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May 2, 2008, marked a major milestone in my life. It was the end of my first year of college, and I had long planned a 50-mile bike ride to celebrate. That morning, however, tornado sirens started wailing and I was obliged to seek shelter. I didn’t think much of those tornado sirens until weeks later, when my family received the May 2008 Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) newsletter in the mail. That newsletter would end my family’s involvement in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI).
My family had been involved with Bill Gothard’s ATI home school program since I was in middle school. When I graduated from high school, my parents were divided on whether I should go to college, but my dad insisted I go. I attended a Christian college in Longview, Texas, half an hour’s drive from the ALERT campus in Big Sandy, Texas. To my surprise, I found that many of my professors, and even my pastor there, weren’t very fond of ATI. After my first year of school and my cancelled bike ride, it was with mixed feelings that I read that IBLP newsletter sent to my family.
“The weather forecast predicted an ideal week of bright sunshine and perfect temperatures with a 30 percent chance of rain on Friday, but God had bigger plans than any of us imagined.… As 120 men gathered in the upper room of the ALERT library to receive a special gifting of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, God demonstrated His power with the mighty, rushing wind of an unpredicted tornado minutes away from Big Sandy.”
A photograph of a tornado accompanied the story. I stared at the article, photo, and caption in wonder. Was this the same storm that had cancelled my bike ride? I immediately saw three major problems with the article’s reasoning.
The “rushing wind” was clearly a reference to Pentecost in Acts 2:2, “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” Even a single semester of instruction in responsible Bible interpretation had taught me not to read the Bible this way. In John 14:16, Jesus promised to send His disciples the Holy Spirit, which came at Pentecost. There is nothing in either passage to suggest that Christians should repeat Pentecost itself, nor did Gothard claim to see other relevant signs, such as tongues of fire. This sloppy theology alone would have been enough to discredit the article in my eyes.
People in East Texas regularly die in severe storms. Trees blow over, cars are crushed, houses fall down, and people are washed away by flash floods or struck by lightning. It was incredible to me that Gothard would assume that a severe storm, much less a tornado, was a sign of God’s approval. What if someone had been hurt or killed? What if a tornado had passed through the Big Sandy campus? What if a tree had landed on Bill Gothard’s car? Would he still have considered it to be a sign of God’s favor toward him and his meeting? The article’s reasoning reminded me of theologian John Wycliffe’s synod trial in 1382. When a severe earthquake disrupted the synod, Wycliffe’s chief accuser claimed that the earthquake was proof of God’s approval of the proceedings! Gothard’s interpretation of strong weather as divine favor was similarly subjective, and was pure conjecture.
Interpretations of events are subjective, but weather is not. What stunned me most about the newsletter is that the tornado, as described, probably never existed!
Starting with the opening sentence, nearly everything in the account was an exaggeration at best. In order to present the storm as a direct sign from God, the newsletter created the impression that the storm came from nowhere during “an ideal week of bright sunshine and perfect temperatures.” Before May 2, though, it was clear that severe weather was on its way. In an incredible coincidence, my mom had messaged me the day before with her concerns about my bike ride. Included in our exchange was a copied-and-pasted forecast from the Weather Channel: “Tomorrow: Windy with scattered strong thunderstorms. Storms may produce large hail and strong winds. High 81F. Winds SSW at 20 to 30 mph. Chance of rain 60%.” The storm was certainly not “unpredicted.”
On the morning of May 2, 2008, there were no tornadoes reported in Big Sandy, and the sirens near me were activated only as a precaution. I searched the local newspaper. It confirmed the sirens, but reported the only actual tornado sighting and touchdown was in Beckville, Texas, where a funnel cloud knocked down some trees and closed a highway. Beckville is 50 miles (and more than an hour’s drive) from Big Sandy, much farther than the few minutes the newsletter described. There was another possible tornado sighting in Tyler, Texas, about twenty-five miles from the Big Sandy conference. The National Weather Service predicted the possible trajectory of a tornado through Big Sandy that morning, but no tornado was spotted actually taking that path. As anyone in East Texas knows, almost any thunderstorm produces a tornado somewhere, but none seems to have passed through Big Sandy that day.
Bill Gothard is vague about the sources of many of his anecdotes, which makes them difficult to verify. In this case, however, it was possible to investigate the story. By comparing three different sections of the newsletter (one section says the storm occurred on the last day of the conference, which was indeed May 2), I was able to confirm and match the dates. Those attending the Big Sandy conference did not experience a tornado out of a clear blue sky; they experienced strong winds as part of a forecast line of thunderstorms. If anything, a predicted tornado failed to arrive.
In addition to the discrepancy over the weather, I had three strong reasons to believe that the photo above the caption about an “unpredicted tornado” was just a stock image. First, the storm in question occurred in the morning. Since the clouds in the photo are back-lit by the sun, the camera would have to have been pointed east, toward Longview, where the sky was almost completely dark during the May 2 storm. Second, Big Sandy is located in a valley of pine trees, and there’s almost no clear view of the horizon. There’s not a single pine tree on the clean, broad horizon in the photo. Third, there’s no credit or attribution anywhere on the photo. If everyone was either taking shelter or upstairs being anointed, who would have taken this photo? [Editor’s note: Recovering Grace has confirmed that the photo cast in false light as record of a May 2, 2008, tornado in or near Big Sandy, Texas, was, indeed, a stock photo. A version of the image was previously published on the cover of the 2006 Dutch language edition of the Tim LaHaye and Bob Phillips novel Europa, alternately titled The Europa Conspiracy, ISBN 9789029718080.]
After reading the newsletter, I wondered whether God had really sent an unpredicted tornado 25 to 50 miles away from the Big Sandy conference to knock down trees, block a road, and cancel my long-anticipated bike ride specifically in order to demonstrate His approval of Bill Gothard’s men’s session in the “upper room” of the library.
As I read the newsletter on my desk, I tried to view it fairly. “After all,” I thought, “it’s just one anecdote.” As I flipped to the second page, though, I saw the story of Whitney, a young woman whose dizziness was allegedly cured by special anointing during the same Big Sandy conference.
And then it occurred to me: Almost every IBLP teaching is supported by anecdote. Most of IBLP was built upon nice little stories that sounded good in seminars, conferences, and newsletters, but that mutated or were untraceable. I was a direct witness to events surrounding “unquestionably the most significant and important ATI conference we have ever held” [IBLP Newsletter, May 2008], and the account was not just erroneous, but likely fabricated. Why should I believe anything else in the newsletter?
I showed the newsletter to my parents. I told them what I knew. And, to my amazement, we were out of ATI completely within three months.
Dave Kuntz is the oldest of six children. His family was in ATI from 2000 to 2008. He received a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, and is currently working toward his doctorate.