I have previously reflected on the top books I have read that impacted me the most. While I may not be ready to re-rank my top 5, The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides may prove to make my lists of influential books in the future.  It is not often that I read a book where every chapter inspired me and captivated my thoughts for the rest of the day.

MountainFirst, a brief synopsis.  The author, Kyriacos Markides, is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine and originally hails from Cyprus.  Through his studies, he began to explore ancient mysticism, despite being himself an agnostic.  His research lead him to a monastic community on Mount Athos in Greece and a meeting with a young monk named Father Maximos.  This Athonite community saw themselves as preservers of Greek Orthodox traditions and his friendship with Father Maximos eventually led him to spend several summers interviewing the monk at another monastic community back on the island of Cyprus.  The book not only explores the beliefs and practices of these Greek Orthodox monastic communities, but also chronicles Markides’s own spiritual journey back to his orthodox roots.

What is particularly fascinating is how many of these Greek Orthodox practices became lost to the church in the West.  The Greek Orthodox church was associated with the Byzantine Empire of the East and with the Great Schism of 1054, Western Europe became tied to the church of Rome.  East and West followed very different paths, and while the Western church further divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Eastern church was fighting for its survival with the fall of the Byzantine Empire.  While its traditions were safeguarded in monastic communities, such as those on Mount Athos, many of them became ignored, foreign to Western Christianity.  The author notes that while Eastern Orthodoxy has preserved knowing God through the “eye of contemplation” – systematic and disciplined practices to open up the intuitive and spiritual faculties – the Western church has come to be dominated by empirical knowledge, philosophy, and reason.

While the history of Greek Orthodoxy is an important thread throughout the book, the story itself revolves around the author’s personal conversations with Father Maximos.  The reader is allowed to sit along side of Markides and absorb the spiritual wisdom of this Athonite monk.

Among some of the ideas that have resonated with me while reading this book:

  • Greek Orthodoxy stresses that our primary aim in life is to attain the unity with God that was lost in the Garden of Eden.  Our purpose in life, then, is to move closer back to the soul’s unity with God.  Yet, we often value ourselves in terms of how much we contribute rather than in terms of who we are.  Thus, even our spiritual disciplines tend to be measured in terms of how much we are accomplishing.
  • Part of this reunification with God is attained through prayer.  Continual prayer is the way we find God.  The Athonite monks believe there are practices that can help us be in a state of continual prayer, even while sleeping.  My own prayer life has been enriched through many insights discussed in the book.
  • Entering the Kingdom of Heaven means liberation from the objects of this world.  While in many ways this is done more easily within the confines of a monastery, we are all called to detach from those objects that preoccupy us.

I am still processing much of what was presented in The Mountain of Silence, even while reading another book by the same author.  Yet I have already felt the impact of the practices from this monastic community charged with preserving the traditions of the Greek Orthodox church.

A recent interest of mine – and a reoccurring theme in the events of life – has been Greek Mythology, and the larger role of myth in our lives.  I realize that initially, most people will assume that mythology has very little to do with their lives.  But I have come to realize that my life needs a good dose of a mythic element to it.  I will attempt to explain how I arrived at this realization, and why this has anything to do with a book by John Eldredge.

Last year, in anticipation of a trip to Greece and Turkey that took place this past March, I began reading a collection of classic Greek myths.  I’m sure you are at least vaguely familiar with characters such as Jason and the Argonauts, Helen of Troy, Hercules, and the adventures of Odysseus.  I enjoyed reading the full accounts of these stories and began making connections to the larger meaning of these myths in Greek culture.

I also began to understand the role of myth in any given culture.  I posted my thoughts on how understanding mythology might give more insight into the Biblical book of Job.  This connection isn’t normally made because most today misunderstand myth.  For the majority of people, a myth is a fictional story, or even an outright lie – something akin to a fib.  If I say that Job is a mythic story, most will assume that I mean to say that the story of Job never really took place.  But that is not the true meaning of classical mythology.  Myths were ancient attempts to describe what was happening in the spiritual realm, where the gods were at work.  And myths today still serve to connect us to deeper truths and help us recognize where God is still working.

Myths are, first of all, stories: stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal …  a means by which the eternal expresses itself in time.  (from Waking The Dead)

100 CharactersSo when I read another book, 100 Characters From Classical Mythology, something was tugging deeper at my soul, but I  didn’t know what it was.  I intended to write about the book, but I honestly didn’t know what I would say.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it.

Then one of those moments took place where several seemingly unrelated trails suddenly merged together down a clear path forward.  It happened, appropriately enough, while in Athens, Greece.  Maybe it was spending the day walking among temples to Zeus, theaters to Dionysus, and statues of Poseidon that served as inspiration – I am certain all of that only fueled the inspiration.  But while on that trip, I began reading a book by John Eldredge called Waking The Dead.

