(The audio version of this essay can be found here.)
In 1969, British historian Kenneth Clark narrated the series “Civilization,” a history of western civilization up to the present day. As he opened the program, he said, “What is civilization? I don’t know, I can’t define it in abstract terms. But I think I can recognize it when I see it.” He spoke those words in front of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, France.
On Monday afternoon I along with millions of others around the world watched in horror and sorrow as Notre-Dame burned in a terrible fire. Authorities quickly ruled out arson or terrorism. There had been some renovation work being done in the area that the fire started, so it could well have been an accident. Time will tell, and hopefully the French government will not only find the truth but share it with the world. It is a tragedy either way, however. As I watched the iconic spire collapse in flames I wondered if this might be more than just a metaphor for the state of western civilization. I believe that the burning of Notre-Dame is a physical expression for what has already happened to our culture.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”, first began construction in the year 1160 under Bishop Maurice de Sully. Initial construction took one hundred years. The dedication of the architects and craftsmen who worked on that project is tremendously inspiring. The men who began work in 1160 knew they would not live to see the finished product. Generations of men, probably following in their fathers’ footsteps, worked on a project which began before they were born and which would not be finished until after their death. They surely knew that this project would be one of the most grand the world had ever seen, that it was built for the glory of God, to stand as an eternal reminder of God and His Church. Catholic author G.K. Chesterton spoke of cathedrals like Notre-Dame when he said “The truth about Gothic architecture is, first, that it is alive, and second, that it is on the march. It is the Church Militant.”
We have lost something in our art and architecture today, perhaps due to our short attention spans. Projects are done quickly and the things that are created are made as cheaply, temporarily, and disposable as possible. Modern churches lack the grandeur of the old cathedrals; modern art and architecture lacks soul and meaning. Conservative commentator Matt Walsh agrees:
Not every church can look like that ancient cathedral. Perhaps no church ever will. Even Notre Dame may never again look like Notre Dame. But churches are still being built and lots of money is spent on building them. They could be made beautiful — not Notre Dame Cathedral-level beautiful, but beautiful — yet they are not. It is not that we nowadays try to make beautiful churches and fail. Rather, we try very hard to make unbeautiful, bland, ugly, profane churches and we succeed. Our houses of worship look like shopping malls or prisons or basketball stadiums on purpose.
“What is lost?” asked Alice Teller on Twitter. “History, beauty, architecture, but most of all concrete proof of what ordinary men, inspired by the love of God, can build with their hands.”
Notre-Dame has stood tall for more than eight centuries, dominating the skyline of one of the great cities of old Europe. During that time it survived the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War, the strife of the Huguenots, the French Revolution, and two world wars. Even the Nazis made sure to spare Notre-Dame during their bombings. The cathedral hosted both coronations and funerals for the kings of the Ancien Regime that ruled France for more than half a millennium. It faced desecration at the hands of the Jacobins during the French Revolution, saw the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor, and just a few decades ago hosted the funeral of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the French Resistance in World War II and later first president of the fifth Republic.
When the cathedral was constructed, Europe was synonymous with Christendom. Every man and woman of Europe, from the grandest king to the lowliest peasant, were joined together in the communion of the Catholic Church. Notre-Dame and the other great works of Christendom stood as monuments to that shared faith. Walking into the sanctuary was deliberately inspiring, as the high arches turned your vision heavenward. Iconoclasm and the more extreme elements of the Protestant Reformation might have sought to destroy works of wood and stone, as they saw them as distractions from the reality of God, but today many of these works remain as sacred relics of a distant time. I am not Catholic, but I believe that the Christendom of our fathers is the shared heritage of all Christians. Unfortunately, what fire did to the cathedral on Monday is what postmodern secularism has been doing to the Church and the culture for several generations. A Twitter user named Michelle Catlin agreed, saying “…please spare me your faux tears regarding Notre Dame if you’re some cultural leftist who thinks borders are imaginary and that preserving western culture is fascism. Your amoral globalist views are to our civilization as the fire is to the cathedral.”
This blog is titled “The Decline and Fall of the United States of America”. Of what concern is an old building in Europe, you might ask. Europe was the home of Christendom and America was its greatest outpost. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told His followers that they were the light of the world and a city on a hill. Nearly two millennia later, Puritan minister John Winthrop of Massachusetts identified the settlers in the New World with that very verse. America, he said, was to be the shining city upon a hill that all the world would look to for guidance – and that they would hold it accountable for its profession of faith. When the Founding Fathers rebelled against England and sought their independence they called it the “Appeal to Heaven”, claiming the mantle of the heirs of Christendom and English liberty. The decline of America is also the decline of Christendom, and the burning of Notre-Dame is a physical manifestation of the decline that has already occurred.
France was once one of the greatest Catholic kingdoms in the world. For a time the papacy even resided within the borders of France. It was French Catholics in the Vendée that most strongly resisted the atheistic Revolution that sought to displace the Church from French life. It was those same revolutionaries who replaced the alter in Notre-Dame itself with a monument to a mythical Goddess of Reason. Yet today less than 50% of French people identify as Catholic. The old churches and cathedrals of Europe are mostly empty of genuine worshipers, remaining only as tourist destinations. France today is a battleground between post-Christian secular globalists and the rapidly growing ranks of young Muslims, and neither group feels much kinship with the men who built Notre-Dame so long ago.
