The Apostle Paul stood here.
Now, endless whitewashed apartment buildings stretched horizonward like coarse hailstones filling the valley—probably not quite the same view Paul experienced. But had he faced this direction and turned a few degrees to the right, he would have seen something like this:
Emerging from a craggy outcrop as though carved of its very bedrock, the Acropolis remains Greeces’ most iconic citadel. Tourists now rove with selfie sticks among its layered walls and columns, the ruinous backbone and ribcage which once fortified the heart of ancient Athenian civilization. A silent heart today, those temples, streets and courtyards resounded in bygone millennia with hoofbeats and chariot wheels, merchants’ calls and temple chants, shouts of war and songs of peace. But now, all I could hear was the wind blowing where I stood on Mars Hill.
How had the history etched in this country’s brick and mortar shaped its modern culture, bringing unique challenges and opportunities for Christian university students here? With only a week or two in Greece, I didn’t have time for a history degree to find out. But at least I could go out for souvlaki with a local student, a girl who studied theology at a Grecian Bible school, to glean some cultural insights.
Spirituality in Greece: The Sociocultural Backstory
“Greece is an honour/shame culture,” she told me as we waited at the restaurant. “Socioeconomic status is very important. So is other people’s opinion.”
Which sometimes makes students more hesitant to stand out if their worldview is different from that of the campus culture, I remembered, thinking back to the pressure students faced in honour/shame cultures like Thailand.
The Bible school student went on to explain that the most common worldview here is Orthodox
Christianity. Belief in God is traditional. People have a knowledge of religious practice, attending services, observing sacraments and venerating icons—often paintings of Christ, Mary or Saints—in hopes of minimizing time in purgatory. However, the animating radiance of the gospel does not necessarily shine in common understanding or everyday life.
“When Christ came in the 1st century,” said my Bible school friend, “theology was pretty clear and pure—it was Christ’s teaching and the apostles’ teaching. Then, after the 4th century, Christianity became political.”
At this point, she explained, Christianity began to assimilate with Eastern religion and Gnosticism, a worldview including the belief that the material world is not important. Infuse this mixture with elements of pagan religiosity and classical philosophy from mainstream Greek culture, turn up the political heat, and you’ve created a way of life which looks quite unlike historical Christianity.
“It wasn’t about the Bible anymore,” she continued. “It wasn’t about Christ anymore as the messiah. It was about culture. So, the direction went completely wrong. Orthodox means ‘the right faith,’ and it was at first. The Orthodox Church was the first church as we know it, but it changed for these cultural and political reasons.”
Originally, she explained, the Catholic and Orthodox church were one. As the centuries ticked by, however, traditions within this original church began to separate until finally splitting when Rome itself divided into Western and Eastern empires. The Western branch became Roman Catholicism, while the other branch became Eastern Orthodoxy.
Hundreds of years later, the Western branch divided again with a blow from Martin Luther’s hammer. His 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg church door kickstarted the Protestant reformation in Western Europe, but no hammer blows echoed in the Orthodox church. In fact, because Greece had come under Turkish authority during the 14th-to early 19th centuries, neither Reformation nor Renaissance reached Greece from Western Europe.
“People think the same as they did hundreds of years ago,” summarized the student. “The culture and mindset and practices are the same, but we’ve just evolved according to social circumstances.”
Grecian University Culture
“Do you think this cultural climate is the same on campuses?” I asked.
“We live in a post-modern world,” she replied. “There is this culture of relativity, with no clear beliefs about the Christian faith. So, most people would say they’re orthodox, but in the universities, it’s a chaos of ideas and worldviews. Students believe in God and in Jesus’ existence, but they also believe in everything else that culture says.”
In other words, students are the sponges which will paint the future with whatever philosophical hues they’ve soaked up from culture. Because young people will shape society tomorrow and are the easiest demographic to influence en masse through public education and media today, any group that wants to win over culture must win over students. Political groups realize that.
“Most of the universities are public,” my friend continued, “which means students pay absolutely nothing. All the facilities and professors are provided by the government. But the state is not able to financially support the system they have created. Because of strikes, the universities sometimes don’t work for months. Degrees might take 6 years.”
This combination of free education and drawn-out time in university, she explained, creates a problem:
“When you’re not forced to study, you need to find something else to do. This “something else” is what political parties use to encourage students to follow their ideas—especially communism. So, when Christians go to university, it’s like they enter a warzone with no armor. There are all these older people who know exactly what they believe; they know what the Bible says, and they know how to ‘prove’ that what the students believe is crazy and stupid. Students are attacked by all these lies. They don’t know what they believe. Then, they become like the world.”
“But these older people aren’t professors?” I clarified, “They’re just graduates who hang around
the university and try to recruit people to join their political parties?”
“Yes,” she affirmed, and reminded me of students’ drive to develop their sense of identity. “Students need to be part of a team. They need to be part of a greater cause. They need to feel like they are able to influence, and that they are important. These are the needs that the political groups answer to.”
Or, the needs that God wired them to express to serve His kingdom and be a part of His story—talents, gifts and passions which local Christian communities can harness to empower students to do just that.
“These political groups know about the Bible?” I wanted to clarify.
“In Greece,” she nodded, “people study a lot about these things when it comes to politics. They are serious about their worldview. They know some things about Christianity that they can use against Christian students. The students get beliefs—but only from one perspective. They don’t do a holistic study about what they believe; they just follow, like sheep, and believe what other people tell them. Without thinking, without investigating.”
A Timeless Solution
In addition to intellectual foundations—the importance of critical thinking she just touched upon, the Bible school student emphasized students’ need for building solid spiritual foundations before coming to campus.
“What I told you about Christians who struggle with their faith when they come to college,” she
mused, “the thing is, are they really Christians in the first place? Do they really care about God? If students don’t know what they believe and they don’t care about getting to know God more, of course they’ll end up with different lifestyles.”
This, she explained, ties back to students’ need for stronger theological discipleship.
“Most of the kids here don’t leave church,” she observed, “From what I’ve noticed, they still attend church, but live a life which is offensive to God. They hold both directions. In the end, I think what most students struggle with is being holy. I think that this indifference about the things of God is because of a lack of theology. We don’t know what we believe. We don’t learn this in school; we don’t learn this in church; we don’t learn this in Sunday school.”
“So, what would you say to a pastor?” I asked.
“Encourage theology studies so the people who have authority in the church, or do any kind of service in the church, know the word of God in a way they can pass it on to the next generations. From the person who is cleaning the toilet to the pastor, everyone needs to know the truth of the gospel, embrace it, live it understand it, and grow in it.”
“So anyone who knows the word of God should teach it to students?” I summarized.
“Yes! And they should teach it to everyone, too, not just to the students. We’re trying to divide church into small sections of people based on what their stage of life is. But there are no sections in the church. We’re just the church.”
“People are going to say that teaching theology is the pastor’s job,” I countered.
“I don’t know why people think it’s just the pastor’s job to study theology,” she replied. “You think hearing a practical sermon once a week is going to be enough to sustain you in what you believe? You need to be studying doctrine throughout the week. It’s your responsibility to get to know more, to get to know God more. And who is God? God has given that to us through the Bible.”
Back to the Bible.
In every country, Christians face pressure to conform to their surrounding culture. Those different cultures, with their different lies, will pose different challenges for Christians. But all those lies scatter in the light of the same truth: the gospel. Around the world and across history, whether on Mars Hill during Paul’s time or in university classrooms today, the challenges Christian students face are different, but the solutions are the largely the same. It all comes back to knowing–and living–the word of God.