The Byzantine Cathedral Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was built in 537AD by Emperor Justinian and remains one of the world’s most recognised and beautiful buildings. It is deservedly a Unesco World Heritage site: a museum of immense beauty and historical significance.
Although I have never had a chance to visit Istanbul and to walk inside this magnificent building, I have long dreamed of wandering along its marble floors, admiring the mosaics and being entranced by the dome above.
But this museum is no more.
I have long dreamed of wandering along its marble floors, admiring the mosaics and being entranced by the dome above. But this museum is no more.
Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, once again—symbolically ending a hundred years of irenic secularism that kept the place religiously neutral and pointing Turkey back to the era of Islamic conquest, which overran Constantinople in 1453. The first Muslim prayers will return to Hagia Sophia on July 24th.
To be clear, I am not arguing against museums being transformed into mosques. But the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque illustrates the shifting currents cultural confidence around the world in 2020.
For 3,000 years Istanbul has stood at the world’s crossroads; it is where East meets West. For millennia this ancient city has witnessed civilisations rise and fall. While Turkey is no longer considered one of the world’s great powers, its geographical location remains significant. Hagia Sophia especially symbolises the global fault lines between East and West—the tides and tensions running between Islam and cultural Christianity.
And the symbolism is not good. With this decision President Erdogan shows that he no longer cares what the West thinks. He knows what we know:
- Europe, the UK, the US and Australia are being torn apart by internal culture wars.
- Our politics are becoming increasingly divided and schismatic.
- Our public figures are running fast to the extremities of left and right.
- Cancel culture is replacing discussion with coercion.
- Good will and common ground are increasingly hard to find
- Our values are unmoored and shifting so fast that people are having trouble keeping up with the latest orthodoxy.
Westerners have dismantled their own societies more successfully than two World Wars … as in the final days of Rome, the distraction and exhaustion gives others licence to take action.
In the space of a few short years, westerners have dismantled their own societies more successfully than two World Wars. When we add a serious pandemic to the equation and the question of Climate Change, it is no wonder people are becoming anxious, depressed, and even despairing of hope itself. Internal fighting doesn’t build strong communities and resilient nations. Rather, as in the final days of Rome, the distraction and exhaustion gives others licence to take action.
Thus, rivals of the West are becoming increasingly bold. It is unlikely that China would be acting so confidently in Hong Kong had this not been the case. And, as for President Erdogan, the time is ripe for him to advance his Islamist agenda. The days of Turkey wanting to become part of the West—even the EU—seem to be past.
Meanwhile, in the West the right blames the left and the left hurls insults at the right. The reality is, in different ways, both are responsible. When we pursue wealth at the cost of principle, should we be surprised that people come to despise us? When issues of self-worth and self-identity become our fixation, should we be shocked that other relationships seem harder to maintain?
Twenty years ago the United States was esteemed by most people around the world. Today, many of her own citizens feel contempt for her and want her institutions and constitution dismantled. Australia has not faired as poorly … yet. Our lackadaisical attitude and geographical remoteness has probably saved us from some of the sharpest barbs thus far, but these ‘qualities’ are no long-term bulwark.
I don’t think we can downplay the significance of President Erdogan’s decision. Something has shifted in our historical and cultural map with the conversion of Hagia Sophia.
Our Real Need
Nevertheless, the Church is not its building. The Church is the people, the body of Christ who are covenanted to one another and who congregate in the same space for mutual edification, discipleship, and love. A church can just as successfully meet in a cathedral as it can in a community hall or family lounge room. Gospel witness will not suffer as a result of returning this once church building back into a mosque.
What is happening in Turkey should serve as a reminder for churches not to take for granted the time we have to live and serve and to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.
Christian churches, whether in Turkey, Tulsa, Tottenham, or Templestowe, must reform their ways. We need to put our trust in Christ and put our hope in his gospel once again. We desperately need to recover our conviction, our clarity, and our courage. This is not about slowing the rot in the West, but pointing people to the only certain hope there is.
Christian churches, whether in Turkey, Tulsa, Tottenham, or Templestowe, must reform their ways. We need to put our trust in Christ and put our hope in his gospel once again.
Churches are too often complicate in cultural syncretism and spiritual apostasy. When churches find themselves too close to the halls of power, the temptation to accommodate is strong. Other churches are desperate to find their place and so will sacrifice almost anything for acceptance.
The historian Tom Holland, who isn’t a Christian, has made this interesting observation about English churches (and the same could be said of Churches here in Australia):
I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that … if they’ve got views on original sin, I would be very interested to hear that.
Whether it is claiming that President Trump is God’s ordained man or suggesting he is the Antichrist. Whether it’s worshipping unfettered capitalism or preaching the gospel of progressivism, too often churches have sold their soul—betrayed Christ and become weak and insipid shells. Much repentance is required … And much praise for the churches that remain faithful in word and deed. They are precious to God and are wonderful outposts to eternal things.
Kingdoms come and go. Superpowers are made and they fade or are destroyed. It has always been the case. Buildings are created and they too eventually decay and crumble. According to Jesus Christ, the one entity that will last is his Church:
I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18).
First published at murraycampbell.net