Book Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

If the inner psychological self of the individual is sovereign, then identity becomes as potentially unlimited as the human imagination. Yet this would still leave some questions unresolved, questions that have a particular urgency in our current political climate. Why, for example, have the politics of sexual identity become so ferocious that any dissent from the latest orthodoxy is greeted with scorn and sometimes even legal action? A moment’s reflection would seem to suggest that this is, on the surface at least, a rather odd phenomenon. What does it matter, to borrow a phrase oft used in the gay marriage debate surrounding the Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges… what people do in private? Why should my agreement or disagreement with what consenting adults do behind closed doors be of any great public importance? If two men have a sexual relationship in the privacy of their bedroom, my disagreement with such behavior neither picks their pockets nor breaks their legs, as Thomas Jefferson would say. So why should disagreement with current sexual mores be regarded as somehow immoral and intolerable in the wider public sphere?

Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, pp. 50-51

If there is one truth that should be evident from this podcast, it’s that I enjoy reading. I’ve reached that “I need more bookcases” stage, a problem which is furthered by visits to the local used book store (one that has a surprisingly wide selection of even decent Christian authors, rather than the usual Barnes & Noble offering of prosperity gospel nonsense cloaked as Christianity). Books, reading them and talking about them, are one of the biggest drivers for conversation between Jarod and myself. And yet the book I’ve just finished is one of the most important ones I believe I’ve had the opportunity to dig into, one which will provide a great deal of new information to guide our future ministry.

That book is theologian and professor Carl Trueman’s latest offering, entitled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. With a title that long, you can see already that this book will not be playing games. Trueman’s writing is dense but there are no wasted words: each section lays out in clear terms, backed up with extensive footnotes, that draw out a truth that we as Christians, especially American and Western Christians, need to know. Namely, that the seemingly sudden change of attitudes among our fellow countrymen towards issues like sexual morality and the fundamental rights that are necessary to a free society are not new, nor are they simply the result of this strange, alien millennial generation. Rather, they are the fruit borne of seeds planted in the very foundation of the Enlightenment itself, with roots that threaten to tear apart the foundations of the society that enabled them to thrive at all.

Setting expectations

It seems like the last few years have seen a lot of titles released attempting to wrestle with both the ongoing “culture war” as well as the struggle within the church to figure out how to engage with the culture. What does it look like to be faithful to biblical doctrine in the face of a culture which has no patience for such concerns, and in fact is becoming openly antagonistic towards them?

The paragraph quoted above is not quoted because it is the question the book answers, but as an example given by the author of the sort of argument that is drawing many Christians and cultural conservatives into a place where we are fighting battles over the wrong things. Firstly, because we are letting our opponents draw us out with absurd charges and setting the battle lines, and secondly because we don’t truly understand that the debate has eroded any form of common ground upon which we can stand with them.

That is probably one of the most important things to draw as you walk through this book: the ground on which the cultural and sexual revolutionaries of today stand is not simply a matter of opinion variance. It is a markedly different worldview, one that has been a very long time in the making.

Pointless nostalgia

My observation on the podcast more than once has been that it seems many conservative Christians today long to live in 1960s Mayberry. That is to say, they want to live in the past, but not in a past that ever truly existed. They have a vision of this era where Christianity was predominant, flags were saluted, and there was no overriding sexual immorality because that just wasn’t a thing then. But the fact is, going back to the foundation of the Enlightenment thinking that informed our Founding Fathers, the seeds of our current day were already planted and being cultivated. From the arguments of thinkers like Rousseau arguing that man in his natural state is good but becomes corrupted by society, and the ideas pushed by many that morality at its base is simply aesthetics – that is, a matter of taste, rather than any kind of consistent metaphysical principle that rules over us, Christian morality began its life in America wounded as far as national interest was concerned.

I have mentioned before when I discussed James K.A. Smith’s book How Not To Be Secular that our Founding Fathers essentially took out the bits of Christianity that they needed to build a functional society – the work ethic, the notions of brotherhood and equality, and the idea that God is a benevolent force who desires to benefit mankind – and left out the parts that they didn’t think were necessarily as helpful – like man’s sinfulness, God’s wrath and judgment against sin, and of course the need for a savior that is found only in Christ.

My point in recounting all this is that, at least at this point in time, one might have been able to have some sort of common ground for even non-Christians to have a discussion on about the nature of morality and the sort of role government plays in the lives of citizens. The idea even for a non-Christian that a man might say “I’m not a man, I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” would have been received as simple nonsense. Today, it is something that one large part of our population takes as fundamental, indisputable truth, to the point where the highest legal and legislative bodies in the land have had to deal with the consequences of this statement.

