love we can give.

Anyway, the good side of memorizing all that Scripture was that it backfired. Once I knew very well what the Bible said, I was no longer willing to take an authority figure’s word for it.

I memorized John 9 in I think 7th grade. Jesus heals a man blind from birth. The Pharisees explain to the man who was healed that they know Jesus is not from God because he didn’t keep the Sabbath. The blind man responded that he didn’t know anything about that — he just knows that he was blind, but now he sees!

Even in 7th grade, I realized this was an example of the Pharisees proving from Scripture — their interpretation of Scripture — that Jesus was not from God.

I began to notice that the chart of the “End Times” on the wall at church wasn’t found in the Bible. Or when our church passed out political “scorecards” showing if representatives voted for “Biblical” values — I could say with confidence that those were definitely not necessarily Biblical values, because I knew what the Bible says.

Someone once said they were surprised I hadn’t left the church altogether when I left a church that asserted that LGBTQ people are sinning. But the thing was, I knew the Bible says absolutely nothing in condemnation of transgender people, and for the rest of the LGBTQ folks, it’s a matter of interpretation – and an interpretation I don’t agree with. (If you wonder about that, check out my “Transcending” blog series I wrote at the time.)

I had confidence in coming to God without an “authority” figure between me and God because I know and love the Bible. All that memorizing plus years of Bible classes, and the Lord still has plenty to teach me, but I’m no longer a good candidate for authoritarian teachings.

And there was one last thing that I want to think about from the documentary. Thoughts about Forgiveness and the “Root of Bitterness” and God working things out for good. Some of this is from the documentary and some from my memory.

What I remember is that the seminars gave me a strong confidence that God works all things together for good. I don’t think I absorbed the toxic part about if something bad happens, you must have gotten out from authority and there are holes in your umbrella leaving you open to Satanic attack.

The part I absorbed is maybe when something bad happens to you, it helps you become mighty in spirit. Or some other reason that God will bring good out of the situation.

I still believe this. And yes, knowing that God will bring good out of even bad things can help you forgive. Dr. Fred Luskin, without mentioning God, says in his book Forgive for Good that when your life is going well, it’s easier to forgive. For example, when I got on the Newbery committee and realized that my entire librarian career wouldn’t have happened if my husband hadn’t left me, it’s a lot easier to stop resenting him for doing that. I’m happy! It all turned out good. But I am speaking from many years later.

I also remember that Gothard preached that a “Root of Bitterness” is a terrible sin that will poison your life. Today, I would call it “chronic resentment” — terminology I got from reading a wonderful book by Steven Stosny, Love Without Hurt. But I also believe it will poison your life.

However, it looks like Gothard teaches you must forgive immediately. Women must stay with abusive husbands. God will bring good out of it, so is it really so bad?

I believe that teaching is toxic. Just because God can bring good out of bad things doesn’t mean those things are not bad. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when they happen to you.

When my husband left me, I thought divorce was wrong and I tried to pray him back. So he tried harder and harder to convince me our marriage was over. I wanted to shine by showing him love — and I think I was somehow trying to pre-forgive him. It seemed like if I was going to forgive him — and that was my plan — it shouldn’t hurt when he said cruel things.

Spoiler alert: It hurt like crazy! I needed to stop putting myself in the way of his anger.

But memorizing helped me there, too. Look at Psalms! There are more Laments in Psalms than any other type of Psalm. (And check my post on writing your own lament.) The psalmists whine and complain about what they’re going through. Then they remember that they’re trusting God and ask God to bring them through — but they don’t ever pretend that it’s easy.

Look at the beginning of Psalms, the first Lament, Psalm 3, first verse:

Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

Yes, forgiveness is something to work toward. But forgiveness isn’t denial that anything bad ever happened. And it doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in the path of more abuse. And it doesn’t mean that if there’s grounds for a court case against someone that you should drop charges. And it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a share of your military ex-husband’s retirement. (To use a personal example.)

Now, in my case thinking of Bill Gothard, thinking of the mistakes my parents made when following his teaching — I’m long past the consequences of that, so it feels like I don’t really need to deal with forgiveness at this point.

So what am I trying to do with this series? I’m looking back as a fairly objective adult and saying: Yes, those teachings affected my life. In a few good ways and in many bad ways. It’s opening my eyes to fundamental ideas that I once took for granted and helping me shine light on them and challenge those ideas.

And my heart goes out to everyone interviewed in the documentary and everyone who was much more involved in IBLP than I ever was, with a whole lot more baggage to unpack. May you know the truth, and may the truth make you free.

