The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution
Written by Carl R. Trueman. Wheaton: Crossway, 2020, 432 Pages.
How did the West get to the place culturally where the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful? (p. 19). Not only does it make sense to the modern Western ear, but “to deny it or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia” (p. 19). So, what has happened in recent decades to cause such a statement not only to make sense but to be beyond contradiction? What has taken place to make it so normal that to deny it to be marked out as a bigot, a phobic, and a purveyor of hate-speech?
At the heart of Trueman’s book lies the basic conviction that “the so-called sexual revolution of the last sixty years, culminating in its latest triumph—the normalisation of transgenderism—cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of selfhood” (p. 20). That is, modern sexual ethics have been deeply impacted by the modern understanding of the self. Trueman helpfully provides the necessary historical context for understanding the Western world’s evolving understanding of the self and its impact on modern culture, including sexuality, sexual identity, and its politicisation in modern politics (for example, the “Change or Suppression [Conversion] Practices Prohibition Bill 2020” in Australia). Trueman writes: “The rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized” (p. 221).
With wisdom, clarity, and insight, Trueman expertly guides the reader through the work of Phillip Rieff, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the British Romantic Poets, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and others, tracing the rise and triumph of the modern notion of “self” (hence the title of the book). What does it mean to be a “self”? Trueman demonstrates that “psychological categories and an inward focus are the hallmarks of a modern person” (p. 46). This is what Charles Taylor refers to as “expressive individualism,” the idea that “each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires” (p. 46). I have to be myself. I must be free to express myself, or I cannot be authentic. And “that which hinders my outward expression of my inner feelings—that which challenges or attempts to falsify my psychological beliefs about myself and thus to disturb my sense of inner wellbeing—is by definition harmful and to be rejected. And “that means that traditional institutions [i.e., the church, the traditional family] must be transformed to conform to the psychological self, not vice versa” (p. 50).
Throughout the book Trueman demonstrates how the notion of identity is intimately wrapped up with the ideas of authenticity and sexuality, emotion and recognition, dignity and value, belonging and affirming—the obligation to be accepted and affirmed by society. And it is into this rapidly changing cultural context that the church must sustain its faith, communicate its gospel, and ground its identity in Christ and not in the self. This book is essential reading for anyone—church leaders, preachers, teachers, those involved in university ministries, and interested others—who want to better understand our current cultural context and more effectively communicate the gospel into it with clarity and conviction, wisdom and winsomeness. The book is not an easy read, but it is a very rewarding read. In my humble opinion, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is not only the most important book written in the past year, it is one of the most important books written in the past decade. I cannot too highly recommend it.