Holy Week, Countercultural

Holy Week runs against the grain of culture, as it did from the start. The classical world, for instance, considered Christianity to be upstart foolishness. Now, many call it “outdated.” The Church however is  untroubled by such criticisms for it is self-consciously countercultural, concerned instead with fidelity to the gospel.

The words of English non-conformist preacher John Angell James (1785 – 1859) are meant to embarrass any pastor made craven by the culture. He spoke in a day when modernism was budding; his words hold strong in the postmodern era.

“It should never be forgotten that the time when the apostles discharged their ministry was only just after the Augustan era of the ancient world. Poetry had recently bestowed on the lettered world the works of Virgil and Horace. The light of philosophy, though waning, still shed its luster over Greece. The arts still exhibited their most splendid creations, though they had ceased to advance. It was at such a time, and amidst such scenes, the gospel began its course. The voices of the apostles were listened to by sages who had basked in the sunshine of Athenian wisdom, and were reverberated in startling echo from temples and statues that had been shaken by the thunders of Cicero and Demosthenes; yet they conceded nothing to the demands of philosophy, but held forth the cross as the only object they felt they had a right to exhibit. They never once entertained the degrading notion that they must accommodate themselves to the philosophy or the taste of the age in which they lived, and the places where they ministered . . .

Whether the apostle addressed himself to the philosophers on Mars Hill, or to the barbarians on the island of Melita; whether he reasoned with the Jews in their synagogues, or with the Greeks in the school of Tyrannus, he had but one theme, and that was Christ, and him crucified. And what right, or what reason have we for deviating from this high and imperative example? Be it so, that we live in a literary, philosophic, and scientific age, what then? Is it an age that has outlived the need of the gospel for its salvation; or for the salvation of which any thing else can suffice but the gospel? The supposition that something else than pure Christianity, as the theme of our pulpit ministrations, is requisite for such a period as this, or that it must be presented in philosophic guise, appears to me a most perilous sentiment, as being a disparagement to the gospel itself, a daring assumption of wisdom superior to God’s, and containing the germ of infidelity.1”

PS. You may be wondering why I’ve chosen Jerome’s picture for this post. It is because he is a terrific example, in my humble opinion, of someone who grasped this truth. You’ll recall Jerome’s story about a dream in which he was brought before the great judge. Asked who he was, he answered that he was a Christian. "You lie," said the judge, "you are a Ciceronian. Where your treasure is, there is your heart." From that day forward, Jerome resolved never again to covet the literary works he had loved so well, but to devote himself to Scripture. This is the spirit of Holy Week.


1 The Founders Journal 43, Winter 2001, 24, http://www.founders.org/FJ43/article2.html. Quoting from John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (1847; reprinted in Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 69-73

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