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Life Isn’t a Role-Playing Game: Part One
“Your face…I don’t know what it is, but it’s like it’s glowing!”
That comment was made by a character in one of my favorite role-playing games (RPGs). For those who don’t know, RPGs are a fascinating video game genre in which the game player must create a character and develop his or her skills, abilities, morality, and relationships with others while undertaking an epic quest that provides the backbone of the game’s story. In this particular game, one of the consequences of picking morally good choices is that the character’s face looks more peaceful and pleasant. Conversely, choosing the path of evil leads the character to look more aged, not unlike the title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Additionally, nearly every choice you make carries with it some sort of consequence. If you’re talking directly to a paragon of virtue who is traveling with you on your journey, you can pretty much count on gaining his or her favor through morally upright actions. If you’re dealing with an evil person, then acting like a rogue or saying something sinister typically elicits a positive response. Completing various tasks in these games is also a fairly linear process. Doing so grants you experience points (XP), the accumulation of which allows you to “level up” to advance the aforementioned skills and abilities, at least until the game’s “level cap” is reached.
If you have ever been in IBLP (the Institute in Basic Life Principles), and all of this sounds familiar, it’s because IBLP operates on similar linear principles. The story you’re about to read will probably sound a bit different than some of the others on this site. Thankfully, by the grace of God, it doesn’t involve rampant sexual abuse or dictatorial parents. However, it does involve the subtle, unchecked inclusion of linear IBLP teachings into one’s life, and unfortunately, that can still be quite damaging.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that my family and I were never really all that involved with IBLP. We attended the seminars and used their materials for homeschooling, but that was about it. When both of my parents had come to a saving faith in Christ, they first started attending the seminars back in the 1970s, a time when the Christian “subculture” that was beginning to ostracize itself from an increasingly broken world was certainly perplexed.
And then came Bill Gothard, the man who seemed to have all the answers neatly tucked away in a cozy red binder.
I don’t know everything that my parents experienced in the 1970s as they attended Gothard’s seminars. What I do know, however, is that my dad began to examine his faith more closely as a result of Gothard’s teachings. My mom was eager to learn; her faith was still relatively new, and anything that seemed to suggest a deeper understanding of Christ certainly sounded appealing. Everything seemed to make sense at the time. IBLP was certainly not as far-reaching as it is today with respect to how many areas of life Gothard’s materials addressed. Coming from two very different but still broken families, my parents were beginning to connect the dots: it was very evident that their families weren’t following Gothard’s seven principles; therefore, that must be why their families broke down! As they continued to attend the seminars, they were eager to commit to homeschooling once I came along, at least so that I could avoid the turmoil that they had to endure in public school and spend more time with them. After several moves and job changes, my family welcomed me into the world in 1988. My dad started a new job with a company with which he has remained to this day, while my mom left work permanently to take care of me.
From the very start, my parents wanted to see me succeed. They had only the best of intentions when it came to raising me. They tried to adhere to many of the basic principles and philosophies espoused by Gothard, beginning with the reading of Scripture while I was still in the womb, though they certainly weren’t so keen on Gothard’s more radical tenets, such as adhering to Mosaic dietary law. It wasn’t until I was about to turn five that they presented me with the idea of homeschooling. I was quick to accept it, as I really had nothing else to which it could be compared. And how could I resist spending more time with the parents I loved? As time passed, I began to truly enjoy it. I’d be eager to do “wisdom searches” through Psalms and Proverbs with my mom while Dad was away at work, and I’d come up with new noises to make each month to replace “Selah” after the ends of certain verses in Psalms. I’d even take all the Greek vocabulary flash cards that IBLP sent us and would start finding interesting ways to teach Greek to at least one of the waitresses we requested at a restaurant my mother and I would frequent! Outside of the IBLP homeschooling curriculum, I got involved with activities such as piano lessons, a local community children’s choir, activities at my church, and Awana (a Christian program that focused on Scripture memorization) at another church.
Despite my involvement in those activities, I still felt incredibly alone and ostracized. I am to this day an only child. I had no siblings with whom I could bounce ideas off and discuss what I was being taught. All I had were my parents. Even when I would get out of the house and mingle with others, I was unaware of how I should interact with them. I faced the challenge that many IBLP kids felt the need to achieve: setting oneself apart from the rest of the world, even one’s own church family, to the point of isolation. Add to that the perpetual bullying I’d receive at church because I was the “different kid” with the huge dorky glasses, and it’s not too hard to see why being an underdog felt like the norm.
From the very beginning, I’ve struggled with an insatiable desire to prove myself to the rest of the world out of pure pride, as well as a tendency to condense life down into neat, packaged formulas where every choice was supposed to be obvious. IBLP and its materials put the pressure on and were even more fuel for the fire. Despite my parents’ best efforts to sanitize much of the curriculum, I can’t tell you just how many times I’d run into some sort of true/false quiz in a Wisdom Booklet or some piece of supplementary material that presented life in these terms:
(1) You can either follow God by choosing the more “godly” option presented in each false dichotomy, or forsake God by settling only for the “good” (and often still biblical) option.
