Why is it totally normal for someone to say “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body” today, but a generation ago everyone would know it’s crazy? Dr. Carl Trueman wrote The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution to answer.
Trueman’s book is historical and it is philosophical. It’s also pretty thick at over 400 pages. Dr. Bruce Ashford calls it “perhaps the most significant analysis and evaluation of Western culture written by a Protestant during the past fifty years.” And if you see the rate and the degree that the ground in Western culture is shifting underneath our feet as it relates to sexuality and the self, you’ll realize how important it is.
In the book, Trueman interacts with sociologists like Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre to describe the philosophical influence men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzche, and Sigmund Freud have had (and still have) on modern thought and the conception of the self, sometimes described as expressive individualism.
Essentially, Trueman looks at the roots of of modern thought prevailing in western civilization, coming about in three major moves: 1) The Psychologizing of the Self, 2) The Sexualizing of Psychology, 3) The Politicizing of Sex. The book isn’t meant to fight the thinking it describes or lament it, but rather describe it in a detailed way that even radicals would agree with. (Trueman said in at least one interview that he wants to be called a bigot by radicals, because that would mean they can’t argue against his analysis and can only resort to name-calling.)
I won’t summarize more of the book at this point (I will point you to these lectures or this interview by Trueman for a taste), but I will share a few random takeaways and thoughts before I share my recommendation:
- So much of radical progressivism (what Rieff calls “third-world”) seeks utopia by destroying all traditions and institutions that have come before it, thus creating an “anti-culture.” (Think of people who protest against statues of Abraham Lincoln.) What future can anti-culture thinking lead to? Not a good one.
- Many Christians see sexuality as a behavioral issue, whereas today’s zeitgeist calls it an identity issue. In the eyes of culture, we cannot merely say we love the sinner hate the sin, we must embrace someone’s self-proclaimed identity or else we reject their truest selves. Scripture says otherwise.
- A thought I had while reading: it is dehumanizing to distill someone’s entire being to their sexuality. God made us whole people in His image, and the thought that we are defined by our (sinful) sexual proclivities treats ourselves more like biological animals than divine image bearers.
- Learning that the purpose of much surrealist art was “to overthrow Christianity (and its corollaries—families and moral codes governing sexual behavior” made me realize just how much art and entertainment subtly influence us toward soul-destroying ideas and behaviors. Oh, be careful, little eyes, what you see…
I get now why The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self has created so much buzz. Trueman explains with much research and insight how the foundational beliefs of society have shifted over the past few hundred years. (I also get why Trueman is working on an abridged version, 400 pages is a lot, and the first 100+ pages were a slog for me!) Even so, this is a seminal work that will stir more writing and discussion for years to come. If you’re a pastor or Christian leader, you need to read this to understand our times.
One thought I had after reading the book that others also have shared with me is: Wow, what happened is interesting and sad, but what do I do about it? Trueman offers a few thoughts at the end, and although they’re helpful, many readers will want more. If you’re looking to be pastored through the challenges, self-centeredness, anger, and anti-Christian tilt of our culture, let me also recommend Stephen MacAlpine’s Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t. MacAlpine’s book is much shorter, more pastoral, and very practical. He also introduces ideas of many of the same thinkers (modern day and historical) as Trueman but with great brevity, so you’ll get the same spiritual benefit (or more) in a third of the size.
Update: Here’s the cover for the abridgment that comes out in February 2022.