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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Gift of Critique

Written by: on February 21, 2019

France.

The birthplace of the Enlightenment.

Here, one must be competent (or at least conversant) in philosophy in order to graduate from High School. Thinking and debating are national pastimes. In response to the Gilets Jaunes—the Yellow Jackets—President Emanuel Macron wrote a letter to all the people of France inviting them to participate in a three-month “major national debate.” [1]  All the mayors’ offices are being required to host local meetings/debates hear out the concerns and listen to the ideas of the people.

Though many French people found fault with this plan, it does show that the reflex of a modern French thinker like Macron is to invite debate.[2]

The French can argue and debate and disagree while remaining connected to one another in deep, faithful friendship. They do not see opposing ideas or even differing ideals as obstacles to relationship. In fact, quite the contrary. Debate among friends keeps things interesting.

This characteristic is also present in the church, a trait that can shock USAmericans. During an organized round table between visitors from our home church in the States (a church of 4000, avg. age 50) and members of our church plant here in Lyon (a church of 30, avg. age 22), we asked each group “What could you learn from the other church?” and “What could you offer to the other?”  In complete sincerity, our French friends said, “We could offer you criticism.”  In fact, the French view careful, thoughtful critique as a gift.

This openness to debate goes back to the Enlightenment, also called “the Age of Reason,”, when great thinkers began to question everything that had previously been taken for granted and “embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change.”[3] The Enlightenment paved the way for what Adam Seligman termed “modernity’s wager,” which is the belief that “all life can be lived well without need for God’s agency.”[4]

The much-needed criticism of the religious and political structures of the time led many French people to throw the baby Jesus out with the Church bath water. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, USAmerican church responded with a pull towards conservativism and fundamentalism that led to a resistance to intellectualism. Mark Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, laments this resistance, which in many ways persists today.[5] Rather than embracing research and discovery as core components of the Christian experience, many USAmerican Christians view intellectual pursuits as superfluous at best and antithetical at worst.

Looking past the ethnocentrism of the title (not ALL evangelicals suffer from this problem, so perhaps Noll should have titled his book “The Scandal of the American Evangelical Mind), this book enable me to see one of the strengths of the French and gave me a deeper appreciation for the Body of Christ and our need for one another.

Noll observes, “Unlike Europe-where Christian communities were often aristocratic, elitist, and traditional, and where churches were increasingly alienated from the common people, in America, Christian churches were populist, democratic, and libertarian, and the churches were strongly identified with the common people.”[6]

While the Enlightenment triggered the French Revolution, it was later Napoleon who declared French to be the national language of France, a move that aimed to elevate the common people (who spoke hundreds of different local dialects) to the level of royalty—who spoke French. From that point forward, when one corrected another’s French it was seen as grace, a hand up; in other words, criticism was a gift.

And while I love the accessibility of USAmerican Christianity, I know that its anti-intellectualism has had a felt negative impact on our evangelisation efforts in France. People like Donald Trump and George W. Bush are the most broadly recognized USAmerican evangelicals, and my French brothers and sisters shudder to be associated with un-intellectual their ilk. Most evangelicals in France are passionate about environmental issues, embrace socialism as a compassionate and fair economic system, and love intellectual pursuits.

Case in point, one of our members recently suggested that the church host some evenings of debate around the current events, including the Gilets Jaunes, global warming, and refugees and immigrants. The goal is not to teach people what they should think about these things, but to think together about how we as the body of Christ can and should participate in these issues as citizens of God’s kingdom on earth. Intellectualism is embraced, and faith and human discovery inform each other as companions. This is a gift that French believers can offer to the world.

As Roxbury and Robinson write of millennials who are leaving the Church in the US and elsewhere, “They are fed up with churches talking about themselves in a world facing such massive challenges.”[7] Christians who believe that the God is the King of this world are not afraid to talk about the need for intellect, discovery, and advancement. Indeed, they should be leading the way.

[1] “Letter from M. Emmanuel Macron to the French people,” elysee.fr, accessed February 21, 2019, https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2019/01/13/letter-to-the-french-people-from-emmanuel-macron.en.

[2] “Macron’s Open Letter on a ‘grand Debate’ Comes under Fire from Rivals, Yellow Vests,” France 24, January 14, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190114-french-dubious-response-macron-open-letter-national-debate-yellow-vests.

[3] History com Editors, “Enlightenment,” HISTORY, accessed February 21, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/enlightenment.

