On hearing that Julia and I were going to Paris for two weeks, my brother-in-law, Jack, kindly lent us his treasured copy of the ‘Time Out Book of Paris Walks’ on the strict understanding that we would return it to him in due course! I can understand why he wants it back because it is really rather good. It incorporates 23 walks around Paris that ‘explore every aspect and allée of the French capital’. Each walk is described by a different Parisian or Francophile drawn from a variety of backgrounds – novelists, historians, journalists and comedians – all united by their passion for this wonderful city. The various walks are described in a comprehensive, interesting, and often amusing way and we have enjoyed every one we have attempted.
Today we are following the ‘The Sacred and Profane’ walk, written by Liz Jensen, that has the wonderful sub-title ‘Sex, Art and Death in Pigale and Montmartre’. Irresistible or what? According to our guidebook our route ‘takes in three of life’s great themes: sex, art and death’. It is more or less a circuitous route that begins at the Metro Station in Pigalle (the sleaze district of Paris), takes us along the Boulevard de Clichy, past the red sails of the Moulin Rouge (the sequin-infested home of cabaret and the cancan), up through the Cimetière de Montmartre, back along the Boulevard de Clichy again and up through the Rue Lepic (with its wonderful food shops) in the general direction of Montmartre and the Sacre Couer (with its artists square and amazing church), before taking us back down to the Metro Station in Abbess (surely one of the prettiest stations in Paris) with its cluster of bars, cafes and bistros.
We walk down to Pigalle, from our studio flat in Montmartre, and fortify ourselves with a coffee in a cafe opposite the Moulin Rouge. Coffee in these cafes costs a fortune in Paris (tourists beware) but we allow ourselves this luxury once in a while when we are out and about. As we are sitting in the cafe, drinking our coffee, Julia is reading to me from Jack’s book about the various things we are going to see en route. She is particularly taken by Liz Jensen’s hilarious description of what to expect if we choose to visit the Musee de l’Erotisme. We are both cracking up with laughter, when two American girls on the table next to ours (overhearing our conversation) tell us that they have just been to this particular museum, and it is really very good. I ask them, that since I am nearly 71 years of age, recovering from major heart surgery, and a Baptist Pastor to boot, if they would recommend it for me? I mean it as a joke, but my comment turns out to be a real ‘conversation stopper’. On reflection I think it was the ‘being a Baptist Pastor’ bit that did it? I forget that ‘Baptist Pastor’ to many Americans means something very different to what it means to us in the UK.
After our coffee we begin our walk. Some the sites suggested in the guidebook we are already familiar with. We know the Moulin Rouge, the Artists’ Square in Montmartre, the Sacre Couer, the Abbess Metro Station, quite well by now. There are, however, many other things – lovely things, interesting things, fascinating things – mentioned in our guidebook that we would have completely missed if we had not been following this super little book of Paris Walks. The cobblestone alleyway marked ‘Cite Veron’, off to the right just past the Moulin Rouge, that houses a small art theatre and a host of pretty, secluded little apartments with shady courtyards and a sleepy village atmosphere, in stark contrast to the ‘urban touristorama’ a stone’s throw away. The salmon coloured marble tomb of Emile Zola, complete with verdigris bust, in the Cimietrie de Montmartre. The replica of the Moulin du Radet, immortalised by many artists including Picasso and Renoir, high above the Rue Tholoze with its fascinating history. Jean Marais’ witty, joyful, surreal sculpture of a man walking out of a wall (based on Marcel Ayme’s 1943 short story) in the Place Marcel-Ayme. The small Montmartre Vineyard planted right in the middle or urban sprawl. So I could go on – many fascinating things that we would not have either known of, or seen, but for the information to be found in our guidebook.
Sadly, some of the places mentioned in our guidebook no longer appear to exist. Recommended cafes and restaurants have changed hands – some into ‘fast food’ outlets – and no longer offer the ‘reasonably priced tasty lunches’ or the ‘stupendously good’ baguettes. We were really looking forward to finding the wonderful little, quirky hat shop, called the Têtes en l’Air, where allegedly one could ‘buy a mad confection to balance on your head should you wish to draw attention to yourself’ whilst on the walk, but this too appears to have sadly disappeared altogether. Such changes, of course, are inevitable. ‘Constant change is here to stay!’ as they say. However good a guidebook may be, what they have to teach us inevitably change with the times. The other Tuesday Julia and I went all the way across Paris to visit the Cluny Museum – which our guidebook told us was open every day of the week – only to find that it now closed on a Tuesday.
Both Julia and I love guidebooks. We read them even when we are not due to visit the places mentioned in them, although sometimes reading about a certain place inspires us to go and visit when previously we had not planned to do so. Our experience of walking ‘The Sacred and Profane Walk’ started me thinking about God and the Bible. After all the Bible does have a lot to say about ‘sex, art and death’! I have often heard the Bible described as ‘God’s Guidebook’ for life, and I suppose that in some ways it is. The Apostle Paul writes to his young protege, Timothy, and reminds him that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16,17). No illustration is perfect, however. Even when interpreting the Parables of Jesus – earthly stories with a heavenly meaning – we are meant to take the central thrust of the story in question, not attribute weird and wonderful significance to every detail in the particular story. So to describe the Bible as ‘God’s Guidebook’ has its limitations as well as its blessings.
The Bible, like our guidebook, certainly contains many lovely, wonderful, interesting, fascinating, life-changing truths. Truths that we will otherwise completely miss if we don’t read it. However, we also need to recognise that much of the Bible has to be interpreted in its cultural setting. Much of the Old Testament is written about a primitive bronze-age people whose understanding of God was really quite limited, and whose approach to life mirrored this. The New Testament Letters were written to people whose culture reflected many of the biases of the day with regard to women, slavery, and so on. Even in the Gospels we see Jesus struggling to communicate the real and radical nature of God and the Gospel to people who were obsessed with religious legalism. I have no problem with the divine inspiration of Scripture – most of the problems we have are with the interpretation of Scripture. Where are the eternal, unchanging truths of Scripture? And where are the cultural interpretations that change from age to age? This question is vitally important … because how we answer it determines whether we become dogmatic, legalists who turn people away from God, or relevant, Spirit-endued, lively ambassadors of the Living Christ!