I have a lot of mixed feelings about the Fire of Notre Dame.
On the one hand, it is an indescribable tragedy. One of the most majestic and awe-inspiring feats of architecture in the western world going up in smoke. To amplify this feeling of sadness is a suspicion, barely containing a simmering anger. Everyone knows that the probable cause of this fire was arson, from the hands of agents of the Religion of Peace. Reports show almost 900 other churches incinerated in France in 2018, and we know from Rotherham how the governments of Europe will lie to the public in order to keep the peace, even if that means the rape of thousands of young women, or the destruction of a grand cathedral.
Even if the early claims of a restoration gone disastrously awry are true, the burning is saddening. It’s the sort of story they would tell if it was arson, in part because it is plausible. Perhaps it was just a catastrophic accident. In its own way, this too is, somehow, symbolic.
One feels compelled to feel deeply about it, either towards anger or towards sadness.
But on the other hand, a part of me feels no sympathy, and even the faintest sprinkling of schadenfreude.
I began writing In Defense of Hatred in the aftermath of the Bataclan massacre, where 130 people were killed in Paris. People talk about the understandable rage that builds up from oppression, from mountains of little incidents of bigotry or malice. To me, a pattern of abuse of the more lethal and obviously intended variety is a far greater justification for hatred. Prejudice may be incidental. Car bombs, suicide attacks, and flying planes into towers are not. These incidents — along with the 875 churches burned down in 2018 — represent a pattern, and visible in this pattern is a conscious, malicious, and existential threat.
If anything could justify hatred, a lethal attack which symbolized this growing pattern would be it.
But the reaction that went viral was something else:
BOY: Bad guys are not very nice, and we have to be really careful because we have to change houses.
FATHER: Oh no don’t worry, we don’t need to move out. France is our home.
BOY: But there’s bad guys daddy…
FATHER: Yes, but there’s bad guys everywhere.
BOY: They have guns, they can shoot us because they’re really, really mean daddy.
FATHER: It’s okay, they might have guns but we have flowers.
BOY: But flowers don’t do anything, they’re for, they’re for…
FATHER: Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers. It’s to fight against guns.
BOY: It’s to protect?
BOY: And the candles too?
FATHER: It’s to remember the people who are gone yesterday.
BOY: The flowers and the candles are here to protect us.
That was back in 2015. About four years later, I am tempted to shrug and suggest they buy more flowers. Enough orchids, and the people and churches of Paris would be protected. I am sure of it.
#FlowersForFrance. It could be a thing.
But my mixed feelings on the matter run a lot deeper than sadness and anger against apathy. Many of the pundits have depicted this as a possible attack on Christianity, and indeed, they may be right. Religion already (probably) has something to do with it, in the form of Islam. At the very least, the many pictures of gleeful-looking Africans and Arabs gawking at the burning cathedral signifies a vast and troublesome cultural divide, even if arson was not the cause. Islam has something to do with this.
What about Christianity?
Christianity has a strange relationship with beauty. Many of its churches are incredibly ugly, and the history of the faith is filled with believers who actively fled from beauty, both as a protection against idolatry and against distraction from meditation on God. Jesus told his followers not to worry about their appearance, and to shun the opinions of the world. It is obvious how great ugliness could emerge from such carelessness. Yet, simultaneously, Christian culture has given rise to some of the most beautiful and magnificent works of art and architecture in human history, of which Notre Dame is not even the greatest (though it may be the largest). These were the works of men with intimate knowledge of beauty, who spent decades, if not centuries, refining their works, all for the glory of God. How can one faith hold such disparate, and yet compatible views towards earthly beauty? How can a faith which seems to shun the value of beauty here on earth create such marvels, which cause even unbelievers to rage in sadness when they are damaged or destroyed?
The answer presented itself to me in a very strange form: Christian gangster-rap.
I was actually unaware that such a genre existed until a week or so ago, when a co-worker put some on at work, and started singing along. “This is so awesome!” he said, as some rapper named Shai Linne rambles off some slam-poetry list of theological definitions to a kind of backbeat. Another, named Lecrae, sounded surprisingly good — as far as gangster rap went.
