If you feel discouraged about the church in the U.S.—or the state of the nation itself, for that matter—I recommend traveling abroad.  I just returned from two countries that share a common border, Bulgaria and Greece, and both make our own problems seem small by contrast.

Bulgaria may hold the world record for bad luck in foreign policy.  For five hundred years it did not even exist as an independent country, ruled instead by Turks of the Ottoman Empire.  Freed at last with Russia’s help, it proceeded to lose a huge chunk of territory in the disastrous Balkan wars and then chose to ally with the wrong side in two straight world wars.  In punishment for Bulgaria’s support of Germany during World War II, the Soviet Union made them pay dearly through purges and mass executions.

To me it seemed the country is still reeling, with a national inferiority complex.  I spoke at a pastors’ conference and a writers’ conference (photo below), and attendees acted surprised that someone from the U.S. would even bother to come to their country.  Many people on the street dress in dark clothes and have a somber demeanor.  In the 1990s, one out of seven Bulgarians simply gave up and left the country.  “Who is a famous Bulgarian today?” I asked a few contacts, getting blank stares in response—no one came up with a name.

We have our own political problems, of course, but nothing like Bulgaria’s.  Everyone I talked to assumes their politicians are crooks.  For example, Bulgaria has the largest proportion of Roma people (Gypsies) in Europe, an ethnic group universally oppressed.  Organized gangs seize young Romas as sex slaves and traffick them across Western Europe.  Although some small Christian agencies are combating the problem, the highly-respected International Justice Mission refuses to work in Bulgaria because of its government corruption.

Along with several hundred million others, Bulgarians are still recovering from the disastrous effects of communist rule.  Every time I visit Eastern Europe, I come away humbled by the stories of Christians who clung to their faith at great personal cost.  I heard a typical account from a pastor who told me, “I was planning to be an engineer, but because I refused to renounce my faith during interrogations, I was barred from attending university.  Ironically, the Communist Party drove me into the pastorate.”  Many others spent time in prison.

Communism failed dismally in one declared goal: to eliminate religion.  Bulgarian communists sought to forge a 100 percent atheist society.  Yet, despite almost half a century of intense propaganda, only 20 percent of Bulgarians identify as atheists today.

The country now promotes religious tolerance.  Within a few blocks in the capital city of Sofia, you can find Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals as well as an Islamic mosque and a Jewish synagogue.  Bulgaria takes great pride in the historical fact that not a single one of its 50,000 Jews was sent to a death camp, this despite fierce pressure from Hitler and his minions.

After the fall of communism, interest in spirituality surged.  Churches, chapels, and monasteries have been rebuilt.  While there, I met with a group of forty Christian writers who are seeking creative ways to express their faith.  Many of them became Christians as adults, much to the befuddlement of their atheist parents.  Bulgaria is a small country, and an author there has little hope of selling even a thousand copies—they’re definitely not writing for the money.

 


 

A short flight to Greece brought me to a land at once more modern-looking and more ancient than its neglected neighbor.  Tucked among the modern buildings of Athens are priceless treasures from the past.  Democracy was birthed here, philosophy flourished, the Olympics began, classical art reached its peak—all this while humans in other places were living in caves.

These days, however, Greece makes the news mainly for its economic woes, as Europe grudgingly patches together yet another bailout plan.  I found that it’s one thing to read statistics and quite another to put human faces to them.  An educated Greek man told me, “I took a 35 percent pay cut during the financial crisis.  And I haven’t had a raise in twelve years.  The minimum wage here amounts to around $700 per month.  Imagine trying to live on that in a place where the cost of living is not much below that in the rest of Europe or the U.S.”

Greek media were reporting the encouraging news that unemployment had recently declined to 23 percent, more than five times the U.S. rate.  I met PhDs working as tour guides and taxi drivers—gratefully, for Greeks under the age of twenty-five have only a 50 percent chance of finding a job, any job.  As a tourist, I appreciated having such well-informed guides to point out the city’s wonders.

The Parthenon, sitting on a high hill in central Athens, is the city’s focal point, and our hotel room had a splendid view.  A shiny new Acropolis Museum details the massive effort it took to build this famous temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.  Similar temples dot the Greek landscape, silent witness to how seriously the ancients took their pagan faith.

