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Ego & Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning

Scribe. (revised edition 2008)
RRP $35.00

At a time when there is widespread pessimism among social commentators about the driving materialistic influences in modern life, it is stimulating to read in Ego & Soul an Australian sociologist’s perspective on ordinary life which asserts that most people are still struggling to find some overarching meaning in life.

John Carroll, professor of sociology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, believes that, properly explored, the everyday pursuits of ordinary people reveal this ongoing search for meaning; the quest to answer three fundamental metaphysical questions: ‘Where do I come from?’ ‘What should I do with my life’, and ‘What happens to me at death?’

In this heavily revised and updated edition of Ego & Soul first published ten years ago, Carroll examines some of the core interests and activities that shape the lives of contemporary people in western society.

In Part One, entitled “Battlegrounds”, Carroll explores four broad areas: work, sport, love and lower-middle-class culture. In Part Two “Nihilism and Consumerism” he examines self-hatred in high culture, the modern university, shopping and tourism.

Part Three of Ego & Soul addresses what Carroll calls “New Dynamism”: democracy, the motor car, the do-it-yourself home, the personal computer and nature. In the final section Carroll reflects on the future in two new chapters: “The Nightmare – if it all goes wrong” and “Resilience”.

The conclusions and insights in Ego & Soul will no doubt surprise, delight and dismay many readers. For example, Carroll believes that modernity is culturally Protestant and that there is a Calvinist logic still relentlessly driving and shaping society in ways which were neither intended by the Reformers nor which are welcomed by most churches today.

It is the Reformation emphases on individual conscience, worldly vocation, and the presence of God in the ordinary things of the world that have emptied the churches.

And yet, says Carroll, contemporary people continue to yearn for the experience of graced moments from beyond themselves. They seek such hoped for moments through central life activities, particularly work, which they are willing to pursue with their whole hearts and minds. The workplace, even more than family life, suggests Carroll, has become the new church.

Consumerism is ‘as much a pained consolation for the failed dream’ of living out a vocation, as it is the uncomplicated pleasure of someone who has laboured hard.

Sport, suggests Carroll, cannot be dismissed as just a vulgar circus for the masses. It functions for many as a context for the expression of such age-old values as trust, courage and heroic selflessness for the sake of the team or even for the sheer joy of living and doing one’s best when there is no hope of external success or reward.

Ego & Soul provides a stimulating opportunity for us to reflect deeply upon the ways ordinary people are seeking to ‘find traces of coherence’ in their lives in a time of rapid change and cultural uncertainty.

I was compelled, as a Christian, to consider more prayerfully how the Spirit of God may be at work in people’s lives, and to ponder how God’s good news in Christ might be spoken afresh into the hearts and minds of people struggling against the sense of futility that threatens to overwhelm them.

Reviewed by Rev Jenny Tymms Mission Consultant (Discipleship, Formation and Spirituality) for the Queensland Synod.