The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman – Book Review

Dr. Carl Trueman’s book, which was released late last year, arrives at a particularly relevant time with the culture wars raging more every day. When Christians look around and see some of the trends in society, there is definitely a temptation to feel discouraged. In fact, I often hear Christians lamenting the state of society and expressing deep concern over the world they find themselves in.

This book is one of the most thorough examinations of the changes we see in society and the contributing factors that helped define our modern world. The subtitle of the book is “Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” This hints at where the clues will be found as he searches back through history. The modern sexual revolution and especially the movement towards the current expression of transgenderism and LGBQT rights didn’t just happen in the last 60 years, but have their roots in many different influences.

“Every historical phenomenon is the result of a wide variety of factors that can vary from the technological to the political to the philosophical”

The author begins with an examination of philosophy and how some of the thoughts and ideology expressed by Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre contributed to the ideal of selfhood and social imagery, which are so common in our society today. This includes the disturbing trend we see today that moral truth is more of an expression of emotional preference than anything else. Some of these ideas were very influential in varying fields.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, we see a shift of focus to the inner life of the individual. He cites specific examples from literature of authors who saw society as oppressive and especially societal Christian norms such as lifelong, monogamous marriage. The viewpoints of men like Nietzsche and Marx were built on this and they, along with Charles Darwin, dismissed any significance that human life could have, especially in the spiritual domain. Nietzsche and Marx especially were influential in the modern view of history as oppression and victims as the true heroes of the world’s story.

From there, the author looks at the rise of the modern psychological study movement and specifically the work of Freud and Jung. This movement legitimized the pursuit of sexual desires in whatever form they might occur. Some Marxist thinkers, such as Reich and Marcuse would make use of this in their own political movements. All of this comes together to support the sexual revolution of the last 60 years. The prominence of which is expressed in a number of troubling ways, including the role of eroticism and pornography in addition to the push towards sexual freedom in lifestyle practice.

While this book is not an easy read for someone who doesn’t already have a background in the fields discussed, it is an important work for helping modern pastors, ministers and Christians understand more about the world they live in and the influences that shaped it. As a teaser to entice you to want to read the book, here are a few pull quotes to help you see some of the insights.

In a world in which the self is constructed psychologically and in which the therapeutic is the ethical ideal, we should therefore expect the notion of good and bad, to change accordingly…In such a context, freedom of speech becomes not so much part of the solution as part of the problem. Liberal democracies have long assumed that the free exchange of ideas in society is a means of preventing totalitarianism and promoting the common good. In the world of psychological man, however, it serves rather to give legal protection to (verbal) assaults on the person.

Thus, speech seen as violence will become the norm and society will start to restrict free speech more and more in order to defend individual freedom, especially sexual freedom. Individuals have the freedom to define “hate speech” according to their own definition of selfhood and tolerance in general is seen as more of a tool of an oppressive society, so censorship is seen as a greater moral good. The author gives examples of conflicts over free speech on university campuses where the students express their thinking in the following way:

…enemies are those who ‘devalue our experiences’. This is the language of subjective emotions, expressive individualism, and the therapeutic ideal that society has been cultivating. It also renders reason irrelevant until people are attuned to the proper emotions

If you have ever looked at some of these conflicts and found them to be incredulous, you are probably operating from a completely different worldview from the students making the complaints. In their reality, emotions trump reason.

For transgenderism to be coherent, the society in which it occurs needs to place a decisive priority on the psychological over the physical in determining identity. For it to be coherent also involves a correlative downplaying of external authority, whether that of the person’s biology or of traditional expectations.

Removing gender and traditional viewpoints and societal norms is a necessary step in accomplishing their goals and is a non-negotiable element in achieving the future that is desired by this movement.

…traditionalists only maintain their beliefs about sex and sexual mores on the grounds of irrational bigotry. In short, they are either stupid or immoral or both. In such a world, the idea that religious freedom is a social good is not simply increasingly implausible, it is also increasingly distasteful, disturbing, and undesirable.

Thus, Christians and especially Christians who hold to a Biblical worldview and practice evangelism, are the greatest enemies of the modern movement. They are the group, more than any other, that represents the opposite of their desired outcome. Thus, they will be attacked and assaulted more and more for those stances. The author sees this as the likely outcome in the near future and encourages the Christians reading to be ready.

So, what should Christians do in light of the information that is covered here? Dr. Trueman brings hope by pointing to the similarities of the 2nd century, when a fledgling Church had none of the advantages we are used to relying on and was openly hated and attacked by many in the places where it was found. This Church laid the foundation for a movement that would change the world and the author believes that the modern Church has the same options before them.

…she did it by what means? By existing as a close-knit, doctrinally bounded community that required her members to act consistently with their faith and to be good citizens of the earthly city as far as good citizenship was compatible with faithfulness to Christ

Followers of Jesus who faithfully held to His teachings and called on others to do the same did change the world in a time when all earthly momentum was against them. I for one find hope in this declaration and even though much of this book might point to very little to be encouraged about in the modern society, it is this absence of power that might cause us to turn to Him who holds the true power to make a difference. Dr. Trueman’s book is available here, and you can also read or listen to it as a member of Scribd, which is how I obtained it.

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