Understanding the chasm

When you make your way through these chapters, you see how wide the division has truly become. Though the real fruit of this movement has only begun to truly appear within the last decade or so, it’s one that has inched its way patiently through Western culture. It’s not the result of a conspiracy, or the fault of “those lazy millennials” or whatever other bugaboo commentators want to point to as the source of our woes today. The fact is that today, the only real basis a significant chunk of our civilization sees for what may be considered morality is, simply, taste. Not flavor, but aesthetical reaction. Trueman points out how this idea is so deeply rooted that it is even found in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the Obergefell decision:

The fourth and final point, that the nation’s tradition points to the role of marriage as a keystone of society, is yet another example of the selective use of tradition and the plastic definition of marriage with which the majority operates. When tradition can be edited in such a way as to confirm modern taste, then the tradition apparently has authority. When tradition runs counter to the exigencies of contemporary taste–for example, when it defines marriage as between a man and a woman–it is to be dismissed as having no rational basis, as motivated by animus, as perpetuating inequality, as an affront to the dignity of the gay and lesbian community, and as denying fundamental freedoms essential to what it means to be human.

Ibid., p. 314

Ultimately Christians find themselves in a place where believing and living the tenets of their faith and believing that those tenets are what are best for, as Albert Mohler would put it, “human flourishing” marks one out as an irredeemable bigot, someone to be silenced and pushed out of society, not someone to be engaged with or considered as thoughtful in any way.

Depressed yet?

One of the challenges of reading this book will be that it can begin to seem like a litany of the downfall of Western civilization. It may also lead you to begin to think that Trueman is arguing that all of the things accomplished by the West are, at their root, evil and deserving to land on history’s ash heap. However, that should not be the takeaway from this book. As he mentions in his conclusion, the West has seen some very important advances that should not be rejected, and that some things that have become part of the argument for the sexual revolution have in fact been a force for good.

One example is the development of the idea of the dignity of the individual. This concept was not found in medieval Europe or in its predecessor, the Roman Empire, at least culturally. However, the West did take up that banner and wave it boldly in the advent of modernity, and for many good reasons. Furthermore, it is an idea that has its roots in Christianity, in the fact that humanity is made in God’s image and that therefore we ought to treat one another with compassion and care.

This is another idea that Trueman develops: just as conservatives have this longing for an idealized past, so many on the side of cultural revolution have a prejudice against the past. Witness the way cultural figures of the last one to two hundred years are tarred as unabashedly racist and no better than the most avowed hate group member, with no room for nuance or history to play out. The idea that Western culture in that age had a vibrant debate over issues such as slavery and civil rights for decades, even centuries, and that it was informed by the Christian ideas of our identities as humans made by God, is simply ignored. Monsters are found and burned in effigy, so that new ideas of cultural good can be cultivated. While the roots of the revolution run deep, the fruit itself is recent and depends upon ignoring and rejecting much of what came before.

So what?

One thing that I’ve seen other reviewers comment about this book is that it doesn’t really provide a lot of action points to the church. And that is true to an extent. He does discuss some very important ideas that I will cover, but if you’re looking for a ranty attack on leftism or critical racial theory, you won’t find it here. You will find extensive coverage on many of these ideas and their foundations in a way that will prepare you for engaging with them, however, and in my opinion that will prove far more helpful in the long term.

There is a great deal of wisdom in understanding how we can apply this knowledge to our ministry. There are a few points I think are important takeaways that we should consider, as we move ahead into a society that rejects Christianity and fundamental freedoms such as religion and speech in favor of the “erotic” freedoms of pursuing one’s most base desires.

So much of society embraces the idea that if you reject a desire you have, you are not living your true self. And that notion, sadly, is not absent even from many churches. Whether it’s prosperity preachers proclaiming that you ought to pursue your best life now, progressive Christians abandoning the fundamental truths of Scripture in favor of agreement with the cultural zeitgeist, or conservative churches putting faith in political power over God’s power to transform hearts, there is a serious crisis of faith that reaches down to the heart of our nation and our culture. Here are my thoughts on applying what Trueman covers to our ministry:

