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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