The fire that devastated Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burned for twelve hours, but the fire wasn’t even out before some people started being stupid about it. Most of the world was simply in shock as they watched one of the most magnificent buildings in the world go up in flames. But there were some who were on the spot with hot takes that were not really all that helpful, as in, it had to have been a deep conspiracy, or Muslim terrorists did it, or we shouldn’t feel all that sorry because of the Roman Catholic denial of sola fide, or that we need always to remember that churches are people, not buildings.
But hot takes are not what we need, really. So I totally get why officials would tell everyone not to rush to judgment re: arson/terrorism. But I don’t get why they would step on that message so badly themselves by ruling it out so promptly. As I heard from one reputable news source yesterday, there will be a thorough investigation, but . . . we know what we won’t find. Everybody, wait is a responsible message. We-will-find-out-the-truth-so-long-as-it-doesn’t-cause-problems-for-the-secular-narrative is not a responsible message. The embers are still hot, but we have managed to prove a negative in record time. That kind of thing will only fuel speculation—whether the irresponsible kind, the sort that claims it to be the work of space aliens, or the responsible kind, which notes that France has been experiencing a rash of church attacks lately, which it has.
But such is not my purpose here. I know next to nothing about the details of the start of Notre Dame fire, and so I intend to write with those limitations in mind. I want to hold myself to the obvious—the kind of thing we should be able to see from the other side of the world. Jesus told us that it was our responsibility to read the signs of the times (Matt. 16:2-3), and this is one of them. As has been pointed out repeatedly in the last few days, Notre Dame is France, and France is Notre Dame.
And so I think it is worth pointing out that secular and unbelieving France is structurally glorious, and has a great and storied history, but also has a dried-out roof made of ancient wood and lead tiles. If and when France goes up in a sheet of flame, this is what it is going to look like.
A Long History in a Fallen World
This cathedral was built in an age of faith, and it was a genuine piety that built it. At the same time, because it has been there for 850 years, the history that has swirled around it on the ground has seen both high times and low. In the French Revolution, this was where revolutionaries crowned a prostitute as the goddess Reason—in a festival accompanied by disorderly, licentious and orgiastic behavior. Napoleon, who had restored the cathedral, was crowned emperor there in 1804. The bells of Notre Dame were used to signal the beginning of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, that awful time when the French Protestants were mercilessly slaughtered.
On the other hand, the Rose window was removed during the Second World War to save it from the Nazis. Henry VI of England was crowned (the disputed) King of France there in 1431. The architecture is sublime, and that is not a trifle. And when a building like that comes to mean what it means—when high genius uses such an architectural monument to point to a transcendental glory—it is the duty of every responsible person to respect and honor what that means. But the Gothic style points to transcendental glory—it does not and cannot touch it. That is part of the essential point. This is a building on earth, in France, in Paris, and the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands (Acts 7:48-49).
I have not had the privilege of visiting Notre Dame, but I have been to Yorkminster, and I have also been to Salisbury Cathedral. And what these buildings say is true, whatever the liars who mount their pulpits might be talking about.
And this is why we can acknowledge what they point to, and at the same time distance ourselves from the confusions that still cloud our minds as we walk in and out of such cathedrals, or as we watch it burn. We are not in Aslan’s country yet, and the air is thick down here. So a good Protestant can dispute that the cathedral actually contained the crown of thorns that Jesus wore, while at the same time honoring the heroism of the priest who saved that crown.
If this kind of approach was true of the apostle Paul’s relationship with the goddess Diana, and it was, then how much more can Protestants—while remaining such—lament the great loss together with all those who love beauty.
“For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess. Wherefore if Demetrius, and the craftsmen which are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them implead one another” (Acts 19:37–38).
In other words, Paul was enough of a disruption to the traffic of idols in Ephesus to be the cause of a riot there, but he did not do it by means of slander or vituperation.
At the same time, the God we point to (with our spires) dwells in the heavens, and He does as He pleases. We must not despise sacred spaces, but He certainly reserves the right to do so. He touches the mountains and they smoke. How much more can He, through a wise and sovereign providence, touch the works of men—even the works of men that point to Him? When we observe how we deal with this loss, and all such losses, we start to understand the reactions that Jeremiah got when he slammed those who rely on the “temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer. 7:1-4). And we can see why Jesus was considered such a threat when He went into the gift shop of the Temple and started throwing the post cards around. And even worse, He even predicted that not one stone would be left standing on another.
The Conclusion of the Matter
Ever since the War Between the States, Americans have been deeply reluctant to make any claims about the providential meaning of historical events. On a human level, this is certainly understandable. As Mark Noll pointed out in The Civil War as Theological Crisis, both sides in that war were praying to the same God, and both sides came away from the crisis with a deep distrust of anyone who claims to have any kind of insight into the development of providence. And it is good to be wary, as C.S. Lewis outlines in his great essay on historicism.
But Jesus did not tell us to avoid reading the signs of the times. He rebuked those who drew a facile and obvious conclusion.
“Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4).
The carnal reading was that the eighteen who perished must have been extra sinful men, because they were the ones who died. But Jesus said that this was erroneous—the collapse of the tower was a harbinger of coming events. It was a foretaste. It was the overture to a symphonic catastrophe.
And so, without developing this in greater detail, I simply want to say that modern France is in desperate need of a massive revival, a religious reformation that will put all prior reformations in the shade. That is their only hope. Their current aggressive secularism is simply their approved way of keeping the wood of the roof extra dry.