Saturday, January 31, 2009

A change of interpretation on CHEC

Due to some private correspondence, I was inspired, as it were, to go back through what little correspondence I have related to the Sonlight and CHEC situation. And, as hinted at in my response to the 40th comment on that post (go to the comments screen and do a search for "John Holzmann"), I have begun to think become convinced there probably is a different interpretation to be placed on the facts of this case. [Strikethroughs and bolds because the view I was beginning to form as I first started writing this post has now--just a couple of hours ago--been confirmed . . . as you will see.]

I think the question I raised in my original post (about who controls your thinking) still remains. But I am beginning to think now convinced there is "something more" going on than what I suggested in my original post. And I agree with the commenter to whom I replied: I, too, find it "odd that [CHEC] wouldn’t just come out and say this when [we] asked for clarification."

Or maybe not.

Maybe it's not that anyone at CHEC is was attempting to do anything nefarious. Rather, there is was, possibly, some real disagreement on the part of those who are were making the decisions at the very top. [And, as I have become convinced, now, as I prepare this post for posting, the organization was still working through its philosophy and approach throughout the time that Sonlight was "caught in the riptide," as it were. --You can now read the historical narrative contained here, or "simply" jump to the last-quoted letter from January 28th and see the conclusion.]

Before I begin, I should note. In going back through my correspondence, I discovered my memory of chronology, as expressed in my January 20th post, was off. The Sonlight banning first cropped up in December of '07. That was after I had tendered my resignation to Sonlight, but before it became effective. [And perhaps I should add: we felt a tremor about six months prior to the outright banning. Despite Sonlight having paid for and been confirmed that it had three booths at the convention, when the Sonlight representative arrived at the 2007 convention, she found she had been downgraded to two booths. Moreover, at some point during the convention, a representative from CHEC came by and told her she was not permitted to display certain Usborne books. "This is a Christian organization and you may not display those books in our conference hall." --Our representative didn't tell me about those conversations until mid-January last year. But, she noted, those incidents "should have told me Sonlight was in trouble."]


My first follow-up letter to CHEC's executive director, Kevin Swanson, was as follows:
From: John Holzmann
Sent: Wednesday, December 19, 2007 6:11 PM
To: Kevin Swanson
Subject: Strange letter . . .


. . . Our conference coordinator, Jessica Brown, forwarded me a letter she received from Mike Cheney. It seems to communicate some rather serious concerns about Sonlight Curriculum--either the company, the curriculum, our behavior at last year's conference, or something. Yet Mike says, "It is our policy not to provide . . . precise [information]" regarding matters about which the committee has concerns.

In other words, it appears, we are not to be granted the opportunity to discover our failures, repent of any wrongdoing, make right anything we have done wrong, or to seek mutual understanding if and to whatever extent there may have been some kind of misunderstanding that led committee members to the opinions they hold and the decisions they have made with respect to Sonlight.

Because of Mike's apparent inability (based on the committee's unwillingness) to discuss these matters, I figure I have no alternative but to communicate with you to see if you may be able to shed some light on the deeper issues so we might fix what is wrong and do better in the future.

Mike gave no indication that he had sent a copy of his letter to you or to anyone else at CHEC, so I would like to copy it here for your benefit. [NOTE: The letter included no date.]

of Colorado

Sonlight Curriculum
Jessica Brown
8042 S Grant Way
Littleton, CO 80122

Dear Jessica,

The vendor committee reviews all current vendors who have placed a deposit for next year's conference considering a variety of factors, such as:
  • The overall worldview represented in the product(s) or service(s) offered,
  • The suitability of the product/service for the homeschooling market,
  • The creativity, originality, utility, and professionalism of the product offering.

This process is challenging and requires much prayerful consideration as we try to balance the vision of direction of CHEC with the needs of you, our partners in ministry.

Unfortunately, at times we are lead [sic] to the realization that a partnership we have had in the past is not the best fit for a partnership in the future. The vendor committee has determined to deny your request to be a vendor with us at next year's conference. The vendor committee's decision is final. Our decisions are made by a volunteer committee. The members provide an opinion individually and together they arrive at a consensus on each vendor applying for the hall.

It is our policy not to provide the precise reasons for the rejection. This is because those on the committee may have different rationale [sic] for their vote.

Although these letters are always difficult to write, the vendor committee was unanimous in their decision.

Please be aware that CHEC provides other avenues by which you may showcase your product or service to the homeschool community in the Rocky Mountain region, via advertising in the conference program, the hand out bag, and CHEC's Homeschool magazine, the Update.

We regret that we cannot accommodate your product offering in our vendor hall this year. We did not charge the credit card number provided at the conference for your deposit.

Mike Cheney
Conference Coordinator

10431 South Parker Road, Parker, Colorado 80134 * 720-842-4852 * 1-877-842-CHEC *
I hope you can understand not only how strange, but distressing such a letter might sound to a company such as ours that has taken pleasure in its 17-year history of serving hundreds of thousands of (primarily evangelical Christian) homeschoolers the world over, including thousands of evangelical Christian ambassadors . . . who are working in some of the world's most difficult contexts.

Knowing our history, our commitments and our clientele, I (and we, as a company) seriously wonder: What could Mike possibly mean when he says the committee has been led [by God? Through "much prayerful consideration"] to "the realization that a partnership [with Sonlight] is not the best fit for . . . the future"?
  • Somehow our "overall worldview" has become unacceptable according to CHEC's doctrinal standards?
  • CHEC has deemed Sonlight no longer suitable for homeschoolers?
  • We've somehow lost our touch and are no longer creative, original, useful or professional enough? . . . (????)
  • Something else?

We are completely undone!

More confusing: How is it possible that the committee has "realized" that "a partnership we have had in the past" with our company--a company that must be failing substantially in one or more areas "such as" those highlighted in Mike's letter . . . --How is it possible that the committee can "realize" a company is failing so thoroughly that it can no longer exhibit at the CHEC convention, yet that same company is still "good enough" to be featured in the conference program, hand out bag, and/or CHEC's magazine?

Also: What should we make of the unanimous and (apparently) blanket rejection into "the future" alongside the (apparently) more limited statement about the committee's inability to "accommodate [our] product offering in our vendor hall this year"?

I hope you can understand the confusion this letter has caused us. Should we figure the committee has cast us into the outer darkness forever, so it is a waste of time even to apply in the future? Or . . . (???)

And in terms of our ability to re-forge a "partnership" with CHEC: How might we go about proving our renewed (possible) worthiness to the committee? And/or when might you suggest we could expect it would be reasonable to think we might be forgiven by the committee for whatever errors we have committed or wrongdoings we have perpetrated?

Thanks for any insight you may be able to offer.



John Holzmann, Co-Owner
Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd. - "The way you wish you'd been taught. Guaranteed."
His reply:
From: Kevin Swanson
Sent: Wednesday, December 19, 2007 8:19 PM
To: John Holzmann
Subject: Re: Strange letter . . .


This is the first I've heard of this. I will look into it and get back with you.

Thanks for the heads up.

Kevin S.
Two days later he wrote,

From: Kevin Swanson
Sent: Friday, December 21, 2007 1:26 PM
To: John Holzmann
Subject: Re: Strange letter . . .

Dear John,

I was surprised to see this move on the part of the vendor committee.

Typically, our volunteer vendor committee works independently and makes their often politically-sensitive decisions independent of myself and the board of CHEC. Believe me, I didn't know they were moving in the direction of the present action. As CHEC is a large volunteer organization, I allow a great deal of independence and leeway in decision making.

What you received is a standard form letter sent to those that are rejected. At this point, I need to do some digging, meet with the committee, find out some more of the specifics, and get back with you.

I plan to bring the CHEC board in on this as well, as I'm sure most if not all of the board members were unaware of this action.


Kevin Swanson
Sometime about January 22 of 2008, I was informed some representatives from CHEC would like to meet with me and so our general manager and I met with CHEC's executive director, Kevin Swanson, their president, Bill Roach, and Kevin's right-hand apprentice--Kevin's son--at the Sonlight offices on Saturday, February 2, 2008.

At that meeting, Kevin and Bill said they felt they needed to review our materials. So we gave them what we thought were representative samples of our program, including a couple of Instructors Guides and a few of the books we publish.

On Monday, 3/17/08, I wrote the following:
From: John Holzmann
Sent: Monday, March 17, 2008 1:05 PM
To: Kevin Swanson
Subject: Sonlight and CHEC


. . . My staff and I would very much like to know how your review of our materials is going. I also thought I would share "the latest" I have heard. . . .


One of our customers, apparently, wound up talking with someone "higher up" in CHEC about why CHEC seems to have problems with Sonlight.

Among other things, she said, she was told,
Sonlight has 5 books that are of great concern to the conference board. Apparently one of the books is very anti Christian because it is about a girl author who lies to her parents by writing and having published her works under a pseudo name. At the end the mother finds out the truth and said since it was her daughter it was fine. There were no notes in the IG about the deceit and lying.

