5 Places for Christians to Visit in Paris

I have a friend who is a brilliant travel blogger. I can’t even travel well, let alone blog real good! But sometimes when I am planning to go on a trip some place, I wonder why there isn’t more niche information out there. My best friend is an architect and when he jets off for a weekend break to Porto or Lodz or whatever city is going to be discovered by the style magazines next year, he can fairly easily find the five or ten buildings he simply must see in advance. The same would hold if your passion was food or sport or shoplifting from designer stores. Guidebooks will presumably tell you about the best restaurants and the location of the sports stadiums and the shops with lax security. But when it comes to really obscure, niche, weirdo concerns like, religion, travel literature is surprisingly silent.

(Just as an aside, while I am spouting off about stuff I know nothing about: Why are there no Gaelteacht holiday resorts aimed at families in Ireland? I bet you could make a killing by building a nice little spa resort out in Belmullet and running it like any other resort, except that there are Irish lessons in the morning for the kids and the grown-ups and that everyone agreed to only speak as Gaeilge.)

Staying in Paris over the summer, I searched for a walking tour of its Christian sites of interest but to no avail. Maybe my Google mojo had deserted me and such a thing exists but I wasn’t able to find any guidance for places to visit that weren’t basically architectural tours (the churches are pretty!) in disguise. But I walked all over the city and I stumbled into some interesting and unusual places that would be of interest to Christians (especially theologically-inclined Christians). So here is my Unusual Parisian Pilgrimage.

1. The Sorbonne
Since Paris remained Catholic, France remained Catholic. But there was a time back during the Reformation when the country was aflame with theological dispute and passion. The continued relevance of the minority population of Reformed Christians in France can be testified to by the life and work of the insanely prolific sociologist Jacques Ellul. But the first out-of-the-ordinary place to visit on your little day of pilgrimage in France is the Sorbonne.

The reason?

Because for a brief period, two of the most significant figures of the Reformation overlapped there in their study, and went on to have a dramatic role in shaping either side of the conversation. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism was a student here at the same time as Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Presbyterianism and the Jesuits provided much of the intellectual muscle of their respective positions and it is fascinating to imagine them sharing small talk over porridge in the morning.


Today, of course, the Sorbonne is the centre-piece of the acclaimed University of Paris and tours can be arranged. They probably won’t focus much on this obscure side-story however…

2. Thomas Aquinas
The most important theologian in the history of the church famously lived in Paris. The Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas, assimilated Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology and produced a work that has systemically shaped Christian thought and practice (for good and ill) since then. His thought continues to be studied by philosophers and political scientists, and I imagine that hidden in his extensive writings, everyone could find something that applied to their craft or field or calling. Famously, at the end of his life, he had a vision of some sort that convinced him that all his writing was for nothing. “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” Theologians since him have chosen not to take his wisdom seriously on that count.

Considering how monumental a figure Thomas is, it is amazing that there is nothing much made of him in Paris. There is a notable painting in a side-chapel in Notre Dame but that is all I could find. Except, of course, for a little parish church in his honour, located on a little square at the end of a lane, also named after him. So if you are that way inclined, you can drop in and say a prayer of thanks for the big Italian brainiac, and ask God to let you know sooner than a year before you die if it turns out everything you’ve spent your life doing is worthless…

Rue St. Thomas d'Aquin

3. Hammurabi’s Code
The Hammurabi Code is in the basement in the Louvre. The Louvre is a museum in the middle of Paris. It is 700 metres long and it is a palace and there is a glass pyramid in the middle of it and it is the most famous gallery in the world, so you will probably be visiting there anyway.

But when you visit, as you grow exhausted by the crowds of people taking selfies or even more inexplicably, just taking photos of everything, you can slip downstairs to the much less visited section on Egypt and Babylon. Standing in the middle of one room you will find a breath-taking obelisk of diorite, black as night, with intricate carvings etched into its surface. This is the Code of Hammurabi, a legal monument from the Babylonian empire first cast in stone about 3750 years ago.

