Being Right Isn’t the Chief End of Man

This is a follow-up to my previous post, People Are More Than What We Find Disagreeable.

There are many vices that run rampant throughout our society, but comparison may just be one of the most insidious.

We constantly find a new way to one-up the next person, only to discover the fruitlessness of that pursuit and jump to find yet another scale on which we can measure our worth against theirs. We accumulate possessions, develop skills, and build up stores of knowledge that we can point to whenever someone else seems to have more of something. It’s all quite sad, but it’s that last part that I wanted to focus on today, mainly because it’s so subtle in its intangibility and often goes unnoticed. And to be frank, it’s the one I’ve struggled with the most.

shutterstock_goldfishHave you noticed how much our culture has developed a fixation with being right? We may call it “being educated,” “having the truth,” “being on the right side of history,” or whatever other term suits our fancy, but at the end of the day, the methodology is very similar. We just don’t like the idea of being wrong. We want to avoid being caught off-guard. We’ll develop a compendium of responses to every conceivable question so we can stay on top and avoid embarrassment or the notion that we may still have learning or growth to do. After all, we live in the age of Google, where we can find answers to just about any question with a few clicks. I think we all struggle with this, but as a Christian, I wanted to address the state of modern Christianity as it relates to this issue. Because guys. It’s really killing us.

For anyone who may be wondering, yes, I do believe in truth. I believe in absolute truth. I believe there are truths on a metaphysical level that will always apply to everyone by virtue of the way the universe works. I believe there are truths on an individual level that apply to specific people by virtue of the way they are made. What I don’t believe in is focusing on the truth at the expense of everything else – including how it’s delivered, the perceptions of others, and the relationships we develop with them.

Growing up in IBLP provided an opportunity to see just how damaging the obsession with being right can be. The entire program was grounded in the warped notion that if families were to develop the tastes, preferences, and lifestyle choices of Bill Gothard (basically), God would bless them in a very visible way. If families could emphasize the production and appearance of morality, they could be a “beacon on a hill” toward which the rest of the world could look and wonder, “I want that too!” – the comparison mindset at work. Some even believed that if families produced enough children and grandchildren skilled enough in the defense of their faith, they might stand a fighting chance against the rest of the world who would inevitably attack them. Ultimately, if enough morally upright children and families permeated the culture, Christians would ignite another Great Awakening or widespread revival. An admirable goal, but one that ultimately pales in comparison to sharing the Good News – and one that has helped cement the pursuit of respect and comfort as idols of the church.

tunnel-visionOf course, the tunnel vision instilled in such a culture doesn’t help either. When you surround yourself with materials that repeatedly reinforce the same biases and denounce outside voices as tainted and untrustworthy, the issue prioritization of the organization gradually becomes your own. Whatever cultural deficiencies in the “outside world” are given the most attention are naturally perceived as being the most important, the most critical, the most epic. Soon, you cultivate an unhealthy dependency on the organization when everything on the outside seems to be in shambles. I recently had an exchange online with a fervent IBLP supporter who, even in the wake of the Gothard sexual molestation reports, just couldn’t bring himself to believe that the man he idolized was capable of such behavior. He even admitted that he felt safer with IBLP than without it because the stringent rules and restrictions gave him some measure of comfort that he was “getting it right” and that he would be rewarded in heaven one day. Sadly, he just couldn’t bring himself to let go.

Looking at the heart of the Gospel and at the life of Jesus Christ paints a much different picture. He not only embodied truth, but also grace (John 1:17). He didn’t complete our salvation by giving us a laundry list outlining what to believe or what prayer to pray, though He certainly provided us with a framework. If that’s what it all boiled down to, then Christianity would be no different than any other world religion where we would have to focus on what box to check off to get to heaven. He completed our salvation by becoming us, by sharing life with us, by becoming human and having relationships with humans, and by sacrificing Himself for us and rising from the dead. I’m not trying to say that truth isn’t real, but rather that truth is not the main thing. The truest truth isn’t intellectual but Christ Himself. If objective truth exists and is important but is not the most important thing according to how Jesus acted, and if objective truth is not totally accessible to me, so that I am, even with Scripture in hand, wrong about many things no matter how hard I try to be right just by virtue of being human, then logically, it stands to reason that being wrong about truth, on some level, while nothing to be happy about, is also not the end of the world most of the time.