Comments? Questions? I think I’m done with this blog series — unless there’s more people would like to talk about.

And if you’d like to read more of my writing:

Here’s a landing page for Project 52, written the year I was 52 and posted each week about one year of my life. That page isn’t complete, so you can also read the blog posts – but they’ll be listed in backwards order.

Praying with the Psalmists is the title of the book I’ve written about how to use patterns from Psalms in your own prayers (not published yet) – and also the title of the blog series with example psalms. And I’d love to get examples from readers in the comments.

Transcending is my blog series about why churches should affirm transgender people.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament is a series showing how the New Testament can be read from a universalist perspective – and it actually makes a lot more sense (in my opinion).

Sonderquotes is my blog of quotes from good books (mostly Christian ones) that I’m reading. is my main site of book reviews — all ages, all subjects.

And finally, I’ve got a free substack, Sondermusings, where I’m gathering my Christian writing — blog posts, quotes, and reviews.

Thank you for reading my thoughts!

Shiny Happy Childhood – Spankings

five kids in front of a door.
July 1971 with my then four siblings. I was the middle child then.

I’m continuing my response to the documentary series Shiny Happy People with my own blog series “Shiny Happy Childhood.”

Post 1 – Background – I talked about why the documentary resonated as I’m 3rd of 13 children and attended Bill Gothard’s seminars many times as a child, in about 5th through 8th grades.

Post 2 – Authority – I talked about Gothard’s authoritarian teachings. And how that was baked into my aspirations – but didn’t actually work out for me.

Today, I want to start by clearing something up. I am not saying that I did not have a happy childhood. I had a *very* happy childhood. Our parents loved us and did their best to be good parents to us. I went to Christian schools from 3rd grade through college, and I enjoyed that.

I’m not at all trying to get into the Bad Childhood Olympics. I am well aware that many people had it worse than me. Pretty much everyone interviewed in the documentary, for starters. I did go to Bill Gothard’s basic seminars, but that was before he had family camps and advanced training institutes or anything beyond that.

I think it’s the Shiny part that I mostly object to. Our family tried to give the impression of being the perfect Christian family. But if you looked under the surface, there was lots of dysfunction. And we didn’t talk about any of that.

And because it *was* a happy childhood, that makes it a little more difficult to piece out where, exactly, the problems were. When I watched the documentary and remembered how fully I believed and got excited about what Bill Gothard was teaching — it disturbed me. Gave me lots to think through.

Today I’m going to talk about what upset me the most in the documentary — the teaching on spanking.

Sometime when I was in first or second grade, living in the house in California pictured above, my parents decided to stop spanking with their hands — because who wants their hands to be associated with discipline? My Mom took a wooden ruler with a metal edge and wrote a verse from Proverbs on it. That was now “the rod.”

The verse might have been Proverbs 13:24 — “He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”

Or maybe it was Proverbs 23:13 — “Do not withhold discipline from a child; Though you strike him with the rod, he will not die.”

I was pretty sure she got the idea of using a ruler from Bill Gothard. But I looked up when Dare to Discipline by James Dobson was published, and it was 1970 — so she may well have gotten the idea from that book.

The sad part is that my parents loved us — but they fully believed that if they truly loved us, they needed to hit us with a ruler on our backside whenever we did anything “wrong.” The goal was “instant obedience.” I do remember that Bill Gothard used to talk about how wonderful it was that God put padding onto every child, giving a perfect place for spanking. I laughed along with the rest of the auditorium at that line.

I was horrified by the “blanket training” discussed in Shiny Happy People. I am quite sure my parents never did that, but I do remember that I once saw my mother spank a six-month-old sibling (I don’t remember which one) with a ruler and I was horrified then, too, even as a kid. You see, they believed that we’re born with a sinful nature. So no one is too young to discipline.

The authoritarians my mother learned from believed the goal is to break a child’s will, but not their spirit. They say to not spank in anger and to spank until the crying softens, no longer defiant screaming.

Well, maybe it sounds good in theory. And most of the spankings I received weren’t particularly bad or particularly traumatic. But twice in my life, I received spankings so hard and long that I had bruises on my bottom. One of those was when we were on vacation in Washington visiting a family of cousins. I don’t remember the particulars, but I still remember that I didn’t deserve that spanking. It was something my little sister did. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get to a place of quiet crying any time soon.

Another time, I got spanked because I left the dinner table without saying, “May I please be excused.” — which was something I’d never in my life said before or been told to say. When I tried to explain that no one had ever told me to ask to be excused, my Mom said that spanking would help me remember. But I am still convinced I was never told to do that.