One of the unexpected themes to emerge from the book was that when our hearts get overwhelmed with the mundane, the familiar, and busyness, we begin to lose touch with the larger narrative that God is at work in our hearts and we have a role to play in what God is up to in the world around us.  This is why we need to keep the mythic element alive in our hearts.  From Eldredge,

You will not think clearly about your life until you think mythically.  Until you see with the eyes of your heart.

Waking The DeadI realized that my heart was getting bogged down in errands to run, bills to pay, and obligations to meet.  I was losing touch with the larger story I am a part of.  I think that is why reading about the Trojan War and Perseus and Pegasus stirred something in me.  Eldredge helped connect that stirring to the passions God has set in my heart.

Greek mythology may not do much for you, but the principle is the same.  You can view whatever stage of life you are in through the lens of the reality before you – be it sitting in front of a computer screen all day, changing diapers, or paying off school loans.  Or you can view your life with the eyes of your heart and see the larger story you are a part of.  I have determined that I need more of the mythic element in my life.

Last month I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother.  I wanted to share my experience in each city, as well as some insights gained.  For a preview of the trip, read the A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey entry and read my thoughts on Athens.

—————————–

AcrocorinthThe Biblical city of Corinth is about an hour train ride from Athens, though for the Apostle Paul it may have been 2 or 3 days journey.  From the train station, we took a taxi to the Acrocorinth.  The Acrocorinth is an 1,800 ft. high natural rock fortress that serves as the backdrop to many photos of the ancient city.  It strategically oversees the narrow strip of land that separates the Peloponnesian Peninsula from mainland Greece, and thus gave Corinth an elevated military and economic status. Oddly, most tourists skip the Acrocorinth and head straight for the ancient city.  This is a mistake!  I had read that we were likely to have the walled fortress to ourselves and that was indeed the case.  We spent a good hour (and could have spent more) exploring the citadel’s three gates that offered the only access to the top, the mostly intact walls encircling the summit, and various structures representing different eras of occupation over the past 2,500 years.

In the middle of an overgrown patch of ground at the top, one can see the foundation of a temple to Aphrodite.  Strabo wrote that this temple was once home to a thousand temple prostitutes.  More on this below, but it is difficult to capture the full impact of Corinth if you skip the Acrocorinth.

CorinthAfter overcoming a small language barrier (tip: when the taxi driver quotes you 15 Euro to shuttle you around Corinth, it is best to confirm in writing that he is not actually quoting you 50 Euro) we were dropped at the site of the city of Paul’s day.  The first thing you notice is the remaining columns from the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the 6th-century BC.  We began with the museum, which houses numerous artifacts discovered at the site and gave a flavor for what the city must have been like when Paul arrived from Athens.  Two main streets, the city agora, and other temple sites allowed us to wander and explore far more than can initially be observed from the entrance.  An adjacent site across the parking lot offers a glimpse of the ancient theater and the Odeon.

Corinth CanalThe final stop in Corinth was the Corinth Canal.  The canal cuts through rock across the 4-mile strip of land that connects the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean Sea.  It was completed in 1893 but soon became unworkable for modern ships.  Yet it still represents an impressive feat of engineering.  It is also the location for several ancient attempts to bridge the two bodies of water at the Corinth harbor.  Julius Caesar began plans to dig a canal here before his assassination.  Caligula revived the plan, but it was not until Nero that the project got underway.  The huge effort stalled and eventually became a road that transported smaller vessels across the strip of land.

The archaeological site corresponds well to Paul’s two letters to the Corinthian church.  Here are just a few of the points of contact:

Insight #1The Temple of Aphrodite.  As noted above, the Acrocorinth was home to the Temple of Aphrodite.  Corinth was also a harbor town with a constant influx of sailors.  It is debated whether worshippers would have made the trek up to this temple or if it simply served as a backdrop to the sacred prostitution in the city itself.  Regardless, there is little doubt that the Temple of Aphrodite atop the Acrocorinth would have literally cast a shadow on the town below.  Corinth became synonymous with sketchy behavior.  Undoubtedly, this explains why Paul spends a considerable amount of space warning the Corinthians about sexual immorality:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!

The practice was not simply one that offered temptation if you wandered into the wrong section of town, but it hung over the city like a cloud.  All you had to do was look up anywhere in the city and you were reminded of the city’s notoriety.

Insight #2Temple of Asclepius.  There is a room in the museum at Corinth where you will find replicas of an assortment of body parts.  These have been found at the site of a nearby temple to Asclepius.  Asclepius was a deified Greek physician, whose symbol of entwined snakes still represents the medical community today.  The site included dorms and baths where the sick would come to heal and recover.  People would also offer these replicated body parts analogous to their illness as votive offerings for healing.  One cannot help but see these and reflect back on Paul’s imagery of the body when writing to the church at Corinth.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.

