“We’re here because the church in Paris is dead,” shared the pastor’s wife as we strolled towards the Eiffel Tower. “Not dying—dead.”
Many people appeal to evolution to justify rejecting God’s Word as true.
How did France, with its once-Christian heritage, become one of the planet’s most secular nations? As I described in my last article, the answer lies in France’s long history of elevating human reasoning above God’s Word as its authority for truth. Part of this process has involved much (80%) of France’s population turning to belief in human evolution,1 an idea which helps cultures become and stay secular for two reasons.
First, evolution provides a seemingly scientific way to explain humanity’s origins apart from a creator God. Many people, in turn, appeal to evolution to justify rejecting God’s Word as true. Second, unanswered questions about evolution too often even lead people inside the Church—including students—to compromise on biblical authority, distrust the Bible’s reliability, or abandon their faith altogether.2 That’s why I’d been backpacking 360° around the world documenting how Christian students keep their faith at university, where evolutionary (or otherwise unbiblical) ideas are often presented as fact.
Now, gazing up at the Eiffel Tower, I wondered what insights Christian students in France would share about keeping their faith despite being in such a secular culture.
I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out, as the pastor couple hosting me had invited several students over to tell their stories. During these visits, the pastors also shared their own observations about French culture, explaining,
While the French do have high standards of critical thinking, professors will hold up France’s Christian heritage and ridicule it. For example, our daughter told us that her philosophy teacher would refer to Christianity by saying, ‘Look how wrong or how dumb this belief is.’ Or, in another instance, we had a geology student here whose professor would say, ‘Look at what these creationists from the States think,’ and ridicule them. So, students do face that.
The concept of “worldview” doesn’t exist in France quite like it does in America.
When I asked what worldview most locals embrace, the pastor explained that surprisingly, the concept of “worldview” doesn’t exist in France quite like it does in America.3 “Here in France,” he explained, “people would say that by defining different worldviews, you’re making categories, which limit your thinking . . . In France, we’re so deep into post-modern4 secular thinking, that philosophically, we don’t even think about post-modernism.”
Meanwhile, France has drifted so far from its Christian foundation that, to many people, encountering someone who accepts the Bible as true may seem as extraordinary as meeting someone who claims to be a toasted croissant. In a local psychology graduate’s words, “I remember a guy saying, ‘I cannot imagine that Christian people still exist.’ He knew there are Catholic churches, but he couldn’t believe that other people his age still believe in God. He was so shocked! So, he searched for the reason, and ended up becoming a Christian.”
Regarding the environment Christians often face on campus, the same graduate observed,
In my field, psychology, people refer to Christianity as making others feel guilty. The professors don’t have the aim to destroy religion; they’re just speaking about the past. They forget that they may be speaking to people who are believers. In the professors’ worldview,5 believers are non-existent. So, they will say things that make sense to them—that Christianity is a myth, from the dark ages.
But it’s not just professors. Even the professing Christians which this graduate knew often held major misconceptions about Christianity. “I remember many times talking with Christians in my prayer group,” he said, “but they didn’t understand what the purposes of God and the Bible really are, or that Christianity is a living faith.”
Campus Christians in many other countries had told me similar stories, attesting that church-raised students too often lack strong spiritual and intellectual foundations to know what Scripture says or why it’s trustworthy. Understandably, such students are far less equipped to keep their biblical beliefs during university. As the graduate observed,
When we, as Christians, have a difficult time in our faith, it’s a deep temptation to say, ‘I was wrong.’ This is when the church has a role to support and be in relationships with young people. They need it. I’ve seen friends that gave up and turned their backs on God. I have the feeling that it was a war. Many, many people believe because of their parents, but as they grow up, the rest of us see which of them really believe in Christ.