Now, our younger brother (#5) was adopted. The story goes that Dad didn’t think it was healthy for Mom to have more kids, so they adopted. And they changed their minds later. But this brother was not naturally quiet like the rest of us. Not naturally compliant. Needing to move around a lot more. And he got a lot more spankings. I remember telling myself that my parents must love him more because they “disciplined” him more. Yes, I had completely bought the teaching myself. Or perhaps I was trying to convince myself that my parents weren’t being unfair and were good Christian parents, so everything they did was right.

One time I remember we were walking from church in L.A. to our car a couple blocks away. My brother did something that infuriated Mom. She took him on the street corner and pulled down his pants and spanked his bare bottom. The way I remember it, she used the rod — maybe got it from the car? (And I think I remember that she brought it everywhere with us, keeping it in the glove compartment when we got in the car – which was why we had it on vacation.) But maybe she pulled down his pants because she didn’t have the rod. I was on the other side of the intersection with some siblings, and I was mortified and horrified. Mom was incredibly angry, and it showed.

Because no matter how rational and anger-free you mean your discipline to be — we’re humans.

When I became a parent – so young! – spanking just didn’t seem right. We discussed things with other young couples. One friend had been listening to Dobson. I expressed that spanking a young child seemed so wrong. She said, “But it works!” And I’m not sure how I responded, but I hope I said something to the effect of “But at what cost?”

Another friend said in a case of touching something they shouldn’t, she’d use a slap on the hand and say, “No!” We tried that for a little while. But then one day my toddler hit their head on a table. They then slapped the table and said, “No!” That was enough for me! That was not how I wanted to teach my child to react to things.

Not long after that, my then-husband read The Horse Whisperer, by Monty Roberts. We thought that if nonviolence is best for training horses, surely it’s best for training people, too.

Besides, those verses are Proverbs, not promises! Not commands! They are wise sayings — at least wise for ancient times. And I still agree that disciplining and teaching your children is important. But I don’t want to teach them violence.

And how can you punish a kid for being a kid? Curiosity is what children are all about! It’s how they learn! If you squelch a child’s curiosity – teach a baby to stay on a blanket, for example – you’re shutting down a learning machine. Curiosity is not sin.

My mother-in-law was one of the most helpful people I interacted with. When my oldest had just turned two years old and was practicing saying “No” all the time, my mother-in-law told me about an article she’d read saying that they are learning self-autonomy. When my kid would be particularly oppositional, I’d chant “Self-autonomy!” It actually helped. That’s an important part of learning, too. Saying “No” is not sinful!

In fact, I watched a John Bradshaw show on PBS soon after that. He gave an exercise for people who need to learn to say No: First, spend a week practicing saying “No” under your breath, just constantly: “No, No, No, No….”. The next week, maybe warn people around you, but say “No” to everything you’re asked. And after that, actually say “No” to something significant and not prearranged. I laughed at this, because it mirrored what my two-year-old was doing. That was the one time we could get our picky eater to eat anything. All we had to do was say, “That’s mine! Don’t eat it.”

But when I told my Mom about the exercise, she said, “I don’t think you kids went through that.”

Saying “No,” after all, would not be “instant obedience.” The Rod was to teach children not to even say No.

And that makes me think. Does God want our “instant obedience”?

I honestly don’t think God does. Consider I John 4:1 — “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

If you believe God is telling you to do something, test the spirit.

Remember – the Torah was not only religious laws, but also civil laws for a young nation. Yes, people needed to obey the law.

But Jesus brought a new command — “Love one another as I have loved you.” Obeying this command is not about fear. It’s not about instant compliance. And it’s not about legalism — and maybe legalism is what I should tackle next time.

Shiny Happy Childhood – Authority

Five children playing ring-around-the-rosie.
Me with my then four siblings in 1971. I was older than this when I first attended Bill Gothard’s seminars, but not a lot older.

When I watched the documentary series Shiny Happy People it struck way too close to home. So I decided to write a blog series to process my responses.

In the first post, I talked about my background – how I’m from a big family, like the Duggars, and attended Bill Gothard’s seminars in the 1970s, before they were as extreme as they seem to have become later.

In this second post, I’d like to talk about Authority.

Although from the documentary I learn that Bill Gothard’s teachings got much more extreme as time went on, even in the 1970s, he was already pushing Authoritarian teachings.

You’ve probably seen the diagram on Twitter, and I think it was in the documentary – the idea is the “Umbrella of Protection” – that the father/husband is under the umbrella of Christ protecting him from Satanic attack, and the wife is under the husband’s umbrella, and the children are under the wife.

