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The Value of Relics

A private art collector in Valencia, Spain, paid a furniture restorer to clean the Immaculate Conception, a famous piece by baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The restoration didn’t go well, and conservation experts are clamoring for a tightening of laws pertaining to art restoration.   

It pains me to view before and after images of the Immaculate Conception. But why? The answer to that question takes me back to the way I felt watching Notre Dame burn, and, more recently, the way I feel watching mobs target and destroy pieces of American history. 

Do you remember how you felt watching Notre Dame burn? I do. I was overwrought. By the time I crawled in bed that evening I, a lifelong Protestant, was perilously close to converting to Catholicism.

People devoted their lives to building that cathedral. It was an act of worship for them. They constructed it with no modern technology, no electricity, no computers, no lifts, nothing. It is unfathomable to me. It’s an admirable endeavor modern people could not and would not even contemplate. We could never build (or paint) anything on this earth akin to what we’ll see and inhabit in Heaven, but I think it is important to try; I think our desire to try is God-breathed. 

We were designed to appreciate beauty. We are drawn to create and appreciate pieces of music and art and literature and, yes, architecture that boast of their creator’s ingenuity. It all reflects the Creator in Whose image we are made. He didn’t have to make us unique and beautiful in different ways, but He did. He does. 

The history of Europe and the Catholic Church is long and sordid. The Catholic Church is responsible for a great deal of Western civilization. Look at places in the world that have historically not been significantly impacted by Christianity; they are not places I want to live. The Catholic Church got a lot wrong over the years, as did many of the rulers of various European countries, but ultimately I am glad the Church gained the foothold it did. I am thankful for the art and literature and architecture that was produced and preserved largely because of the far-reaching tentacles of the Church. My world might look very different today had the Church not persisted and thrived despite the tumult in Europe. 

When I saw Notre Dame burning, when I see works of art marred, something inside me hurts. You don’t have to be Catholic or even Christian to understand the value of preserving the tangible and often beautiful creations of the past. I recently read The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. It is an excellent read, yet another piece of historical fiction that I found well worth my time. The main character in this book is, well, a book. The novel opens in 1996 with a young lady named Hanna narrating. She’s a rare-book expert who has been tasked with examining the Sarajevo Haggadah. She travels to war-torn Sarajevo to begin her work, and things take off from there as the reader time-hops through the centuries to uncover the secrets of the ancient text. One of the many beautiful aspects of this novel is reading about people of all faiths from all walks of life cherish and protect the Sarajevo Haggadah through the centuries. There is a lesson to be learned there. 

Like the history of the Catholic Church, America’s history is convoluted. There have been low moments, and there have been incredible moments of triumph. In the same way no sensible person would clamor for or cheer on the destruction of Notre Dame, neither should we idly sit by while the physical reminders of America’s past are defaced and destroyed. I am open to a debate about Confederate statues, but I don’t think what’s unfolding across America at present is about the Confederacy as much as it is a frenzied, illogical assault on civilization and history in general. We’ve moved well past Confederate statues, and the mobs are now targeting statues and other memorials that pay homage to the men, the imperfect but brave men, whose wisdom and courage made America possible. 

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis asserts this: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” I don’t want America to simply survive. I want America to survive and thrive, preserving for future generations not only the freedoms that are uniquely American but the art and literature and structures that speak to our past, that glory in our triumphs as well as warn of our mistakes. The push to tear down statues, ban books, and erase segments of our past we don’t like is dangerous, foolish, and makes me ache in the same way I ached watching Notre Dame burn.

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