dominoesThis is a foreign concept in our mainstream evangelical culture, where the emphasis is often placed on defending the truth at all costs and treating it like a set of dominoes that would topple over if one were to get just one tenet or belief wrong. Not only does this discount our own human capacity to make errors, but whether we realize it or not, it also implicitly paints God as a horribly unjust, mercurial deity who creates a reality so complex within which we humans inevitably find it impossible to have all the dominoes standing with our inherent intellectual limits. By subscribing to this paradigm, we’re ultimately setting ourselves up for an infinite loop where we pressure ourselves to “get it right” and end up stressing ourselves – and others – out by wanting to make sure everyone is where we are. If that’s the most important thing in our lives, it’s “loving” in our eyes to insist that everyone agrees with us. But in the end, such insistence leads only to broken relationships and sidesteps the time necessary for true growth to take place.

Being obsessed with being right leaves no room for grace, that we are works in progress. It invites the monster of comparison to live rent-free in our minds as we evaluate ourselves based on how mature we are with respect to how much we believe we’ve “gotten right” – and how much others have done so as well. Soon, we start constructing platforms and elevating ourselves over those around us. It also leaves no room for the possibility that others are works in progress as well – and their perceptions can’t simply be tossed aside, even if they may not entirely be based on the truth. I remember when I was in college, I got into a conflict with a friend over a simple misunderstanding, and it took us months to sort everything out and be comfortable around each other again. We both could’ve handled the situation more maturely, but one of my biggest issues was that I was very quick to justify my own faults by claiming that her misunderstanding me wasn’t entirely based on “fact.” The thing is, that really didn’t matter. She felt hurt and needed space, and I needed to respect that. Her perceptions defined her feelings, and those feelings needed to be validated, even if that meant holding back from shoving the truth in her face.

On top of that, when an obsession with the truth is coupled with an unhealthy us-vs.-them mentality, it can be all too easy to perceive those who disagree only as truth-stampers who want to crush us, then find some way to glory in the situation. It may come as no surprise that the IBLP culture romanticized the idea of persecution. Even one of the booklets that comprised the program’s homeschooling materials assured its readers that an extra jewel would be added to the heavenly crowns of those who had been reviled for their faith. For those with such a mindset, the defense of the truth transforms into a quest for marginalization in pursuit of that jewel. In a very twisted way, those in these situations who crave for and feed off of approval from others often end up seeking out disapproval as their approval. Any form of criticism is ultimately fruitless, as it reinforces the idea that they are in the right.

Even though I’ve focused on these issues of pride and comparison in the context of IBLP and the larger mainstream Christian culture in the West, I hope it’s not too difficult to see how these problems plague almost all of us in this part of the world, regardless of our worldview or political bent. If I could summarize the main points I’ve tried to make in the past few posts on here, it’d look something like this:

  1. Our society is very appearance-obsessed, competitive, comparison- and results-oriented, and loves pitting entire groups of people against each other.
  2. We live in an awareness-saturated world, in which there is a lot of noise that we have to filter out. Our preferred method of filtering out noise is by listening only to people / news sources / etc. that reinforce the biases we carry.
  3. Therefore, the perception of a cultural deficiency by any given group of people can easily be magnified through constant reinforcement by those who seem agreeable or make us feel comfortable, fueling conflict even further.
  4. Whatever issues are highlighted within the group are often awarded priority at the expense of other issues that are often just as, if not more, important.
  5. Compatible points of view are amalgamated into easily digestible packages such that epistemological issues are discussed in terms of these packages, not the merits of individual components. As a result, people are often discouraged from deviating from their set of comfortable talking points out of fear of compromising or “going soft.”

At the end of the day, the pursuit of the truth is most certainly a worthy and critical one. But the way we seek and share the truth is also important. It can often be conflated with the truth itself to the point where any attack on our methodology is perceived as an attack on the truth. Our insistence on dogmatically defending the truth or being right as the end-all-be-all goal can often drive us to break relationships before we even begin creating the space necessary to discuss the truth. Jesus certainly knew how to create that space with the people who needed to hear His message the most by meeting their needs or demonstrating that He truly cared for them as whole people before talking about the difficult stuff.