A short walk away, I visited the site where Plato taught, and Socrates drank hemlock.  And on a bare rock just beyond the Acropolis, an upstart Jew named Paul engaged Athens’ leading philosophers, proclaiming the true identity of the “Unknown God” that they implicitly acknowledged.  Against all odds, the religion preached by Paul superseded all those pagan temples, including the one in Corinth that offered worshipers the services of hundreds of temple prostitutes.  Over the centuries, churches sprang up in every Greek village.

Like Bulgaria, Greece also spent several centuries under Islamic rule.  Museums in Athens chronicle a series of massacres under Ottoman conquerors (now modern-day Turkey), and Greeks pride themselves on having helped save the rest of Europe from Islamic conquest.  Unlike Bulgaria, though, Greece has little religious diversity.  The constitution recognizes the Eastern Orthodox Church as a state religion, and 90 percent of Greeks identify with it, at least nominally.  Countries like Germany, France, and Holland struggle with a restive Muslim minority.  Not Greece.  A decade ago, Athens finally granted a permit for the construction of its first mosque, but it remains unbuilt.

Nevertheless, most Greeks will tell you they don’t take religion seriously.  “Church is boring,” one Greek explained.  “The services last a couple of hours, and we have to stand throughout.  The liturgy is a thousand years old, and the music almost as old.  Most of it is chanted—Greek churches don’t have musical instruments.”  With its sunny climate, postcard-perfect islands, and leisure options, Greece offers appealing alternatives to church on Sunday.  I saw no sign of the resurgence of faith I had witnessed in beaten-down Bulgaria.

The Parthenon served as a pagan temple for a thousand years.  Christians converted it into a church for the next eight centuries.  After their conquest, the Ottoman Turks refashioned it into a mosque.  The Turks also used it as an ammunition dump, and in one battle, a cannonball struck their powder, causing an explosion that reduced the building to the ruins that remain today.  A pagan temple, a Christian church, a mosque, now a tourist site stripped of any religious meaning—the Parthenon stands as an appropriate symbol for the history of Europe. 

After two weeks abroad, the litany of familiar complaints in the U.S. appears in a different light.  We complain about a slow-growing economy, though our rate of growth exceeds that of every other advanced economy.  Most of our refugees and migrants have jobs and roofs over their heads, while European countries struggle to support hundreds of thousands in refugee camps.  Church-shoppers here look for more relevant and entertaining places to worship, whereas most of the world has no such option.  American news media portray a nation in a state of crisis.  Believe me, things could be worse—and in many places they are.

 

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38 responses to “A View from Abroad”

  1. Ronaldo Nunes says:

    Dear Phillip,

    I’m also fan of your books that i red all here in Brazil.

    If you was surprised with minimun salary in Bulgaria ($700), imagine in Brazil with $300 and higher cost from Europe and US.

    Continues writing with encouragement. Nowadays I am reading again “Disappointement with God”.

    God bless you!
    Ronaldo Nunes

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I know your country is going through some very hard times. I am very sorry, and hope and pray that things change soon.

  2. Elena says:

    As a Bulgarian I am so glad you came to my countrie. I am a fan of your books and I had no idea you were here 😀 I hope you had a good time and you will come back 🙂 Things are not as gloomy as they seem, complaining is Bulgarians’ national sport. I can’t deny that corruption in politics is really rampant and, yes, we generally think that all politicians are crooks and straight up morons, but other than that there are upsides to living here.

  3. Michael Chertock says:

    Dear Phillip,

    Bulgaria is a fascinating country that has produced an astonishing number of musicians and singers.

    I just read the first few chapters of What’s So Amazing About Grace? and loved your references to Babette’s Feast and even the Mozart Requiem! Your treatment of “The Prodigal Son” reminded me of the affecting scene in Jesus of Nazareth (of Zefrelli) where He tells the story at the home of Matthew the tax collector.

    You have a powerful and important message to share with the world…

    Best,

    Mike

  4. David Ephraim Mathias says:

    Thought provoking indeed. In Nigeria, we don’t have the luxury advanced nations have and we are a “religious nation”. Almost 50 percent of the population are Muslims and Christian accounts for a little over 40 percent with traditional African religious taking the rest. Surprisingly people in the suburbs appreciate religion more than the urbanites that spend most of our time trying to make ends meet. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel to the villages, I appreciate the free gift of salvation that Christ offers in their conduct and how we can learn from it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and how we can appreciate that which we take for granted.

