The western world is dying?

John CarrollJohn Carroll is Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a secular humanist. He believes secular humanism has failed western society and he has something useful to say to believers about how we communicate to postmodern people.

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 had concluded that the secular west has so concentrated on the functional that we have lost our sense of purpose, which we find 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 prevalence and causes of 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. Historians would generally disagree with his scant regard for the historical facts in his interpretation of the story of Jesus. Believers who, like me, build their faith on the same historical facts, may well find his writing hard to stomach.

Nevertheless I find three things interesting and worth considering 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.”

All three of these aspects seem to me to offer insights into communicating the good news of Jesus to those around us. Many people already recognise that our culture has lost its spiritual values and lost its way. Many are willing to look at and even admire the life of Jesus.

And the greatest drawcard we have (if we have forgotten it) is Jesus. His story, told with meaning, may be far more attractive than all the doctrines we hold about him, true as they may be. We shall look at this some more.

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4 thoughts on “The western world is dying?

  1. I have read the bible cover to cover – twice, and on a fairly regular basis read selected exerpts that I have pencilled. I add more notes as my research continues.
    I have NEVER been spiritualy moved to consider the story anything but that: A story.
    At the beginning of my research ( which was merely for curiosity’s sake) and in my naivity I even wrote a small book, titled, Oh, For God’s Sake,- How religion hijacked the world.- believing what I had discoverd to be ‘earth shattering’
    I truly could not accept that anyone could actually swallow all this hogwash. Much to my chagrin, many hundreds of people had already arrived at this conclusion and the literature bears testament to this.
    Ongoing investigation (as much as I am capable of anyway) of extra biblical literature, Josephus, Tacitus, Senneca etc has revealed nothing that would alter this belief. In fact, more study merely convinces me what I first believed after an investigation of Moses (which is amost a contradiction of terms considering the parsimoneous amount of information there is) – something that most honest scholars have known for years. It is a story with almost no historical veracity.
    Personal tales ( like Nate’s) add to this, but also add the emotional & traumatic aspects that I had not encountered before – or expected to be honest.
    It revealed a whole new ball game – the insideous indoctrination of certain aspects of Christianity that are similar to Islam, that strip away the ‘self’.

    The more one looks at the gospels with a truly open mind, apply the same
    critiques as you would any historical work then the more it reveals itself to be a story. And a poor one at that considering all the contradictions an erroneous claims.
    If one is able to extract anything of moral value that makes you feel and behave as a better person, then great.
    But the supernatural core, and the insistance that failure to adhere to certain Christian Creeds will result in eternal damnation is utter nonsense and is a damning indictment on religion in general, especially when this heinous diatribe is foistered on children as ‘truth’.


  2. “The more one looks at the gospels with a truly open mind, apply the same
    critiques as you would any historical work then the more it reveals itself to be a story.”

    Thanks for your comments. I won’t take them further here, because this post was simply about the gospels as stories, whether true ones or false ones. But for all your continued bald negative statements about the gospels, your conclusions about their truth are simply opinions, same as mine. And opinions which you refuse to base on the conclusions of the best historians. So I will happily continue to believe both the historians and the gospel writers.


  3. Which is pretty much what I have said all along.
    Your belief is objective providing it incorporates the supernatural elements of your faith.
    I have never sought to impugn your personal right to believe whatever you like.

    The best historians?
    I flatly disregard ANY and EVERY historian who might have the slighted Christian agenda, as you would a Muslim historian trying to convince you of the veracity of the Qu’ran – and rightly so, I might add.

    Other than that, I generally have few problems…

    I merely challenge the claims of veracity. And as such claims vary from the literal acceptance of the bible to the liberal it merely hammers home the point that truth is whatever you want it to be. Ask Nate. He was lied to for years.
    But people are not entitled to their own facts.


  4. “I flatly disregard ANY and EVERY historian who might have the slighted Christian agenda, as you would a Muslim historian trying to convince you of the veracity of the Qu’ran – and rightly so, I might add.”

    1. I would not object to a Muslim historian who did genuine historical study, just as I don’t object to atheists or Jews, and use them all the time – for example, Grant, Casey, Ehrman, Sanders. You are the one refusing to accept the conclusions of the experts.

    2. It is doubly hypocritical of you to make these comments because you don’t even accept the conclusions of historians with no christian agenda, you reject those who don’t give you the conclusions you have already decided must be right.

    “But people are not entitled to their own facts.”

    And so, sadly, you don’t live up to your own dictum.


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