Some of the wisest and most mature people I’ve been blessed to know all share one characteristic: they are lifelong learners. They don’t stop searching. They don’t take for granted that they are fallible human beings. They take a stand, but they do so in humility, not at the expense of others. They understand that their perceptions of the world, the Bible, history, or culture need to be evaluated and re-evaluated as they continue to grow. And as part of that, they seek out relationships with wiser people who can provide input and advice, even people with whom they may disagree about some issues.

One such person in my life once stopped me dead in my tracks. He often shares differing perspectives on various cultural issues on Facebook, not because because he agrees with every one completely, but because he enjoys viewing life through a variety of “lenses” to help compensate for the shortcomings of each. I was rather blindsided when I first started to know him in college, because he wasn’t afraid to think outside of the binary terms within which our society often confines conversations. He is grounded in his faith, but he understands that the fallible, human, cultural manifestation of that faith is insufficient to help him grow completely. So he ventures out in an attempt to understand others who may believe differently, and as a result, his worldview is strengthened as he continues to learn. Obviously, he is not you or me. What works for him may not work for us. But I think there’s at least something to be said for listening to others, even in our disagreements. For holding lightly to our perception that we may have it all together and “got it right.” For treating others the way we want to be treated and being willing to grow.

Who knows – maybe a few years from now, I’ll look back on this blog post with a few adjusted insights and new thoughts to share after some additional growth and life experience. At least I can hope, right?

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People Are More Than What We Find Disagreeable

The Doctor and Idris“Are all people like this?”

“Like what?”

“So much…bigger on the inside.”

– Doctor Who, The Doctor’s Wife

We live in such a competitive, noisy world.

My line of work – marketing – involves generating a certain degree of noise that can be heard amidst the cacophony of messages being shouted from the rooftops every day. Some of them are healthy. Some aren’t. Where it gets sticky is how we resort to being heard. Let’s just take our Facebook News Feeds, for instance. Look on there, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find at least one clickbait headline about something crazy some celebrity did over the weekend. Go down a few lines, and there will be a “sponsored” post for which some company or organization with which you’ve never been connected has paid just so someone with your demographic data points can see it. Then, even further down, you’ll find a news story from an obviously biased source written to pit one group of people against the other. And if you see a “trending” icon above it, you can click and find other perspectives on the topic that effectively do the same thing.

With all of this noise, we have to adapt. We have to find some way to filter it.

Some of our methods are helpful – and necessary. We look at who’s calling us on our cell phones before we answer. We install ad blockers on our internet browsers. We take some measures to ensure our kids aren’t being affected by unhealthy influences. But where it goes sour is when we mentally wall ourselves off from anything that even feels disagreeable. We now have the ability to construct a reality for ourselves in which our news, our information, and even our relationships – especially online – can be customized and individualized to fit our every whim. No longer do we have to suffer through the uncomfortability that comes with hearing a different point of view. We can insulate ourselves with all the bias-reinforcing sources we want to hear – and after a while, every opinion we hold dear feels like the most reasonable, the most sensible, the most moderate.

Couple ArguingThat’s enough of an issue to talk about on its own. But the way our cultural conversations are imbued with false dichotomies – our desire for each issue we discuss to boil down to a simple binary choice – is compounding it to an extent that has rendered reasonable discourse near-impossible. Let’s go back to our News Feeds. Chances are that throughout this week, you’ll run into at least a handful of heated online discussions, some of which may be engineered by news and opinion-providing entities seeking to thrive on all the likes and comments. These shouting matches are typically characterized by Side 1 and Side 2 arguing and flaming with no intention of budging. They may even walk into the conversation with a pre-determined narrative that they hope to reinforce, and anything that doesn’t fit within the confines of the narrative is discarded and ignored.

This isn’t productive. It’s not persuasive. It’s certainly not edifying. And unfortunately, it’s not limited to the impersonal medium of online conversation. After a while, we reach a point where we amalgamate. We take Talking Point A and Compatible Opinion B and group them together with similar ones to build that narrative, to form Paradigm X with no room for deviation. Then, we give that paradigm a name, a sense of identity around which we can rally so the “not-we”s who subscribe to Paradigm Y can be put down. Ultimately, whether or not we intend for it to be so, our upholding of “X” is based on negativity. Before long, it’s no longer primarily about X being good on its own merit – instead, X is good because X is Not Y. And on and on this dance goes.

I don’t say this as if I’m some wise rhetorician who looks down on all the discord. I’m not. I’ve been this. I’ve added to the verbal crossfire. And most unfortunately, I’ve reaped the saddest consequence of it: broken relationships.

