How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.
Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. Wheaton: Crossway, 2022. Book, DVD, & Study Guide.
In 2020 Carl Trueman published one of the most important books of the past few decades: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The only problem? Many people didn’t read it because it was over four hundred pages long. Strange New World covers the same ground but, in a briefer, and more accessible format. This book explains how the West got to the place culturally where the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful. Not only does it make sense to the modern Western ear, but those who deny it or question it or oppose it in any way are by definition engaged in oppressing those who claim such identities. 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 is 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 can only be properly understood when it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of selfhood. 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. 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, “demonstrating how [these] thinkers and activists redefined identity and sparked the sexual revolution” (the subtitle of the book).
The broad arc of his work is an account of how the rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The “self” became psychologized; psychology became sexualized; and sex became politicized. What does it mean to be a “self”? The “self” refers to “the deeper notion of where the ‘real me’ is to be found, how that shapes my view of life, and in what the fulfilment or happiness of that ‘real me’ con
sists” (pp. 21-22). The inner self has become the source of truth and so the modern person strives to be “true to oneself.” The modern self assumes “the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same. The modern self also assumes that society at large will recognise and affirm this behaviour. Such a self as defined by what is called expressive individualism” (22). As a philosophy, expressive individualism says that the purpose of life is to find your deepest self and then express that to the world. I have to be myself. I must be free to express myself, or I cannot be authentic. “The modern self is one where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inward feelings” (p. 23). And the “increasing social sensitivity to criticizing anyone for their personal lifestyle choice reflects a view of the world where each person is free to perform life in whatever way they choose; and any attempt to express disapproval is therefore a blow not simply against particular ways of behaving but against the right of that person to be whoever they wish to be” (23).
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 can also be purchased with the Strange New World Video Study in which Trueman walks through each of the book’s 9 chapters, summarizing key points and giving biblical application of the key themes. Each 10-12-minute session covers one chapter from the book and can be used in conjunction with the and Strange New World Study Guide making it an excellent resource for classrooms, small groups, or personal study. In my humble opinion, Strange New World (and its older and bigger brother 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 few decades. I cannot too highly recommend it.