A quick glance at Twitter yesterday showed many reactions to the burning of the cathedral. Most people were sorrowful, as is only right. Ben Shapiro, conservative media gadfly, at first tried to turn the tragedy into a joke at President Trump’s expense, before turning around and claiming Notre-Dame as part of his “Judeo-Christian heritage”. This is nonsense, of course – there is little Jewish about the cathedrals of Christendom. In fact, there is a set of statues at Notre-Dame called Ecclesia and Synagoga, representing the superiority of the New Testament Church over the Old Testament Synagogue. In opposition to the sentiments of Mr. Shapiro, several other Jews on Twitter basically said “good riddance” as they considered the entire thing to be anti-Semitic in the first place.
Other reactions included the expected jubilation from various Muslims throughout the world, as well as your SJW cohort expressing their satisfaction that an icon of an evil patriarchal white supremacist colonialist regime went up in smoke. President Emmanuel Macron of France vowed to rebuild, calling it the destiny of this generation of France. I worry, however, about a rebuilding overseen by President Macron. Allum Bokhari of Breitbart called him “the world’s preeminent globalist,” and said “Globalism has no regard for national culture or the symbols that represent it. Globalist ‘architecture’ is a glass-and-steel skyscraper – identical wherever you go, with no relation to local traditions.” One transcription I saw of his speech included the ominous note that the rebuilding would take place in a way that honored the diversity of modern France. Will they replace the spire with a minaret now, as the Ottoman Turks did to the Hagia Sofia when they conquered Constantinople?
Israeli author and nationalist Yoram Hazony criticized both the globalists and Jewish commentators like Shapiro, saying “If you don’t have a sense of the ideals that find expression in the physical form, what do you know of the cathedral’s beauty and profundity? Sure, there’s pretty glass and masonry you can look at. But mostly, you are ignorant of what it is you are seeing.” Notre-Dame is part of the heritage of Christendom, and trying to separate the building from the faith of its builders strips it of all meaning.
A few weeks ago I recorded a podcast about French author Michel Houllebecq’s book Submission. The book is about a fictional Muslim takeover of France through the political process. The national universities become Islamic and the government begins encouraging people to convert. Houllebecq noted that the elite bureaucrats of French society would have no problem converting because they saw little difference between Islam and Christianity. Both were archaic traditions that nobody in the upper class of society actually believed in, so what did it matter where you went on Sunday morning? Besides, Islam allowed for four wives, an obvious bonus for these upper-class men.
I believe that Houllebecq accurately described the state of Western Civilization today. Even if they occasionally profess a Christian faith, our elites still live in an entirely secular fashion. After all, in a post-Christian secular society, what difference is there between a mosque and a church? What is the value of an ancient cathedral like Notre-Dame to people who believe in neither the eternal nor the supernatural? One can imagine them saying, “It’s just a building, guys, what’s the big deal?” Like the SJWs who have infested media and academia, our elites are slowly but surely erasing our heritage. It is racist, they say, and sexist, and imperialist, and islamophobic, and on and on. We see this in the United States as Confederate statues in the American south are torn down in the name of diversity and tolerance. “Let the past die, kill it if you have to,” said the villain in a recent Star Wars movie. Rather than being confined to Hollywood characters, this is precisely the attitude that our globalist leaders have toward our heritage.
They say that in classical Greece, people could not fathom how the ancients had built the great monuments of antiquity. These things were beyond the abilities of mortal men, they must have been left by the gods. And so they fell into ruin. So it is in our era. In the end, does it matter whether the fire was deliberately set or was an accident? The rot and disease of western civilization is nearly terminal already, so whether the relics of Christendom fall to arson or to neglect doesn’t really change anything. “Let the past die, kill it if you have to,” say our globalist leaders, and so it goes: Our past is dying, and they are killing it.
Senator Fraser Anning of Queensland, Australia, who has come under fire for his unwavering defense of Christianity and Western Civilization in the face of godless globalism, said, “This is a tragic time for France and the entire Western World. Our great institutions and especially the Church are being destroyed, both physically and metaphorically. We must rebuild and restore Western Civilization.”
There is still hope, both for the cathedral and for Christendom. Despite the massive inferno, despite watching the roof and spire burn to dust, the frame of the cathedral survived. Eight centuries ago, stonemasons turned ugly rock into the beautiful gothic building that remains standing despite the blaze. So too does Christendom survive, in the hearts of the men and women who believe.
Steve King, the Congressman from Iowa who has also never wavered in defense of Western Civilization, said, “The tragic loss of Notre Dame Cathedral marks a Holy Week we will never forget. Like Christ, it will rise again.”
That is the message of this Holy Week. Two thousand years ago the Christian Church consisted of little more than eleven frightened men. These men had just watched their master, who they had believed to be God incarnate, brutally executed via being nailed to a cross. We all know the story. That Sunday morning, when the women came to embalm the body, they were met instead by angels who asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen, as he said he would.” Thus the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, then hundreds more, and finally to Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, who took his message of salvation to the Gentiles throughout Europe.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Christendom is more than old buildings, rather it is a spiritual fire, kindled in the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit. It is this fire that drives us to build a godly kingdom here on earth, a reflection of the true Kingdom of God that is promised for us. This is a fire that we must not quench.
After firefighters gained control of the inferno, they stepped inside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame for the first time since the ordeal began. Looking up, they saw the grand cross above the alter remained standing. This too is a metaphor for Christendom. They can tear down our monuments, ban us from the public square, and outlaw our beliefs, but they cannot destroy the Truth of our Lord Jesus Christ. As long as we remain steadfast in our belief, then Christendom survives in us. Let this be the image that lingers in our memory: