John 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.