Martin Luther and “Shiny Happy People”: Reflections on Parenting, God, and Reformations

Martin Luther and “Shiny Happy People”: Reflections on Parenting, God, and Reformations June 6, 2023

Parenting has been something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. With a recently mobile toddler in our household, the question of how to teach a little one boundaries has felt very pressing (especially as this particular little one seems to have a knack for heading straight for dangerous situations). Perhaps because this has been something that I’ve been thinking so much about lately, some of the content from the new Amazon miniseries “Shiny Happy People” has hit particularly hard.

For those who aren’t familiar with the recently released series, it follows the Duggar family as a case study that allows insight into the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), Bill Gothard’s influential organization. This leads into an exploration of the subculture within the church and within American culture that grew out of that institute and its teachings. The IBLP’s seminars, literature, and other materials seek to teach American families how to run their homes, marriages, families, and how to teach their children, with direct ramifications on how these children and families should engage American culture and politics. The documentary includes commentary from historians like Kristin Kobes DuMez and from former insiders from IBLP circles as well, including Jill Dillard and Alex Harris. Much of the material highlighted in the miniseries is alarming, particularly the response to abuse and the racism embedded in Gothard’s teachings. It’s a tough watch (and I’m still working my way through all four episodes), but an important one for those trying to understand certain elements of American culture.

Among all of the things to process and discuss from the miniseries, the discussion of the IBLP approach to disciplining children, particularly “blanket training” sparked many thoughts for me. “Blanket training” refers to the practice of putting a child– a baby, in fact, with this process starting at 6 months old– on a blanket with something they love just out of reach. The parent is supposed to hit the child’s hand every time they reach for the object, until they stop doing so, in the name of breaking their rebellious spirit. This is cruel, twisted, and abusive– to put something your child loves and that you gave to them next to them and then hit them for reaching for it, when they’re too young to developmentally understand anything that’s happening.

Some Insight from a Reformer

As a historian who is interested in how cultural practices shape theology, one of the things I couldn’t stop wondering was how this practice, which teaches you that earthly parents place temptations in front of you and then punish you for reaching for them, would make you see God, our heavenly parent (spoiler: as writings from those coming out of this movement show, not positively). It seems impossible for a theology that prioritizes a loving and merciful God to coexist alongside a parenting philosophy that emphasizes traps, fear, and pain. Out of this reflection, Martin Luther’s writings about his conversion kept coming to mind. In a brief passage commonly known as the “Tower Experience,” Luther describes his 1519 revelation that started him down the path towards reform. He was struggling, as he was working on lectures on the Psalms and on Romans, with the idea of the justice of God. In his own words, Luther hated the idea of the justice of God, which he had been taught to understand as:

“that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust . . . I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?’” (Luther 1519)

In this passage, it feels to me like Luther is imagining a God who practices blanket training: who puts good things in front of his children and then hurts them for reaching for them.

As we all know, however, Luther’s view of justice and righteousness changes as he keeps grappling with God and with the text:

“I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.” (Luther 1519)

Do you see what’s happened here? Luther’s view of God has shifted: God’s justice is not punishing his children but saving and loving them. God is not a parent who forces his children into submission through pain, but one who suffers for the good of his children, who, through his work and action, works in us.

Time for Reformation

In thinking about the ideas of parenting so prevalent in the parts of American culture that “Shiny Happy People” explores, Luther’s revelation here feels key. God does not place good gifts in front of us and then cause us pain; God’s justice does not require us to feel pain and suffer in order to learn more about him and his truths. Theology bears fruit in praxis, and the fruit of the IBLP movement clearly shows that its theology is broken. And unfortunately, this broken theology has shaped the homes of so many not associated with the movement, often in ways they didn’t notice or realize. The American “Christian” culture revealed in “Shiny Happy People” needs a reformation: a realization, like Luther’s, that the justice of God is revealed not in strict boundaries and punishments but in his gift of justification and love towards us. That vision of God, as a parent who has standards, yes, but also wants good things for his children and loves them, justifying and saving them through his own actions, is the one that we should seek to reflect in our parenting, marriages, families, and lives.

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