I asked Sarita what whoever-it-is could possibly be referring to. She immediately guessed: "Oh! They're complaining about The School Story! . . ." And when she got me the book, I remembered having read it myself. And I have to confess: both Sarita and I are astonished at the alleged complaint.

The story is about Natalie, a middle school-age girl whose mother is an editor in a major children's book publishing house. Natalie has written a novel. Her friend Zoe sees the manuscript and says, "You've got to get this published!" . . . And Zoe decides to act as Natalie's agent. Since both girls are well-familiar with Natalie's mom's employer, Zoe decides she has to get Natalie's book in front of Natalie's mom's employer . . . without the employer (or Natalie's mom) suspecting that Natalie might be the author. (After all, being related to an employee of a company like that could cause problems one way or the other: EITHER they'll reject the book outright for possible conflict-of-interest OR they will face real conflicts-of-interest as they push it through.) . . . So Zoe has the manuscript submitted under a pseudonym . . . and she herself goes to some trouble in order to come across as someone with far more gravitas than a 12-year-old would normally have in the business world. . . .

In the end, the publisher does accept the book for publication and the girls' subterfuge isn't revealed to the publisher (and Natalie's mom) until the publication party at which the author is to be feted. . . .


Ay-yi-yi! . . . Let's see. What kinds of notes should we include?


Oh. Our customer was told one more thing, she says. Supposedly,
All Sonlight has to do is replace those 4 or 5 books and it will be allowed to submit next year and start back at the bottom.
???!!! . . . Assuming any of these things are true, it is really too bad we haven't heard any of these things from CHEC! . . . And it sure would be nice if we knew which "4 or 5 books" those are!

At this point, however, I think I should note: Sarita is now deeply troubled about the idea of doing business with CHEC in the future.

"For what are we going to be called on the carpet next?" she asks. "The fact that we carry Amelia Bedelia?" (One of our [former] customers returned her curriculum for exactly that reason. The Amelia Bedelia books, she said, "mock people with learning disabilities." . . . Uh. Not really. But how do you respond to such charges? . . . )


But honestly, Kevin, based on our conversation, the real, underlying issue has to do with Sonlight's supposed failure to uphold "young earthism," doesn't it? And if so, I would like to make a formal complaint about how CHEC--and the CHEC convention committee--is handling this issue.

I looked again this morning. There is nothing in CHEC's Statement of Faith about a commitment to young-earthism. Nothing. So if the committee really has no such basis for judging Sonlight on this ground, does it? Or, if it does, then shouldn't these doctrinal commitments be stated publicly, so all the world can see?

But, please, if CHEC is determined to narrow its faith statement so much, may I challenge you--an OPC pastor: Consider carefully how far you are willing to permit this kind of thing to go. Will CHEC next ban anyone who fails to uphold adults-only baptism? Premillennial dispensationalism? Dresses only? Head-coverings for women? Quiverfull thinking? Not teaching your daughters how to drive? . . .

Where will this kind of judgment of its vendors' "Christian/biblical thinking" stop for CHEC?

If CHEC is going to ban Sonlight Curriculum, a company that serves--and has served--tens of thousands of evangelical Christians, including thousands of missionaries from many of the leading evangelical Christian mission organizations, it seems there is no end to where it will go in judging fellow believers and their apparent lack of discernment.


One last comment.

I have to confess: this whole "process" has left a bad taste in our mouths.

For your consideration, as the CEO of the organization: Is CHEC conducting its affairs in a Christ-like manner? Would Jesus condemn someone without explanation and with a specific demand that the condemned not attempt to gain understanding for the basis on which she/he/they have been condemned? Would Jesus show the kind of partiality it appears Sonlight is being shown (in which our materials are being reviewed in detail for whatever--it appears--committee members can find to complain about, while others seem to get a pass)? . . .

Thanks so much for listening to me!

He replied:
From: Kevin Swanson
Sent: Friday, March 21, 2008 10:05 AM
To: John Holzmann
Subject: status

Hi John,

. . . I have no idea who this woman talked to. We have in no uncertain terms instructed our staff not to speak to this issue at all, and to refer all questions to Bill and myself. Whatever she heard is definitively nothing I would recognize from the board/exec staff discussions. At this point, if people are not speaking to Kevin Swanson or Bill Roach on any of this, they are speaking with the rumor mill.

Now... to where I am... I have had an opportunity to look through some of the materials, and I'm still a little confused, and here's what's got me confused.

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.

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!

Yours in Christ,
Now, looking back on this, I see something I had not noticed before. All of a sudden, instead of this being a matter of the vendor committee and the vendor committee's issues in which Kevin maintains a hands-off stance, it became something very much more personal for Kevin. And I understand something that transpired a little over a month ago. But I'll get to that in a moment.
First, here's how I replied to Kevin's email:
From: John Holzmann
Sent: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 5:15 PM
To: Kevin Swanson
Subject: RE: status

Dear Kevin:

Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my email! And for the detailed comments. Please forgive my slow reply. I was away at a conference in California over the weekend through Monday evening, and I've been pretty buried trying to catch up.

In response to your email in general, two things strike me:
  1. Your comments are wonderfully thought-provoking and challenge us to do WAY more and WAY better than we have in the past and/or up to the present in terms of, as you put it, “[weaving] a God-centered metaphysic” through our curriculum. Indeed, speaking very candidly, I will confess you have, as it were, “caught us with our shorts down” . . . and I appreciate your pointing that out so as to challenge us to do better.

    As we had intended to begin our science curriculum revision within the month, this is perfect timing!

    To push this one step further, however (partially in order, potentially, to receive some further clarification on what you may have in mind): let me say that I don't think Sonlight Curriculum provides in the science program you're reviewing answers to questions such as those you have asked:
    • “Does Rachel [Carson] maintain the right metaphysic throughout?” [No. Her metaphysic, as you call it—a word which no average American Christian would ever use— . . . Her metaphysic is non-Christian. ]
    • “Is God missing?” [Yes.]
    • “Why does Rachel want to preserve the earth?” [Because the world is less beautiful, less pleasant, the fewer species there are. . . . ] “Why do we want to preserve/take dominion over the earth?” [For the glory of God; to advance His Kingdom; because He commanded us to. . . . ]

    --I have few doubts: virtually all Sonlighters doing the course in question (parents and students) could answer these questions as well as I have.

    I get thinking, however: does one’s ability to answer such academic questions have much of anything to do with changing students’ hearts? (I doubt it.) So, then, what do we gain by asking the questions (that they could answer if they were asked)?

    Moving on:
    • “At the end of each book, does the student understand both the creation and the providence of God?” [I don't know. But, in most cases, since Sonlight has left that up to the students’ parents—much as “the” evangelical church, in general, has left far too much education totally up to [woefully uneducated] parents—I expect not. We could certainly speak more forthrightly and directly to the subject. And I believe Sonlight ought to do such a thing. . . .]
    • “Is he/she pressed to worship God?” [Sonlight Curriculum does not take it upon itself directly to press either students or parents to worship God.]

    You made a few additional comments:

    “I wonder how you intend to weave the fear of God and a God-centered metaphysic back into the course?”

    My response: ????

    If it were up to me, I'd write everything in a manner similar to how I wrote my Introduction to Biology book, or my Incans, Aztecs & Mayans book (in the Core curriculum). . . . But I'm afraid a steady diet at that level would quickly kill off any young- to middle-elementary child’s desire to continue learning. . . . Personally, I think a few doses, here and there, is probably strong enough medicine. I don't think we need to hit kids (or parents) over the head with our metaphysic at every turn. . . . ]

    And then you asked/suggested: “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.”

    Again I reply: ????

    The question itself confuses me, Kevin. Are you writing to me personally, as a friend? Functionally, as a brother in Christ and/or an ordained minister of God? Formally, as the president of CHEC?

    I am delighted to think that you might ask me such a question as a friend, as a brother in Christ, and/or as a minister of God. But if I assume (as I think I ought) that you are asking this question as the president of CHEC, I am uncertain how to respond and to what end. How would I be helping you? And toward what end do you think I should be seeking to help you?


    Well, I have gone very deep in expressing my first “thought.”

    Here is (or was) my second “thought” upon reading your email:
  2. I think there is little question Sonlight is being singled out.

    As I wrote to our management team, Kevin:

    I think, on the one hand, we should seek to make the Sonlight science program SIGNIFICANTLY more biblical/Christian than it is at present. I think, on the other, it is legitimate for us to cry "foul" about how we are being treated by the CHEC convention committee and/or CHEC’s board.

