Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Wreck of Western Culture

John Carroll's The Wreck of Western Culture was published in 2004. In it, he traced out the progress of modern thought through art, and the corresponding erosion of the spiritual and moral imagination of the West. The cover illustration is a reproduction of Holbein's The Two Ambassadors, featuring a distorted skull floating ominously in the foreground, hinting at the failure of a purely human culture to address the spectre of mortality.

Carroll's book is a profound analysis, and full of insights into the role of culture in our spiritual and moral lives. The occasional unevenness of the arguments is probably inevitable since he covers an enormous territory.

Carroll isn't a Christian, but he finds himself in the same awkward place as Oriana Fallaci: he doesn't believe, but sees no alternative to belief if we are to remain human. His lack of Christian faith makes the whole subject problematic for him, because he clearly sees the damage that modern metaphysics has done to our spiritual and moral imagination.

Carroll's point about 'stories' and their power to stimulate or erode moral and spiritual imagination is crucial. I just finished reading Vigen Guroian's Rallying the Really Human Things, and Guroian makes a similar point in his essay on Russell Kirk.

This is the Age of Stories now. The Age of Argument is gone. How many times have we heard a member of Parliament weigh up the pros and cons of, say, embryonic stem cell research, only to fall back onto a story about a relative who died painfully, and conclude that the research must proceed, irrespective of any arguments. The story carries conviction, the arguments do not.

Doctrine still matters, now more than ever. But as James Schall has said many times, Catholicism has never been so intellectually coherent as it is today, yet it has never been so culturally marginal. More is required than argument and doctrine.

Chesterton once wrote that if we discovered an ancient legend of a god who died for men, people would immediately sit up and say "what a beautiful story that must be". Yet somehow, Christians have allowed that story to become something hateful and burdensome.

The New Evangelisation is therefore, first and foremost, a recovery of the story of Christ, the most compelling and beautiful story ever told. That story will be best told, not in words, but in the way we live our lives. And it will be no less compelling and beautiful for being true.

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