Our editorial team has very high standards for every book and product we carry. There is no item in our curriculum that has not been carefully and very thoughtfully selected. Even a book that you find distasteful, we have included to help you guide your child.
Sonlight Curriculum attempts to avoid books that include unnecessarily scary, boring, or offensive passages. We know, however, that different readers have different tolerance levels and expectations. So what is intellectually challenging to one may be highly offensive to another....
I once read a consumer magazine that rated frozen pizzas on a number of factors, including the volume of contaminants each pizza contained. I remember being aghast at the things they said they found: rodent hairs, insect parts … even feces!
And most astonishing and depressing of all: not one manufacturer's pizza was clean. Not one! With the aid of a microscope, the researchers reported, they found contaminants in every pizza.
Now, before you decide never to eat a frozen pizza again, consider this truth: if you look at the world through a microscope, you will find that every food, every product, is contaminated to some degree. Whether by hair, insect parts and feces … or molds, bacteria, and chemicals … or—when it comes to books—by false, foolish, or inaccurate ideas.
A Fundamental Truth
In Philippians 4:8, God tells us He wants us to think about "whatever is true … noble … right … pure … lovely … admirable … excellent or praiseworthy."
This verse is often interpreted to mean we should avoid everything that is impure, unlovely, lacking in excellence, and unworthy of praise or admiration. But I would like to propose a different view.
Rather than telling us absolutely to avoid all such things, God tells us on what we ought to focus.
We should not close our eyes to what is ugly, contemptible, unhealthy, or evil and pretend it doesn't exist. We must be aware of such things if we are to avoid their dangers. But, God says, we need to focus on the good.
Imagine a feast set before you. A thick, juicy steak sizzles on your plate, making your mouth water as the tender meat succumbs to the touch of your fork. Crisp vegetables in bright reds, yellows, and greens—filled with disease-defying nutrients—garnish your plate and crunch at every bite. The tantalizing aroma of herbs and spices waft past your nose, begging you to plunge into their essence with your taste buds. When such a delicious, nutritional masterpiece is placed before you, side-by-side with a dish of reconstituted freeze-dried prunes, which would you choose?
Just because some food scientist tells you that, upon careful analysis, you can be sure the prunes are guaranteed free of rodent hairs and insect parts to the level of 0.0002 ppm, whereas the feast is 1,000 times dirtier—guaranteed to only a 0.2 ppm level of purity: there is no compelling reason we should ignore the feast and eat the prunes.
Similarly, then, with literature—especially the literature Sonlight offers.
Sonlight, I can assure you, presents you with a literary feast. And I can also assure you the literary equivalent of germs, insect parts, and rodent hairs are present as well—because, when we get right down to it, they are present in all literature.
And what is the appropriate response to the kind of feast Sonlight offers? We think students and parents should focus on the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy qualities of the books we offer, and they should offer thanks to God for the delightful feast … even as they ask Him to protect them from the contaminants.
The truth is, if you find something objectionable in a book Sonlight carries, you can be sure we chose it because we believe its excellent and praiseworthy content far outweighs its imperfections. Indeed, we chose that questionable book because we believe it contains far more high value content than any work that covers the same subject available on the market.
"Okay," someone will say, "a swear word here or there is one thing. But what about deeper issues—issues like the misleading character of historical fiction; books that include references to magic, witches, or other Scripturally-prohibited practices; and books in which the author promotes non-Christian or even anti-Christian views?"
Here is our response to questionable books in Sonlight.
What About Historical Fiction?
Some people note that historical fiction distorts the truth. Sometimes, for example, it includes "real" historical figures, but places them in the midst of people who never existed. Sometimes authors have fictional characters do what the historical record clearly tells us a specific, known person did. They create imaginary dialog. And on and on it goes.
In so many ways, say the detractors, historical fiction misleads students. And, therefore, they conclude, no self-respecting history program should include historical fiction.
Usually when someone complains about the historical fiction we carry, it is because they have discovered exactly how inaccurate one of our books really is. When this happens, I usually ask the critic how he or she discovered the inaccuracies.
"Well," comes the typical reply, "after reading ______, I began to wonder how true it really was. So I went online and … " –Or, "…. My daughter wondered whether ____ (a character in the story) really existed, so she went to the library and began to do some research …"
Frankly, I find these stories fascinating. And a bit humorous. For when was the last time you or your child read a history text—or textbook—and found yourself motivated to do further research?
Is it because these books are fully accurate? (You can be sure they're not! Just do a Google search on textbook inaccuracies and see what you find!)
No. I would hazard the guess that the primary reason you weren't motivated to do any further research is because the book failed to grab your interest!
