Wheaton: Crossway, 2020

In recent years, there have been sweeping changes in the way personal identity, sexuality and politics have been thought about in Western culture. What was considered common sense just several years ago is now considered as intolerable heresy and injurious. For those who live and move in conservative circles, these changes can appear as something new and different. Neither do these changes make much sense from conservative frameworks of thinking. In his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl R. Trueman shows that these developments are neither new or different. Instead, these developments are part of a philosophical trajectory extending back to the 18th century.

Trueman is an established scholar who has applied his academic disciplines to his topic. While other academics will gain much from his work, there will be plenty of benefits for those who are careful in their thinking. It is also important to note, as Trueman states in the book, that he is not offering a lament or a polemic against these developments in Western culture. In fact, it’s not until the final chapter that Trueman gives a Christian response to all that’s been observed and said. Instead, he merely seeks to explain in a dispassionate way how these developments have come about. Some may find this approach frustrating. However, this is the main strength of the book as it allows the reader to appreciate how progressives and the New Left are thinking – and may it be known that at least some of them are thinking! Trueman’s book may even help progressive thinking people understand their own worldview better.

Trueman begins with the 18th century romantic philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who turned against the demands of conforming to his society and towards realising the inner self as being the key to authentic personhood. This central idea was developed further by the romantic philosophers who came after him. Trueman then shows how this emphasis on the inner self was encouraged by thinkers such as Nietzche, Marx and Darwin in the 19th century who destabilised the influence of external authority even further. In the 20th century, the inner self was given a greater emphasis by Freud who identified sexuality as being the essence of being human. Thinkers after Freud applied Marx’s ideas of economic class struggle to social categories and identified sexual minorities as those who were oppressed by the heterosexual majority. This in turn has led to the politicisation of sexuality. As a consequence, the realisation of the inner self is now placed in therapeutic terms, even within legal systems.

Having set up the overall framework, Trueman then considers the apparent cohesion between the different categories of the LGBT+ movement. He observes that the sections differ in their view of biology, femininity, and psychology. In this, the issue of transgenderism poses particular challenges to the older categories. Commonality in opposing heteronormativity is the only issue unifying the different categories. Trueman anticipates that should heteronormativity be defeated it is unlikely that the LGBT+ coalition will continue to exist in its present form.

The list of possible futures in the last chapter is helpful in providing what can be expected in moving forward. This may help lower the anxiety of conservatives trying to understand these cultural developments. However, some may find Trueman’s insights on how the church can respond in the present time a little underwhelming. His insights is made up of three points: 1) Not to be caught up with expressive individualism. 2) To be a community over and against pursuing individualism. 3) To have a high view of the human body. While these points may be crucial for the church to maintain its integrity and witness, as a reader I wanted to know how to engage with the progressive dialogue effectively. Trueman does not answer this, and perhaps there is no answer – which would explain why Trueman ended his book as he has.

In any event, Trueman has provided a foundational work for engaging with the current developments in Western culture. Collin Hanson from the Gospel Coalition states regarding Trueman’s book, “This is my pick for the most important book published in 2020” – which, to my mind, is a most agreeable statement! If ministry leaders are going to engage effectively with the current cultural developments, they need to have an understanding of the thinking behind these developments. Trueman’s book provides a framework for doing just that.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

Carl R. Trueman | Reformers Bookshop

Available at Reformers Bookshop

1 Comment »