    If you-all want to ban Sonlight from your convention for the kinds of failures you appear to be hinting at in your email, then it sounds as if CHEC needs to shut down its convention, period, don't you think? Because I can't imagine half of the vendors at your convention could answer to the satisfaction you seem to require from us questions about maintaining a “right metaphysic” [or even being concerned about their metaphysics] in their products and services:

    • RightStart Mathematics?
    • Mathetes Solutions?
    • Classics for Childhood?
    • Drills, Skills & More?
    • BooksBloom?
    • Good Things Company?
    • NEST Family Entertainment?
    • Miller Pads and Paper
    • Thetford Country?
    • Christian Writers Guild?
    • The Family Baker?
    • R & D Educational Center?
    • Progeny Press?
    • Edu-Track Home School
    • CollegePlus! ?
    • Generation Joshua?
    • Exploration Education?
    • Colorado State History by A Helping Hand?
    • Bright Ideas Press?
    • Heart of Dakota Publishing, Inc.?
    • The Critical Thinking Co?
    • Classical Conversations?
    • Math on the Level?
    • Write Minded Education, Inc.?
    • Excellence in Writing?
    • Dragonfly Innovation Inc.?
    • Math-U-See?
    • Teach4Mastery?
    • Rainbow Resource Center, Inc.?
    • Auralog?
    • Jim Hodges Audio Books?
    • Total Language Plus?
I think, in the end, Kevin, I am concerned, simply, that you-all should not only openly state your grounds for making decisions (“Agreement with our Statement of Faith,” for example) but then make your decisions consistently with those standards. I sense, at this time, that CHEC has done, and is doing, neither.

So time passed. Finally--I believe someone at Sonlight pushed for the final get-together, but I may be wrong--on Wednesday evening, 12/17/08, we had a big pow-wow at which Sarita and I along with two of our key employees, Wayne Griess (general manager) and Tim Heil (product development manager) met with Kevin, Bill Roach (CHEC president), Chad Roach (Bill's son and Kevin's assistant), Brenda Kelly (I believe she is head of vendor relations for CHEC(??)), Arthur Miller (current chair of the convention vendor committee) and Steve Vaughan (a regular member of the convention vendor committee).

Sadly, Arthur didn't arrive until long after the meeting began. Indeed, the tone of the meeting was so bad, Sarita and I, both, had objected to feeling we were being brought before the Inquisition. (More on that in a moment.)

What I found strange and disconcerting--beyond the inquisitorial feeling--was how completely out-of-sync with one another were Kevin and Bill's questions with what Arthur said when, after he arrived, he was finally asked for his perspective.

Prior to his arrival, the vendor committee members said very little. Instead, Bill and Kevin took a strong lead. Bill more or less launched the discussion with several leading questions:
  • "Would you agree that . . . ?"
  • "Shouldn't . . . ?"
Bill: "Wouldn't you agree that a Christian curriculum should be written by Christian authors?"

I answered: "I would expect the instructors guides would be written by Christians. But it can certainly use books written by non-Christians!"

Bill: "But shouldn't the majority of the books be written by Christians?"

"Not necessarily. . . . "

There was more, but this little interchange certainly gives you the flavor.

And then Kevin came in with comments and questions about a Christian metaphysic and how Christians need to be incorporating a Christian metaphysic and a Christian ethic into all their teaching. . . .

At the time, I had completely forgotten what he had written back in March. I made no correlations at all. I remained of the opinion that the real issue with the vendor committee was Sonlight's failure to toe the young-earth party line. And I continued under the thought that it was the vendor committee we had to satisfy, not Bill Roach and Kevin Swanson.

Now I realize I was almost certainly wrong in my assessment.

But in the midst of the conversation as it transpired, I objected to the vocabulary Kevin was using in his question, because, in context, it sounded as if he expected us to use words like metaphysic within our curriculum itself . . . even, potentially, at the first and second grades (since it was to our early elementary curriculum that I understood there had been objections). I objected that, though I understood what he was talking about, and I believed that, in fact, Christian Sonlighters do, no doubt, teach their children a Christian metaphysic and ethics, " most people don't use that kind of vocabulary" and we don't either. At least not generally!

I attempted to demonstrate how someone might teach Christian ethics and metaphysics by use of just one of my personal favorite books from the Sonlight K program, a Newbery Honor book, The Hundred Dresses.

As I noted above, through all of this "inquisition," a dialog that lasted, as I recall, for about 40 minutes, Arthur, the current chairman of the vendor committee, was absent. When he finally arrived, I figured maybe we could get down to "real" business. After all, according to Kevin's comments from a year ago, he and Bill and the board had nothing to do with Sonlight's having been banned.

I wish I could remember what the specific question was that elicited the one key comment from Arthur after he arrived. But his answer, I thought, was telling. It was exactly along the lines of what I indicated in my blog post of January 20th: Sonlight includes certain books that present evolution in an attractive light and some child might pick the book up on his or her own (after all, the books are attractive and are meant for consumption by children!) and the child might thus become corrupted by the book. . . .

Kevin wrote me a gracious email later that evening--particularly gracious considering the tone of the meeting (the meeting became quite heated at a couple of points . . . with a Sonlight representative or two definitely expressing some . . . uhhh . . . shall we say . . . frustration at the way the meeting was being conducted):
From: Kevin Swanson
Sent: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 8:16 PM
To: John Holzmann
Subject: Thank you

Dear John, Serena [sic], and Wayne,

Thanks for the time Wednesday night to discuss Sonlight's philosophy.

Despite the apparent difficulties in our discussion, I think it was healthy for our volunteers who work the vendor committee to hear your clarification of the curriculum. I apologize that it came off like an "inquisition." The tension wasn't helpful. We were however, able to get some of our questions answered to our satisfaction, and will seriously reconsider having Sonlight back into the vendor hall. We need a board decision on this, and I will press for it right away (instead of waiting for our next board meeting in February). There is by no means a unity of opinion on the matter amongst us, but I sense some desire for concession on the part of the people who were there.

My hope is that we can listen to each other and humbly consider what is said in Christian love and thoughtfulness, as we all know nobody has complete monopoly on truth here. I trust the sentiment is mutual.

Grace and peace,

Kevin Swanson
Executive Director
I replied the next day, with copies to Wayne, Sarita, and Bill Roach:
From: John Holzmann
Sent: Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:24 PM
To: Kevin Swanson
Subject: RE: Thank you


Thank you for [your] gracious email.

I forwarded your email to Wayne and Sarita so they could "hear" your message as well.

Sarita has drafted a response. I thought I would like to take a very different approach than did Sarita in her reply which, I expect, you should receive sometime in the not-too-distant future.


You said you hope we can listen to each other and humbly consider what each one is saying.

I would like, first, to note that I believe I heard what you affirmed early on in our conversation last night: Neither you nor Bill had anything to do with Sonlight having been banned from the CHEC conventions. Instead, it was the vendor committee--of whom Arthur is chair and Steve is one among several other committee members.

I would like also to note that, while Bill suggested that we--CHEC and Sonlight--may have to agree that we have had to part ways (the final decision is yet to come), he would like us to agree that our parting is "simply" a result of a philosophical disagreement.

And, clearly, over the course of the meeting, as you and Bill raised questions, the discussion certainly sounded "philosophical."

But, I have to confess, when the person whose perspective makes all the difference--Arthur--opened his mouth, it was clear that Sonlight's having been banned had nothing to do with philosophy. It was, at minimum, all about a major--major--misunderstanding of Sonlight's product and methodologies and/or, at worst, a refusal on the committee's part to permit vendors onto the floor who don't utilize a particular (unspoken) methodology or approach to teaching about matters of controversy.

Reality: there is no way that Sonlight promotes or teaches or advocates for or believes in or recommends Darwinism or Darwinian evolution.

"But," I can imagine Arthur or someone else on the committee complaining, "someone could read [small portions of] certain ones among the hundreds of books you use in your curriculum and see, on those [few] pages, presentations that are blatantly Darwinian!"

And our response: Yes. We use books that include such passages. We use books like that "even" at the kindergarten level. And, as I mentioned (possibly before Arthur arrived, but, possibly, after he came), we deliberately refuse to schedule some of those pages (and usually explain why), and/or we schedule those pages along with copious responsive notes.

The point being: We believe, if we are to help train the next generation to reply to presentations of false doctrine, then we should let the propagators of falsehood speak for themselves . . . and then demonstrate--for parent and child alike--how we would respond.

Talk about discipleship! We are trying to disciple parents and, through the parents, children.


I don't remember who it was who said this--as I recall, it was either Steve or Arthur (or possibly both). Whoever it was, he said he didn't think it was appropriate to broach the topic of evolution at the kindergarten level.

Fair enough. That's his opinion. It's his prerogative to make those determinations for his own children.