But stories do. And once a great work of fiction grabs your children's attention, you'll find that the educational process becomes marvelously joyful. Your children will actually want to investigate the things they're reading.
As long as a work of historical fiction is portrayed as fiction, and as long as we know of no more accurate work a child can read that will inspire further study, we at Sonlight believe it is preferable to teach a child with emotionally and intellectually engaging historical fiction instead of uninspiring textbooks full of dry facts.
What About Witches and Magic?
No question: God has condemned witchcraft, magic, and all occult practices. And God's people ought to have nothing to do with such things.
So why does Sonlight Curriculum include books with characters referred to as witches and things spoken of as magic? Two reasons...
- In most cases, we don't believe these "witches" and "magic" are the same as what Scripture condemns.The word witch, for example, is often used to refer to any female character who has exceptional or "supernatural" powers. The word is also literary shorthand for a haggard, ugly, or wicked woman. In neither case does it have to refer to a woman who engages in occult practices! Similarly with the word magic. Yes, magic can refer to occult practices. But it may also refer to astonishing illusions or sleight-of-hand. Indeed, it can refer to any wonderful, astonishing, awesome, powerful, unexpected, or overwhelming experience. (It is in this sense that we may hear people speak of, say, a "magical moment.")In all such cases, then, the use of these specific words should create no obstacles for us to use the books in which they appear.
- In the few cases where a "witch" or "magic" could be interpreted literally, we don't believe they are referenced as things to be emulated or desired. Notice, for example, that Scripture references witches and magic, too. Yet we still read the Bible — because Scripture presents witches and magic as evil and undesirable. So let us assume for a moment that the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz is a literal witch who engages in occult practices. Supposing, then, that it is true that she is a literal witch: even still, she is clearly not held out as a model character whom our children ought to emulate! And so, we believe, it is acceptable for us to read The Wizard of Oz to our children.
How to Deal With "Bad" Words, Unsavory Characters, and Controversial Topics
What should you, your son or daughter do when you come across a "bad" word—a swear word, for instance, or some other word you wouldn't use and you would prefer not to read? If we had our choice—meaning, if there were quality, powerful literature that did not use such language—we would avoid literature that included these words.
But we have not found such books. So what do we do? If we are reading out loud, we either skip over the word or substitute other exclamatory words that we find acceptable: Rats! or Bummer! or whatever. I'm sure you have substitutes that are acceptable in your family.
What about bad concepts—when a book talks about witches or ghosts, evolution or some such thing? Again, you'll have to come up with your own solution, but in our family we confront these issues head-on —we talk about them. We don't ignore them (by skirting around them, avoiding ever reading such materials, or by reading right through them and making no comment). We don't make light of them, by mocking these things or pretending people who pursue them are imbeciles. At the same time, we do not over-emphasize things that concern or offend us. We comment on them, briefly ("It says Saul went to consult with a medium. What is a medium?" ("Someone who talks to spirits.") "Are mediums real?" ("Yes.") "What does God say about getting involved in things like that?" ("We should have nothing to do with it.") "Why is that?" ("Because He wants us to trust Him and to turn to Him for the information we need...") "So was Saul doing the right thing when he went to the witch of Endor?" ("No.")) ...then we move on.
We believe that people over-emphasize evil when, for instance, because of a single picture or a paragraph of text about a witch, they refuse to read an otherwise outstanding book. We believe that the emphasis is wrong when a parent or child says, "Uh-oh! This book has a dirty word in it! I'm not going to read it!" —When the rest of the book challenges us, informs us, and causes us to think.
To refuse to read a story because it includes an obviously evil character (not "an obviously evil hero" but "an obviously evil character"): teaches our children that we do not believe God when He tells us that "greater is He who is in [us] than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).
Our purpose in training our children is to raise them up with the purpose of destroying evil—and to instill in them the hope and confidence that they can destroy evil—with reliance on the power of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Closer to home, and of far greater immediate and practical significance to your son or daughter: how should your son or daughter respond when one of his friends uses a "dirty" word? To what degree should one tolerate the misdeeds of one's companions in order to influence them with the gospel, and at what point should one risk the loss of relationship for the sake of "taking a stand"? What is the best (most gracious, winsome) way to "take a stand"? How is it possible that Jesus became known as a "friend of sinners"—yet He lived a holy life?
The point is, don't create a problem out of bad words, wicked concepts, etc., by over-emphasizing them. At the same time, if you find your child has an inordinate fascination with these things, or falls into the temptation of using foul language or pursuing an unChristian worldview, it would behoove you to discuss these things with him. Again, don't overreact, but don't ignore the potential problem, either. In all, emphasize the good: the bigger purpose for which God placed us here on earth. He has made us to be His stewards, co-laborers for His kingdom. We should do nothing for our own selfish or wicked ends; we should pursue His purposes.