It’s sad because we forget just how complex and interesting human beings are. We’re flawed and fickle, but we are also invaluable and intricate. It’s so easy to set all of that aside when the veil of online anonymity obscures our perception of others, or when we allow a disagreeable opinion in a face-to-face conversation to define an entire person. People are so much more than their talents, their failures, their triumphs, their shortcomings, and yes – even their opinions.

I can’t tell you just how many relationships I’ve missed out on – or even broken – just because I was afraid. I was afraid that the comfortable reality I constructed for myself would crumble when I realized that life was a bit more complicated than just Paradigms X and Y. I would have to relinquish that illusion of control – that idea that I had everyone figured out and categorized – by stepping outside the comfortable talking points that fit within the binary. I would have to entertain the notion that maybe I’ve been wrong about something – that perhaps the methodology packaged in the delivery of the paradigm I value was flawed and needed some work. (I’m going to address issues about being right / wrong / etc. a bit further in my next post.)

Over the past few years, I’ve been blessed with an incredible, colorful spectrum of relationships. I don’t say that simply as a positive, cheery statement, because it’s actually been a grueling growth process. Do we always agree? Certainly not. Do we hold hands around a campfire and sing Kumbaya? Nah. Are there times when we need to address our disagreements in the context of relationship? Yes, and it’s not easy. But that’s the beauty of it. We have the freedom to agree to disagree. We have the ability to view others as more than just data points, labels, and descriptors. We have the responsibility to examine ourselves and our own shortcomings in light of what we learn from others. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking.

But it’s also life-changing. It’s how we grow.

We Need to Talk About Things Unseen

Do you ever see a big news story blow up all over the internet, and you start sighing and thinking to yourself something like this?

“Oh, boy. Time to take cover. The arguments and shouting about this are going to be insane.”

This was how I felt the other day when word about the big Duggar scandal broke out. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. People in the secular sphere who wanted to see the family fall finally found their chance to point fingers. People in the Christian sphere who viewed the Duggars as a sweet, wholesome family rushed to defend them and their son, claiming that everything had been resolved a long time ago, or called out people in the secular sphere for not calling out other people in the secular sphere for similar behavior.

I’m sad about what has happened. It’s inexcusable and wrong. There’s been a lot written about what Josh did and how the family handled the situation – so I won’t talk about that here. We need to talk about our response to this, particularly in light of what’s transpired in the years leading up to last week’s news – even the years leading up to the molestations themselves.

The state of public discourse, with its arguing, blaming, and deflecting, is at an abysmal low. Our approach as a culture to complex issues is so surface-level, and as such, the real problems never get addressed. We assess the situation and see the wrongful action (“he molested underage girls!”), but in many cases, that’s pretty much it. Our view of the cause leapfrogs over several other issues that need to be addressed, instead settling for easy (even true) responses and platitudes: We’re all human. We’re all sinners. Everyone has a struggle. And alongside that, our view of the consequences of those wrongful actions is often limited to what we can see – and all the while, the victims are passed over.

This is at least one reason why the abusers among us continue to thrive in secrecy. They prey on our external focus.

Even though my family was not nearly as involved in IBLP as the Duggars are, I can assure you that the methodology of the organization plays right into that tendency to be externally focused. At IBLP conferences, we’d watch large, well-behaved families like the Duggars being featured on stage as examples of how well the program “worked.” We bought into the organization and its lies because we wanted those results. We wanted those behaviors for the generations that would follow our own. But underneath it all, abuse thrived. Within the IBLP ranks, silencing of those who spoke out wasn’t uncommon. The founder himself, Bill Gothard, molested underage girls and instilled a culture against whistleblowing (“don’t take up offenses for others”) while shaming those who dared disrupt the status quo. The entire organization was shame-based, with a foundation of coded language and many hidden, unclarified, unspoken expectations.

I don’t say all of this to bash the Duggars, to add to the tarnishing of their reputation. They are much more than just this incident, or their involvement in IBLP. I’m bringing it up because we need to understand just how damaging the subcultures of groups like IBLP can be. We need to understand that no, what happened to the Duggars is not just some isolated incident of molestation. There is a pattern here. There is a reason why this kind of subculture does more harm than good by blaming and shaming victims of abuse. There are a lot of perspectives out there about the topic, enough to fill another blog post or two. But I wanted to take this one to address my fellow Christians about our response.

