Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Born and raised in England, he earned an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. He is an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and has served as a pastor.
I consider him the most brilliant historical analyst of culture in the Christian world today. In late 2020, Dr. Trueman published what acclaimed cultural commentator Ryan T. Anderson calls “one of the most important books of the past several decades,” a magisterial work titled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Like many readers, I found it to be enormously helpful in explaining our cultural moment and its implications for Christian faith and practice. We reviewed the book at Denison Forum in “How ‘expressive individualism’ and LGBTQ+ became the norm.”
However, as Anderson notes in his foreword to Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, Trueman’s earlier book was over four hundred pages long and inaccessible to many who lack theological and academic backgrounds and interests. Anderson and others thus encouraged Trueman to write a shorter, more accessible version of his basic argument.
That work is Trueman’s new volume.
It is a common, sometimes trite claim of book reviews that the book in question is a “must-read” for particular audiences, but I am convinced that this assertion applies urgently to Strange New World. Said bluntly, this is the best historical explanation of our current cultural crisis I have ever read. While my own The Coming Tsunami attempts to explain our present context through a philosophical and biblical lens, Trueman does so through the prism of intellectual history.
This summary cannot replace Trueman’s book, which I encourage you to read. Rather, my purpose is to focus on the parts of his narrative that are especially missional for Denison Ministries as we seek to help Christians shape their culture with biblical truth.
The self and sexual identity
Trueman writes that the notion of the self serves “to unify the changes we are witnessing and to make them, if not entirely explicable, at least less random than we might be tempted to think.” He describes the concept in this way:
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 recognize and affirm this behavior.
This viewpoint was termed expressive individualism by the American scholar Robert Bellah, who defined it as holding that “each person has a unique core of feeling or intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.”
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor connects this concept to what he calls the culture of authenticity, which he describes this way: “Each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and . . . it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”
Trueman summarizes: “The modern self is one where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inward feelings.” He notes that “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.”
Sexual acts have “no intrinsic moral significance”
This explains in part why secular culture has become so embracing of LGBTQ ideology since to object to such “authenticity” is seen as objecting to the right of any person to be authentic in their own way. This is akin to Baptist arguments in previous generations that religious liberty is essential for all people, not just those who are themselves religious.
To summarize and paraphrase, the self formerly was defined by its cultural context. For example, Christians were what the Church considered us to be (fallen creatures loved by our Creator and offered eternal life through Christ). Muslims defined themselves through the prism of Islam, Americans through the social constructs of the US, Russians through the historical culture of Mother Russia, and so on.
Today, by contrast, more and more people feel the freedom to define themselves in whatever way they wish. Their inner feelings take precedence over external realities, whether they be physical, cultural, or political. If, for instance, a person feels “herself” to be a female trapped in a male body, “she” should be free to live this identity in public. In fact, this person should be applauded for such courage and given every opportunity necessary to experience life in its fullest authenticity, from “gender-affirming therapies,” to change the body in alignment with the “inner” self, to legal guarantees of bathroom access and so on.
According to this worldview, human nature has no intrinsic moral structure or significance. Rather, such a concept is used to justify the exploitation of one group by another.
This view of self explains the sexual revolution as far more than broadening the range of acceptable sexual behaviors. While such a view certainly and tragically did so, it went further, claiming that if a person’s inner identity is defined by sexual desire, he or she must be allowed to act on that desire in order to be an authentic person. As Trueman notes, “Sexual acts in themselves are seen as having no intrinsic moral significance; it is the consent (or not) of those engaging in them that provides the moral framework.”
How we got here
To be sure, practical factors played significant roles in this narrative. As Trueman notes, birth control pills made it easier to separate sex from procreation; the advent of pornography presented promiscuity as attractive; the rise of no-fault divorce “reduced marriage to a sentimental bond”; the internet massively expanded the reach of pornography; and popular culture “presented sex as a cost-free pastime.”