But we have found many parents--Christian parents--who disagree. They want to teach their children about these kinds of fundamental controversies "even" at the kindergarten level. Not in-depth. But at a level appropriate, in their eyes, for what their children need to hear. And they appreciate that someone--in this case, Sonlight--offers materials (including, most particularly, our Instructor's Guide notes!) that deal with these issues in age-appropriate ways.

I would hate to think that CHEC, in unwritten, private policy decisions, will permit the preferences of those who prefer not to discuss certain matters at certain times to overwhelm the preferences of those who would prefer to pursue different paths.


Finally, I would like to note that, despite Bill's plea for peace, having a group that calls itself Christian Home Educators of Colorado ban you from their convention is not exactly a peaceful action toward a company that is undeniably Christian, that is fully engaged in home education, and that is based in Colorado! "What part of 'Christian,' 'Home Education,' and 'Colorado' does Sonlight fail to match?" The mere fact that Sonlight has been banned raises these questions in many people's minds.

Bill said that Sonlight's presence at the CHEC convention has raised questions in (some) people's minds (or, perhaps, it has raised some people's blood pressure). It is striking to me that we have never heard of such distress before. We have never heard of their questions or concerns. We have "simply" been banned. On the testimony of two or three witnesses? With no one permitted to respond to their specific charges or concerns?

As I fumbled to express last night: What changed in the last year or two, that a company that had attended CHEC conventions for upwards of ten years suddenly finds itself "on the outside"?

Kevin: You and Bill have said you don't want to overrule those under your oversight.

I believe there comes a point where leaders must, sometimes, step up to the plate. I believe this may be such a time. It is time you stood up for principle and either
  • Vouch for Sonlight as obviously meeting all the legitimate requirements CHEC has established for its vendors and, therefore, it is inappropriate for the committee to bar Sonlight from the CHEC convention.
  • Change CHEC's charter, its statement of faith, its policy statements, or something that will permit it (CHEC) and Sonlight--and any other interested parties--to see and understand what it is that makes a company like Sonlight no longer welcome at CHEC conventions.
Or, perhaps,
  • Change CHEC's name to make its true character better known:
    • Fundamentalist Christian Home Educators of Colorado.
    • Christian Young Men's Apprenticeship, Mentoring and Entrepreneurship League of Colorado.
    • Or some such.
    • Something more "narrow" than the moniker "Christian home educators" implies and something by which . [--Oops! I never finished this sentence! And I have no idea, at this time, what I might have intended to say. --JAH, 1/31/09]
Because if you let the committee's decision stand, it seems that the name "Christian home educators" doesn't fit. Not when you're willing to let your vendor committee ban from your conventions a professedly, avowedly, openly, structurally--in every practical way possible--Christian Home Education company, a company that, without reservation, is able to sign your statement of faith, that has abided by every "rule" laid down by CHEC, that serves a significant portion of the Colorado Christian home education community, and that "even" has its headquarters in Colorado. . . .

Thank you.

I also sent an email to all the attendees, with copies to the key players from Sonlight as well:
From: John Holzmann
Sent: Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:26 PM
To: 'Bill Roach'; 'Brenda Kelly'; 'Arthur Miller'; 'Steve Vaughan'; 'Kevin Swanson'; 'Chad Roach'
Subject: Thank you for attending last night's meeting

Lady and gentlemen:

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for taking your valuable time to meet with us last night.

I have to confess, on the one hand, my great disappointment that Arthur was unable to be present for the major portion of our conversation. As he expressed his/the vendor committee's concerns, it struck me that they came from a very different perspective and for very different reasons than those implied by the questions raised by Kevin and Bill, both of whom openly disavowed having anything to do with Sonlight having been precluded from attending the CHEC conventions.

Having heard Arthur express his (and the committee's?) concerns, I would like to write you, Arthur, directly, so that you can be assured that Sonlight in no way promotes, advocates for, believes in, or in any other way "stands for" what you-all seem to believe we support. We oppose Darwinianism, purposeless/directionless/chance evolution, and all such philosophies. Let me go further: let me state unequivocally that we do not promote old earth creationism, either, despite allegations on the part of Mr. Ham to that effect. But, as I said, I will make that case--to you and to Steve, as members of the vendor committee--in a separate email.

It "just" seriously disturbs me that we may be being banned not because of substantively real issues, but because of someone's prejudiced failure to consider what Sonlight really teaches and its methodology.

I think there is little doubt we, personally, and most of you who visited us, personally, disagree about many things related to homeschooling. But I imagine that is the case, too, between you and many other vendors whose goods you permit to appear at your convention. I think it is a travesty of the name Christian Home Educators of Colorado, however, that you would permit personal preferences to force a vendor out of the hall, meanwhile suggesting that we should view it as a matter of "philosophical differences"--especially if and when the one potential philosophical difference the chairman of the committee identified is completely unfounded.

With that, I "just" want to say, once more, I--and we at Sonlight--are grateful for the opportunity you afforded us to "hear your hearts."

Thank you.

A week later, I then sent the letter I had promised to Arthur--with copies to all the other attendees as well.

I don't sense that is as relevant today as it was then. (Consider some of the things I've written over the last week and a half.) At the time, I had not even begun to read Haarsma or Glover and so I said some things in my email to Arthur that I'm sure I would not be able to say today. Or, at least, I would not say them the way I expressed them back then. (Sonlight Curriculum itself is the same; but my own perspectives on--how might I best express this?--the potential "awfulness" of evolution have obviously changed.)


Just this morning--a couple of hours after I began writing this post--Sarita opened and showed me a letter from CHEC that was sent on January 28th:
January 28, 2009

John and Sarita Holtzman [sic]
Sonlight Curriculum Ltd.
8042 S Grant Way
Littleton, CO 80122

Dear John and Sarita,

Thank you for meeting with us and providing dinner.

After meeting with you a second time, we concluded that the meeting did not go well.

Part of the fault may lie with us and part of the fault may lie with you. We sense that there is a lack of agreement and unity in our perspective of Christian education. We may not be communicating well or there may be fundamental philosophical differences. Our question remains, "Is there an appreciable difference between Secular Curriculum and Christian Curriculum, and what is that difference?"

We are still uncomfortable moving ahead, unless we can make further progress in our discussions.

We are open to having further meetings with you if they would be more profitable than the last one.


Kevin Swanson
Executive Director

Bill Roach
Based on this letter, I would say my impression was correct that "evolution" or "young-earth creationism" is, at this point, hardly the basis for CHEC's objection to Sonlight. There is a very much more fundamental difference of opinion. Indeed, a whole slew of differences of opinion--about the kinds of books a Christian curriculum should use, the emphases of such a curriculum, etc. And Sonlight is clearly on the "outs" with CHEC's current/newly developed (and, perhaps, still developing) vision.

It will be interesting to see how CHEC works out its philosophy into the future. Will they, indeed, begin banning all the other vendors who fail to weave a God-centered metaphysic (as CHEC would define that term) into their products?

(Actually, now that I look at their list of approved vendors for 2009, I see that they seem, indeed, to be doing that pretty consistently. There are still a few companies that are not explicitly Christian in outlook. Saxon Homeschool, Rosetta Stone, Highline Vision Center, National Driver Training Institute, and a few others stick out in that regard. But all the other publishers clearly and unequivocally claim "biblical" and "Christian" roots.)


And still it hurts that this company that clearly and unequivocally claims "biblical" and "Christian" roots is banned.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I found it!

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I had been looking for a statement about the theory of evolution being, "merely," a scientific theory, and, therefore, unworthy of the kind of fear and venom and opposition heaped upon it by so many Christians.

I believe I finally found the original I was looking for. It has nothing to do with biological evolution. It is about the Big Bang.

This is from Glover's book, Beyond the Firmament:
The Big Bang is a serious attempt to explain the obvious astrophysical data from some kind of coherent story that allows the laws of nature to operate continuously over the entire course of cosmic history.

Trouble begins when the Big Bang is intentionally portrayed as an atheistic alternative to creation. This is about as silly as claiming that medicine is an atheistic alternative to healing. Christians don't make these kinds of silly statements about other scientific theories. Take germ theory for example. If a doctor were to rely on unexplainable supernatural phenomena to heal an infection, he would be considered a "witch doctor" and immediately have his medical license revoked. So just like serious doctors who seek to explain sickness and disease in terms of natural cause and effect, serious cosmologists seek to explain the astrophysical data without supernatural interference.

If we truly believe that God is sovereign over His creation, then Christians should not fear these naturalistic explanations. God is just as present through the continuous operation of the laws of nature as He is with miracles. And if the story of cosmic history does include any miracles, then the discernible patterns of providence that we call physics might even reveal some obvious discontinuities that defy a cause-and-effect explanation. But even then, honest science demands that we continue the search for a material explanation until one is found.

So when Christians accuse cosmologists of intentionally leaving God out of the picture, it does not encourage constructive dialogue between science and religion. We can avoid this by simply adjusting our theological expectations before asking science to describe the formational history of the cosmos. Quite simply, if you ask a scientific question, you should expect to get a scientific answer.