No one will bother you as you pay close attention to it because practically everyone in the room is just lost, and looking for a Da Vinci to take a photo of. But if you are fond of reading the Bible, then this exhibit is worth going out of your way to examine. The Law, that Moses gave the Israelites, and that is recorded in the Pentateuch, was most certainly formed with the rulings listed on Hammurabi’s Code in mind. The Law of Israel draws on, remixes, and parodies the law of the Babylonians. This big, beautiful stone testifies to that very real, historical world of military power and kings-glorified-as-gods that we find in the opening pages of the Old Testament. And in that complex way, the Code can inspire devotion very different from the stunning stained glass of Saint Chapelle or vaulted ceilings of Notre Dame.

Hammurabi, not Harambe

4. Passage du Harve
The penultimate stop on our little pilgrimage is to a shopping centre. Paris is riddled with passages couverts, laneways that were roofed and then developed into prototype shopping malls. They are sometimes called arcades. The reason I propose wandering down through one of these unassuming but pretty temples to consumerism is not just that you might want a Starbucks, but because of the way in which these developments can help us understand how confusing is the world in which we live.

Walter Benjamin was one of the great philosophers of the 20th Century. He lived in poverty, made some of the first radio programmes intended for children, spent all the money he had on books, and committed suicide trying to escape the NAZIs. He also, in that great theological tradition that Thomas began (and Karl Barth perfected), left his masterpiece unfinished. As a young man we wanted to write an essay about the joy of learning about a place by walking around and he used the Parisian arcades as the context. But the work swallowed him and the Arcades Project expanded and grew to a scale no one could ever finish. Benjamin had that knack that all Christian ethicists should aspire to replicate, whereby a sign in a shop window is as worthy of deep reflection as an ancient middle-eastern legal code or the achievements of a historic university.

Benjamin’s Marxism never transcended his Judaism. He is invariably despised by the kinds of intellectuals who think that belief in God is a brain disease that afflicts the morally weak. They insist his dense prose hides everything, because behind it lies nothing. But I have never understood that criticism. Maybe trained by the internet browser to appreciate hyperlinked things, Benjamin’s roving mind always provokes me to thought. As I wandered down the Parisian arcades, I thought about how it wasn’t Baron Haussmann’s vision, nor Gustave Eiffel’s ingenuity that made Paris great, but the imagined engines of commerce, that rest collectively inside our heads and make us want a juicer that we can control from our mobile phone. Our consumption consumes the world and I thought then about Benjamin and his Angel of Progress, who is driven forward with his back to the future, facing history:

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

It turned out Benjamin never managed to make sense of the world by walking down arcades. And we cannot make sense of history which drives us irresistibly into the future a-top the rubble-heap of our consuming love of progress, but for an out-of-the-ordinary Christian pilgrimage, I recommend wandering the passages.

Passage du Harve

5. The Tomb of Oscar Wilde
It should be of comfort, I suppose, that Ireland is better at making missionaries than theologians. I seem to remember Augustine refers to the great heretic Pelagius at one point as a porridge-eating Scotus, which suggests that old fool might have been Irish. We generated John Scotus Eriugena in the 800s but he was suspected of heresy as well and since then, we’ve gone through a bit of a fallow period. When Bono is your most prominent God-talker, and Sinéad O’Connor is in second-place, you know you’re in trouble.

But I have always thought of Oscar Wilde as a theologian. I would maintain that along with The Brothers Karamazov and Gilead and Silence, any introduction to Christian literature has to dwell for a long time with The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Wilde has understandably been adopted as an icon of the LGBT movement. It ought not need to be said but I shall say it anyway: That doesn’t mean he can’t also be a Christian from which we learn.

