“You may run from sorrow, as we have. Sorrow will find you.” — August Nicholson in The Village

My wife and I (Ted) were in the mood for a '90s movie, so we rented M. Night Shayamalan's The Village, which actually came out in 2004 but is still a '90s movie in terms of its earnestness and desire to be deep. It succeeds (in being deep) inasmuch as it always makes me think about the church, and about trends in the church.

In a nutshell, it's about a group of academics—all of whom have been deeply wounded by life in a fallen, sinful world—who decide to follow one charismatic leader (William Hurt) into forming an 1800s-style commune on a nature preserve. The idea is that if you take away everything modern and broken and hurtful about the world and replace it with floor-length skirts, suspenders, chickens, and primitive farm equipment, then nothing can hurt you. The movie then spins out a wonderful narrative that illustrates how there is no fleeing from total depravity. It finds us because it is in our hearts to begin with.

Utopia will elude humans, because sin causes the dystopia. Yet we still long for utopia and sometimes try like crazy to create it.

Recently, my friend Derek shared about what life was like growing up inside the Bill Gothard movement in the 1980s and '90s. His account was utterly fascinating both in terms of how weird it was, and also how eerily similar it sounds (in some ways) to how some Midwestern Reformed families are rolling today with the homeschooling, chicken-raising, huge-family-having, government-disdaining, and so on. The Gothard movement, as far as I can tell, was part life-coaching, part para-church organization, part-homeschool curriculum, part-subculture, and part-arena show.

The Village and the Gothard arc show that in spite of our best efforts, sorrow still finds us. Children still get sick and still sometimes rebel.  WE still sometimes rebel and hurt people with our sin. Sorrow found the Gothard/ATI [1] empire recently, amid allegations of years' worth of sexual misconduct.

There are a few encouraging things that surface in Derek's story—namely that he came out of the Gothard experience in one piece spiritually and loves the Lord. His story prompts us to talk and think about what happens when people either follow an individual or a set of culturally mandated standards, and end up making those their operative gospel.

Here's Derek's story, in his words. [2]

Disclaimer

I had a great childhood. My parents loved me and did their best to raise me and my siblings to be productive, thoughtful Christians. While I may disagree with some of the principles they followed, I cannot begin to even pretend that I have all of the answers. My reflections on my upbringing are a matter of perspective. I have no intention of misrepresenting Bill Gothard's views or the principles of ATI. I wish to simply share what I felt was overemphasized and underemphasized.

What is the draw?

Our society seems obsessed with systems. Whether raising children or creating your own backyard oasis, someone has a step-by-step guide that will take you to the Promised Land. We also have an obsession with doing things right, so it becomes logical to follow the system that promises the best results. The danger is that we quickly shift the focus from the goal of glorifying God to following a system. We then invest our trust in the effectiveness of the system, rather than the grace of God.

What was it like?

The aspect of ATI that has lingered longest in my life was the expectation of perfection. This idea was applied in a way that overemphasized the role of the individual at the expense of God's involvement. Furthermore, the categories in which perfection was expected extended beyond scriptural commands. A frustrating cycle of commitment, failure, guilt, and then recommitment pervaded my personal life. My family was not a “perfect” ATI family, so this cycle became a practice for our family as a whole.

The mission of ATI maintained an inward focus. Families isolated themselves from the evil influences of those outside of the system. Much like The Village by M. Night Shyamalan, parents secluded their families from outside threats by threatening their own families with God's judgment on rebels and sinners. At the very least, the outside world was painted as a place too dangerous for a Christian to live. The fatal flaw in the system (other than being completely contrary to the missional purpose to which we are called), is that sin was treated as an external force, rather than internal. The focus on the external resulted in a forced attempt at an appearance of godliness, while burying internal struggles.

This quarantined Christianity did not occur with physical barriers, but with outward expressions that demonstrated supposed inward spiritual change. All music with a drumbeat was frowned upon as it had a connection with demonic forces. Contemporary Christian music was just as evil. Cabbage Patch dolls were somehow connected with a devilish force or worldly influence. Circumcision was strongly, strongly, recommended for all males.

“Modest” dress was a must. The rows of navy blue, khaki, and white clothing at ATI conferences was a cross between a well-organized fan section and the North Korean military. Just as important as your dress was the expression on your face. You would be hard-pressed to find a “good” ATI family whose eyes were not shining like high beams while they flashed their pearly whites. If you were missing one of those qualities, you definitely were not going to end up with your family picture in an upcoming publication. Dying your hair was frowned upon as being too worldly, although the rumor was that Bill Gothard justified his own salon treatments as being necessary to prevent distractions regarding his appearance. ATI men did not have facial hair, but I do not know if it was forbidden or if men just wanted to be like Bill, who is sans mustachio.