Guys. We do not need to be like everyone else when we talk about this issue.

We do not need to gossip, to shout and argue, to engage in the tribalism that rears its ugly head whenever anyone from “our camp” gets into hot water, to try to save face (even with a Christianese spin like “being a good witness”), to use language that minimizes the experiences of those who have been shamed and abused, or to treat forgiveness like some easy one-step process like changing the alternator in one’s car. We need to get serious about reaching out to the hurt, to talk about the underlying issues that are being ignored, and to call out abusive systems and people when the state of their fruit is evident. It’s hard, it may get us out of our comfort zones, and it may take us to a place where we may find ourselves – gasp! – in agreement about something with those with whom we normally find it difficult to agree. But in the end, it’s the first step in peeling back the facades we erect in order to have an honest conversation about what needs to be addressed.

Can we please at least consider it?

And Then Sometimes You Get a Peach

I’ve grown fond of role-playing games.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, a role-playing game, or RPG, allows a person to create a character in an epic story and develop his or her skills and abilities while also making choices that dictate his or her morality. These choices are often accompanied by consequences that steer the story in various directions. Along the way, the player character picks up traveling companions and fosters relationships with them.

skyrim-elder-scroll-v-dovahkiin-vs-dragon-free-315239-300x240After playing video games for many years, you get used to certain tropes or plot devices used in RPGs. Doing good will often grant you favor with a paragon of virtue who’s traveling with you. Indulging in your rogue side will most likely do the same if you’re dealing with a more mischievous or evil person. Each moral choice can even have an impact on how your character appears, with some games ever so slightly altering the texture of your face as the story progresses to be more clean and angelic if you’re on the side of good – or decrepit and Dorian Gray-esque if you’re on the side of evil. Completing various tasks in these games is also a fairly linear process. You get experience points (XP), the accumulation of which allows you to “level up” to advance your core competencies, at least until the game’s “level cap” is reached.

If only life were that simple. For a long time, I thought it was.

In my last post, I mentioned that I would try to connect the dots between growing up in a cult-like organization like IBLP, how its defining characteristics often manifest themselves in the world at large,  and why these approaches to life are ultimately unhealthy. This post’s topic is a big one: an attachment to cause-and-effect relationships. I like the term that counselor Larry Crabb uses to describe this in his book The Pressure’s Off – the Law of Linearity. Basically, it’s the idea that if A leads to B, and B is something desirable, then it’s our mission to seek out whatever A is so we can get B. If we pray the right prayer, if we follow all the rules, if we live up to a set of expectations we saddle ourselves with – everything will turn out alright.

While attending IBLP’s “Basic Seminar,” I discovered that this sort of approach was used quite heavily to convince attendees of the veracity of the organization’s doctrines. Affirming anecdotes often accompanied these claims: God blessed people who “got it right,” while those who didn’t abide by the principles or remain within their authority structure had God’s blessing removed from them. As a presentation, it was effective not only because fear can be a powerful motivator, but also because it appealed to our desire for instant gratification and superiority over others.

When I was little, this sort of paradigm felt oddly comforting. Growing up in a noisy suburb near San Francisco, I felt helpless. I was that dorky kid with the huge glasses who’d often have to endure bullying, even at church. I was also a homeschooled, only child. I had no siblings off whom I could bounce ideas and discuss what I was being taught. All I had were my parents (granted, they were – and are – wonderful!). Even when I would get out of the house and mingle with others, I was unaware of how to interact with them, especially since we were led to believe that we were the “elite Marines” of the faith and a notch above everyone else, even within our church. The Law of Linearity felt so ideal. If I were to just follow all those principles, exhibit all the character qualities I was taught, 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? Eventually, when the promised results didn’t happen, the pendulum naturally swung the other way. I discovered the ugly flipside of this viewpoint and found myself in a rut where I would continually ask, “What’s wrong with me?”

vladimir-borovikovsky-job-and-his-friends-1810sCuriously enough, one of the books of the Bible that IBLP materials often twisted or left unmentioned entirely was one that painted people with a linear mindset in a negative light: Job. Here, we see a righteous man tested by God. His family, possessions, and even his health are all swept away from him, though he refrains from cursing God. Eventually, he regains all he had – and then some. The funny thing is, that’s all the story ever was in IBLP. There was no mention of Job dialoguing with God or questioning Him. We barely heard a word about Job’s friends, who exhibited the Law of Linearity in spades, telling Job that he must have sinned and brought these calamities on himself. It all boiled down to Job getting stuff in the end because he did the right thing. How sad is that?