My suspicion, which I might get to test out properly some time, is that you can read all his work through two dynamics. Firstly: The history of the world will, in the end, turn out to be a comedy. Jesus is the Christ, and therefore, even in the sky-high rubble-heap of history that surrounds us, we can hope and we can laugh. As he writes, “Since Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep. Since him we have lived.”

Secondly, sin is a lethal seduction that traps us. This is the insight that drives The Portrait. It is always under the surface in fairy tales, where the disfigured are very often the ones who communicate grace, while the beautiful are revealed to be ugly below the skin. It is hard (impossible?) to follow this line of thought without confusing it with Wilde’s own life and with the form that the political conversation around LGBT liberation takes in today’s discourse. But Wilde could laugh because he knew there would be good news at the end. And he had to laugh because in the here and now, so little could be trusted.

So if I am right that Wilde is the rarest of things: an Irish theologian worth reading, then surely it is worth walking to his grave and paying your respects? I think the actual monument is hella ugly, made even worse by the protective perspex erected to protect it from graffiti. But the Pére Lachaise cemetery is strikingly beautiful in its gothic splendour. And a graveyard is always a good place to finish a pilgrimage, right?

Oscar Wilde Tomb

Your Correspondent, How can someone with glasses that thick be so stupid?

Les Misérables, Me and the Radio

Quite honestly, one of the nicest things that ever happened to me was this one time I finished speaking at an event and while small-talking with a woman I had never met before, she volunteered that my delivery was reminiscent of Ira Glass. This woman was unlikely to be in the pay of my father or Wife-unit or someone else inclined to bribe people to boost my self-esteem. But if someone were paid by someone who loves me to say something that would put a spring in my step, that is what they would say.

I have the uncommon ailment of early-onset middle-age disease. No need to offer me your herbal remedies, I am quite happy to have it. One of the symptoms is a growing love of radio programmes. Since I was born in the 1980s, I find it hard to locate an actual radio. I don’t let that stop me. Through secondary school in the early 60s my dad earned pocket money by selling home-made crystal radio sets to the other boys in his class. My radio-itch is scratched by considerably fancier means. I find myself listening to BBC Radio 6 and sometimes even BBC Radio 4 on my telly. I use my mp3 player to listen to Radiolab and a podcast by some geezers from a magazine I have never read or even seen called Books and Culture. So to be compared to the king of nerdy radio hosts, Ira Glass, even if it was by a woman who had alcohol in her hand, was a crowning moment of perfection.

In the last few years, I have started to go on the radio to talk about things, mostly God. I was in a debate with Richard Dawkins and he didn’t win. Neither did I. The listener did. And by listener I mean listeners. It was local radio and I think 17 people tuned in to hear me gush about how good the Blind Watchmaker is and waffle about how Dawkins fails the test Feuerbach presented us in the 1850s. If you fail the test that the granddaddy of atheism sets out, then your atheism might not be very good. Prof. Dawkins was unimpressed by that argument. Which is a pity. If only he had listened to me he would have saved himself a lot of bother and the chance to earn gazillions of euros and be adored by angry internet-men in auditoriums around the world.

By the way: “IF ONLY HE/SHE/THEY/IT HAD LISTENED TO ME!” is pretty much my most commonly used phrase. The only competition is “It’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass. Each week on our show, we bring you a theme, and then present variations on that theme. This week…” which is what I say in the mirror about five times a day.

Last Autumn I made a radio programme for RTE Radio 1, which is the national radio station. However, it was a religious broadcast, sent out on Sunday morning and it may have been on an obscure digital version of the radio station. I probably doubled my debut listenership and got about 34 people to tune in. I am almost certain of that because I was wise enough to rope in my big sister to read things like the Bible and poetry and that meant that she got her friends to tune in. She was really good. She doesn’t have a lisp and she is a woman of serious dignity and that can’t help but leak out into the microphone, then out into the airwaves and then down your eartubes.

I enjoyed making that programme, in a large part because I got to deliver a lengthy, unedited sermon on air about the Bible’s best genocidal hero, Samson, that referenced Eminem, zombies and the poetry of R.S. Thomas.