    Remain Blessed,
    Mathias, David Ephraim

  5. Joanie Kirkland says:

    Hi Phillip,
    I subscribed to your blog. Your writing, as always, gives insight and much pondering . I am reading The Psalms and Proverbs right now. Your prolific words always continue to move me to search Scripture more closely. I wrote you a letter a little while back. It will be there when you get home. Looking forward to the next blog.
    As always,
    Your friend , Joanie

    • Jeremiah says:

      Philip –
      Don’t know how to start a new comment so I have to do it as a reply to the last comment.
      I read many of your books in my youth. The books with Paul Brand were very influential.
      Your other books actually caused confusion in my Christian faith. I have recently discovered the reason why – the messages are not consistent with scripture.
      As I read this latest blog I understand why- you like so many other “Christian” leaders live in nice shelter vacuum worlds of cognitive dissonance.
      You have many a good comfortable living writing words you don’t live. It is ironic how you look up to and lift up godless men like Ghandi (who was a sexual pervert amongst other things), Martin Luther King (who was a sexual pervert, a liar, a man who mocked and belittle the Word of God, amongst other things). These men were not men of the character of Christ. They rejected Christ and His salvation. Yet the irony is you make money uplifting these men while writing about “christianity”
      You speak out against injustice as you live from your nice over 1 million dollar home in evergreen colorado. What hypocrisy. How many homeless people and needed people live with you?
      Your writing show you don’t understand the world we live in – Satan is truly god of this world and he comes as a minister of light and righteousness.
      You write about our economy in your blog – our capitalistic society is fake and inflated – we print our money with nothing to back it and we use slave labor in other countries to fill our lives with junk and build nice homes in gated communities.
      You live in a fake reality like so many “christian” leaders in America who live nice comfortable lives while preaching about trials they have never had to really face or live in, and speak against injustice that they cause in many ways. The problem with America is we are too comfortable and are anesthetized with materialism and consumerism. Yet these leaders will continually market the lie of how much they help so many people and how much they have given away.
      I got rid of all your books.
      Start living a true life of what you write about!

  6. Pat Hale says:

    As always, I am educated and inspired by your writing. Surely there is something we can do for the people in Bulgaria. I will pray on this.

  7. virginia youdale says:

    I just love hearing anything from you! I have just re-read all the books of yours I still have (I’m always lending them!) Thank you for them – I find them so, so helpful and thought provoking. Also thank you for pointing the way to other books, such as Henri Nouwen. We had a study of the Prodigal Son which we found so moving.
    Thank you, thank you.

  8. George Fanning says:

    Thanks for bringing these perspectives it is good to be reminded that we have so much to be thankful for and yet we become disenchanted so easily !

  9. Tim says:

    We spent a night in Georgia. My motel neighbor is from Scotland. He was in Georgia to attend the graduation of a nephew attending a Christian bible institute. He stated that many from Scotland come to the U.S. for bible education because if you mention Jesus at home you are charged with “offending” someone and face a heavy fine.

  10. Marco says:

    Dear Philip,
    You picture very well the reality of South Europe.
    In Italy economy is a bit better than Greece but still very weak.
    I only want to add that this financial crisis is a great opportunity for the true church to be a light in the darkness.
    Christian believers are not exonerated from trials and troubles but they have a faith in the Messiah who is over all our problems.
    They can do a great social work showing practically God’s love.

    One more thing: next time plan to stop in Italy and let us know 🙂

  11. Carol Allen says:

    Dear Philip,
    Thank you, as always, for writing. I always appreciate your views and read and re-read your books. They go with me when we travel. God uses your words to speak to me.
    Thank you for blessing the people in Greece and Bulgaria as you’ve been blessed.