In addition, Trueman explains the “intellectual genealogy” that brought us to this moment:
- French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) theorized that he existed because he was thinking, placing human thought at the very center of human experience.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) located identity in the inner psychological life of the person and claimed that society exerts a corrupting influence on the self by preventing us from acting consistently with our feelings. This led to the modern notion of authenticity: “the genuine person is the one who acts outwardly in a manner consistent with how they think or feel inside.”
- Romanticism “sought to find authentic humanity in an acknowledgment of, and connection to, the power of nature” by granting authority to feelings.
- Karl Marx claimed that the economic relations that exist between people decisively shape how we experience reality. Since these relations change, our concept of reality changes over time. Every form of community is economic and thus political. Religious morality is “a sign of intellectual weakness in its adherents and a means of social oppression for its proponents.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche similarly viewed belief in God as a crutch by which the weak can avoid the challenge of creating their own meaning and “a means by which the weak can demonize and manipulate the strong.” Acts are “moral” to the degree that they are free.
- Sigmund Freud taught that sex is foundational to human identity and happiness. Morality and religion make social life possible by constraining our natural sexual impulses. Thus sex is politicized as society creates rules governing sexual behavior.
- Wilhelm Reich sought to dismantle the sexual codes on which the family is built so humans can be truly free. In his view, even young children should be taught to express themselves sexually as they wish. Trueman explains: “The authentic person is the sexual being, the one guided by the inner voice of (sexualized) nature, and the role of education is not to repress that for the purpose of personal formation but to liberate it for the purpose of self-expression.” This view has led to legislative battles over teaching sex education in schools and a host of similar political conflicts.
As a result, even the concept of modesty is now considered to be an oppressive assault upon individual authenticity, which explains the normalization of pornography and nudity in popular culture.
Technology and the loss of authority
As a result of this intellectual narrative, Trueman notes, “The modern cultural imagination sees the world as raw material to be shaped by the human will.” Such shaping is more plausible now than ever before due to technology that gives us unprecedented power over nature. From agriculture to medicine, technology has changed the fundamental relationship of humans to their environment and to each other.
There was a time, for example, when music had to be experienced live and often in communal settings. Now it is most commonly an item of individual consumption. The world is seen as “stuff” we can make and remake in whatever way we desire.
Another factor is the collapse of external sources of authority and identity located in church, family, and nation. The Reformation enabled nations and people to choose their religion. No-fault divorce and popular culture undermined the family. And challenges to national narratives are proliferating (e.g., Did America begin in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence or in 1619 with the arrival of African slaves to the continent?).
The role of influencers has changed from transmitting values to the next generation to one of rejecting the past and “unmasking social inequities in the pursuit of social justice.” Political, educational, cultural, and business leaders have “all decided both to repudiate the past and to press home the pathologies of the modern, expressive, sexual self with all the power available to them.”
“A situation without obvious historical parallel”
In the past, community was formed around nation, religion, and family. Today, as these are rejected, community is formed around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), social justice, anti-racism, and other agendas.
Previously, civil society was possible because citizens shared a narrative around their national community. When an election was won by one party, for example, adherents of the other party respected the results because their commitment to the nation was deeper than their allegiance to their party.
By contrast, Trueman states:
Modern American society is fragmenting because the imagined communities to which people choose to belong lack any shared narrative. Therefore, the terms of recognition that one group wishes to see American society adopt are often antithetical to those of others. And this leads to further conflict because the very existence of alternative narratives is a threat to a given community’s identity.
According to Trueman, the combination of expressive individualism (you are what you feel yourself to be) and the liquefaction of traditional frameworks by which we have previously defined ourselves (nation, religion, family, geography, etc.) “places us in a situation without obvious historical parallel.”
This jettisoning of any firm ground upon which to build an identity helps explain the catastrophic levels of depression and anxiety in the West at a time when we enjoy greater material prosperity and security than has been typical throughout human history. According to Trueman, “We do not know who we are anymore. As terrifying as that is to contemplate, it seems undeniable.”