A few weeks ago, the local radio station for the Carlow and Kilkenny region got in touch with me because they heard I knew things about theology and I knew things about movies. They wanted me to talk about Les Miserables on air. Patrick Mitchel told them to call me, allegedly. I just think Patrick was disinclined to watch any musical that wasn’t about Bob Dylan. Anyway, I went and watched the movie and then I spoke for a quarter of an hour about what I thought of it.

I mostly thought it was amazing. I mean, as a FILM it had many flaws, most of them serious and involving the worst crime possible which is sentimentality. But as a MOVIE it was great fun and I got caught up in all the singing! And the striding! And the little boy fighting the Revolution by crawling under things! As a result, and because I was keeping my crusty old curmudgeon personality behind a sound-proofed metal door, I suspect I come across as a lisping teenage girl with something, like, seriously important to say about things, like, you know what I mean?

I’d say I trebled my biggest audience with this one because if I know anything about taxi drivers in rural Ireland, I know they are always listening to the local radio station. Even if there is some idiot on talking about Hugh Jackman in terms that aren’t murderous.

So if it interests you, here it is, in poor quality mp3, just for you.

Your Correspondent, Has a helpful video that will evade all your questions.

Durham and Stanley Hauerwas

A few weeks ago I got to spend the day with a few theology postgrad students and Stanley Hauerwas, which was nice. It was also an opportunity to spend the night in Durham, one of those (in my experience, rare) places that makes England seem lovely. Getting the bus out from Newcastle, it seemed everyone around me was talking about football. That was nice.

As far as giving my paper goes, I think its fair to say that having to sprint across the city to make it to the location on time is a sub-optimal preparation plan. I sweated through whatever words I had cobbled together. Thankfully, I know how stressful it is to speak in public because I have to do that often so I had a fresh tshirt ready to make myself as fresh as a daisy once the shock of sprinting and speaking had worn off. That was useful cos I had to spend the whole day in close quarters with strangers, including theologians I had read with the highest regard and there is nothing worse than being the smelly boy in class.

Not that I’d know from experience or anything.

That evening Hauerwas gave a public address to a packed auditorium. His presentation was called “Church Matters”. He began by saying that Christian theologians have stripped Christianity of its content so completely as to leave atheists nothing left to believe in. He continued in such winsome fashion throughout. I thought I’d share the sketch of the talk that I noted down. It might be incoherent to you but the nuggets might also be very provocative.

He argued that civil religion exists not for the good of religion but for the formation of a citizen. For Hauerwas, it is a remarkable achievement of the modern nation state to manage to make Christianity civil!

He made some very typically Hauerwasian comments, including the claim that war becomes the act of sacrifice that sustains the State by fuelling the belief that although we die (soldiers especially), the State will continue forever. Also: that the church matters is the reason that he refuses to use the word “belief” to describe what makes a Christian a Christian. Also: he found space to critique Reinhold Niebuhr by arguing that he gave American Christians theological justifications to join the left wing of the Democratic Party. The only problem was of course, that there is no left wing of the Democratic party.

For Hauerwas, the most decisive challenge to Christianity is not the New Atheists and their trumpeting of scientific method. It is the belief that Christianity is a lifestyle choice. It is no longer a question of truth. The Christian life is all too often a life of desperate but unacknowledged unbelief.

In response to this challenge, Hauerwas’ stance remains firmly Barthian. What we mean when we say “God” is that God is God.

And it flows from that that what God calls the church to be is to be witnesses to the treasures of the Gospel. That is it. After all, we can never forget Barth’s warning that if you make a start with “God and…”, “you open the door to every demon.”

Barth is more than just an important thinker. The witness that is the life and work of Karl Barth stands in support of the fact that Christians must continue to tell about the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of the church. Barth, taken seriously, for Hauerwas, shows us that God is the God who lived in Mary’s womb. This increasingly explicit pro-life position of Hauerwas is of course very relevant to how I think about the Savita-crisis in Irish politics and maybe this week I’ll be brave enough to blog about it?