  12. Martina Jones says:

    Hi Philip.
    I very much reading your books, and have read every one of them, and keep looking for any new one to come out.
    You make it so easy to understand, and many of times i get one of those( oh that,s what that means, and i get quite exited when the Spirit teaches me the word of God, and is using you as an instrument.
    Thank you so very much for sharing your gift of wisdom, I appreciate your writings very much.
    May God bless you abundantly as He said He would.
    In Christian love. Martina

  13. Scott Bolinder says:

    Never stop writing, Philip. Few writers consistently challenge us so well yet always leave us with the hopeful gift of sacred perspective! Thanks.

  14. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the perspective. I had a professor from Bulgaria so I can relate to some of which you describe.

    I am grateful for our blessings in America, and try to pray for those less fortunate around the world.

  15. Bob Sutton says:

    Dear Philip,

    I so much appreciate your perspective on the world, the U.S. and how blessed we are to live where we live. I am a Canadian but spent from August 2016 to April 2017 traveling in the United States. My wife and I met many wonderful Americans who where really uncertain how to vote back in late October and early November of last year. I am reminded of the Biblical truth that God places men and women in authority and He has a master plan. We appreciated traveling in your amazing and wonderful country and I am proud to be a neighbor of such a great nation in spite of your current troubles. May God truly bless America!

    Bob Sutton

  16. Avenel Grace. says:

    Dear Phillip,
    As always I enjoy your blogs, and of course your books.
    The history of Christians and general people in these poor countries put us to shame.
    The age pension in Australia is over twice the monthly amount the Greek people get.
    I think maybe we in the western countries have yet to learn who to trust implicitly for our daily bread.
    My love always,
    Avenel.

  17. Gladys Brayer aka Gladys Drake says:

    Philip,
    I have 3 of your books – “The Bible Jesus Read”, “What’s So Amazing About Grace”, and
    “In His Image” with Dr. Paul Brand, in which you have revealed your spiritual journey. I welcome the opportunity to follow your personal discoveries as you travel on.
    In today’s chaotic political climate, I find myself asking, “Is there such a thing as an honest politician?” and “why do people really go into politics?”
    For what it’s worth, I’d like to share one of my writing with you titled
    LIFE
    When I look at the night sky and observe the beauty of the moon and stars hanging in the immensity of space, I realize that we, too, are “hanging in space” … just a tiny infinitesimal speck in the Milky Way. As our world continues to revolve around the sun, each star–each planet–moves in perfect harmony and I stand transfixed in wonder. And suddenly, all my worries and concerns appear small and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I’m so little…indeed, our world is so little…when compared with the universe!
    Life is brief…but I know it will go on after I’m gone, and in a short while, all memory of my existence will be gone as well. This is as it should be…and those who remain behind will go on to experience their own survival battles. From birth to death, the flow of life will continue, as God, the Master Conductor of the Universe maintains everything in perfect order–with the exception of mankind! For we are a contrary lot…with free will…yet all to often we make mistakes and struggle to make sense our lives…and we go on.
    It’s been so since the dawn of history. There’s never been a time when mankind was truly at peace. We each long to find our place in the world and search for meaning in our lives. I know there is meaning, for we are all born with certain God-given gifts or talents, and the purpose of life is to discover — and most importantly–to USE our talents–for it’s in the sharing of them that we grow and find ourselves ever more capable of doing great things to make our world a better place.
    Yes, life is short, and we’ll never be fully content here, because this is not our true home. I know there is a Heaven, and I live with the hope that it will be my final destination. I’ve often pondered what Heaven will be like and I look forward to the moment when I come face-to-face with my Creator. My fondest desire is to look into His eyes and see Him smile and speak to me. Oh, to be welcomed into His Kingdom! To walk and talk with Him. and to join all my loved ones who have gone on before–to experience true peace and unending harmony with all I encounter– learning wondrous new things and evolving into the being I was created to become.
    MY CONCEPT OF HEAVEN
    My concept of Heaven? People will not be divided into “classes”…none will be striving for fame, riches, or power. There will be no politics, taxes, expenses, or currency. Instead, each will delight in serving others, and all will be treasured for their own unique persons. All Heaven will resound with music and singing and all will be welcomed at the Banquet of the Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of Our Eternal Father, with the Holy Spirit. And His Mother Mary, our Mother, will greet us as well. We will be home!