[When] Christians feel compelled to dispute the Big Bang on religious grounds as a godless version of creation, . . . [it] makes about as much sense as rejecting meteorology as a godless view of the weather. The Big Bang is just an idea that tries to explain what scientists observe in nature with a useful physical model that relates observed effects with material causes--as far back as physics can reasonably reach.

If anybody thinks they have a better way to explain the changing structure and properties of the cosmos over time, then they are free to challenge the Big Bang theory on scientific grounds. In fact, there have been a few opposing theories that have made their way into the professional journals. But attacking the science of the Big Bang on religious grounds is extremely counterproductive.

--pp. 120-121

Glover concludes the chapter in which he makes this particular statement with the following questions and observations:
So what . . . is the point of the Big Bang? Is . . . it just another way to attack Christianity and the authority of the Bible, or to keep God out of the public schools?

For the longest time, that's pretty much what I thought. Judging by the rhetoric of most creationist literature, I'd say I wasn't the only one.

Of course, any scientific theory can be hijacked by atheistic presuppositions for the sole purpose of arguing against God and creation. This is a common tactic used by the enemies of Religion. But is that really the point of the Big Bang theory? . . . Is it possible that the Big Bang is really nothing more than a tentative natural cause-and-effect explanation of what scientists observe in nature? It seems to me like a pretty coherent way to explain things like cosmic redshift and the CMBR [Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation--JAH] in terms of the known patterns of material behavior that we call the laws of nature. And isn't explaining the discernible patterns of natural behavior the point of any scientific discipline, from medicine to meteorology?

Whether we agree with it or not, there are many very intelligent people who consider the Big Bang theory one of the crowning achievements of modern science. It represents decades of hard work, a little good fortune, and an unparalleled cooperation between the world's leading [physicists in various subspecialties]. The reason it has such a broad appeal to the scientific community is not because it makes no reference to God, but because it considers all of the observational and experimental data and attempts to provide a coherent natural explanation that assumes the known laws of physcs have been operating continuously since the beginning of time.. . .

One thing that Christians need to understand is that these are firmly held beliefs based on what appears to be overwhelming physical evidence. The Big Bang is not just something that atheists can conveniently substitute for special creation to avoid the existence of God any more than gravity is something they can exchange for providence to avoid God's sovereignty. . . .

[A]ttacking the Big Bang theory as a "silly creation myth invented by people who hate God" does not address the real problem. These tactics assume that naturalistic theories are . . . themselves the root of the problem. I submit to you that they are not. Christians don't take this approach to other areas of science. Do our naturalistic theories of biological development from a single fertilized cell to a fully grown adult undermine our belief that God made us? Do our naturalistic theories of planetary motion or the water cycle undermine our belief in common grace? Do our naturalistic theories of germs and antibiotics undermine the need to ask God for healing?

--pp. 128-129

Answer, obviously: No. And unstated conclusion: "So let's lay off charging the Big Bang with producing such noxious results."
I would like to suggest that you re-read these last two sections and replace every occurrence of the word physics with biology, and every occurrence of the Big Bang with the Theory of Evolution , and every occurrence of the cosmos with the various plants and animals we find in the world today.

I think you will find the "argument" works just as well.

And so I stand by my comment from a couple of days ago: Let us view neither the Theory of Evolution nor the Big Bang as threats. Indeed, they really offer no threat either to the Bible, to the sovereign God of the Bible, or to Christianity.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beyond the Firmament, I -- Accomodating human limitations

I mentioned, several days ago, that I had been reading two books on origins while away on my trip. I've more or less summarized the key items that impressed me with the Haarsmas' book. It's time for me to talk about Beyond the Firmament by Gordon J. Glover.

Where the Haarsmas seek to summarize a wide range of evangelical Christian viewpoints on origins, Glover, I would say, "goes for jugular." No ifs, ands or buts: he believes God used evolution to create the world as we know it today. He believes this unapologetically. And he wants us to know why he believes as he does.

Happily, by and large, he is quite gracious in his presentation. At the same time, I'm glad I read the Haarsmas first. Being so much more "open" in their presentation, I found myself able to listen better. But then, having acquired from the Haarsmas a hunger to learn more, Glover offered a wonderful next step.
SIDEBAR--Presentational Difficulties

Glover could have used a copy editor. His book features a far larger number of typographical errors than I can recall seeing in any other published work: misspellings, phrase repetitions, missing words, punctuation errors and more.

After a while, I found them a bit annoying.

His use of the second person plural when speaking to his readers is also rather jarring. (As I have often explained to my fellow copywriters at Sonlight: Though you know you are writing to many people when you write an article, every person who reads what you have written will experience it on his or her own, as an individual. So you need to address your audience individually--as you [singular]. Thus, for example, instead of saying, "Some of you . . . " or, "Many of you . . . ", you should say, "Now, perhaps you. . . . ")

If you find yourself, like me, annoyed by such errors and infelicities, please be assured that the annoyance is more than offset by the quality content. Moreover, you'll have no trouble understanding what Glover is trying to say. He writes in a vigorous, folksy, down-to-earth manner with lots of pithy analogies that make his meaning easy to grasp.
In Chapter 1, Glover talks about the differences between modern scientific explanations of physical structures and how things work . . . and ancient mythological stories intended to explain transcendent meaning and purpose: why things are as they are. He also discusses the significance of self-validating (as opposed to externally provable) truths. Self-validating truths include such beliefs as the principle of the uniformity of nature (a scientific doctrine) or the truth of Scripture (a Christian doctrine).

Glover takes much the same view of Genesis 1 and 2 that I explained a few days ago when discussing the Haarsmas' Origins: that the Bible's cosmological model is not scientific (in any modern sense of the term) and we ought not to be looking to the Bible for scientific insights into the structure or operation of the physical universe. Instead, the Bible was written to speak to a culture that already accepted a particular cosmology. God's purpose for writing the Bible didn't include any need to correct or improve the cosmology of those who would read or hear the Bible's message.

Glover understands how this view will disturb many evangelical Christians. And so he writes:
[Many of us want to ask,] [W]hy would God intentionally recycle the erroneous cosmology of the ancient Near East? [But] the real question is [W]hat would have been the point for God to overturn the established view of the physical universe?

An incorrect view of the cosmos borne from ignorance is not a problem for God. I'm certain that even our best efforts today are lacking because of things that we just don't know. But an incorrect view of God borne from bad theology is a serious issue that must be addressed. [And t]hat was obviously God's focus in Genesis.

To put it simply, the intent of Genesis is theological, and any references of a "scientific" nature are culturally bound by the cosmology of the author and his audience.

--p. 75

In another place:
Basically, the creation narrative was God's theological rebuttal to the Egyptian creation mythology, not a scientific rebuttal of ancient Near-Easter cosmology. . . . Genesis is not giving us creation science. It is giving us something much more profound and practical than that. Genesis is giving us a biblical theology of creation.

--p. 70

Glover invests two chapters (3 and 4) and some 40 pages (51-92) pursuing this line of thinking in depth. And I think it was as I read his comments about these matters that I began to understand why, as the Haarsmas suggest, it would have been distracting to the Israelites (not to mention just about everyone else down through the centuries), if God had communicated the equivalent of, Look, earthlings. Your [Ancient Near Eastern] cosmology is completely wrong. The earth is not stationary. It is not flat. The sky is not a solid dome. The sun and moon and stars are not attached to the lower face of the dome. There are no windows in the dome through which the waters above fall down upon the earth. There are no pillars holding up the sky. . . . And so on and so forth.

God's use of the ANE cosmology, Glover suggests, is an example of what [some] theologians refer to as the "principle of accommodation"--God's making allowances for--accommodating--human limitations.

In Psalm 136:7, Glover notes, the psalmist refers to "the two great lights" (the sun and the moon). "Are we to infer from this that the moon is physically greater than the stars, planets, and galaxies?" Glover asks.
Clearly not. But that is exactly how some Christians once understood this passage.

While nothing in the text demands that we draw these astronomical conclusions, if we bring these kinds of nonsensical questions to the foothills of Mt. Sinai, we will get these kinds of nonsensical answers.

--p. 79

Glover quotes Calvin's commentary on the book of Psalms:
The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy [in Psalm 136:7]. . . . [Instead,] he made use by Moses and the other prophets of popular language, that none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity. . . . Accordingly, as Saturn, though bigger than the moon, is not so to the eye owing to his greater distance, the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned.

--p. 791

Glover offers another example of this principle of accommodation at work in the recent past.
The situation involved Western doctors trying to prevent the spread of infection by midwives in a [prescientific/non-Westernized] culture. Rather than try to teach [the midwives] about bacteria and germs, concepts that had no familiar cultural context, the doctors decided to use the [midwives'] own unscientific traditions to communicate the knowledge necessary for [the task at hand]. This instruction took the form of "ritual" washing so that "demons" from the hands of [the] midwives [would] not be transferred to the baby or mother.