(2) Following the “godly” option or achieving a satisfactory score on the quiz would reap blessings, whereas settling for less than “God’s best” would lead to God removing his blessings from you.
And thus, my journey toward this brand of linear, results-based thinking began. This sort of paradigm seemed so ideal for someone like me who felt so small, lonely, and helpless. If I were to just follow the seven basic principles, exhibit all the character qualities, set myself apart from everyone else just enough, make sure my countenance and smile were bright enough—it would all be worth it in the end, right? All that bullying, all the teasing I’d have to endure, all the disagreements—it wouldn’t matter because God was all that mattered, right?
The worst part about all of this was that for the most part, this way of living was actually much more successful than I had anticipated.
For example, I had a friend at my childhood church named Brian. Brian was, in essence, one of the few direct links I had to the “outside world” throughout my childhood. In many respects, he was directly the opposite of what I was. He went to public school. He had a brother. And he loved listening to Christian rock, which we were told was evil. But though I stood up for my “convictions,” he respected me, and we agreed to disagree, making our friendship even stronger. So I figured I must have been doing something right! Alongside that, the rock music issue was the source of much conflict between my parents and our church, as any music that was loud and had a strong back-beat was immediately denounced as immoral. For a while, I bought into this philosophy hook, line, and sinker and earned the attention of some of my Sunday School teachers who wanted to play some (very light) Christian rock, many of whom actually looked up to me for “standing up for my beliefs.” Their response only encouraged me further. After all, I was earning respect—maybe not from all my peers, but certainly respect from adults! And that was more than I could have ever asked for. Another example came up when I was in 6th grade. I was invited to a “preview” of a junior-high Awana meeting only to find out that they were blaring (gasp!) DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak”! But somehow, by the time I actually moved into the 7th grade, the leader responsible for it had left and was replaced by an elderly lady who had quite different tastes. My parents and I were convinced that it just had to be God and that He was blessing us for our efforts. Considering that our minds at the time were not ready to change, perhaps it was.
During my time at church, I became more curious about the people around me, though I can’t say my relationships with them were particularly deep. Still, I wanted to get to know them more. The opportunity to know people more intimately was just irresistible. I hadn’t truly shared life deeply with anyone my own age at the time, after all. I even had my first real crush on a girl—actually, the only girl in our group for quite a while. Even at the age of 12, I tried approaching her in an effort to “court” her by awkwardly asking her about a “godly project” we could work on together. But it all came to an abrupt end when my parents approached me with life-changing news: we were going to move from California to Texas. More specifically, we were going to move to Longview, an East Texas town about 30 minutes away from the ALERT Academy in Big Sandy. We weren’t moving there because of that, but rather because my dad’s dad, who lived there, was in poor health and was not in any capacity to take care of himself. I had to say goodbye to Brian and my small band of friends I was just beginning to know.
When I first arrived in Texas, I had no idea what to expect. Everything was so much quieter. A seemingly quick five-minute drive down to the local yogurt shop felt so much more laborious than the long 15-20-minute excursions to neighboring cities in California for piano lessons, chiropractor appointments, and church services. At any rate, the slower pace gave our family much more time to think. We attended one of Gothard’s “Anger Management” seminars in Big Sandy, and it was there (and especially at a Basic Seminar my entire family attended in 2004) that I continued to question his exegetical school of thought. After a while, it became increasingly obvious that IBLP just wasn’t cutting it anymore academically as I was entering high school. Around the time I transitioned to high school, my parents abandoned our IBLP materials for the satellite program from Bob Jones University (BJU). Whatever ultraconservative tendencies people may talk about regarding BJU, the material in their classes for my age group was certainly less imbued with continuous references to authority and the “evils of ungodly music” than what I had heard from IBLP for much of my life. In many ways, it was a welcome relief—and I could tell my parents thought so too. For all intents and purposes, they put IBLP behind them.
But despite all of that, the linear tendencies that I had built up from years of being fed IBLP material still remained. To me, life was still an RPG. Throughout most of my life, I had grown to become a competitive perfectionist. I refused to settle for less than the best. Additionally, I had developed a purely black-and-white view of the world and of situations around me. In hindsight, it’s not too hard to see just how IBLP contributed to all of this, but it was difficult for me to discern at the time.
And it wasn’t until I faced the reality that not everyone would follow Gothard’s formulas that a truly new way of living would make itself more apparent.
J.B. is a twenty-something who grew up in ATI and IBLP during his childhood. In recent years, he has just begun to discover the beginning of his journey in finding true freedom in Christ rather than fruitlessly searching for fulfillment in his accomplishments. He currently works as a marketing specialist and is a pianist, photographer, swimming enthusiast, and puzzle designer in his spare time. Most of all, he loves spending time with God, family, and the fellow believers God has placed in his life who have walked with him in the latest stage of his journey.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.
Advanced Training Institute ALERT Basic Seminar Big Sandy Bill Gothard Bob Jones formulas Freedom freedom in Christ Homeschool homeschooling IBLP legalism role-playing games RPG rules Salvation
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