Carl Trueman’s Cultural Tour de Force

BOOK REVIEW: What Trueman does so well is to show the intellectual roots and cultural flow that has led to this moment, which is increasingly dominated ‘by an anticulture, a deathwork, and a rejection of nature.’

Carl R Truman The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self  Book Cover
Carl R Truman The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self Book Cover (photo: Crossway Publishing)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

By Carl R. Trueman; foreword by Rod Dreher
Crossway, 2020
Hardcover, 424 pages

“Everyone has an anthropology,” wrote the novelist Walker Percy a few decades ago, “There is no not having one. If a man says he does not, all he is saying is that his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought to call into question."

Many of the ongoing crises of our age — spiritual, cultural, social, and otherwise — directly result from flawed, skewed, or even perverted understandings of the human person. And the cultural landscape is shifting both radically and quickly. 

Only a few years ago the focus was on homosexuality and “gay marriage”; that is now old news, as transgenderism has become the new cause and even “normal.” 

And to the degree, as Carl R. Trueman writes at the start of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, that his lengthy and detailed tour de force was inspired by “curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’”

As Trueman notes, that sentence “carries with it a world of metaphysical assumptions” — about mind and body, gender and sex, homosexuality, civil rights, liberty, and more. Trueman, a prolific and highly regarded Evangelical Protestant professor of Church history, further elucidates: 

At the heart of this book lies a basic conviction: the so-called sexual revolution of the last sixty years, culminating in its latest triumph—the normalization 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 human selfhood. The sexual revolution is as much a symptom as it is a cause of the culture that now surrounds us everywhere we look, from sitcoms to Congress. In short, the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West.

The subtitle — “Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution” — captures the book’s broad focus, which is both daunting and ambitious, hinting at often remarkable depths of analysis. Structured in four parts, the book first establishes basic concepts — the “architecture” — for understanding the historical narrative, building on the thought of the philosophers Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. It then moves to the foundations of the revolution, examining the thought of Rousseau, Nietzche, Marx and Darwin, who are usual suspects (for good reason) as well as Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake. 

Part three dives into the “sexualization of the revolution.” with special attention paid to Freud and the neo-Marxism of the New Left. The final part takes a tour of the successive “triumphs” of the erotic, the therapeutic, and the “T” — that is, transgenderism. 

This is a demanding work, full of historical details, philosophical explications, and cultural criticism. Despite that, it is a not only readable (setting it apart from many academic works), it is quite often both elegantly written and downright gripping, a sort of novelistic journey through the pathologies of modernism and post-modernism, a sort of historical and philosophical “whodunnit?” 

Yet Trueman, to his credit, is never sensationalistic or hyperbolic — no small feat, considering the topic. He is careful to establish his goals and parameters at the start, emphasizing that the book “is not intended as an exhaustive account of how the present normative understanding of the self has emerged and come to dominate public discourse.” So, for instance, he doesn’t address the influence of technological changes in recent centuries, which are of course substantial. 

While Trueman’s Christian beliefs are in evidence throughout, the book is more historical and, at times, philosophical in nature than theological; in fact, is sets the table very well for more theologically-oriented works, which would certainly benefit from the robust and sustained arguments made throughout. 

“Understanding the times,” he writes, “is a precondition of responding appropriately to the times. And understanding the times requires a knowledge of the history that has led up to the present.”

One of the book’s key insights is that we in the West have moved, quite rapidly, from being committed to and oriented toward communities and institutions to now being expressive individualists, committed primarily to “the self” and thus “inwardly directed.” Whereas the Church, trade unions, or schools once grounded people and gave them external meaning, today’s “psychological man” now sees those institutions as “places for performance, where individuals are allowed to be their authentic self precisely because they are able to give expression to who they are ‘inside.’” 

Personal “authenticity” is not just the goal, it is reality for countless numbers of people — and the expression of inward desires, often sexual in nature. Culture must now meet one’s psychological needs; “I must not tailor my psychological needs to the nature of society, for that would create anxiety and make me inauthentic.” 

Thus, the psychologized, expressive individual has quickly (but logically, as Trueman argues) become the social norm, a fact that “is unique, unprecedented, and singularly significant.” The sense of fluidity and transience is obvious in today’s culture, in which “gender” can mean just about anything you wish it be. This relativistic and psychologized worldview is not just contrary to a Christian understanding of man — created male and female by God — but is deeply antagonistic to it: 

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence. All these things play into legitimizing and strengthening those groups that can define themselves in such terms. They capture, one might say, the spirit of the age.

As Trueman cogently explains, expressive individualism does just demand freedom to do as one wishes, but asserts, without compromise, that all of culture and society must embrace, support, and celebrate it: 

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 must be transformed to conform to the psychological self...

What Trueman does so well (and which cannot be captured in a short review) is to show the intellectual roots and cultural flow that has led to this moment, which is increasingly dominated “by an anticulture, a deathwork, and a rejection of nature...” The chapter on the triumph of transgenderism is worth the price of admission alone; it is the most clear and comprehensive analysis of the topic that I have read. The “coherency” of transgenderism, Trueman asserts, can only take place in a culture that prioritizes “the psychological over the physical in determining identity”, rejects external authority (whether biological or social), relies in “cultural amnesia”, and takes advantage of technology to manipulate biology and body. 

As authentic human dignity become unmoored from metaphysical truth and the sacred order, anarchy builds and boils. What, then, can be done? 

Trueman offers some advice and thoughts in the prologue, correctly noting that Christians today bear plenty of responsibility, as we are far too often not opponents of the anticulture, but often “a symptom of it.” Trueman emphasizes the need for a robust and orthodox ecclesiology, as well as a recovery (and here he speaks directly to Protestant readers) of “both natural law and a high view of the physical body.” The church, he insists, must get herself in order, and he points to the Christians of the early Church as guides to that end.

In short, there are no easy answers — but there are no answers at all if we do not really study and understand where we are and how we got there. And this valuable work is a worthy guide in that pressing task.