One of the foundational truths of ATI was the “umbrella of protection.” In a family structure, the father was the umbrella that protected his wife and children from Satan's attacks and God's judgments. If you stepped outside of that authority, you would face temptations and wrath. The umbrella came without an expiration date. As a teenager, the gradual increase of responsibility would not coincide with a gradual increase in decision-making. A young man would be eligible to step out from under the umbrella of protection only when he married. A young woman would only transfer from the father's umbrella to a husband's. This authoritarian approach forced the fear of both God and parents to become the main reason for obedience.

The ATI ministry structure was built around the same concept. Leadership within the organization provided the same protection from Satan and God. Questioning or challenging an interpretation of a verse or application of a principle was grounds for removal from the ministry.

Another cornerstone of the “barely in the world, but definitely not of, by, close to, around, or near the world” mentality was the ATI way for members of the opposite sex to interact. Part of the ATI teaching was, “Avoid Defrauding: To defraud another person is to stir up in them desires that cannot be righteously satisfied.” While this teaching was specifically focused on “courtship,” it outlined a system in which two major errors occurred. First, the blame was directed at the other person for “defrauding.” It ignored the responsibility of the individual and encouraged isolationism. Second, the emphasis was on the external, not on the internal. My responsibility as a man was to not touch and not talk about marriage. The girls were responsible for covering up and not being flirty. If that was all taken care of, then nothing sinful could occur within our hearts, right?

Dating was of course far too worldly of a way to find a spouse. Enter courtship. Once a young man was prepared to support a wife and family, he was to approach the father of a young woman whose countenance [3] had caught his eye. As the young man was still under the umbrella of protection of his parents, his parents must approve of his choice, or even better, choose for him. The courtship should then be as short as possible to avoid any potential defrauding. The couple participated in primarily group activities, or chaperoned dates [4]. I distinctly remember listening to a couple tell their courtship story at the national ATI conference. When he proposed, he dropped the ring in his future wife's hand, saving all physical contact for marriage. The audience gave a standing ovation. I just kept wondering what was so bad about putting a ring on someone's finger.

Hero worship was definitely not one of the stated principles of ATI, but was on full display at any ATI gathering and embedded within the ATI curriculum. The Wisdom Booklet [5] often referenced a “hero of the faith” but always seemed to emphasize the strength of the individual over the faithfulness and grace of God. I remember reading D. L. Moody's statement, “The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him. By God's help, I aim to be that man.” Yet the focus was not what God could do, but on what man could do. These “heroes” were portrayed as arriving at a sinless life through dedication to perfection.

In a similar way, the best ATI families were frequently paraded at conferences or trainings. Big families with those beaming countenances were the top draw [6]. Extra-special bonus points were given if the family had a special musical or artistic talent that they could demonstrate for the jealous viewers.  The thought was if we could only be more like Perfect Family, then everything would be so much better. It was a pyramid of legalism. Families networked and advanced through the system based on external factors. Other families worshiped the perfect families, while hating them for the ease with which they seemed to find perfection.

What were the results?

You were expected to be perfect, but the expectation was separate from Christ's righteousness being credited to you. The cross became an event in your past that took you from a negative on the number line of righteousness to zero, neutrality with God. Your advancement beyond zero was predicated on your ability to follow biblical (and sometimes extrabiblical) commands. It was rebuilding the Tower of Babel. Legalism stretched towards the heavens in a futile attempt to reach God, yet ultimately built without God. Despite the attempts, sin shockingly still existed. Grace was ruined and guilt reigned. Sin was routinely condemned, but just as routinely hidden.

True evangelism, sharing the gospel, was nonexistent. We may have been a city set on a hill, but the isolationist mentality made sure that hill was in the middle of nowhere. When there was interaction with others, evangelism amounted to, “Look at how perfect I am. Let me help you be this good.”

How do you move forward?

We must first recognize that these man-made systems hold no promise. No political, economic, social, or educational system can guarantee the spiritual results sought. Any faith placed in a system is misplaced. The answer is not a system, but a Savior. A Savior who promises his grace will be sufficient, who promises to complete the work started in us, who promises to remain faithful when we are faithless, and who promises that nothing can separate us from his love. So we recognize who we are, who God is, what he has done, and what HE will do.


[1] Which stands for “Advanced Training Institute.” If there was ever a more “'80s-sounding” set of initials and company name, I haven't found it. Derek is trying to find an ATI T-shirt for me so that I can wear it ironically.

[2] All further footnotes by Ted Kluck.

[3] Countenance is Gothard for “face.”  When Derek and I were researching this piece he showed me some worksheets from an ATI manual wherein six pencil drawings of clothed women were presented, and you were supposed to pick out what was “trashy” or “defraudy” about each woman's outfit. Aside from all six of the outfits being hopelessly “'80s” all of the women's countenances/faces had been removed, and only a weird, empty oval remained atop their shoulders.

[4] This all sounds so eerily familiar.

[5] What the?

[6] See: things that sound familiar.