What about "bad" pictures—when the Usborne Book of World History, for instance, shows naked women or men?
Again, we try not to over-emphasize the problem. The fact is, in none of the books that we carry do any of the artists or authors use nudity (for instance) to titillate or seduce their audience. The pictures of naked people in the Usborne books are simply realistic portrayals of the way people really (did) live. Should we pretend people didn't (or don't) live this way? We think not. Yes, we will tell our kids that we don't live that way; and we will explain why. But we believe there is no need for us to feel ashamed that other people have lived differently than us.
What About Works with Anti- or Sub-Christian Themes?
Many homeschoolers say, "I don't want to expose my children to evil, and I myself do not want to be exposed to evil." They believe this is a way to obey God's commands to "flee the evil desires of youth" and to "be separate" from the wickedness of the world (2 Tim. 2:22; 2 Cor. 6:17).
These people will often suggest we should train our children spiritually in much the same way that the U.S. Secret Service trains its anti-counterfeit agents: by making them so familiar with the real currency (or, in the case of homeschoolers, with true doctrine) that they will recognize a counterfeit immediately.
The advice these people give and the analogy they use are both good—to a point. However, it seems to me that when speaking of the roles we are called to fulfill, Scripture speaks far more about our need to interact with the world than to isolate ourselves from it or turn our backs upon it.
The Apostle Paul, for instance, says we are to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and he speaks of Christians as soldiers for Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Eph. 6:11-18; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; etc.).
If we study the Bible primarily so we can avoid that which is false or alien, how can we act as ambassadors or soldiers?
Notice that counterfeit currency is inanimate. Foreign governments and opposing armies are both very active and alive. Soldiers' and ambassadors' training, therefore, is very different—it has to be different—from the training anti-counterfeit agents receive. We must train our children differently as well.
Good soldiers must learn self-discipline. Just as quality anti-counterfeit agents, they must learn to avoid engaging in evil or becoming personally entangled in it.
To stay prepared for battle, they must not let their bodies waste away from misuse. They must exercise their bodies and maintain healthy diets.
But they must do more than fight internal demons and personal temptations. Soldiers are called on to defeat external enemies. That's their job.
And, therefore, just as sword-bearing soldiers in the days of yore used their weapons for more than shaving their beards and defending themselves in private duels, so our children must be taught to use the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God; see Eph. 6:17) for more than personal spiritual hygiene and protection from evil.
Soldiers and ambassadors, both, must be trained not merely in the (necessary!) passive arts of discernment—the kinds of skills an anti-counterfeit agent requires—but they must master the active skills, too, of engagement with the enemy.
So how do ambassadors and soldiers train for active duty? Not merely through academic, classroom instruction. But by participating in "live" debates (ambassadors) and mock combat (soldiers).
So it is with spiritual training as well. We believe quality literature written from a sub-Christian or anti-Christian perspective can help provide the context for the kinds of mock debate and mock combat young people need to prepare themselves for spiritual warfare in the bigger world in which they live. Such books can provide sparring partners against whom our kids, backed by the coaching help of their parents, can engage in "round tables" and "war games" without having to face live opponents who are bent on their destruction.
It seems to us that elementary level children ought to be engaged in lightweight sparring. With Mom and Dad's help, they need to learn how to discern and respond to the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle!) appeals of the Enemy.
Then, by high school, students should be prepared to engage in heavy-duty mock combat and ought to interact with books written by well-spoken, devout proponents of opposing viewpoints. Our kids need to face their deceits and learn to recognize their strategies and approaches. It's the only way to train them for warfare!
How to Strengthen Your Children's Spiritual Immune System
Remember the contaminated pizzas I mentioned at the beginning of this article? You may have thought, "But what if we're talking not about minor impurities, but a truly deadly poison—or a virus, perhaps?" It's a good question.
Obviously, you do not want to expose yourself to something that will kill you. But there is a way to protect yourself against viruses, infections, and deadly toxins.
And the method? You encourage your immune system to generate anti-bodies that will overwhelm the toxins should they ever invade.
And how do you encourage your immune system to build up anti-bodies?
Not by avoiding toxins! Rather, you build your immune system by exposing your body to small doses—or weakened versions—of the toxin … over time … under supervision … and according to a definite plan. It's called inoculation.
Carefully-chosen books written from sub- or anti-Christian perspectives can make great vaccines.
Any questionable books in Sonlight can actually help you achieve your goals of raising discerning young people with hearts for God!
Are you ready to prepare your children for the battles of life? Do you want to motivate them to learn? Do you want them to build up spiritual antibodies against the evils of the world? If so, then perhaps you, too, will want to consider using some books that other homeschoolers won't touch!