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I spent much of my sabbatical in France. Before you imagine me quaffing champagne along the Champs Elysees, I should you tell that the places I frequent in France are rather more equivalent to Alton, Byron Center or Herkimer. As I visit these unremarkable French villages, I tend to look for two things—a cross and a monument, a war monument. Often they are side by side at a prominent intersection, or on la place in the center of town. Someday, I tell myself, I’m going to become a good photographer and produce a huge coffee-table book full of these French crosses and monuments!
The crosses are typically about six feet tall, on top of a pedestal of five feet or so. Most are almost identical—simple stone or wrought iron. But there are just enough special versions to keep me looking. A crown of thorns here. A corpus there. An extra decorative flourish or two. I wonder if a century or so back, some entrepreneurial French folk went from town to town selling crosses, after all, “the village down the road has one”—not unlike the way clever salespeople persuaded almost every Protestant church in the USA they needed a so-called “Christian flag” in their sanctuary.
In a country renowned for its secularism, these prominent and pervasive crosses seem to bother no one. No French version of ACLU is filing suit. No denigrating graffiti. I suppose for many in France, the cross is harmless, almost quaint, no more offensive than a statue of Athena or Caesar. Such different cultural flash points. Sensitivities and boundaries in other places.
Yet, I like to hope that all these crosses are secretly at work. Blessing. Calling. Guiding. Christ refuses to go away. The typical French person hurries by unaware, while my outsider eyes allow me to see the cross radiating the love of God into the village. It makes me wonder too about the all the holiness I am impervious to as I scurry around in my little world.
That these crosses often stand next to the village war monument tells me that civil religion isn’t a uniquely American invention. The generic war monument is a fifteen foot obelisk. Upgrades and options include a soldier’s helmet, a palm branch, an olive wreath, a sword, a rooster (the cock is the French national emblem, and can be portrayed in ways surprisingly ferocious or regal). This year’s “best” award goes to a monument depicting a Frankish knight handing a large sword to young farmer leaning against his plow—a nice reversal of Isaiah’s vision. Runner-up: a statue of “Marianne”—the female personification of France—wearing a veil of mourning rather than her more typical brandishing of flags, torches or bayonets.
Marianne’s mourning veil, of course, brings us back to the reason for these monuments. Each one is inscribed with names of young men of the village killed in war. Americans have taken to believing the French are cowards, but when you see list of names in each village, you have to wonder. It isn’t uncommon to see lists of World War I deaths with 50 to 75 names; this, in villages that I would guess to have no more than 5000 residents. Cowardly or calloused?
Over-the-top patriotism (and really, that seems to be the only kind) gives me hives. What then accounts for my fascination with the French war monuments? Is it the allure of things foreign that makes me more genteel and accommodating than I might be at home? My French aunt laughs about my fondness for the crosses and monuments, both of which she calls “bahd poobleek haart.”
To me, this bad public art exudes not the expected vainglory and violence, but tenderness and solemnity. Patriotism aged and mellowed for nearly a century, is more palatable than the acrid stuff used to gin up invasions and political campaigns. I’ve been told that for the earliest Christians, the cross was so abrasive, so appalling, they couldn’t use it artistically. It took a few centuries for the beauty and dignity to emerge.
The crosses and monuments of France elicit in me a reaction similar to some of those 19th century hymns, so sentimental, and often gory. I should “know better” than to like them. But this thing “so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me.”