As ever, he was at his best when fielding questions from the audience. Although one person asked him about austerity and Hauerwas showed that he lived in a very different political culture by answering about how frugality must be rediscovered as a Christian virtue in the context of the decreasing resources we will have in the future. It was an awkward moment as he realised he had mis-spoken but didn’t know how and everyone in the hall knew how but no one could quite explain!

The host from Durham theology department opened the Q&A session by asking about Christian attitudes to political power. He asked Hauerwas a question based around the kind of Christians who go around saying Jesus is Lord.

Hauerwas did exactly what you would expect by responding rapidly: “I think Jesus is Lord!” He went on to claim that he is a theocrat. In a certain sense, he must be because saying “Jesus is Lord” can never be simply a personal opinion. For Hauerwas, “Jesus is Lord” is a more determinative political claim than anything else we can say. But theocracy doesn’t mean that we end up doing the things or being the people that a liberal narrative of theocracy would predict.

Hauerwas is happy to embrace Nietzsche’s accusation that Christian morality is a slave morality since such a morality is the matter that is the church. By this he means that at the heart of Christian conviction is the assertion that God is human. Hence, the church embodies a slave morality that celebrates the humanity of the autistic boy and the Down’s Syndrome girl as brother and sister. This is a morality that cannot be made “civil” to the ceaseless momentum of the markets.

The Q&A session also allowed him to talk in more detail about non-violence, Christendom and accusations that his virtue-ecclesiology is sectarian. On the question of non-violence he made a point that I think is increasingly vital when he said that it is by no means clear why the killing that is called war is distinguishable from mass murder. As he unpacked that he argued that the problem with Just War Theory is not actually whether a particular instance is just or not; the problem we get to now is whether it is war at all.

One of the great lines from the Q&A was that the one appropriate response to the end of Christendom is, “By God! Let’s make the most of it!”

And in response to the accusation that his theology is an invitation to the church to withdraw from wider society he declared that he isn’t against withdrawl, but you can’t withdraw if you’re surrounded!

If any virtue possess modern Christianity, he argued, it is tolerance. And if you think that is a good thing, Hauerwas would like you to ask yourself if you yourself would want to be “tolerated”?

Big ecumenical fool that he is, he was asked about inter-religious dialogue and he said that you do it like porcupines screw: very carefully!

And then towards the end he got positively pastoral. We got to see the Hauerwas that his knee-jerk critics never engage with – a senior saint who wants to see people be as surprised by the Gospel as he was. He warned us about the difficulty of rejecting consumerism since “capitalist logic makes acquisition a necessary form of charity.” If we stop spending, people lose their jobs. This shows us how tricky a foe we face. But in the face of that complexity we can’t lose track of the fact that love is not a scarce resource.

The one thing said all day that resonated with me most deeply was his warning that anytime that the Gospel is shaped by a coercive description so as to convince you, you have a sense that the joy that makes the Gospel the Gospel has been betrayed. This condemns so much of what passes for evangelism in the church. It was a profound moment of realisation for me. He continued by saying that desperateness is always a kind of violence that is incompatible with the grammar of Christian belief. We must be patient, all the way down into the core of practices.

His closing thought was that the Gospel is only the Gospel when it is received in such a way that we realise that we don’t have to do this to get God to be God. We get to do this because God is God and all we have to do is rejoice.

And to that I can say that for teachers like Stanley Hauerwas, I rejoice.

Your Correspondent, He sees you’ve played knifey spooney before.

The Things I’ve Lost

I am usually pretty good at keeping things. I can keep a secret. I keep my cinema tickets. I kept my virginity until I was 28 and only lost it because of an unfortunate riding accident.

I have however lost quite a few parts of my body. Tonsils. Adenoids. And now, just a while ago, my appendix.