The desired effect was achieved, even if by means of factually incomplete or incorrect knowledge.

--p. 79

I have thought about this illustration, now, for several days. And I have thought, first: Wouldn’t it have been better, long-term, if the doctors had taught these midwives the full truth about bacteria?

But then I realized that, though, yes, in the long run, it would be better if and when the midwives learn about germs, for the time being, it may have been a very good thing, indeed, for the doctors to have used the midwives' familiar cosmology.

Our culture, of course, has had the privilege of centuries to become familiar with microscopes. We know how they are used. We understand their strengths and limitations. Most Western adults have either seen microorganisms directly through microscopes, or we have seen enough photographs and heard enough testimonies that we have no questions about the reality of microorganisms--living things too small to be seen with the naked eye. We--most of us, anyway--are familiar with the tory of Louis Pasteur and how he came up with and proved the germ theory. We understand how bacteria work. This is all "old hat" to us.

But what about these midwives?

I do not know the details of the circumstances under which the doctors had to teach the midwives about the need for hygiene. But I can imagine.

I imagine they lacked the laboratory equipment and/or multimedia capabilities that would have been necessary to demonstrate even a tenth of what the average American high school graduate knows. And so, in the midst of one-shot three- or four or five-hour classes designed to help these midwives become more effective in their work generally, how much time do you think the doctors should dedicate solely to teaching these women the germ theory and the need always, always, always to wash their hands?

Glover asks,
If these [midwives] are ever to advance their knowledge to the point of understanding the actual material mechanisms by which infections are transmitted by unclean hands, will they curse these Western doctors for not giving them the [full, scientifically accurate] truth? Or will they appreciate the wisdom of these doctors, accommodating their ignorance and meeting them in their time of need--so that, despite their lack of knowledge, they might still [serve their patients effectively]?

--p. 79

Glover doesn't answer the question. But I think you know the answer he would choose. And I agree.
We don't always deal with our children strictly in accordance with the cold, hard facts. Instead, we make allowances for their ignorance and immaturity because there are often greater issues that may be obscured by laying down the factual account. . . . [And so w]e might refer to the passing of a loved one as "sleeping," or we may withhold the fact of adoption, or refer to sexual intercourse as some form of "advanced snuggling" for mommies and daddies. . . . The bottom line is that we don't give them more than they can handle, even if it is the truth. And so our Heavenly Father often deals with us much in the same way.. . .

--p. 77

1 Quoted from John Calvin, Commentary of the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1949), 5:184.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Haarsma #4

I thought I was done with this book, but apparently not!

I am excited about it because, to my mind, it helps establish a foundation for solid biblical thinking about science . . . and solid scientific thinking about any- and everything worthy of scientific consideration.

Chapter 2, on "Worldviews and Science," delves into some fundamental philosophical issues of which every student of science needs to be aware. I've already mentioned, by means of Donald MacKay's computer game illustration, the issue of God's sovereign providential oversight of the world, His "holding together" all things (as taught in Colossians 1:17, among other Scriptures).

I think I should probably mention some of the deeper philosophical--or, better, worldview--issues God's providence addresses. When I mention them, I imagine most of my readers will think, "Of course. That's obvious!" For example:
[S]cientists sometimes say, "The law of gravity governs the solar system."

But Scripture tells us that this isn't the whole story. Natural laws don't govern; God governs. . . . The regular patterns of day and night, summer and winter, and other fixed laws of nature were established by God's design.

--p. 36

I imagine you may think this is true . . . but (I hate to say it) . . . trivial . . . isn't it? I mean, we don't want to take the things of God lightly, but . . . so what? What's the real point of this "insight"?

I think the practical outworking of this insight, as the Haarsmas demonstrate, is supremely valuable.

They note,
[A] god who becomes unnecessary as soon as humans find a scientific explanation for how the world works is not the God of the Bible!

--p. 36

Did you catch that? Put a different way:
A scientific explanation of a natural event does not replace God, and it doesn't mean that God is absent.

--p. 37

I'll return to this point again in a moment.

First, I want to mention another issue the Haarsmas address in Chapter 2. Specifically, the difference between randomness and chance in a scientific meanings of those words, and randomness and chance in a more philosophical or even theological sense.
When scientists say something is random, they mean that the outcome is unpredictable. . . . {But when someone says,] "Life came about by chance, not by God," . . . the word chance is being used with a very different meaning. . . . Here it is being used in a philosophical sense to mean a lack of cause and a lack of purpose. In statements like this, chance functions almost like a god that is set up in opposition to the God of the Bible.

--pp. 41-42

Now put this distinction between the two possible meanings of the words random or chance together with the former insight I mentioned--that God providentially superintends all that happens--and you come up with the following very practical results:
  • When scientists explain some part of the natural world in terms of natural laws, it does not remove God from the picture.

    --p. 38

  • A scientific explanation of a natural event does not replace God, and it doesn't mean that God is absent.

    --p. 37

  • [As we] acknowledge and proclaim God's design and creative hand in both the things science cannot explain and the things it can, . . . [we bear] truer witness to who God really is and [our testimony] will not become irrelevant as science advances.

    --p. 40

I've spent several hours poring back through both the Haarsmas' and Glover's books trying to find a statement I thought I read. Perhaps I did not read this, and what I am about to say was an insight of my own. If one of them did in fact say the following, please forgive me for failing to attribute it.

Here is what strikes me, as a result of everything I have shared with you so far: Rightly understood, the theory of evolution (not evolutionism!) is simply and solely a scientific theory. And the implications of that insight?

Just as every other scientific theory (most of which don't even register a blip on the screens of any Christians) . . .
  • It is subject to scientific verification, falsification, and revision.
  • It is --and ought to be viewed as--no threat . . . to the Bible, to the sovereign God of the Bible, and/or to Christianity.
  • If we oppose the theory as a whole or in part, we ought to oppose it on scientific grounds.
Finally, to bring this post to a close, let me note the last "very practical result" I believe the Haarsmas offer, the last point we should keep in mind, as a result of the acknowledgement that God sovereignly rules over all things.
  • God governs the natural events that scientists can explain, like the cycle of seasons and plant growth.
  • God governs natural, regular events that scientists are still studying but can't yet explain, like the migration of monarch butterflies.
  • God governs supernatural miracles that science in principle cannot explain, like the resurrection and water turning to wine.
  • God governs random events in which scientists can't predict the outcome, like the roll of dice and the weather.

To God be the glory!

--p. 43

Let us praise God! Let our science praise God.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Haarsmas' book--a third look

Before I address the primary issues I wanted to talk about today, I realize I should say something about the subtitle of the Haarsmas' book, Origins. Specifically, as I mentioned a few days ago, it is subtitled "A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution."

Let me suggest why I think it has this subtitle.

The Haarsmas teach at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, a school sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America. Deborah did not grow up in the CRC. It seems clear that Loren did. Being professors at a CRC-sponsored institution, they recognize they have to abide by the doctrinal standards established by that denomination. Beyond that, their book is published by Faith Alive, the denominational publishing house of the CRC.

As a result, the book seeks to make special appeal to that denomination's audience by including the word "Reformed" in its title. It also includes, in Chapter 1 a brief (one and a half paragraph) reference to and quote from an official statement on origins made by the synod (the highest decision-making body) of the Christian Reformed Church in 1991; and it includes 8 pages (Appendices A and C) that quote the full texts of two statements of the CRC synod--from 1972 ("On Biblical Authority"), and 1991 ("On Origins"). Early in Chapter 1 the Haarsmas also include a sidebar in which they explain that they use the word "Reformed" with no intention to divide, but as a kind of "explanation" of the "flavor" of their presentation. Whereas someone else might quote more readily from the Church Fathers or Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther or John Wesley, the Haarsmas tend to quote more often from John Calvin. Their thinking is also flavored a bit more heavily than many with an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God.

I appreciate the Haarsmas' candor. Based on my experience of both the CRC and of the broad evangelical Christian movement, I would like to think that any and every evangelical Christian should find him- or herself quite at home not only with the book's text, but with the manner in which the Haarsmas use Scripture and address their subject.

I thought I should mention these things only because Sarita, who was raised in the CRC, exclaimed over the reference to a denominational statement. She found it troublesome for the Haarsmas to have included such "narrow" references.

Personally, they didn't bother me. And as someone who is used to reading carefully parsed and finely stated theological documents, I actually appreciated being able to consider such statements in the Haarsmas' book.

But Sarita's comments awakened me to my need at least to "forewarn" you. Just in case you, like Sarita, might have some kind of strong (negative) reactions to seeing someone quote their denominational standards.



On to the primary subject matter I wanted to address today.

