The destruction of an 850-year-old cathedral in Paris has resulted in a number of questions being raised. Some of them I have explored in my two earlier pieces on the Notre Dame fire. With so many churches in Europe being attacked – including by means of arson – one still wonders what the actual cause of this blaze was.
For example, there are questions about how this happened (yes I know that renovations were underway), and why it seemed to take a while before actual firefighting took place. And we do have the Islamic State cheering this on as “retribution and punishment.”
But the fire has also once again raised some other, older controversies. It always happens. Some folks have a hot-button that seems to be easily triggered and they are ever ready to go on the attack. So I have already had a number of folks – including some rather cranky Christians – even attacking me on various fronts.
There have been three main types of criticism levelled at me and others who have written about this – all from various sorts of Protestants. And all these oft-heard criticisms I have dealt with in the past, but it seems I must once again do so.
Just bear with me then as I yet again respond to these critics. This includes those who have said the destruction of this cathedral is really no big deal because it is a Catholic structure; it is their business, not ours; and it is just a lousy building, so who cares?
One: Catholicism and Protestantism
I guess some folks are either new to my site, or they just do not pay much attention to what I have already written on this matter. I have said countless times now that I prefer that sectarian fights be taken elsewhere. There exist zillions of web sites where each side seeks to bash the other to death, so it need not be repeated here thanks.
As I have also said numerous times, I am unashamedly an evangelical Protestant and have very real theological differences with my Catholic friends. However, all three main streams of Christendom (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) adhere to the basics of the faith as found in the early Christian creeds (the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc).
The mark of real cults is to deny the core beliefs: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc. The three main faith groups do not do this. But see more on all this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/17/defence-protestantism-response-catholic-friends/
So I am willing to work with these other believers, at least on various issues and in the general culture wars. And that leads to the second commonly heard criticism.
It bothers me when some folks say they don’t really care if other faith traditions are attacked. Freedom of religion tends to be of a piece – when one Christian tradition is attacked, all will be attacked. If Catholic churches are attacked or destroyed today, it is likely that Protestant and Orthodox ones will be tomorrow.
So I will stand for all, even though I may have some theological differences. When we glibly stand by and say ‘I don’t give a rip if they are attacked – they are not of my tribe,’ we are showing a very narrow perspective on the very real wars we are in.
The truth is, the secular left is working overtime to shut all churches down and to silence all believers. But far too many folks seem to think that as long as their own little patch of turf is defended, to hell with everyone else. That is a very foolish position to hold on to.
We undermine our own position when we think this way. It is the old Martin Niemoller situation once again being repeated. As the German Lutheran pastor and Holocaust survivor famously said of the Nazi regime:
In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
We need to be thinking in the same terms today. But I have written many times on this matter of working together when and where possible, so see these four representative pieces if you want more detail on all this:
Three: Art and architecture
The criticisms here have been of a twofold nature. One is a rather cavalier and philistine view of art in general, and the other is the claim that buildings don’t matter as we worship God in our hearts. As to the first matter, I love art and the beauty that can come from it because I love God and the beautiful artist that he is.
I am deeply moved by great works of art – be it architecture or paintings or sculpture or poetry or music or literature. I believe that if they can be so inspiring and amazing now in a fallen world – even though made by fallen human beings – imagine what things will be like in the next world. I believe we will still be creating things and enjoying various forms of beauty then (God himself being the chief object of beauty).
But sadly too many Christians seem to have zero appreciation for the arts, and what a wonderful gift of God they are to us. Let me quote from one earlier article I wrote in defence of art – one that mentions another great cathedral:
Many evangelicals do not think much about art at all. They either ignore it, dismiss it, or have little to do with it. There are various possible reasons for this, which I will not here enter into. But let me offer just one example of this. It has to do with a trip through Europe many years ago. I was in a van with a number of other young evangelicals, travelling from Holland to Spain. While driving through France we were near to the world-famous Chartres Cathedral.
