For the past year or two I have developed a keen interest in Byzantium. For 800 years it shielded Europe’s eastern flank from the Arabs and Turks, even though much of its time was also spent battling Bulgars, Slavs, Venetians, and Normans to its west. Warts and all, Byzantium is perhaps the closest parallel to Gondor, a buffer for Western Middle Earth against Mordor’s incursions. Byzantium survives today in Eastern Orthodoxy and modern Greece, where most of its descendants ended up after mass emigrations stemming from failed Greek excursions into Anatolia (nee Asia Minor, now the Asian portion of Turkey) after the first world war.
We recently visited Greece (more on that, perhaps, at a later time), and I had a long conversation with an Athenian cab driver who burned on the topic. Istanbul is Constantinople! The Turks are squatters! This nice man refuses to visit Hagia Sofia, burning with indignation that the Turks use it as a museum. “Better a museum than a mosque,” I said, to which he grudgingly assented. After he claimed Antioch for Greece — in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border — I said, “Well then don’t you want all of Anatolia?” No, he replied, just areas important to Eastern Orthodoxy. We didn’t get into what those lands were, but presumably the western lands of the seven churches of the Revelation, roughly those areas remaining after the 11th-century debacle at Manzikert. Ask any Greek, he said, and see if they do not agree. A few other Athenians I asked offered similar opinions.
All of which leads to something I have been thinking about lately: the ceaseless movement of Christianity. The church started in Palestine, but today not many Christians live there. Asia Minor was perhaps the great focus of early church history, yet now Turkey is 99% Muslim. The sites of the great early councils are ruins overseen by the Turks. All of the great ancient Eastern sees have long since fallen to unbelievers; few Christians remain in any of them. Rome solidified its denial of the Gospel at Trent. Europe was once the bastion of Christianity but now appears to be in a long spiritual decline. For a century America has been ascendant in its influence, but Christianity is spreading now into Africa, China, even India, and we see so many signs of evangelical degeneracy in the states (typified by the church growth movement). And so Christianity is not an American birthright. It seems as if the church has always been here and always will be, but so it probably seemed at Ephesus and Antioch and a thousand other cities. Short of repentance the American church may one day be under the boot of pagans and persecutors as the Holy Spirit moves on to other lands. Thanks be to God that we still have faithful churches here. It should never be taken for granted.