The Value of an Icon

April 23, 2019 Updated: April 23, 2019


The loss of a cultural symbol like Notre Dame de Paris raises mixed emotions for most of us.

Some were fascinated by a massive building engulfed in flame. It was more like a special effect from a Hollywood action movie or a major factory fire on the evening news. The building ablaze had no more than entertainment value for them.

For others, it’s a tragedy that 200 years of construction effort and centuries of history was lost in moments. Some were distressed at the ruin of an enduring national symbol. For a few, it was sheer horror to see the center of the Christian community in Paris fall in ashes.

If we feel a sense of loss at the destruction of “Our Lady of Paris,” it must be because it has value. After all, we aren’t dismayed if we lose a gum wrapper. I don’t hear anyone talking about why we should value Notre Dame. We assume it’s valuable, but why?

For sure, it’s one of the most visited tourist attractions in Europe. Notre Dame is an impressive architectural achievement. It’s a piece of history. It’s a work of art.

President Emmanuel Macron passionately declared, “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicenter of our lives … So I solemnly say tonight: We will rebuild it together.”

What piques my curiosity is why? Why go through the effort and expense to restore it?

What is its True Value?

Notre Dame is a jumble of value contradictions. For all its iconic significance to France, Notre Dame is manifestly a cathedral. It’s the seat of the archbishop of Paris. Yet the building and land are not owned by the church. They have belonged to the French government since 1905, and the Roman Catholic Church is the perpetual user of the building for religious purposes.

So the restoration is the government’s responsibility. Isn’t that odd, given the billions of euros it will cost to rebuild it? There have been 22 straight weeks of yellow vest protests in Paris because of budgetary mismanagement and burdensome taxation in France. The French government doesn’t have billions of spare euros lying around. With a cash-strapped government, many wealthy Europeans and companies have already pledged hundreds of millions in donations to help restore the cathedral. Obviously, for them, Notre Dame is valuable enough to restore, but what is it that they value about it?

If it’s merely a cultural symbol, would it not be simpler and cheaper to leave it as it is—a monument of French history? There are hundreds of castles, dolmens, abbeys, and ancient temples left in ruins throughout Europe. Notre Dame must have more value than these to justify the restoration effort and expense. If it’s primarily an architectural and artistic prize, wouldn’t a nice museum be better? The rescued relics and artworks could be displayed there, and the statuary and remaining stonework would endure for centuries with no further effort. This would be an easier and more cost-effective solution if this is Notre Dame’s primary value.

Setting these cultural, historic, and artistic considerations aside, maybe Notre Dame’s real value is precisely because it is a cathedral. Yet, in a demonstrably secular and post-Christian France, preserving a religious building seems a non sequitur. Barely half of French citizens believe in anything spiritual, and only 5 percent attend mass. After the French Revolution, Notre Dame was desecrated and rededicated as a temple in the atheistic Cult of Reason. Notre Dame could be restored to that stage of its history. Wouldn’t that be more fitting given the spiritual state of France?  Yet the renovated cathedral will likely resemble the cathedral of April 14, 2019. The value of a cathedral must be more than cultural, historical, or artistic.

Medieval Christians built cathedrals throughout Europe for a variety of reasons. These imposing edifices were a declaration of the majesty and power of God and the Church. They were statements of ego, pride, and devotion to God as cities competed to see who could build the biggest and tallest cathedral. They also were the center of church government for the cities and regions that made up the Holy Roman Empire.

More importantly, though, the architecture and art in a cathedral communicates a message—a distinctly Christian message. Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals enclose massive vertical spaces. They naturally instill awe in the visitor and draw the eyes upward in worship. The adornment of cathedrals gives parishioners a glimpse of heaven. Beyond the mythical creatures that embellish most cathedrals, the statues, symbols, and artwork conveyed biblical stories that are not considered myths.

The art in Notre Dame expresses stories from a book that the largely illiterate people of the day were unable to read. Yet, from careful preaching and skilled artistry, medieval Christians learned of the all-powerful, all-loving Creator God who became a man. This man lived a perfect life, died on a cross for the sins of humanity, and rose from the dead. People who accepted his priceless sacrifice could be forgiven and live forever with their creator. One relic in the cathedral is believed to be the actual crown of thorns worn on the cross by Jesus Christ.

This is why Notre Dame must be rebuilt. Beyond its cultural symbolism, its historical significance, or its architectural and artistic importance, Notre Dame is a proclamation of the greatest story ever told that really happened and is really true.

Perhaps this disaster for the French people will be their 9/11 moment. In the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center, many Americans turned back to Christ. I am trusting that this will be the French response. Perhaps this is their wake-up call to the vapid, soulless effect of secular and progressive ideologies.

Which has blessed France more: the teachings of Voltaire, Marx, or Christ? I daresay the latter if the French have the courage to embrace it.

David Richardson is the founder, president, and CEO of the Assumptions Institute, which harnesses the power of assumptions to help people and organizations find God and engage with him in their public lives.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.