Cult-like organizations aside, we are all susceptible to the pull of the Law of Linearity. We have to fight the urge every day. Why do we subject ourselves to such an endless treadmill? Perhaps it has something to do with a deeper issue, one that extends far beyond growth and time. Simply put, we are addicted to predictability. If we can live a life where every variable, every choice, every consequence is clearly defined for us, we can attain control over our lives – or at least the illusion of control. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m the last person who would ever suggest that consequences don’t exist or that seeking out personal development or spiritual growth is inherently bad, especially in the context of love for Christ.

But this is a mindset issue. Thinking constantly in cause-and-effect terms shifts our perspective from the nurturing necessary for growth to take place to a mechanistic set of steps that effectively casts aside the work of the Holy Spirit and the timetable within which he works to accomplish His will. There is no room for God to exercise his grace or sovereignty, to “[make] his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and [send] rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Even more, by placing this burden on ourselves, it becomes even easier to inflict it on others and expect the same results from them too, perhaps even taking our frustrations about ourselves out on them whenever they don’t meet the expectations we set.

I’m reminded of the movie Kung Fu Panda, in which the ordinary, titular panda Po finds himself at the center of an ancient “Chosen One” prophecy. Though he is destined to be the legendary Dragon Warrior and defeat the villain Tai Lung, his trainer, the red panda Shifu, does not take into account Po’s needs as an individual and tries to rush the process with strict training regimens. While speaking with kung-fu Master Oogway, Shifu is frustrated, both at his inability as a trainer and Po as a challenging student:

Oogway: My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours, until you let go of the illusion of control.

Shifu: Illusion?

Oogway: Yes.

[points at peach tree]

Oogway: Look at this tree, Shifu. I cannot make it blossom when it suits me, nor make it bear fruit before its time.

Shifu: But there are things we can control.

[kicks the tree so that peaches fall]

Shifu: I can control when the fruit will fall!

[slices a peach and throws the pit to the ground]

Shifu: I can control where to plant the seed! That is no illusion, Master!

Oogway: Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.

Shifu: But a peach cannot defeat Tai Lung!

Oogway: [folding dirt over the peach pit] Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide it, to nurture it. To believe in it.

Eventually, Shifu finds a way to reach Po and train him in time for Tai Lung’s arrival, but it happens only when he takes a step back to understand what drives Po – and through a lot of patience with this “peach.” For my fellow Christians, it’s my prayer that we can ditch the formulaic approach and recognize the freedom we have in Christ to be works in progress. To give others the room they need to grow.

To give ourselves the room we need to grow.

Introduction: What’s This Blog About Anyway?

“What is one of your greatest ambitions in life?”

My church small group recently began a study on the dangers of comparison that featured this question. Most of us answered with career aspirations, a dream house, or a lasting relationship. My answer felt rather unexciting.

“I just want to be normal.”

I’ve always felt awkward sharing my story. Maybe it has something to do with just how ashamed I’ve been toward it, or because most of my friends have lived much less strange lives or have had different struggles. But over the last few years, the pieces of the puzzle have finally come together. I’ve had to come to grips with the reality that my gifts and calling in life are inextricably tied to my story, no matter how tempting it may be to sweep it under the rug. So, here’s a quick look at my background, why it’s inspired me to kickstart this blog, and the sorts of topics you might expect to see covered in the days to come (and the glue that ties it together!).

orchestra1-300x202My childhood was primarily defined by my family’s involvement in a cult-like organization called The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). For those unfamiliar, IBLP was launched in the ’60s as “Campus Teams” and later became the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC) under a man named Bill Gothard, a minister who had attempted to reach the gangs of Chicago. While he had found “success” in the form of conversion moments, it grew increasingly apparent that there was no genuine conversion taking place. The gang members fell back into their old lifestyles over time. So, he came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t really with the kids themselves – their parents must have failed them. His organization was essentially founded on the idea that if parents followed a set of supposedly Biblical principles and established the importance of authority, there would be no way their children would fail. Initially, the program began with seminars. Throughout the years that followed, particularly in the ’80s, the organization became known as IBLP, and thousands would attend the seminars in packed-out arenas to hear Gothard’s insights.

My parents were among them.

My mom and dad are wonderful people. They came from broken families and had just begun their journey as adult Christians, hoping to one day bring a child into the world who would never have to suffer through the emotional trauma they experienced. And in an uncertain time when the countercultural forces of rebellion began to erode society’s prevailing (primarily) faith-based school of thought, the red binder provided at the seminars seemed to have all the answers. The picture-perfect families presented on stage to showcase God’s blessing toward those who followed the principles of the seminar were certainly enticing. A step-by-step method to ensure ideal kids like that in the midst of societal upheaval? Who’d want to turn that down?

Calling IBLP a “cult” isn’t something I can do easily after a childhood steeped in the program. But it effectively functioned as one. There was a leader who claimed special revelation and whose teachings we all “followed” – one who would draw minutes-long streams of applause and standing ovations from crowds whenever he entered the room. There was a call to seek “a ‘new’ approach to life” and create a wall of separation between ourselves and others – not just those outside the Christian faith, but also other Christians as well. And most unfortunate was the abuse. Mental, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse were rampant in the inner circles of the organization and swept under the rug for the sake of saving face.

What set IBLP apart from other cult organizations was that it was so innocuous at first glance, and that was what made it so subtly insidious. There was no compound in which we all had to live, no single church under whose authority we had to operate, no crazy-sounding weird name we collectively carried. On top of that, the program encouraged its adherents to make IBLP’s supposedly Biblical beliefs their own instead of simply Gothard’s. Any challenge wasn’t a slight against our fearless leader. It was much more personal, an attack on one’s own belief system.

IMG_0498-300x300I could spend a lot of time writing about the details of what makes IBLP’s belief system what it is and how it’s shattered so many people, but only a few words are really needed to sum it up: results-oriented thinking. It’s basically an underhanded prosperity gospel: if you input A (follow the principles), you’ll get an output of B (God will bless you). There are plenty of issues with that mindset as is, but it’s even more damaging when the input is flawed to begin with. Much of the practical application of the “non-optional principles” IBLP advocated were not even Biblical. They were simply Gothard’s own personal tastes and preferences turned into law, with Bible verses scotch-taped over them to give them some proof-texting heft. Even more, there was actual truth often sprinkled in with the lies, and it was quite tough to distinguish between the two.

In case anyone’s wondering, no – I don’t harbor any ill will toward my parents for being a part of IBLP back in the day. I love my parents. In fact, I can’t really blame them. We weren’t really all that involved with the program, and they even recognized its shortcomings. They were only doing what they thought was right. And I’m thankful that we were shielded from the worst of it. But I can’t deny that IBLP affected them differently as discerning adults than it did a little kid who soaked it all up like a sponge with hardly any other reference points. The mindset and methodology that defined IBLP played a key role in defining my own – much of it warped for a long time. I’m just thankful that over the past several years, God has brought people into my life who have walked alongside me as I’ve begun to break free of the chains of perfectionism, narcissism, and people-pleasing built up over all that time.

The reason why I’m bringing all of this up is not to throw blame around or fish for sympathy, but rather to establish context for many of the topics I’ll be writing about in this blog. It’s actually difficult for me to talk about this part of my story, mainly because it’s so far from the norm with respect to childhood experiences that it’s been rather tough for others to understand what it’s been like. It’s also very easy and tempting for me to want to forget about my time in IBLP – to sweep it under the rug, encase it in the museum of my childhood experiences, or treat it only as a radical organization whose issues I’ve long left behind. But that wouldn’t be even close to the truth. I still struggle with those aforementioned tendencies from time to time. I still struggle with being normal. And I also suspect that the issues that have plagued organizations like IBLP – such as focusing on external appearances, correcting imbalance with additional imbalance, and thinking linearly toward strict results – are issues that exist throughout our culture, albeit in less concentrated doses.

In the days to come, I’d like to start some discussions on these mindset-oriented issues and lend what perspective I can to them. As part of that, I’ll most likely be referencing personal experiences in IBLP, what was often taught there, why it’s ultimately damaging at its core, how it’s sometimes manifested in the world at large outside IBLP, and what I’ve learned through studying the Bible, personal experience, and other people who are far wiser than this silly fellow.

Here’s to growing up well!

Introduction: Why I’m Blogging Again

Do you ever find yourself selectively waxing nostalgic?

If you’re like me, you may pine for the good ol’ days of childhood: playgrounds at the local fast food joints, pre-Cloud technology, and water balloon fights with the neighbors during the dog days of summer.

But then there are those awkward teenage years.

When I was about 16, I started a Xanga blog. (Anyone remember Xanga?) Facebook was still in development at Harvard. MySpace was starting to become a thing. And I was going through this strange phase, learning all about internet etiquette and feeling this odd compulsion to talk about everything happening in my life while ending almost every sentence with an emoticon just so people wouldn’t think I was sounding cold and heartless with a simple period.

A few years ago, I read some of my old blog posts and found myself nearly drowning in a sea of orange, yellow, and blue smiley faces. Really? I thought to myself. That’s how I sounded back then? They say hindsight is 20/20, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling. It’s all a part of growing up, I suppose.

It’s funny how the world of blogging has evolved: a decade ago, it was the latest online fad, with teenagers, parents, and everyone else and their dog chronicling their day-to-day lives and following the exploits of others. Now, social networks like Facebook and Twitter accomplish that function, albeit in the more bite-sized chunks of statuses and tweets. In the meantime, blogging has further evolved into an outlet where people share insights and ideas that can’t easily fit into a 140-character limit.

That’s one reason why I haven’t been uber-eager to jump back into blogging. The Internet – well, the world in general, but especially the Internet – is such a noisy place, with shouting and flaming galore in posts and comments. All those insights and ideas can be so overwhelming, and it’s even worse when people take advantage of the veil of anonymity to bulldoze over others. In the face of it all, you and I have to adapt. We have to shield ourselves from all that noise, yet most of us understand the folly of becoming cloistered and shutting ourselves out from everyone.

So we become selective. We listen to the familiar, the encouraging, the sensible, the safe. And in the process, our biases are reinforced over and over again – to the point where it’s difficult to listen to others, even if some of their insights on life, the universe, and everything are worth considering. All that can be heard are the echoes of the buzzwords we’ve learned to ignore.

In many respects, blogging and interacting with bloggers has become an interesting therapeutic exercise for many. For some, it’s healthy. For others, not so much. At least some of it seems to have to do with the content bloggers post and our motives as readers for engaging with it. Last summer, when Guardians of the Galaxy was released in theaters, the world was introduced to a comic book character unlike anyone previously seen on the silver screen: an angry, hilarious, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket. My dad and I were laughing at his remarks and general “I’m surrounded by idiots!” frustration.

“He says all the things I wish I could get away with saying!” my dad said with a chuckle.

He was so right.

I think many of us approach the Internet in that same way. We find ourselves surrounded by “idiots” as we observe the many deficiencies in our culture. The frustration builds up inside us, but we know that if we were to lash out, we’d look like fools, or we might get in trouble. So we set out in search of people who have a way with words and can be frustrated for us. The ones who say what we wish we could say. We can comfortably read their rants behind a screen while we pump our fists into the air and cheer. And when we’ve had our fill, we can leave a comment with a link to the latest outrage-inducing incident and ask them for their take so we can come back for more.

I’ve been one of these people.

I don’t believe that’s healthy. It doesn’t alleviate the frustration; it only compounds it. And personally, I really don’t want to add to the noise. But I do want to address those issues – and perhaps more importantly, the issues behind the issues – and hear what others have to say. Maybe even learn from them.

That’s why now, 10 years later, I’ve decided to start fresh with a new blog. I’d like for this to be a place where those who are tired of the noise can feel welcome. Where we can enjoy a lively discussion without resorting to the shouting, the arguing, the flaming. Where those who want to take a look at the issues around us without feeling the need to remain confined within a set of comfortable talking points can freely do so. Where we can take a break and discuss the latest summer blockbuster without feeling guilty for not saying something about the latest outrage topic. Where we can view each other as more than a set of opinions without jumping into the “do you fit into Mold A or Mold B?” false dichotomy that seems to be increasingly prevalent in our perceptions of others.

Maybe I’m sounding like a hypocrite by being a tad noisy myself at the moment. But I hope and pray that in the days to come, my words will be marked by grace.

In the next few posts, I’ll talk a bit more about my own story and how it inspired me to start this blog.