The LGBTQ+ revolution
According to Trueman, “the coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people is without a doubt the greatest political success story of the last half century.” It has defined as “virtuous victims” those who are “unable to express outwardly that which they feel inwardly.” The body is now raw material for realizing one’s emotional identity.
In this view, the “sex” with which we are born is different from the “gender” through which we experience the world. A man can be “born in a woman’s body” and vice versa. (Of course, as Trueman notes, “One can remove genitalia and inject oneself with female hormones, but every cell of the female body has two X chromosomes.”)
Trueman points to The Yogyakarta Principles, named after the Indonesian city where they were formulated in 2006, as crucial to this narrative. They define “sexual orientation” as a person’s emotional, affectional, and sexual attraction to individuals of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender. By contrast, “gender identity” refers to “each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth.”
This rejection of the sexual binary (humans created as male and female) affects every dimension of society, from public spaces to relationships of parents, children, and the state.
In its 2020 Bostock decision, the Supreme Court extended employment nondiscrimination protections to trans individuals. This approach is being extended today to women’s sports, school restrooms, women’s prisons, and even publishing (witness Amazon’s banning of Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally while Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and the Unabomber remain authors in good standing).
The demise of religious freedom
If I am whatever I determine myself to be, my body is mine to do with as I wish. This view extends from conception and abortion to death and assisted suicide, “rights” that secular society increasingly seeks to protect.
Freedom of speech is being subjugated to this new morality since “the use of a word deemed hurtful or denigrating becomes in the world of psychological identity an assault upon the person, as real in its own way as a blow from a fist.” And freedom of religion is similarly subjugated whenever it is deemed oppressive to others.
Philosopher Herbert Marcuse argued in a controversial 1965 essay that speech must be censored if it contradicts society’s new norms. As Trueman notes, his now-popular assertion “is why we now see battles over speech codes on campuses, in the workplace, and even in the public square.”
As a result, “If human happiness is constituted by an inner sense of well-being, then anything that disrupts that is problematic. The implications of this are dramatic and set to be comprehensive, or at least to involve all areas of the public square.” In this view, “freedom of speech is really a means of allowing bigotry and hatred to be expressed with impunity and treated as legitimate viewpoints.” By contrast, “True freedom is found in closing down such traditional virtues and replacing them with a victim-centered authoritarianism.”
What are we to do?
Trueman offers several strategic responses.
First, we should “understand our complicity in the expressive individualism of our day.”
Churches in recent decades have viewed members as consumers for whom they compete, thus pandering to “the felt needs of the psychological self.” We have elevated what Trueman calls “the cult of personal happiness” and failed to defend marriage from no-fault divorce and other challenges to the family.
Second, we should learn from the early church to build a strong community rooted in worship and spiritual formation, then present this alternative to the broken culture.
According to Trueman, early defenders of the faith “argued positively that Christians made the best citizens, the best parents, the best servants, the best neighbors, the best employees, and that they should thus be left alone and allowed to carry on with their day-to-day lives without being hassled by the authorities.”
Third, we need to teach the whole counsel of God to our members, forming them in the biblical worldview and equipping them to counter the false narratives of our fallen culture.
Such response includes a “natural law” focus on the natural boundaries with which our bodies and world flourish. In this way, we will explain “not simply the content but also the rationale of Christian morality.”
Finally, we should be prepared to suffer in a fallen world.
As Trueman notes,
The world in which we live seems to be entering a new, chaotic, uncharted, and dark era. But we should not despair. . . . Yes, let us lament the ravages of the fall as they play out in the distinctive ways that our generation has chosen. But let that lamentation be the context for sharpening our identity as the people of God and our hunger for the great consummation that waits at the marriage feast of the Lamb.
“Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) has never been more urgent in American history.
But the greater the need, the greater the opportunity.
The darker the room, the more powerful the light.