This 750-year-old structure, with its glorious flying buttresses and amazing stained glass windows, is one of the great works of art in all of human history. This magnificent building took some six decades to build, and is one of a number of grand and glorious cathedrals scattered throughout Europe. They are a testimony to an age in which appreciation for spiritual realities was far more pronounced and widespread.
To simply view one of these cathedrals and/or to stroll through one can be a moving religious experience. The grandeur, wonder and glory of these amazing structures say much about the God of beauty and wonder who inspired them. So to be so close to this world-renowned church was getting me and a few others quite excited. But most of the travelling companions were not in the slightest interested. One of them said words to this effect: “Oh, that’s just some Catholic Church isn’t it?”
This not only displays a bit of sectarian bigotry, but it certainly displays a woeful, philistine attitude. Here we had one of the greatest works of art in human history, and all we got from most of the others in the car were yawns, if not disdain. So, the result? Sure enough, we kept on driving. So I never did get to see it. One day I will have to go back with those who are a bit more enlightened and culturally savvy. That lot certainly was not. It seems they had zero appreciation for the arts, for culture, for history, or for beauty.
Or as I wrote in another piece:
The great European cathedrals, of which Chartres is a sterling example, were more than just magnificent and beautiful pieces of architecture. They were quite significant for the common man, with the tall, soaring structures lifting both eyes and hearts to heaven. Indeed, in an age of illiteracy for so many, the biblical stories came alive in the stained glass windows and sculptures and statues. The biblical stories and themes are visually on display, bridging the present world with the world to come.
But many of my critics have gotten all bent out of shape about Notre Dame. They say it is just a catholic building and means “Our Lady” (the English translation of the French). And they go on to say that Mary cannot save us and a building cannot save us.
Um, of course! I never said a word about a building or Mary saving us. If those critics had bothered to read what I wrote on this they would have seen that I dealt with this already. As one Catholic that I quoted from said: “Notre Dame has fallen, the way everything in the earthly city must. She will not rise from these ashes as she was. Catholics take comfort in the belief that our Church will stand firm.”
So even Catholics know that buildings alone are not sufficient. As to the claim that ‘It’s just some dumb building’ and Christians have no need of them, let me say the following. Sure, we need no buildings at all. We worship God inwardly and can worship corporately with other believers anywhere – in the woods, in the desert, on the beach, etc.
But that is not the issue. It is always nice when believers can meet safely and out of the elements to worship. It is not mandatory (witness the persecuted church elsewhere) but it is convenient at least. There is nothing wrong with meeting in a building as such.
Whether they are plain and unadorned buildings or more fancy structures, they are not wrong in and of themselves. Sure, some folks can worship the building and all its trappings instead of God. And some folks can confuse going to a building with being a true believer. But those are different matters.
But this too I have written about before. See more on the issue of art and the Christian in these three pieces for example:
In closing, let me state that I am fully aware that there are some Protestants who utterly hate Catholics and condemn them all to the flames. Of course in just the same way there are some Catholics who utterly hate Protestants and condemn them all to the flames.
I have little time for either group to be honest. My take on this is as follows: there are many Roman Catholics who are born-again believers who I fellowship with now and will do so for all eternity. Also there are many Protestants who are not saved and will not be spending eternity with me.
But this sort of discussion I have had far too often already. I for one as an evangelical Christian mourn the loss of a beautiful work of art: Notre Dame. Yes it is just a building, but it is a majestic and beautiful building. But as I wrote in my second article on the fire, there is without question much more in life that has also been destroyed:
While far too many priceless treasures have been irretrievably lost, the cathedral can be rebuilt. It will once again rise above the Paris skyline. Much more difficult to replace is the hole in the soul – both in the lives of individual Frenchmen, and in the nations of Europe. So penetrating and so successful has been the secularisation of Europe that any sort of major spiritual renewal will be a very big ask indeed.
But if you still want to hate on me and regard me as an arch-heretic for saying what I did above, well, so be it. I will continue to do what I am called to do, and will simply ignore these sorts of critics.