ATHENS - When the apostle Paul came to this city almost 2,000 years ago, he immediately perceived that Athenians were enormously religious. Olympic guests this month will see honor paid to the gods of sport but heavy tribute to the gods of terrorism: The city is getting spruced up but the biggest expense is security, and with checkpoints galore traffic congestion is multiplying.
Greece made a $7.5 billion bet that hosting the games would revive its tourist industry in the face of growing competition from Turkey and Spain. Now, though, visitor numbers seem likely to fall a bit, not rise: Greeks are blaming poor marketing but most of all terror about terror, as visitors hesitate to spend big bucks for the possibility of witnessing or participating in a nightmare.
The low demand for tickets is made worse by the many barrels of euros shoveled into building projects with a life expectancy of two weeks. That goes hard in a country with long-shelf-life treasures like the 3,000-year-old gate at Agamemnon's Mycenae.
The Athenian architectural marvel that has lasted almost as long is the stunning Parthenon. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, it sits on the rocky Acropolis, for centuries the most important religious center of Athens. When the Persians seized the city in 479 b.c., they destroyed an existing Parthenon and other Acropolis buildings, but Athenians drove out the Persians the following year. Three decades later, under the leadership of the famous Pericles, they voted for a rebuilding program and designated their top artist, Phidias, to direct the work.
Through the kindness of friends I've had the opportunity to travel in the past couple of years to some exotic places in Asia and Latin America, but nowhere have I seen anything more beautiful than the Parthenon, so I hope television coverage beginning next week does it justice. Architects and mathematicians still marvel at the optical refinements that brought to the building the illusion of perfection. Every aspect of the Parthenon was built on a 9:4 ratio to give the temple an ideal symmetry. The sculptors counteracted the laws of perspective by making each column lean inward slightly and bulge slightly in the middle; the base of the temple is higher in the middle than at the edges.
Up close the Parthenon shows its enormous age and hard life but is still enormously impressive. Its worst moment came in 1687 when soldiers from Venice, trying to wrest Athens from the occupying Turks, bombarded the building then in use as (of all the dumb things) an arsenal. An ensuing explosion demolished the temple's roof and inner structure, along with 14 of the outer columns. The second-worst moment was in 1801-03 when Britain's Lord Elgin made a deal with the Turks and shipped home most of the temple's elegant friezes.
That acquisition is still controversial-the Greeks, having lost their marbles, want them returned-and the meaning of the friezes perhaps should be. The standard view of them is that, like much of Greek mythology, they represent a sophisticated form of ancestor worship that makes man the measure of all things. Robert Bowie Johnson Jr. goes beyond such explanations in The Parthenon Code (Solving Light Books, 2004). He interestingly contends that the Greeks built the Parthenon to glorify the serpent-worshipping Eve of Genesis, aka Athena, and to demonstrate their opposition to Noah and his God.
The book contains errors and I'm journalistically skeptical about the thesis, but evaluating its core is beyond me and I think it's worth considering. I do see that snakes, for some reason, figured significantly in Greek mythology, as in Cambodian. The museum next to the Parthenon has a sculpture from the earlier temple: a group of three male figures, human from head to waist and snake from the waist down. Curators also identify another 6th-century b.c. sculpture as perhaps coming from the earlier Parthenon: That one displays two huge limestone snakes, their bodies rippling and coiling as they advance with raised heads and open jaws.
Whatever the murky serpentine significance, what gives me pause (and confidence in God's common grace) is that pagans could create such beauty. Without lessening in the slightest our commitment to evangelism, it's vital to remember that non-Christians can create great art, and that in criticizing it we should not throw out babies with stinking bathwater. That's something to remember also as we watch Olympic events in which wondrously talented creatures do not give thanks to their Creator-and we should praise God for those that do.