It is possible that Paul may have seen these votive offerings being sold in the local market to the sick headed up to the Asclepion.  While all these body parts look a little creepy, when fully assembled and animated with life, the body become a marvel.  Is this what Paul envisioned when he was speaking of the church?  Elsewhere Paul encourages believers to offer their whole body – all its parts – as a living sacrifice, perhaps as opposed to votive offerings to Asclepius.Asclepion

ErastusInsight #3The Erastus Inscription.  As you make your way across the parking lot of the site down to the theater grounds, you will notice a sectioned-off area on the stone pavement below.  A large inscription on the stone reads, “Erastus, in return for his aedileship, paved this at his own expense.”  This is known as the Erastus Inscription and is an important find, as it may refer to the same Erastus mentioned in Romans 16:23, “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.”  It is one of only a couple inscriptions that can be linked to a reference from Paul and the New Testament.

Insight #4The Isthmian Games.  Corinth was a sports town, as we might say today.  Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games, second only to the ancient Olympic Games, for several centuries.  By the time Paul arrived in Corinth, the games already had a 500-year history.  There are several tantalizing metaphors along these lines that Paul utilizes in his letters to the Corinthians.  We stood on a long road next to the ancient agora that served as a race course lined with box seating for dignitaries.  If Paul sold his leather-goods and tents in the agora he would have been familiar with this path.  His time in Corinth may have overlapped during one of these games, as they were held every two years.  The winner of an event would have received a garland of a type of celery, which quickly wilts after being plucked from the ground.

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

These are only a couple of references Paul mentions throughout his letters to running a race and winning a crown or claiming the prize.  Quite fitting for a sports town!

The next stop is Ephesus!

Last month I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother.  I wanted to share a snapshot (and snapshots!) of each city, as well as some insights gained.  For a preview of the trip, read the A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey entry.

—————————–

Caryatids

The first stop on our trip was the city of Athens.  Upon dropping our bags in our room, the first thing we did was take an evening stroll around the Acropolis.  Initially, what strikes you is how elevated the Acropolis is above the rest of the city.  It is not difficult to imagine a commoner straining his or her neck looking up the dramatic slopes of the rocky plateau, only imagining what must be taking place there.  Surely it was a mystical, awe-inspiring place.  The next morning, we walked through the Acropolis site, taking in the Theater of Dionysus, climbing the grand entrance steps, passing the Temple of Nike, marveling at the impressive sculpted caryatid columns of the Erechtheion, and finally gazing at the Parthenon.  The Acropolis gives a wonderful view of the surrounding city, encircled by ocean and large hills.  The Acropolis does not disappoint!

On StrikeLater that day, we surveyed the city again from the top of Mount Lycabettus, which is actually higher than the Acropolis.  (Of course, the Greeks had a mythic explanation for this.)  The next day we set out for more sites, but encountered the soon-to-be familiar “On Strike” sign, announcing various historical sites closed for the day – frustrating for a visitor with limited time in the city!  We did manage to discover Mars Hill and the Areopagus (literally standing on top of it, trying to figure out exactly where it was).  The final day before we left for the airport, we did a quick pass through the Ancient Agora and took one last look at the Acropolis.

Parthenon

Besides the old stuff, one thing you quickly notice is the many stray dogs that roam the city.  Most however, seem well-fed and even have de-facto owners who care for them.  In the National Gardens we observed a couple police officers call for all the dogs – about 8 or 10 responded – and led them out of the park at closing.  You will also notice graffiti everywhere.  We even ran across a shop that specialized in all your graffiti needs – paints, stencils, as well as tips and tricks!  I read some speculation that given the economic climate of Greece, graffiti may be the cheapest form of advertising your business, though I didn’t gather that from what we saw.  There is little doubt that the economic climate has people frustrated, both at the politicians and at those who think the problem should be solved as long as someone else foots the bill.  I would look forward to visiting Athens again when it has its economic house in order.

As far as historical/Biblical insights, here are some more thoughts on Athens:

Mars HillInsight #1Athens isn’t nearly as important to the Apostle Paul as other cities.  Visiting Athens versus Corinth today, we might naturally assume that Athens was a key city in reaching the Gentiles.  As I mentioned in a previous post, for all its influence Athens does not stand out in the New Testament.  Paul quickly moves on to Corinth.  But his sermon delivered on Mars Hill is recorded in Acts 17, thus giving Athens a lot of air time.  I imagine one reason that Athens is not predominant in Paul’s thinking can be found in Acts 17: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”  The picture we get is that Paul could have had many great discussions with the lovers of philosophy in Athens, but would have seen very little transformation take place.  A few did accept Paul’s message, but Athens isn’t mentioned again.