  18. Doranna Overstreet Cooper says:

    I have followed your writings since I first started reading them in Campus Life Magazine, yes that far back. I was a young new mother who had grown up in YFC in Los Angeles & missed that energy after moving to a small farming town filled with “missile rats”. You wrote thought provoking editorials that challenged my comfortable Christian thinking, not my salvation, but very challenging ideas, which I would mention to my pastor, they made him uncomfortable but I wasn’t condemned for them because my dad was a fellow pastor down in Los Angeles. I think you might have known my brother, Ken Overstreet back then. At my age I still like to be challenged & read new refreshing ideas.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Sure, I knew Ken. Quite a saga your family has been through! I’m glad to hear we’ve been “virtual” friends. –Philip

  19. Mary Lou Smith says:

    I am a Denverite. I love and enjoy many of your books. I can vouch for your book about prayer mentioned above. It is incredibly thorough. Happy to be receiving your blog.

  20. Ken Davis says:

    As always my brain is stimulated and my heart moved by your posts. I look forward to each one. This one certainly helps adjust my “perspective on the present condition of our country.

    Ken

  21. Bryan ONeal says:

    It is really too bad you did not meet the small but incredibly vibrant, active, faithful, selfless evangelical community in Greece. A good place to begin would be with the Greek Bible College, in Pikermi on the outskirts of Athens. Those people you see standing waist-deep in the Aegean, helping refugees getting off boats? Most likely your brothers and sisters in Christ. The evangelical church in Greece is doing an amazing job in incredibly difficult circumstances.

  22. Sarah Murray Eremic says:

    Really appreciated your astute observations, Phil. We in the USA need to hear this more often. Thanks for continuing to challenge our minds and attitudes, especially on the very morning we are hearing of the death of even more of our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters. By the way, I leave in a few days for two months in Munich, where Michael’s and my daughter and her family are working effectively in church planting in that great city. Warm wishes and God’s continued blessings on you and your ministry.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      We were in Germany in November. I spoke at a few places and we spend some delightful time with the Blank family. I hope you get to see Reiner.

  23. Betty Stevens says:

    Have enjoyed reading some of your books and interested in anything you post.

  24. Udhayadavid says:

    Democracy was birthed here, philosophy flourished, the Olympics began, classical art reached its peak—all this while humans in other places were living in caves…..
    Really? ….in caves…..???

    • Philip Yancey says:

      They certainly were in Colorado, where I live. You can tour them in the national parks. Obviously, that wasn’t true everywhere in the world! –Philip

      • Jim Gardner says:

        I grew up in Cortez, Colorado and spent a lot of time in Mesa Verde National Park. I wouldn’t call the native American cliff dwellings built in caves. They were amazing people who built their homes in the most secure way possible at that time in history.

  25. ANTIGONI NOUSIOU says:

    Ι am so sorry we missed your visit in Athens. We would love to meet with you. I knew about your visit in Bulgaria because our brother Nikolai and his wife Grace uploaded some pictures with you and I thought that it would be good if you came to greece too. Sorry we didn’t get the chance to see you and listen to you.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’m sorry too! We met with an Armenian pastor (Vicken) whom you may know, but didn’t have any other contacts in Greece. Nevertheless, we made friends along the way. Your countrymen treated us very well. –Philip

  26. Louise Rawlins says:

    Hi Phillip, that’s an interesting set of observations.
    I’ve just read your book, “The question that never goes away”, and finished it the day of the bomb at a pop concert in Manchester. I understand your final point about God not guaranteeing protection for our children from the point of view that who are we as Christians to be singled out for special favour as all are created equal before God. It does give me one question though; what then is the point of praying? And I guess I can answer that because we pray to increase relationship with God and to seek first His righteousness, not just to ask for things. And I suppose what we should always be praying is; how can I be in this situation to be a child of God? But I’m still a bit puzzled.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Sadly, once again “the question that never goes away” hits us in the face. You ask an excellent question, one I’ve often asked. I apologize for referring you to a book, but that’s how I do most of my thinking: through writing. I struggled with the issue in Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?. Maybe you’ll find something useful there. –Philip

      • ANTIGONI NOUSIOU says:

        thank you for your response. There are many greek evangelical churches in Athens , one very close to Acropolis. Believers here know about you and have been reading your books. We would be thrilled to have you amongst us. Maybe another time?

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