But all of it was cringey enough to literally make your back hunch. It was like the musical equivalent of the uncanny valley. Gangster-rap works because the sound is congruent with the lyrical content. When that content is swapped for “lyrical theology” or archaic admonitions to prayer and sexual morality, it comes out sounding dreadfully off somehow, to the point of physical discomfort.
Why do they do this, these Christian rappers? Why are they appropriating the culture and signals of the hood to advance a message that is obviously and explicitly antithetical to the very source of that style?
Thankfully, the artists are kind enough to tell us. They seek conversions. It’s all about reaching people. Aesthetically, it is also the only possible explanation. Nothing else could justify the violence done to the feeling of the genre.
In my head, I had a kind of day-dream, imagining this cultural clash as a social interaction. There’s a dark and dingey house-party, full of young and slightly drunk college kids. Women wearing little clothing, men looking to get some action. A young lady sees a thuggish-looking character, leers at him, beckoning him towards a room away from the crowd. The gangster follows her. As the door closed behind them, she starts taking off his shirt. He reaches into his pants and whips out… a bible.
The surprised and confused woman looks at the book in dismay. The thug starts talking about how sex is great, but God is greater, how Jesus changed his life.
It could be an SNL skit.
It’s amusing because the defied expectation is both surprising and familiar. Oh! He would be a christian! Cue laughter.
The real joke is that many Christians hear stories like this and actually think they are inspiring.
But I think the more interesting part here is the woman’s reaction — or the listener to this Christian hip-hop. The woman is put off because she thought this man was attracted to her. But to him, she was just an opportunity to pursue his own religious mission. It is hilarious to think about because it is so incongruent. Like Christian hip-hop, it fails because it’s a bait-and-switch, and the switch looks nothing at all like the bait. People listen to gangster rap for the masculine harshness, the cold reality of the street, and the artist’s almost Greek revelry in one’s own lyrical talent. Christian values hold none of these, excepting maybe the second for the purpose of juxtaposition with God’s perfection.
But what if this bait-and-switch was done properly? What if it was done in such a way that the evangelical message was made to appear fairly close to the values of the audience, despite the evangelist not sharing these values? What if the medium was something more universal and grand than gangster rap?
I have noticed that the people who seem to care most about the destruction of Notre Dame are actually not Christians. They tend to be right-leaning intellectuals, the sorts of people who wish they could be Christian, or who simply identify with the culture, but who don’t believe or practice. By contrast, real, genuine Christians seem to treat the Fire of Notre Dame as sad, but of no real significance. And after a moment’s theological pondering, it is easy to see why. God’s kingdom is not of this world. All will pass away. God gives and takes away. If one building passes sooner than it otherwise might have, what difference does it make? It’s just a building after all. Might it even be some form of idolatry to care too much about it? To mistake the building for the source? For the thing that truly matters?
And suddenly, the strange Christian relation to beauty comes into focus. It was never about beauty in architecture, but about reaching people through their values. The construction of fantastically beautiful artwork is, like the seduction in my own little comedic day-dream: just a set up for the artist to say, “you know what matters even more?” We were never really on the same page. So the evangelical impulse in modern Christianity shows, anyhow.
Christians are still people, of course. What I am describing in Christian theology does not embody the whole of the psychology of individual Christians, who are invariably human — all too human. They like beauty, seduction, strength — all of the Greek values — almost as much as the next person. But to the degree that a society becomes more Christian in its values, the homage paid to classical, natural values such as nobility and patriotism seem to recede in proportion, as all values fall away before the logically inevitable convergence upon the Trinity.
More importantly, once you see this, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that all of the Christian art, the architecture, the music, all of it, is just a better done rap-track. “You think this is good? Let me show you what’s really good!” Such things cannot be pursued for their own sake without making a god of beauty, or money, or whatever else that isn’t Yaweh. It’s always a means to an end, which creates an impassible chasm between the motivations of the believer and those of the unbeliever who cares about such things as sublime architecture.
