Is Sonlight Curriculum sufficiently Christian?

John Holzmann has just written a much more detailed version of the story of how Sonlight Curriculum came to be banned from exhibiting at the Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC) annual convention. His account includes the correspondence he exchanged with the CHEC officials who were responsible for the decision, which is very helpful. I recommend you read this post.

In particular, a passage from one of the letters from CHEC started me wondering whether in some circles the idea of a Christian worldview is being given a new and dangerous twist. This is from a letter from Kevin Swanson, executive director of CHEC, explaining why the board is having some difficulty deciding whether Sonlight Curriculum is sufficiently Christian:

Your philosophy statement in the catalogue is excellent. I couldnt’ (sic) have written a better one myself. Education is not neutral. Either it will be taught in the fear of God or it will not be taught in the fear of God.

Yet, as I read through the Biology 1 syllabus and workbook that you sent down… I’m not seeing a God-centered metaphysic weaving through it. (I’m certainly willing to be corrected on this perception, John.) What I see is a verse at the front of it, that seems sort of like a post-it note at the beginning. I see a short summary of Russell Humphrey’s view on the age of the earth.

But as far as the content of it… We read Rachel Carson’s book… and I’m wondering whether Rachel fears God. Does Rachel maintain the right metaphysic throughout, and if not, does the student ever notice it? Is God missing? Why does Rachel want to preserve the earth? Why do we want to preserve/take dominion over the earth?

At the end of each book, does the student understand both the creation and the providence of God, and is he/she pressed to worship God? In fact, I only found 1 or 2 references to God in the entire syllabus, which seemed strange when the books appear to be written by those of a materialistic/naturalistic mindset.

Now, I know that nobody does any of this perfectly. I can see that Wile tries to include references to "Creation" throughout his books. You see references like "God has designed each living organism’s. . . " or "Symbiosis is an incredible testament to God’s forethought in designing his creation…"

I know that you like to use books written by materialists/naturalists for their engaging content. But I wonder how you intend to weave the fear of God and a God-centered metaphysic back into the course? If you could just share a little bit on how you intended to do that in the Intro to Biology course, I think that would be helpful for me. [Emphasis added.]

I take the emphasized statement to mean not only that to qualify as Christian, a curriculum must have the fear of God woven into it as well as a God-centered metaphysic, but that this must be done to a certain degree above which it becomes acceptably Christian.

There are certainly curricula out there which could easily meet this standard. But I think there are also curricula which fail to meet this standard and are also quite acceptable for a Christian to learn from. Easy examples include books on economics or mathematics or appliance repair, which occasionally include explicitly Christian content but usually do not. A harder example might be a book on the history and theology of Buddhism, which could easily describe the beliefs involved while taking no position on their truth or falsity; a particular Christian parent might choose not to expose a particular Christian child to such a book, but it is hard to make a case that such a book poses a danger to even the average faithful Christian.

I have no problem with a group which intends to offer or support or approve of material only if it is explicitly Christian, as an aid to Christians who want such material but can’t find it in the secular arena, in distinction to a group which caters to Christians by offering explicitly Christian material in addition to material that is not explicitly so. But I object to a group which, intentionally or not, intends to be the first kind while purporting to be the second. I think this has happened to CHEC, and it would be good for them to clearly announce that their group now supports only those Christian homeschoolers who subscribe to a particular philosophy of Christian education.

Swanson’s closing paragraph also bothered me, but it also suggests what might be an opportunity to lessen the tensions that are developing.

Thanks John. I hope you don’t find this too burdensome. I’m trying to assess what is a Christian vs. a secular curriculum, and to tell you the truth I haven’t really spent a whole lot of time thinking about it (esp. in the implementation phase.) It’s one thing to philosophize, it’s a lot harder to implement!

I think it’s unwise to be in the midst of implementing a philosophy that one hasn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about, especially when the resulting business decisions can do great damage to a Christian brother. But the good news, perhaps, is that these decisions aren’t proceeding from a settled philosophy—and perhaps there is still time and room for Christians of good will and different points of view to start articulating their own views of what makes an education Christian, so that the philosophy ultimately adopted by groups like CHEC might strike a wise balance among the many, many different concerns that are involved.

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6 thoughts on “Is Sonlight Curriculum sufficiently Christian?

  1. Amy,

    Another glaring inconsistency with CHEC’s position is why the standard hasn’t been applied to the remaining vendors.

    Agreed, but I can’t tell yet whether this is because their stated reasons for rejecting Sonlight are not their real reasons, or if it is a result of the fact that while they’re working towards a consistent philosophy they are operating from inconsistent gut instincts.

    I would actually give CHEC the benefit of the doubt, because I think this unhappy situation arises from a drift in the purpose of an organization that didn’t have a clearly stated purpose to begin with—outside of its name, anyway. But now that it is becoming clear that the guiding forces behind CHEC want to minister to a group that doesn’t come close to including all Christian homeschoolers in Colorado, they need to come clean about that by changing their name and stating their new purpose clearly.

    As an analogy, I think it would be fine if Vision Forum started staging its own homeschooling convention, but it would not be fine if they simply took over the FEAST (Family Educators Alliance of South Texas) organization and repurposed it without changing the name or at least clearly announcing that the scope of the organization had been narrowed.