Gothard preached that this is God’s design and if trouble ever comes your way, you’d better check if you stepped out from under the God-designed authority.

I don’t think Gothard was teaching then that girls shouldn’t go to college. He wasn’t pushing homeschooling then, either, and my parents didn’t homeschool until later.

When I talked about my background, I kept talking about what my Mom thought and what my Mom did. That’s because we heard the ideas from her. Dad worked full-time and wasn’t around all that much – more for fun things. Mom was the one running us kids’ lives. And if you think about it, that fits Gothard’s set-up. I do know that my mother believed in voting how my dad told her to vote, and wasn’t interested in politics or current events. She also didn’t think women should run for office, and you certainly shouldn’t vote for one. (Makes me wonder if we’ll ever get a woman President unless it’s a conservative – because that might be the only way people like my parents would vote for her.)

It’s just as well Gothard didn’t teach that women shouldn’t go to college. Because in my family, we kids did well in school, and Mom was proud of our grades. Besides, she’d gone to a Christian college just long enough to meet my dad and get married at 19. Then she got pregnant and dropped out. So when we went to a Christian school – and my older sister got married at 19 (but managed to finish her degree) – it’s not at all like Mom was ever tempted to stop us.

But Mom also thought it was a terrible thing when married women worked outside the home. And the truth was, I’d always wanted to end up a stay-at-home mom.

So when my firstborn came along a year and two months after I got married (right after grad school) and there was no way in the world we could afford to live in Los Angeles on one income – it was tough. Actually, I was teaching at Biola University, and we tried for a little while for me to work full-time and my husband at home. But he hadn’t grown up wanting to be a stay-at-home dad. It was rough. He started working part-time, and I adjusted my course load of teaching to teach three days a week. That didn’t work well, either.

So eventually, my husband joined the Air Force Band, and after that I taught night classes. I cheerfully went with him around the world, because for me, it was all about his career. My job was just a part-time one to help pay the bills. And we bent over backwards to not have to put our kid into day care.

And while I was doing that – teaching at Biola and feeling pretty overwhelmed with it all, I had a conversation with my Mom about Sesame Street. She said I wouldn’t like it now because they have things like women working. As if she was blissfully unaware how hard I was working.

Another time she told about a neighbor whose child had sadly gotten burned because their water temperature was up too high. And she said, “That’s what happens when women work.” Apparently, they had turned up the temperature to be able to get out the door in the morning more quickly. But I was flabbergasted by the comment.

And actually, looking back, I think my teaching worked out pretty well. It was nice that I had an outlet outside the home. (Albeit a bit frustrating at the time to always have papers to grade and class notes to prepare.) I didn’t feel like it was wrong for me to work outside the home – I just wished we could afford for me not to.

And I did get a year and a half as a stay-at-home mom when my husband got transferred to Germany. And I was very glad to quit teaching. But when an opening came up at the base library right when our car broke down, I realized that if we had to replace the used car, I would need to get a job — so why not apply for this one I would really like while it was available? I began working twenty hours a week at the base library. Little did I know that it would eventually lead to a wonderful career.

So I want to say this kind of thinking and teaching didn’t affect my life all that much. But — it also explains how incredibly hard it hit when my husband started talking about divorce.

It turned out he was having an affair, but when I found out he was spending time with the other woman behind my back, he told me it was not an affair, just a friendship. And I believed him. And I could have understood an exception for adultery, but if it was not adultery, then I believed divorce was WRONG. (And yes, all-caps is appropriate.)

And yes, when I heard Bill Gothard talk about divorce, I was just a kid. But I still remember that he said that God wouldn’t bless the marriage of the first person of the couple to remarry. But if your spouse divorces you and remarries someone else, then God can bless your marriage if you marry someone else. I believed that completely. I was a kid! And the ideas hung around until I was an adult.

In fact, those ideas made me ripe for a ministry I found that was all about reconciling with your “prodigal” spouse and “Standing for your marriage” and praying them back, whether they have a “non-covenant” marriage or not. It took years trying to pray my husband back before the Lord gently showed me that I was trying to tell God what to do – I wasn’t trusting God with the situation. I finally got to where I could pray that my husband would find his way back to God, but it didn’t have to be back to me. And eventually, I told my friends to be sure and stop me if I was ever tempted to take my ex-husband back.

And I’ve actually got a career now! And a job I love, that’s completely and perfectly suited to my skill set and special interests. (I’m not only a librarian, but I select all the children’s and teen books for a large public library system.)