Temple of HephaestusInsight #2What is recorded in Acts 17 rings authentic.  Despite the relegated role Athens takes on Paul’s journeys, his message in Acts 17 does capture the spirit of the city.  Acts 17:16 says Paul, “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  The city today is still littered with temples, statues, and monuments from that time.  I can only imagine what it must have looked liked to Paul.  Yes, every city of any size in Paul’s day outside of Judaea would have had a temple or two to various deities, but even for Paul the amount of it in Athens distressed him.   Yet at the beginning of his sermon, he chooses to identify this with spiritual hunger: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”  Athens was a city of learning, ideas, and spiritual hunger!  “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” Paul would go on to say.  The Parthenon, the Temple of Nike, Hephaestus, Dionysus, Zeus, the Erechtheion – they were all amazing sites.  But for all their glory, past and present, they are not where you will find God.  I imagine that must have stung a bit, “God does not live in your magnificent temples.”  The good news was – and is – that though God does not live in these temples, “he is not far from any one of us.”

Greek StatueInsight #3Greek mythology reveals much about how the ancients understood the world beyond.  I’ll comment more on this in a future post as I process it more, but one of the things I wanted to do in preparation for this trip was to better understand Greek mythology.  And although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I was going to write a post on one of the books I read, but honestly didn’t know what to say.  But having immersed myself firsthand in the subject matter for a couple of weeks – walking through it, touching it, breathing it – I have come to appreciate it much more.  It circles back to Paul’s own observation: “I see that in every way you are very religious.”  And I have concluded that my own life could use more of the mythic – that attempt to understand the spiritual world and connect to the larger story  – not less!

Check back for the rest of the sites on my journey!  Corinth is next.

A better title for this might be: Where I’m Going!  I’m using the format of sharing what I have been reading to write about an upcoming trip I am taking to Greece and Turkey.  However, one of the reasons for such a trip is captured in this book.  My journey will take me to some of the most important classical and biblical sites around the Mediterranean.

A Guide to Greece and Turkey

The book itself is a great resource for such a trip.  Any ancient site mentioned in the New Testament located in modern-day Greece or Turkey is summarized in this guide.  A brief history is given for each site, followed by the Biblical significance of the site, as well as an orientation to a site visit.  As the book itself points out, “Nearly two-thirds of the New Testament, including all the letters of Paul, most of Acts, and the book of Revelation, are set in either Turkey or Greece.”  My intention was to only peruse the sites I would be visiting, but I ended up reading the entire book.

Here is a brief synopsis of the places I will be experiencing on my trip.

  • Athens.  Next to Rome, no city has made as many contributions to art, philosophy, and political theory as Athens.  The city is the birthplace of Democracy and was the underlying cultural influence for much of the Roman Empire.  Surprisingly, for all its influence, the city itself does not stand out in the New Testament.  Acts 17 records a sermon that the Apostle Paul delivered in Athens at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill.  After Paul left the city, nothing more is said about Athens and other cities become the focus of Paul’s journeys.  Yet, like its influence on Rome, the cultural impact of Athens reverberates throughout the New Testament.
  • Corinth.  Much more prominent in Paul’s writings is the city of Corinth, which is only a couple of hour away from Athens.  The authors Fant and Reddish note that while Corinth benefited much from trade and commerce in the ancient world, it also found itself frequently dragged into the rivalry between Athens and Sparta.  In the New Testament, Paul spent eighteen months in the city and visited it on at least three separate occasions.  Two extant letters were written by Paul to the church he established at Corinth and they contain numerous references to the ancient site.
  • Ephesus.  The site of Ephesus is one of the best preserved archaeological sites around.  It was home to one of the ancient Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis, though there is little that remains of the temple.  Ephesus served as a home base for much of Paul’s missionary endeavors in Asia Minor, spending about three years there.  The book of Ephesians is a letter from Paul to the church he established there.  One of my current writing projects explores the connections between the book of Ephesians and the ancient city of Ephesus.
  • Cappadocia.  The region of Cappadocia in central Turkey is not mentioned prominently in the New Testament, though Paul does pass through the region on a couple of occasions on his way to Asia Minor.  Cappadocia is better known for its other-wordly landscape and does figure prominently in the history of the early church.  Many early churches can be found throughout the region.
  • Istanbul.  Another city not covered in this particular book is the city of Istanbul, better known historically as Byzantium or Constantinople.  While not mentioned in the New Testament, Constantinople would take center stage in the Christian world when the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the site of this modern city that serves as the place where Europe and Asia meet.  It is a large modern city that is littered with Byzantine and Ottoman sites.

I’m not sure if I will be able to blog during my trip, but at the very least I will be exploring these sites and sharing pictures upon my return in a couple of weeks.