It's likely that you have heard of Carl Trueman's most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, which was published by Crossway in November of 2020. It has been included in multiple "Best Books of 2020" lists and you can find no shortage of podcasts interviewing Carl about the book. I thought the guys at Mere Fidelity did a particularly good job discussing the book with him, and you can find that here.
As someone who has found Trueman's work helpful over the years, I was particularly excited about this book. In fact, I pre-ordered it back in March of 2020 when I first heard about it (you're welcome Carl). Once it arrived, I devoured it. The book tells a fascinating narrative, and the core of the argument couldn't be more timely.
The folks who oversee the blog here asked me to review it, and I must admit, I feel like they've asked the backup guitarist in the church worship band to critique the riffs of Eddie Van Halen. I am a normal pastor without any formal training in philosophy or sociology, but I benefited immensely from this book and I am confident you will too.
I have two goals with this review. First, I want to clearly set out the argument and flow of the book, which are quite easy to follow. And second, I want to convince you—the normal pastor or committed lay person—why you should spend time reading it. There are multiple reviews of Trueman's book out there written by scholars, and these are important, but I'd hate to see Trueman's book ignored by pastors and lay people. It's somewhat understandable for people to be intimidated. At over 400 pages of intense philosophical and cultural analysis, it's easy to think your time will be better spent elsewhere, or that you just aren't up to the task. I get it. If you are a pastor you probably have a stack of books sitting there on a variety of subjects that all demand your attention. However, the time investment you make with The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will sharpen you in a variety of ways and will help you think more clearly and understand our current cultural moment in a more astute way.
The Argument of the Book
Trueman begins the introduction by giving us the precise reason for this book. He says, “The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’” (19) Of course, that statement comes as the culmination of broader changes in sexual mores over the last 60 years. Trueman’s conviction is that we can’t begin to understand the changes in culture that make that sentence coherent by simply going back to the 1960’s. Deeper shifts have taken place over the past 400 years that have brought us to this moment. In a sense, Trueman is exposing the tectonic plates and letting us see just how badly the ground underneath our feet has tilted. He explains, “The changes we have witnessed in the content and significance of sexual codes since the 1960’s are symptomatic of deeper changes in how we think of the purpose of life, the meaning of happiness, and what actually constitutes people’s sense of why they are and what they are for” (23).
So, what are these changes? To answer that question Trueman gives us a fascinating historical narrative, which is one of the reasons this book is quite readable, even with its length and subject matter. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self doesn’t unfold as an abstract philosophical argument. Instead, it flows as a story. To prepare us for this story, in part 1, Trueman spends a few chapters unpacking key ideas in the writings of three important philosophers: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair Macintyre. Grasping these ideas is like being given the tools necessary to build a house. You can attempt to understand our cultural moment without them, but you won’t get very far without the proper tools.
In part 2 the narrative begins to unfold and continues through part 3. The overall flow of this story stretches back some 400 years and can be summarized in 3 major movements that are all deeply connected. First, the understanding of the self became primarily internalized or psychologized. In other words, how we think and feel defines us. Second, psychologized man became sexualized as sexuality became the defining part of his identity. Finally, since inner categories now determine identity, and sexuality is the most important feature of human identity, the "politization" of human sexual identity became necessary for true liberation of one’s inner self. In other words, if the real you is found in how you feel, and your sexual feelings are that you are a man trapped in a woman’s body, then the only way to give you true freedom is to use political power to force society to give you the chance to live out your inner sexual identity.
What’s so unnerving about this narrative describing the shift in our understanding of the self is that the vast majority of people have no idea it has taken place. We are swimming in the cultural water where the self has been psychologized, sexualized, and politicized, and we have no idea what water even is. It’s highly doubtful that the entertainers and politicians spouting cliches about “the real you” and supporting transgender rights have ever read Jean Jacque Rosseau or Sigmund Freud. Yet, they live and breathe expressive individualism and sexual identity politics because this slow-moving revolution has been thoroughly successful and run over everything in its path. In part 4 Trueman spends three chapters showing the connections between the philosophical underpinnings of these changes and the popular expressions of them.
Why You Should Read It
I hope by this point that you, the normal and quite busy pastor, have already opened another tab on your browser and ordered a copy of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. But if, by chance, you have not been so moved, I’d like to give you three reasons to devote the time necessary to explore this work.
First, I would imagine that at one time or another we have all asked the question that led Trueman to write this book. How in the world did our culture get to the point where the statement, “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” makes logical sense? The changes have happened so fast that we can easily become disoriented. But if you have ever been confused, frustrated, or exasperated by the strange logic at work in our culture, this book will at least give you categories to make sense of what is happening.
Second, the revolution Trueman describes in this book has been so comprehensive that we cannot just ignore it. I just opened my browser to a major news outlet and found this headline: “Three Dads, a Baby and the Legal Battle to Get Their Names Added to the Birth Certificate.” By now most Christians know that the Equality Act has once again been passed by the House of Representatives and will at some point find its way to the Senate. People in your church have family members, coworkers, and friends who identify as LGBT and who speak and act in line with expressive individualism and sexual identity politics. How will you shepherd your church members to love and care for those people in an effective way? As leaders in God’s church, we have to help our people to be able to give an answer for the hope in them (1 Peter 3:15), and this book will equip you to do that.
Finally, read this book, not just to arm yourself to deal with transgender issues, but because the root causes of this revolution have impacted the church more than we realize. As Trueman puts it, “Yet here is the rub: the LGBTQ+ community is only one example of that revolution in selfhood, albeit perhaps the most vocal and influential. The problem is that we are all part of that revolution and there is no way to avoid it” (385). Expressive individualism is the order of the day, even for many Christians. The root issues that Trueman describes are not just problems with those people out there. We have often been carried along by worldliness in our thinking, and this book provides a fresh perspective aimed at helping us be the church in a more faithful way.