  • Watch your life and doctrine – This one hits very close to home for me. I’ve spoken before about my history of struggles with pornography, and how it’s affected my life and relationships. I am more convicted than ever that it is crucial to my testimony, to my intimacy with God, and to the good of my family that any lingering desires born out of this must die. Christians, we must make a habit of this. It’s one of the biggest things Jesus called us to, after all: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it.'” (Matt: 16:24-25) As Charles Spurgeon said, “He who learns to die daily while he lived will find it no difficulty to breathe out his soul for the last time.”
    I point this out because so many people are good at watching their doctrine, but their life slips by. How many have we seen in recent years who were considered bold and faithful preachers suddenly caught out for extramarital affairs, sexual abuse, and worse? How much damage did the secret sins of Ravi Zacharias do to those who may have been influenced to follow Christ? We must watch our doctrine carefully and hold it up against Scripture, but our lives must follow.
  • Be involved in, and subject to, the local church – This is one that will rub many the wrong way on both left and right. The internet seems to have rendered our involvement in a local body pointless. Why go to church and hear sermons from a preacher that isn’t nearly as effective a communicator as one of the dozens of excellent preachers we can find on podcasts every day? Because preaching is not the central function of church or the point of the service, though it seems like it has become more so in the current era.
    We must be a part of a local body, we must be known, and we must be accountable. Serving others in love, taking part in the Lord’s Supper with fellow believers, and bearing witness to the baptism of those who find their lives and hearts transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ are crucial to our growth as Christians. There is so much more here, but it is crucial that we as Christians participate in and rejoice with our fellow believers because that is how God has created us to function and to grow deeper and stronger.
  • Discipleship must be more than a program, it must be a way of life within the church – The concept of “being a disciple” has for many created a picture of “super Christians” who are committed in ways we could never be. But this is a lie that is told by the enemy to keep us at arms’ length from one another. Discipling is something we do in community, and is all the more reason that we must maintain our local bodies with love, patience, and grace.
  • Beware the culture war – This is another one that will strike many as counterintuitive. The right especially has operated for decades on the idea that we can win influence over the culture through growing political might, by operating as a voting bloc, another special interest group that seeks to get politicians to pander to our desires. Yet this has gotten us to a place where many Christians are justifying voting for men who are bald and unashamed liars, unfaithful spouses, and many worse things in the name of achieving these political victories. And these victories have come at the price of our testimonies to faith in Christ and in God as true king.
    We must heed Paul’s words about the true nature of our warfare: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.” (Eph 6:12) We may have earthly enemies that oppose us either passively in that they do not regard us as having anything worthwhile to say, or actively in that they desire to persecute and harm us, but Jesus gave us a much more powerful weapon in this battle than any firearm, any human strength, any intellectual “owning the libs” – He gave us the right to live as people who have nothing to fear from those in this world, because we have a hope that exceeds anything that those who love the desires of the flesh could ever do to us: “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48)
  • Know what you’re for better than what you’re against – One of the big words that this book takes great pains to define and use in a meaningful way is anticulture. Think of “anticulture” in the sense not that it is simply “against culture” or “against a culture” (though that is an element of it) but rather, it is a culture defined primarily by what it is against rather than by what it is for. This is something that is especially prevalent when looking at the transition into the modern era, and even more so with the advent of post-modernism. While post-modernism has become sort of a bugaboo word used by many, the truth is that the majority of the intellectual movements driving both left and right wing politics and their associated social positions are better defined by what they are against, rather than by what they are for.
    Sadly this is something that has infected much of the American church, in the form of fundamentalistic tendencies that are more about pointing out enemies and attacking them, than about being able to minister to anyone with a meaningful gospel message. They’re more about winning elections than winning souls. This is perhaps one of the most dangerous things that modern thought has done to the church, and is once again reason that simply longing for some sort of paradise past is not our calling. Rather, we need to get ready to endure all things for the sake of showing that we love Jesus more than we love our bank accounts or having a majority voice in popular culture.

This honestly could go on for a while, so I will conclude with this: read this book, and ponder it well. It doesn’t provide a quick fix to solve the problems of the culture, but it does provide a framework that should help us begin to engage our neighbors in love, to seek what common ground does truly exist, and bring the gospel to bear upon them. Internet fistfights do not transform hearts, though they may soothe our frustrations. Let our words be chosen carefully, in a way that reflects our faith and our hope. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters: faithful ministry will bring opposition from a culture that sees no value in it and at worst sees it as an immoral thing. But if that comes, we must follow the example of those who came before us, and walk through it faithfully.

In the second century, the church was a marginal sect within a dominant, pluralist society. She was under suspicion not because her central dogmas were supernatural but rather because she appeared subversive in claiming Jesus as King and was viewed as immoral in her talk of eating and drinking human flesh and blood and expressing incestuous-sounding love between brothers and sisters.
That is where we are today. The story told in parts 2 through 4 of this book indicates how a pluralist society has slowly but surely adopted beliefs, particularly beliefs about sexuality and identity, that render Christianity immoral and inimical to the civic stability of society as now understood. The second-century world is, in a sense, our world, where Christianity is a choice–and a choice likely at some point to run afoul of the authorities.

Ibid., pp. 406-407

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

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