Trip Gives Students Cultural Context for Paul’s Preaching

CHICAGO (February 10, 2014) — There are three ideal spots onstage at the Greek amphitheater in Epidaurus. It is one of the best-preserved theaters, built in the fourth century B.C., and its pitch-perfect acoustics have not been replicated with modern technology.

A group of North Park Theological Seminary students and faculty traveled to the amphitheater last month and spread out in the audience around circular stone bench seats.

The tour guide asked if anyone wanted to sing, hoping to show off the acoustics of the theater. The class immediately volunteered three people, including Nilwona Nowlin, a North Park Seminary dual-degree student who will earn her master of arts degree in Christian formation and master’s of nonprofit administration in May. Nowlin hesitated as she had a cold, but finally gave in, and stepped to one of the three perfect spots and sang a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

“Normally when you sing on a stage you have to think about projecting and all of the muscles that go into it,” Nowlin said, “but I didn’t have to force anything and people all the way in the back could hear clearly.”

One of the people in the back was Nowlin’s teacher, Max Lee, associate professor of New Testament. “We were stunned about how advanced they were back then in terms of technology, and it made the ancient world that much more real. It made the world of Acts come alive,” he said.

From January 3 through 11, Nowlin and Lee, along with 15 students and two additional faculty members from the seminary, traveled there for a Greece and Early Christianity course. It was a collaboration with the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches (IFFEC). Joining North Park were 16 international participants from IFFEC schools in Sweden, Norway, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, China, and Brazil.

The group gathered at night for worship and prayer led by Carol Noren, North Park’s Wesley Nelson professor of homiletics. “We heard the challenges the churches are having, and had a renewed sense of communion among the diverse group,” she said.

Students prepared for the trip with a series of readings on Greco-Roman history, religion, and culture, as well as study of Acts and Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The Greek Bible Institute in Athens hosted the group, who stayed in dorms and spent the first day in seminars preparing for the week.

But most of the trip was reserved for traveling around to significant sites in early Christianity, including the Roman Forum in Athens, the Parthenon and Acropolis, Epidaurus, Naflplion, Delphi, and Corinth.

One of the first sites the group visited was Areopagus, known to many as Mars Hill, the site where Paul delivered a sermon to the Stoics and Epicureans recorded in Acts 17. Klyne Snodgrass, North Park’s Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies, asked a student to read the sermon aloud.

They heard the words of Paul, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.” In the background stood the Parthenon, the impressive Greek temple and center of Athenian worship.

“It was a really great moment for all of us when we could see the Parthenon,” Lee said. “We could see the temple of Nike, and here we could see with our mind’s eye Paul pointing directly to the temple and saying: ‘God does not live in shrines made by human hands.’ ”

“I didn’t get these kinds of opportunities growing up,” Nowlin said. “Experiencing these kinds of things allows me to take these stories back to my community and encourage young people to want to do these kind of things and want to travel and experience other parts of the world.”

Lee said the seminary’s commitment to developing women and men as faithful ministers of the gospel is enhanced through travel learning. Yearly trips around the world to places like South America, Europe, and the Middle East allow students to experience a variety of cultures and engage Scripture and theology from new perspectives.

“A lot of what people experience most of the time in seminary is very cognitive,” said Lee, who blogged about the trip. “They read, they go to class, and that is a tremendous way to learn. But sometimes there are insights born from being there that cannot be born from just being in the classroom.”

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