Wednesday, May 25, 2011

dying for a story?

John Carroll is an interesting man. He is Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a secular humanist who believes secular humanism has failed us. He has spent a lot of time reading the Bible and seeking to learn from it. He's even telling the church how it can improve its message to postmodern people.

What's going on?

A decade ago Carroll published The western dreaming : the western world is dying for want of a story, an evocative title for a book which argued that "the spirit of the western world cannot survive without stories". He has concluded that our secular western societies have so concentrated on the functional that we have lost our sense of purpose, which comes (he believes) through deep and meaningful stories rather than science and technology.

Then in 2004, Carroll produced The Wreck of Western Culture:Humanism Revisited, arguing that western culture has jettisoned the belief that the human race can find redemption through God, but "in seeking to remake themselves in their own imperfect image, the people of the West have lost their soul". In this he is outlining an diagnosis that his colleague, David Tacey spells out in detail in his analysis of the medical and psychological illnesses in western society.

In 2007's The Existential Jesus, Carroll took his analysis of the importance of story a step further. In a somewhat fanciful (some critics said) analysis of the Gospel of Mark, Carroll tries to show how the story of Jesus functions as a foundational myth for our western culture. It's not that he doesn't believe the gospel story is historical (it seems that at some level at least he recognises that it is), but that he can ignore questions of historicity because it is its power as a story that he finds important. Most critics found this book inconsistent, unhistorical and illogical in places, but all agreed it said some worthwhile things.

I find three things interesting in all this.

  1. Carroll is, as far as I can tell, a secular humanist and agnostic, yet he was part of a reading group at La Trobe university (most members were also secular humanists) that met weekly to read a chapter of the Bible, and which found Mark's gospel the most dynamic of all the books they read.
  2. He seems to be part of a small but growing group of non-religious analysts who are pointing out that, for all the scientific, medical and technological triumphs of our age, the loss of belief in God has led to a loss of meaning and purpose and had a significant adverse impact on wellbeing.
  3. He suggests that the christian church can learn from all this. It also has "lost" the stories of Jesus and has replaced them with doctrines about Jesus, which are nowhere near as attractive: "you failed to re-tell the great story that you've been given, and .... if you manage to start re-telling this story, then you will engage with people of our times. Because this actually for the modern West, this is the great story I think."

1 comment:

  1. I was a student of Carroll's in the 90s. I think the key to inderstanding his work is that he is not producing critically precise declarative exegeses as demanded by the academy. He does not intend to for the latter is just another manfestation of what he would call humanist or socratic nihilistic reasoning. His are prescriptive rereadings in the rhetorical oracular mythos mode rather than than of logos. His undeclared inspiration here is Heidegger and Nietzsche, and also Max Weber, "Science as a Vocation", although inverting the latter's view of the role of the intellectual. My own reading of "early"Plato/Socrates sees the latter as actaully performing the same role as that of Attic tragedy; purifying excessive pride in the power of human nature and logos via logos in a sophsitic culture thoroughly sceptical of the tragic traditons of the prevoius generations. John's reading of tragedy seems to be intentionally or otrherwise oblivious to Nietzsche's employment of Aristophanes' arch conservative critique of Socrates in the Clouds. But this does not matter; the readings of Socrates such as that above are interminably contested by the specialists, John leaves this to one side in orde to "sing goddess".


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