So – this post hasn’t been so much about authority. But as a now-single woman, I do reject the idea that I need a man’s protection or that I need anyone coming between the Lord and me. The divorce process hit me much harder than if I hadn’t felt like I was disobeying God as well. But the Lord dealt with me tenderly and made me feel protected and close to God’s heart.

Oh, one last postscript – My parents both passed away at the end of 2019. So I think I can speak a little more freely about my childhood than I did when I wrote Project 52. They did their best, but I personally don’t feel like there’s a person alive who can adequately parent 13 children. Besides that, they sat under the teachings of Bill Gothard and brought us with them. And now I’m exploring how that affected my life, for good or ill.

Shiny Happy Childhood – Background

A couple weeks ago, I watched the documentary series Shiny Happy People about the Duggars (of 19 children fame) and evangelical teacher Bill Gothard’s empire. And oh my goodness I was shook up.

So I’ve decided to process my reaction in a series of blog posts. I’ll call them Shiny Happy Childhood. My goal is not to spend more than a half-hour writing each post. Which will keep them from being long to read. But that means I don’t know how long the series will run.

With this first post, I’ll talk about why the series shook me up so much.

First, I’m third of 13 children. I was absolutely horrified at the thought of the Duggars’ show when it was popular and could not have stomached watching a single episode. This is *because* I knew it would present them as shiny, happy people. I know about big family trauma, and my heart would break for those kids (when my stomach wasn’t turning). Those are kids who are not getting much attention from their parents, with the older kids having to parent the younger. (That’s simply scratching the surface of why I don’t believe they’re shiny or happy.)

However the documentary promised to look into the problems with the shiny happy presentation. And that I just had to watch. But then it turned out that it was also about Bill Gothard, and that’s when it really shook me up.

I went to Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts at least a dozen times, beginning in elementary school.

This was in the 1970s, before he called it the Institute in Basic Life Principles. And from the documentary, it sounds like it was before he formed a full-fledged cult. My family only went to the basic seminars that happened at Long Beach Convention Center. I believe they let alumni attend for free or at least very low cost, so we went over and over again. But we never did a family camp or anything that required traveling. My Mom did buy Gothard’s Character Sketches book, and when she paid us for memorizing (more on that later), we could also memorize Gothard’s “Character Qualities” definitions.

However, my Mom eventually came to believe that birth control is wrong. Did she get that idea from Bill Gothard? She began home schooling my younger siblings in the 1980s, after I was already in college (at a Christian university). Did she get that idea from Bill Gothard? Some time when I was in elementary school, she got a ruler and wrote a Bible verse on it about the “rod of correction” and began using that for spankings. I’m quite sure that idea was from Bill Gothard.

She also got a really good idea from Bill Gothard: Start memorizing whole chapters of Scripture. And she went further: She paid us kids to do the same. A whole system. I credit memorizing the New Testament with giving me confidence to analyze teachings of those who claim to be teaching biblical truth. (This will probably be a whole post in itself.) I’m no longer a good follower of authoritarians like Bill Gothard.

I think my parents took me and my older siblings before we were technically “old enough,” because they believed we were smart beyond our years. I probably went to my first seminar around age 10, very proud to get a day off school from our Christian school and go. When I saw clips from the seminar I had the uncanny feeling of remembering when I heard his words and agreed with them with all my heart — thought how wonderful it was to have these principles so clearly stated.

And that’s the thing about Bill Gothard, as I watched the documentary. He’s an authoritarian who says he has the answers and a complete system for how you should run your life and please God.

I’ve always loved systems! And I’m like my mother in that. We ate it up.

I am ever so thankful we weren’t involved in the later years when it did become more like a cult. Last week, I watched a question-and-answer from one of the women interviewed in the documentary, and he even had people following Old Testament dietary laws. And not taking epidurals for labor and delivery. And not sending girls to college.

So it’s not like I had to exit a cult. Not really. Though my own family had its own cult-like characteristics. Remember, we’re talking thirteen kids, with the middle ones home schooled. We went to church Sunday morning for Sunday school and worship service, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night Bible study. No getting out of any of it unless you were sick with a fever or vomited.

Well, my half-hour is up. Where am I going with this? I want to think through some of the teachings I got and absorbed from those seminars and examine them in the light of day.

Thinking about this, I have some sympathy for conservatives so afraid their kids will be “indoctrinated.” Because I’m remembering as a child wholly believing this stuff, to the level of taking for granted this is how the world works.

As an adult, it wouldn’t hurt to pull some of those beliefs into the light of day. I am very much still a Christian, though not necessarily an Evangelical one, and I don’t consciously believe many of Bill Gothard’s teachings any more, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.

Please comment if this brings up anything for you or where you’d like my ramblings to go next time.