There are three things I learned that are of such deep, profound and spiritual value that I feel compelled to pass them on to you.


First of all, human beings evolved. I am sure you think that I mean that the persistent existence of the appendix is pretty clear evidence of natural selection. But as science nerds are very happy to tell you, as I know from experience, the appendix is actually a repository of useful juices that allows the gut to restock all its acid goodness.

No, my experience proves evolution conclusively, regardless of what you think the Bible says because of the excruciating pain I endured after the procedure. When they do keyhole surgery they pump a load of air into your belly so that your organs separate and they can tell the intestine from the appendix or indeed the liver, which I explicitly asked for them to leave alone.

The air presses up against the diaphragm but the brain doesn’t know what to make of it. Our primate predecessors never needed to develop a response to a massive influx of air through the bellybutton. So for some stupid Darwin reason, it expresses itself as pain in the shoulder. As a result, I woke up at 2am with this mania-inducing agony in my shoulder. None of the massages that were offered to me by burly Bulgarian orderlies could ever have relieved the pain. Neither did the Deep Heat I decided to inject into my shoulder. The only thing that reduced the anguish was walking around (and time, that great healer). The air had to seep out.

And no you couldn’t fart it out, I tried that too. But the air wasn’t in the digestive system. Even armpit farts did nothing.

So there you go, evolution is true, my shoulder is better, your granddad was probably an ape or something.

Secondly, I realised how twisted the medical system actually is. The whole system is obviously structured in a hierarchical fashion centring around the convenience of doctors. Nurses were once again, both humanly and to my untrained eyes, technically more competent but they seemed to have to wait around for permission to sneeze from some doctor wearing too much jewellery for me to be completely convinced of their integrity. (When I am on a lot of drugs, I get very judgey about people’s appearances.)

The reason doctors get to have the whole system pirouette around them is because they earn so much money. We have to get the most value out of them that we can. And the reason they earn so much money is because the whole system relies on their say-so for anything to happen. Makes sense, see?

My question is why does excellence have to be rewarded? Is it not sufficient that we simply create the context (education and opportunity) for doctors to excel? If that holds, then we can stop paying them a quarter of a million yo-yos a year and we can start sharing out those opportunities for excellence to the people on the ward who actually seem capable of respecting other human beings, the nurses.

Thirdly, being majorly unwell in a minor sort of a way is a whole lot harder than being a little bit unwell in a major sort of way. Let me explain: when I broke both my arms I was not that unwell. I had surgery to put my right arm back together and it involved anaesthetic that made me queasy and painkilling drugs that really knocked me out. But after the first few days I was alright. Apart from being unable to wipe my bum or dress myself. So while I was just a little bit unwell, it was a major inconvenience and I was able to slot happily into my role as patient and be good-natured about it.

This time around I had a condition that was fairly close to getting serious. The appendicitis was atypical and it was about to explode its toxic bile-sap all over my innards. But because of the sci-fi-futuristic efficiency of laparoscopic surgery I was better once the shoulder pain went away. So I was quite unwell but in a very tiny way. And I found it very frustrating. I was very grumpy. Wife-unit deserves a medal, a holiday and a pat on the back for having to deal with my tantrums about everything from music being played in the background at the wrong time to where the scissors I cut my nosehair was hiding.

Its a funny thing, the self. I really don’t know mine. Even when I think I’m very spiritually sophisticated and emotionally mature and refined in the virtues, the moment something bodily is a little out of whack in a way that is out of whack, my self goes missing and gets replaced by a Mr. Hyde inspired ogre who wants to simultaneously cycle away from all of humanity, drink all the wine in Europe and punch a cat in the face because that is the only thing that could ever hope to realign reality with what I want.

So I lost my appendix, a good chunk of whatever remaining respect I had for medics and my temper.

Your Correspondent, Like an invisible appendix-less James Bond super-villan criminal mastermind