  2. I find this whole situation interesting on a variety of levels. Your post provoked even more thought.

    CHEC state’s their purpose as the following “Christian Home Educators of Colorado honors Jesus Christ by encouraging parents to educate their children through home discipleship. We provide leadership, resources, and information that advances God-centered relationships while heeding the Biblical jurisdictions of family, church, and state.”

    They claim to heed the Biblical jurisdictions, yet which jurisdiction does CHEC fall under? They are not a church nor are they operating as a ministry of a local church under the authority of elders. They have organized under a board of directors, with Swanson as the Executive Director. They are not a family. And obviously they are not the state. Of the three, they appear most likely to be under the jurisdiction of the state because they operate as a 501(c)3 organization in order to gain tax-exempt status.

    It appears that their very existence as an organization is a contradiction to the ideal they seek to uphold. This situation highlights the dilemma of many parachurch organizations that seek to minister independent of any local assembly with elders. If the board and the executive director were under a recognized biblical authority, there would be a clear path for reconciliation between Christian brothers who have a difference in how to live out the faith.

    And to answer Amy’s question, their independence and lack of biblical accountability allows CHEC to single out Sonlight but not the other vendors.

    THerefore, CHEC needs to do more than change its name. Seeking to help homeschool families is a noble goal, but should operate within the biblical guidelines of church, family, and state and not create an organization outside the only entities God has designed and they profess to heed.

  3. I read this post on the first day, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. In a broad sense, I am wondering about this “new and dangerous twist” on worldview thinking, as you called it. As a mother of young children, I am very careful with what they are introduced to. However, the goal isn’t for them to be surrounded by a Christian worldview in the strictest sense of that phrase, but for them to grow up to where they are increasingly exercising a Christian worldview. This situation seems to have turned the purpose of worldview training on its head. I guess this goes back to the old idea of teaching a student to think versus teaching a student what to think.

  4. Brandy,

    The goal isn’t for them to be surrounded by a Christian worldview in the strictest sense of that phrase, but for them to grow up to where they are increasingly exercising a Christian worldview. This situation seems to have turned the purpose of worldview training on its head.

    I think you are right. Not only do we want our own children to exercise a Christian worldview, we want them to be continually refining it so that it becomes ever more biblical. But the new and pernicious concept that folks like Swanson have introduced is “sufficiently Christian,” as if there is a level below which you can drop in your Christian understanding which, well, doesn’t exactly endanger your salvation (since we still call you “Christian”), but still makes you … different, somehow … a lesser Christian, or one who poses a danger to the flock, or one in need of an intervention.

    I haven’t followed Swanson’s writings or broadcasts, but just a brief look at his website indicates that he is not reluctant at all to apply his own standards of sufficiency to others, and apply them good and hard. He wrote this about Barack Obama’s inauguration speech:

    In his inauguration speech, Obama betrayed a sharply humanistic worldview in a tacit reference to a god who “calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. . .”

    Does this god say, “Good luck with shaping whatever that is your shaping?”

    Does this god empower us with the sovereignty to shape our own destiny, or is he not quite that sovereign?

    His god must not be a sovereign, because he acknowledges an indeterminate, chance universe. But then again, I guess a whole lot of “Christians” would agree with him on his metaphysic.

    Now, it is unfortunate for Swanson’s reputation as a clear thinker that Obama’s turn of phrase does not imply anything like what Swanson claims it implies. It doesn’t take much generosity to read that phrase as saying that God has called us to engage circumstances whose outcome he knows but has not chosen to reveal to us. And it bothers me greatly that Swanson is so quick to level such damaging accusations against someone who publicly claims the name of Christ, not just Obama but those “Christians” who agree with him on his metaphysic.

    Why be concerned about someone who thinks like this? Because these are not just private judgments but public ones, and ones that Swanson apparently thinks need to be acted on somehow.  Here is the website description of his 2/9/2008 radio broadcast:

    What to Do With Christians Who Voted for Barack Obama

    Christians Supporting Murder

    How would you look at those Jews who supported child sacrifice in the Israel’s compromised era of Baal worship? What about Christians who supported the Roman games where Christians and slaves were killed by the thousands in the coliseums? What about those Christians that not only support abortion and infanticide themselves, but would support the government funding of international abortions and candidates that publicly endorse the killing of children born alive in Illinois abortion clinics? In the 2008 elections, protestants went for the infanticide candidate, 45%-54%, and Catholics went for him, 53%-47%.

    We can quibble about whether a vote for a candidate constitutes an endorsement of all his positions, but the important thing is that Swanson thinks it does. And since he considers Obama to be pro-murder, he also thinks that half the “Christians” in this country are pro-murder—and, I assume from the title of his broadcast, that something must be done about it.

  5. Rick, It has taken me until now to check back here, but I appreciated your comment. I am not familiar with Swanson, and I am not a fan of Obama at all, and yet I didn’t read the speech that way, either. I agree with you about the Obama voters not endorsing all of his positions. I know a number of Christians who voted for McCain as a “lesser of two evils,” but at face value the same (false) accusation could be leveled that them–that they are therefore endorsing his votes for Title X funding for Planned Parenthood and so on, though nothing could be further from the truth.

    In other news, I thought you might be interested in a series I’m going to be watching over at the Quiddity blog. You are the second of three voices I have now heard express concern over the “worldview movement” (if it really turns out to be a movement). The third is James Daniels who is going to be writing out his thoughts on worldview in his coming posts. Here is the link to the first post if you are interested.

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