[4] Alan J. Roxbury and Martin Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missionological Challenge of the West (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2018).

[5] Mark A Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008).

[6] Noll, 68.

[7] Roxbury and Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missionological Challenge of the West, 8.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

11 responses to “The Gift of Critique”

  1. Greg says:

    It is good that you see critique as a good thing….even a gift. That can take some serious openness and trust. (That is my US western thoughts talking). Interesting explanation of correction and the desire to see everyone improve. Are the French Christians really able to separate debate from a passion that moves to anger? One thing I really enjoy about our cohort is the ability to come and discuss (sometimes debate) deferring ideas in what we consider a safe area. I don’t know if we do it always as well as we like but hosting a community debate can be both exciting and scary at the same time. It would definitely allow one to understand the thoughts of the community (and hopefully drive a church to engage in areas that they see a need in).

    • I do find my French brothers and sisters able to be passionate about topics without translating that passion into anger and vitrol against the person with whom they are “debating.” Arguing is like flirting in France, great fun, tantalising, and impersonal.

  2. Excellent post, Jenn!

    It was interesting reading your post because you gave us a glimpse of the intersection of evangelicalism within America and in France. Noll reveals, “…the scandal of evangelical thinking in America has just as often resulted from a way of pursuing knowledge that does not accord with Christianity as it has been an ‘anti-intellectual’ desire to play the fool for Christ” (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 12). For years, many American evangelical churches have perpetuated the false belief that ignorance is equal to godliness. This has encouraged faith to be defined as the void of reason, instead of the fulfillment of reason.
    You mention that French see criticism as a gift. You wrote, “Intellectualism is embraced, and faith and human discovery inform each other as companions. This is a gift that French believers can offer to the world.” From your own perspective, why do you think America is so reticent to create space of conversation without unified conformity? Many debates in the USA still rely on the idea of coming to a joint conclusion. How do we give Christians permission to think differently?

    • Great questions, Colleen. I surely can’t answer for the Evangelical American church, but I can receive your questions as personal invitation. Can I give Christians permission to think differently? Yes! And I LOVE speaking that kind of freedom into lives. There is beauty in diversity. A beauty that wee need in the Body of Christ.

  3. Jenn,

    What an excellent, thought-provoking post! Merci!

    You commented that “The much-needed criticism of the religious and political structures of the time led many French people to throw the baby Jesus out with the Church bath water. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, USAmerican church responded with a pull towards conservativism and fundamentalism that led to a resistance to intellectualism.” I think this is very perceptive and historically accurate as a general trend.

    Wouldn’t it be amazing if churches became communities that saw thinking together as a natural and necessary element to koinonia? I’m so glad you had your Lyonnais community speak of the gift of critique to your American community.

    As I was writing this comment, I received a notification that it’s my turn in Words With Friends 2. You are slaughtering me; have some mercy!! 🙂

    • On come on, YOU are winning one of those games!

      And yes, learning to “think together” without having to end up in “groupthink,” would be a wonderful way of experiencing community. And I think my French brothers and sisters often show me how that can be experienced, in simplicity and with great respect.

  4. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jenn,

    Great post as usual, particularly your historical insights on the French enlightenment. I think Noll’s books are an attempt to begin a debate and he does so from a position of love, though even in our own amazing cohort there are those who feel the need to be defensive rather than enter into meaningful debate. You have been given a gift to develop an understanding of this part of the French culture. Hopefully one day you will be able to use that insight to help progress the church in the US as well in the art of debate.

    • You’re very kind! But I’d rather not be pulled back into that scenario 🙂

      But I do wonder what the great fear is? All of our debate ABOUT God doesn’t change God, it only enhances our understanding and experience of God and world God created.

  5. Very creative post Jenn! I first of all, loved your pic of the Macaroon vs Macaron vs Macron poster…very funny. I also realized I must be part French because your quote: “In complete sincerity, our French friends said, “We could offer you criticism.” In fact, the French view careful, thoughtful critique as a gift.” resonated with me and my personality. I seemed to always be overly quick to critique something or someone thinking I am giving them a gift, only to realize I am hurting their feelings or offending them. Thanks again for the wonderful French lesson. You are raising the bar for missions work in Franch and around the world. Blessings friend!

  6. Jake, I would be honored to be critiqued by you, and would know that you heart was to help nd not to hurt!

  7. kartu poker says:

    I do find my French brothers and sisters able to be passionate about topics without translating that passion into anger and vitrol against the person with whom they are “debating.”

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