In keeping with their over-all plan of introducing a wide variety of options, the Haarsmas discuss five different uses and/or meanings of the word evolution. Specifically, they define and describe the significance of
  • Microevolution.
  • Pattern of change over time.
  • Common ancestry.
  • Theory of evolution.
  • Evolutionism.
Having already explained the key differences between science and worldview, the Haarsmas note that evolutionism is in a category by itself compared to the other four because evolutionism "does not refer to science but to a set of worldview beliefs." Specifically, "It refers to the ways in which some people try to use the theory of evolution to support certain atheistic beliefs. . . . When the theory of evolution is used to argue for atheistic beliefs, it is rightly called evolutionism." (p. 153; emphasis added.)

"All Christians are united against evolutionism," write the Haarsmas, "but [they] disagree with each other about the best strategy for combating it."
To illustrate this, let's take a simplified argument for evolutionism. . . .

Premise 1: If the theory of evolution is true, then Christianity is false when it says that God created all the plants and animals.
Premise 2: Science shows that the theory of evolution is true.
Conclusion: Christianity is false.

Young earth creationists [Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis would be a good example] and progressive creationists [Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe would be a good example] combat evolutionism by attacking the second premise. They argue that the scientific evidence does not support the theory of evolution.

Evolutionary creationists combat evolutionism by attacking the first premise. They argue that the Bible does not teach against evolution and that God could work through biological evolution just as he works through other scientifically understandable natural processes.

--p. 156.

A question I had never considered before (though quite similar to the one I have been asking, for years, about the ability of old- and young-earth creationists even to talk with one another): Can Christian young-earth creationists and Christian [old-earth] progressive creationists work together with Christian [old-earth]evolutionists to meet the needs of Christian young people (and older) who really and truly just don't know what to make of all the competing claims?

The Haarsmas suggest we can . . . and should. And in order to do so, they tell the composite story of Jennifer, a young Christian woman, raised in a young-earth creationist home and church, who went off to college in hopes of becoming a medical doctor. Prior to leaving, Jennifer was strongly warned to beware of the wiles of atheist biology professors who would attempt to dissuade her from her faith by means of their teaching about evolution.

As it turned out, her professor for introductory biology, Dr. Bensen, was no atheist. Instead, he was a vibrant leader in the campus Christian ministry Jennifer joined when she went to school. She enjoyed Professor Bensen's class well enough, but at some point realized he was using a textbook that taught evolution as fact . . . and he said nothing in any of his lectures to call the text into question.

Was he compromising his faith?

Jennifer was completely befuddled. What was going on?

She decided to talk with him.

When she asked her questions,
Professor Bensen carefully explained that a great deal of scientific evidence clearly supports evolution. He said that it was right for a Christian to believe that the theory of evolution is correct because scientific evidence supports it and because the Bible doesn't teach against it.

When Jennifer left the professor's office her head was buzzing. She was more confused than when she entered. This was the first time she had heard anything like this.

Jennifer had great respect for Professor Bensen. She had seen the professor's faith in action many times. But if he was right, then her pastor, Sunday school teachers, and parents must be wrong, and she had great respect for them, too. She didn't know whom to believe or where to go for answers.

--pp. 146-147.

So what was going on?

At the conclusion of the chapter in which they discuss the various definitions and uses of evolution, the Haarsmas write:
Jennifer's [parents and the leaders in her church back home] actually have a lot in common with [Professor Bensen]. They agree about who created everything, who redeemed them, and how they should live out the Christian life. They also agree that the atheistic philosophy of evolutionism is wrong. But they disagree about how best to challenge it.

Jennifer's Sunday school teachers believe it's best to confront the theory of evolution. Professor Bensen believes the theory of evolution is a good scientific model and instead confronts the philosophical claims of evolutionism directly. By maintaining a charitable attitude toward each other, Christians who advocate different responses to evolution need not break their unity as believers who work side-by-side to advance God's kingdom.

Imagine what might have happened if Jennifer hadn’t met Professor Bensen. She might have taken a course from a stridently atheistic professor who promoted evolutionism. If so, she might have dropped the course and given up the idea of becoming a doctor. More likely, she might have taken a course from a professor who simply presented the scientific evidence for evolution and never mentioned religion. As the evidence piled up, it could have caused Jennifer to question everything she learned from her church back home.

Neither outcome is desirable.

Jennifer's parents and teachers were rightly concerned about evolutionism, but they put Jennifer in a painful position by giving her only two options: young earth creationism or atheistic evolutionism.

When students are forced to choose between these two, they may either turn away from a career in science or pursue science but turn away from God. A far better approach [we think] is to teach young people about a range of Christian positions on evolution, giving them some options for how to keep their faith when they encounter the theory of evolution.

--pp. 158-159.

And that, of course, is what the Haarsmas do in their wonderful book.


A couple of more comments and then I'll quit.

First, I want to mention an insight the Haarsmas offer concerning God's providence and the implications of having God create through what we might call "natural" rather than "supernatural" or "miraculous" means.

Chapter 2,dedicated to a discussion of worldviews and science, discusses issues like providence (God's "normal" operation of nature) and miracles. In essence, the Haarsmas ask, what is the distinction between providence and miracle?

Referencing Donald MacKay, a Christian physicist, they offer an analogy for providence that MacKay uses in his book The Open Mind and Other Essays. As I think about the world in light of the analogy, I have to wonder: what is the real difference between [relatively] slow or "normal/natural" processes and the things we tend normally to think of as "miraculous"?

In summary, they say, "[A] god who becomes unnecessary as soon as humans find a scientific explanation for how the world works is not the God of the Bible! The Bible clearly teaches that natural, ordinary events are governed by God. God is active not only in dramatic supernatural events, but also in the ordinary change of the seasons. This view of God is displayed in Psalm 104:19-24."

In an allusion to Colossians 1:17, MacKay says, "The continuing existence of our world . . . hangs moment by moment on the continuance of the upholding word of power of its Creator."

MacKay suggests that things look stable and unchanging not because they are so in some kind of internal, self-existent manner, but because, like a computerized game, they have been programmed to look that way.

Think of a computerized game of billiards.
The balls follow all the rules you'd expect: they go faster if you hit them harder; they roll in straight lines; and they bounce off the sidewalls or off each other.

On the computer screen, the balls appear solid and self-existent, and they follow regular, repeatable patterns of behavior (the "natural laws" of the computer game). But that doesn't mean that the electronic pool balls will continue to exist when you pull the plug on the computer! The pool balls are not solid and stable on their own. Rather, the computer constantly sends signals to the screen to update and maintain the image.

The laws that govern the motion of the balls aren't stable on their own either: if a glitch occurs in the program, the balls will freeze and no longer follow the rules.

Similarly, MacKay says, the matter, energy, and laws of nature of this universe are not of themselves intrinsically self-existing and stable; nor did God simply start them off and then leave them alone.

--pp. 37-38.

So God does a miracle. Is He "fighting" or "breaking" the laws of nature? Or is He jiggering a program He created?

Clearly, the miracle will astonish, astound and startle those of us who are "in" or part of the "game." But for God: "Is anything too great for Him?"

Finally. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote some comments about creationism and evolutionism on a website owned by someone who is clearly pro-evolution and, together with his friends, is generally antipathetic to an evangelical worldview. I noted at the time something I wrote here a few days ago: something about how strongly the young-earth creationists seem to control the evangelical homeschooling movement at this time.

In the last few days, since reading Origins and Beyond the Firmament, I have realized how completely the young-earth creationists have controlled my thoughts, too.

I have been wholly taken with the issues that they have established as of prime importance. I have been focused on books and papers that they have published and/or with the writings of people like Hugh Ross and the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement whom they have "taken on" as of primary significance in the origins debates. I have completely ignored the work and writings of evangelical Christian evolutionists like the Haarsmas, Glover, Howard van Till, and National Human Genome Research Institute Director Dr. Francis Collins. It's as if these "others" didn't exist.

And at this point, I'm embarrassed by my omission.

The Haarsmas present bare summary outlines of the evidence modern evolutionists put forward for their views. --It is far deeper than what I was aware of just a few months ago.

The young-earthers, progressive creationists and a large proportion of the Intelligent Design proponents have all said an evolutionary perspective cannot possibly stand . . . and I have read all the reasons they are convinced such a view is illegitimate. Now I think it is time I become better informed about the evidence for such a perspective.

A month or two ago, I ran across and began reading a book, Relics of Eden, that presents a popular summary of what the author claims to be genetic evidence for common descent. The Haarsmas offer an extremely condensed version of some of the same data . . . along with several other lines of evidence . . . of which some I was aware (via the young-earthers, IDers, and progressive creationists), and some I was not.

Suffice to say: the Haarsmas' summaries put these data in a very different light.

I look forward to reading more!