Was Notre Dame just a grand seduction, not for some mutually-desired action or quality, but to metaphorically knock on your door to share the good news?
You think flying buttresses are something? You should check out our lord and savior, Jesus!
I no longer have any interest in Christian architecture, cathedrals or otherwise. I still love architecture as an art form, and consider Cathedrals to be excellent examples of the craft, but I am not happy for their erection, or sad for their loss… nor, I should say, am I happy for their loss. The extravagance, the over-the-top out-doing of everything else for the sake of out-doing everything else, it isn’t a glorification of architecture, but an attack on it. It is an attempt to out-do for the sake of shifting attention to God, and away from this world. This is how the church is happy with both great beauty and great ugliness.
All of us think instrumentally from time to time, but spiritedness comes from enjoying at least some things as ends in and of themselves. Bronze Age Pervert described birds flying in through waterfalls, for no apparent Darwinian purpose other than the enjoyment of their own powers of flight. Humans can experience this feeling of joy too, in art, in architecture, in poetry, in great action, in the beauty of our own bodies, and in sex. Christianity offers a kind of joy in connection with God, and perhaps there is something to this. I cannot say for myself. But there is something dishonest, and even destructive, in the manner of proselytizing which leads with one of these intrinsic values (like beauty), only to shift away and belittle that value, compared to the value of a relationship with Jesus. It literally cuts down values and the mediums used to pursue those values.
To this day, Tupac and Eminem are among my favorite artists. What makes their raps so moving isn’t just their technical skill. Something about their music demonstrates a respect and love for the craft of rapping — many people talk about something similar in the way Eric Clapton, Slash, and Jimi Hendrix. Someone who performs a technically perfect song, but does so in a self-conscious and self-undermining fashion, may amuse us. They may even impress us. But they’re still uncomfortable. They’re post-modern, almost implicitly self-referential, and sometimes explicitly so.
For me, “Hook” by Blues Traveler works in this way.
In such cases, I feel as though I am not sharing an experience, but am being targeted. I am not participating in a common value, but am being subtly manipulated to change my values.
So far as I can tell, virtually all Christian art is of this variety. They’ll still say that the art just emanates from the artistic believer, with no ulterior motive, but it becomes more and more difficult to accept this claim as Christianity so aggressively inserts itself into the cultural niches of wherever it happens to be…. even niches as thoroughly un-Christian as gangster-rap.
This is disconcerting enough, in my humble opinion. But the real feeling of loneliness happens when Christianity creates something genuinely beautiful — like a Cathedral — and then maintains a holy apathy when that object is threatened, damaged, or destroyed. In the words of Saint Augustine:
…a good servant would regard the will of God as his great resource, and he would be enriched in his mind by close attendance on God’s will; nor would he grieve if deprived in life of those possessions which he would soon have to leave behind at his death.
— Augustine, City of God
Christianity does not even care about its own creations. After all, the beauty, the grandeur, the goodness, the nobility, and purity of this world will pass away, to be replaced by what is to come. One could even say that Christian beauty is created so that a greater love for God might be demonstrated when that temporal beauty is destroyed.
It’s become a bit of a meme now, how pandas supposedly won’t have sex to save their own species:
I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every Panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species.
— Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
I have no idea if the meme is true or not, but the principle seems relevant to the loss of great Christian art and architecture like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Aside from the Parisian lacking any apparent will to self-preservation, the Christian values their culture has been built upon — which seem to be outlasting the very religion those values came from — sees nothing worth protecting anywhere in this world, other than our relationship with God.
So be it then. If Christianity doesn’t care about its own earthly creations — created as means, to attack earthly values and the proselytize — then I won’t either. Notre Dame and every other cathedral can burn. I won’t start the fires, and I’ll enjoy their presence while they’re here — they are still beautiful. But I won’t shed a tear for the French or for Christianity, and for the loss of what they are evidently unwilling to protect themselves.