The fundamentalist creationist wing of the church would have us believe that the earth is young, approximately 6000 years old. Is it for this reason that an artist has slipped up a conveniently placed ladder, possibly belonging to Jacob, and pasted an Ammonite fossil on a church spire? According to carbon dating techniques, it is estimated that Ammonites are at the very least 65 million years old, but were also living creatures possibly as long as 400 million years ago.
It was the discovery of such fossils that led Darwin to develop his theories of evolution, and whatever your belief systems are, the creation here is a striking homage to this great man in his two hundreth year. Has the artist chosen the right target though?
This simple picture becomes a tale of two men named Charles. Seeing the image makes me think immediately of Darwin, but what is the steeple on which it is painted? The answer is written on the street name on which it is situated – the Rue du Pasteur Wagner. The Pasteur was Charles Wagner, and the church is his, a temple known simply as the ‘Foyer de l’Âme’ (a shelter for the soul).
Charles Wagner (1852-1918) was an interesting man, a talented orator and writer. He belonged to a wing of the church known as Liberal Protestantism, but claimed independence from all creed and orthodoxies. After going on a conference tour around the United States, supported vocally by the President Theodore Roosevelt, he managed to raise enough money to build his temple in Paris. Opened in 1907, from the exterior it is one of the more discreet places of worship in Paris, with just the little wooden steeple peeping over the top of a school on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir near Bastille indicating that it is there at all.
Inside though the temple sits up to 1200 people, proof that Wagner was a popular orator. He was known as a left-wing preacher and attracted many curious visitors from the working class corners of the city. Liberal Protestants very largely accept the advances of science and the the principle of evolution, seeing Genesis as giving only rough metaphors for the process, so it is likely that Wagner celebrated the teachings of Darwin.
At the entrance to the church, a further clue that this was not a centre of fundamentalism. A sign reads "Ici on enseigne l'humanité" (here we teach humanity), and a quick look at the church website reveals discussions about encouraging homosexuals into the fold. It seems then that the artist chose the worst possible steeple in the city to place the evolutionary comment!
The Protestant faith remains very minor in France, with this temple apparently attracting mostly British and American expatriates. The story ended quite sadly for Wagner too, with his church opening two years after French laws decided on a strict separation between church and state. His temple backs onto a school, but his dreams of universal teaching and of avoiding the schism of the various Protestant factions in France proved to be in vain. He died half way through the First World War, an event which also caused many Liberal Protestants to question their belief system.