If I’d had any doubts that secular university often is a spiritual war, an arts student I spoke with would have put them to rest. “When I started studying in another part of France,” the young woman began,
The main focus in my program was perversion, vulgarity, and all things sexual—it was very weird. Some people were very shocking and violent in their approach to art. I didn’t really know how to be in this environment and not be affected by it. It was really hard spiritually to be in a place so dark and so far away from God.
Remarkably, the challenges of following Christ in this environment began from the very first day of this student’s association with her school. “On the day of the entrance exam,” she told me,
the school authorities saw on my portfolio that I’d done two years of theology. So, they straightaway asked, ‘Why are you a Christian?’ They were shocked that a Christian would want to go into art school! From that exam throughout the first semester, it was very tense. Even the student body president was always talking about occult stuff in his newsletters, which we got from the school and had to read.
Being in such a spiritually dark environment is naturally bound to tax a Christian student’s wellbeing. I suspect that Christian students who find themselves constantly exposed to—or expected to join in—immorality may often feel like Lot in Sodom.6 The Apostle Peter described Lot as “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked,” adding, “as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds he saw and heard.”7 The arts student described this feeling too. She explained,
Healthwise, university was really anxiety-provoking, because I would go into the school and never know what to expect. I decided, ‘I can’t do this,’ and took a break. But later I came back, thinking I could change my mindset or rationalize it a bit. From the day I went in, the classes got worse and worse. They talked about raping and pornography. . . I got out of the classroom—just left. I went to my dad and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I love art and creating, but this environment is not good.´ It was frustrating because I was good at what I was doing—I loved creating—but just not the pressure!”
Ultimately, this student left to join another art school with a healthier environment, other Christian students, and more freedom of opinion. “They want the students in a mold,” she said of her original school, “If students don’t follow the ideas they give them, they’re out.”
Sometimes, my science classes could feel the same way, I remembered.
“Were there any positives?” I asked her, “Anything you found encouraging about being a Christian in that environment?
“I think it’s amazing how even in places where you feel like it’s hostile,” she replied, “there’s always someone there for you. At that school where it was really hard, there was a Christian secretary I’d go to see. It’s not all dark. And people around me were searching, too. They were really receptive.”
“So, what advice would you give another Christian student in that kind of setting?”
“Have Christian friends around you,” she emphasized,
Don’t do it alone. Even if in the school you’re alone, have a balance. Make sure that you have enough influence from the church as well as from the school. You need to be fed by people who can influence you, encourage you, edify you, and validate you, agreeing with you that what you’re having to study is wrong. And if another student is in my position, I’d remind them it’s okay to accept that maybe that’s not the right school for them right now. It’s all in God’s timing. So, if it really doesn’t make sense to stay, see if there’s a way out. No one should feel forced to be the little warrior, all by themselves. It isn’t always healthy to be submerged in that environment.
Churches need to know the culture—what the people think—so they can counteract what is unbiblical.
“So, how can churches support students in situations like yours?” I wanted to know.
“By having a solid foundation on the Bible,” she answered, adding,
Churches should really teach students what the gospel is. If students are not really sure what they believe in, any time a question comes up, they’ll be less able to defend themselves. Churches also need to know the culture—what the people think—so they can counteract what is unbiblical.
Ultimately, between emphasizing the importance of Christian friends, solid Bible teaching and apologetics training, this student covered the need for interpersonal, spiritual and intellectual foundations—just like so many other students I’ve talked to around the world.
Based on local Christians’ insights, I suspected that campus environments in France ranked among the most challenging for Christian students of all the Western nations I’d visited. So far away has the culture drifted from a biblical worldview, many people don’t even believe they have a worldview anymore . Meanwhile, professors and young people alike often take atheism for granted, while even many churchgoers lack a real understanding of Scripture. Yet for all the problems Christian students face in France, the same three solutions apply that I’d heard from others worldwide: spiritual, intellectual, and interpersonal foundations.
Now, with the Eiffel Tower behind me, only one country remained for me to visit.
Stay tuned for part 29!