Oh. PS. I can't afford the internet connection from where I am. But when I get home, I look forward to reading some of the materials the Haarsmas reference on their website: Faith Alive Resources: Origins.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The proper (separate) roles of Scripture and science

I mentioned the Haarsma's book Origins yesterday. I said I was pleased with how it pushed me to think new thoughts I had never thought before.

Here's one of the thoughts to which it introduced me.
NOTE: I had read books or papers that suggested most of the different interpretive schemes concerning Genesis 1 and 2 that the Haarsmas summarize, but I had never heard any Christian address what I am about to tell you in the way that the Haarsmas do.1 Indeed, the only people, up until the Haarsmas, whom I had ever heard mention this interpretive schema were diehard atheists. And, I will confess, the atheists' "arguments" for their interpretation disturbed me greatly. They say their schema clearly demonstrates the very human foundation of the Bible; God, they say (or a god, any god), had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of biblical "inspiration." The Bible is "just" a human document.

In one fell swoop, however, the Haarsmas not only present the outlines of the exact same schema, but, in my opinion, by means of their presentation, they declaw it; they remove the atheists' ability to use it against Christians. Suddenly--I say this with great joy--the atheists' "arguments" no longer bother me. I sense a freedom from fear concerning the atheists' arguments that I have not felt in years. If you are familiar with what I am about to discuss, I hope what the Haarsmas (and Gordon Glover) have to say will be encouraging to you as well.
The Haarsmas say that a growing number of evangelical scholars are interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 (plus a large numbers of other passages from the Old Testament) with the idea that its primary outline, its "furniture," if you will, the "scientific" "facts" to which it alludes, come from the standard Ancient Near Eastern [ANE] cosmology (i.e., the way virtually all Ancient Near Eastern cultures viewed creation--the cosmos). Among other things, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were convinced
  • The earth is flat.
  • It is surrounded by water (both above and below).
  • The sky is a solid structure [which is, literally, what the word translated "firmament" in the King James, and "expanse" in the New English Version, means].
  • The firmament holds back the waters that are above it. [After all, what else--besides a solid object--can possibly hold back water?]
  • The firmament has floodgates or windows in it (Genesis 7:11; 8:2) that let the "waters above" sometimes pour out upon the earth.
Gordon Glover, in Beyond the Firmament, provides additional details of the ANE cosmology . . .
  • The "four corners" of the earth (Isaiah 11:12; Proverbs 30:4) rest on the "pillars of the earth" (Job 9:6; Psalm 75:3).
  • The "pillars" themselves stand on the "foundations of the earth" (1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 104:5; Job 38:4-6; Jeremiah 31:37).
. . . And so on and so forth.

The Haarsmas note,
This physical picture of the world is woven throughout the Old Testament. It reflects the way the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites, and Israelites literally understood the world around them. In the account of Noah's flood, the waters come from the floodgates of heaven and from the springs of the deep (Gen. 7:11), not from clouds. In Psalm 19:4-6, the sun rises at one end of the heavens and travels its path to the other end, just as the Egyptians viewed the sun as a boat sailing on the firmament.2

--pp. 113-115

Having explained the basic ANE cosmology, the Haarsmas then go on to describe the ANE cosmogony--the ANE story of creation--with special reference to the Babylonian epic, Enuma Elish. The distinctions between the Scriptural cosmogony and Enuma Elish are remarkable.

Some of the key differences the Haarsmas note (p. 116):
  • Bible: There is one God. Enuma Elish: There is a pantheon of gods.
  • Bible: God created an ordered world by the authority of his Word.  Enuma Elish: The world was formed by battles among the gods.
  • Bible: No part of the physical world is divine.  Enuma Elish: The sun, moon, and other objects are gods that control human fate.
  • Bible: God said his creation is good.  Enuma Elish: Some portions of creation are related to good gods; others are related to bad gods.
  • Bible: God purposely created human beings to be trusted stewards of his creation.  Enuma Elish: Humans are an afterthought made to be slaves to the gods.
The Haarsmas suggest that the point of Genesis 1 has nothing to do with science and the structure of the universe (i.e., cosmology); it has everything to do with theology and anthropology: who is God and who is mankind in relation to God?
Because of [their cultural] context, the original audience would not have heard Genesis 1 teach that the earth was formed out of a watery chaos or that there was a solid dome firmament holding back waters above the sky. They already believed that physical picture! Rather, the original audience heard Genesis 1 as a powerful theological manifesto proclaiming the true authority of the God of the Israelites and the true status of humanity.

God inspired the human author of Genesis 1 to communicate these theological truths using a physical description of the earth that was familiar to them.

Imagine if God had instead tried to correct their scientific misconceptions by explaining to them that the earth is spherical (not flat) and the sky is gaseous (not a solid dome), and that . . . It would have baffled them completely! Moreover, it would have completely distracted them from the theological message.

--p. 117

So far, so interesting. But I said I felt the Haarsmas had freed me from a fear that has gripped me more or less since the moment I first heard this idea that the biblical account of creation is based upon or takes its primary form from the creation myths of the cultures round about Israel.

So why would the Haarsmas' reference to this view (again, one of nine different views they outline!) give me any comfort at all?

Because, as they say,
If God's purposes in Genesis 1 did not include teaching scientific facts to the Israelites, then we should not look here for scientific information about the age or development of the world. [According to the conservative Christian viewpoint that suggests we ought to view the cosmology in the Old Testament--including Genesis 1 and 2--as being the same as (because it came from) the cosmology of the cultures surrounding Israel, f]or modern readers, as for the original audience, the message of [Genesis 1] is its powerful theological truths. God does not use the Bible to teach us the physical processes he uses to make the rain fall or the earth orbit the sun or to form the mountains. Instead, in a beautifully crafted and impressively short text, God teaches us all about
  • his sovereignty.
  • the goodness of creation.
  • the honored status of humanity as his imagebearers. . . .
In Genesis 1, . . . the first listeners heard nothing new about the physical universe; all the emphasis was on who created the world and humanity and why they were created.

What does this mean for science? It means that Genesis 1 is not a science textbook. The text was never intended to teach scientific information about the structure, age, or natural history of the world. Thus, . . . comparing Genesis 1 to modern science is like comparing Psalm 93:1 ("The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved") to modern astronomy. Genesis is not in agreement or conflict with the sequence of events found by astronomy and geology.

As scientific knowledge increases and changes over the centuries, its understanding of the physical structure and history of the earth will change. But through all of those centuries, the theological truths of Genesis 1 remain the same: there is one sovereign God who makes light from darkness, creates an ordered world from chaos, and fills an empty world with good creatures. Humans need not fear the capricious whims of a pantheon of gods, but can instead trust in the one true God who made us in his image and declares us "very good."

--pp. 119-121


As we noted yesterday, we don't get upset when meteorologists create computer models and use Doppler radar and thermometers and all the other instruments of modern meteorology to predict the weather for us--despite the fact that Scripture clearly teaches us that God controls the weather. And--I didn't mention this yesterday, but I'm sure you can follow--none of us gets upset when geneticists and embryologists and other students of human development study how our human beings reproduce . . . despite the fact that, we are told, it is God who knits us together in our mothers' wombs. Similarly, we don't turn to Scripture in order to understand planetary motion or how to send a rocket into outer space . . . despite the fact that, again, the Bible tells us God placed the sun, moon and stars where He wanted and controls their motion by His will.

The fact is, we don't turn to Scripture in order to discover scientific information. We understand in every other area, it seems, but not when it comes to Genesis 1--that modern science is asking different questions than those the Scriptures were written to answer.

So, I heard the Haarsmas say, as they quoted the Christians who view Genesis 1 in light of the Ancient Near Eastern cosmological perspective: we ought to handle the "science" of Genesis 1 in the same way we handle all the "science" elsewhere in Scripture. Ignore it. Don't worry about it. Recognize that this "science" is every bit as culturally bound to its time and place as our science, today, is bound to ours.

1 The Haarsmas are by no means first to suggest the schema I am about to share with you. They are simply the first Christian authors I have read (or heard!) who present this perspective. --From reading the Haarsmas' and Glover's books, I get the sense that John H. Walton's The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, especially around pp. 80-85, may be an excellent popular-level source for information on this subject.

2 If we seriously intend to interpret Genesis literally, say the Haarsmas, then we had better keep these things in mind and speak not only about 24-hour days and so forth, but a flat (not spherical) earth; and an earth that rests on pillars rather than orbiting the sun; and a solid-dome sky that has the two great light-giving bodies--the sun and moon--and the lesser bodies--the stars--affixed to its "inside" surface . . . with an ocean of water above and beyond these fixtures and the dome to which they are attached. . . .

And lest you feel I am overstating the case, consider Martin Luther's lecture on Genesis 1 in which he said,
Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters. . . It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night.

--Quoted by Glover, p. 65. Full reference at loc. cit.