A Review of “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” by Carl Trueman

How did we get to a place culturally where the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” seems to make sense? That is the question that prompted Carl Trueman to write this work of cultural analysis. It is certainly a question that is unique to our point in history, but it is a question that arises out of a whole world of thought and influence. Trueman believes it is valuable for us to know that history in order to be able to interact rightly with the current cultural climate. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self provides the church with a robust explanation of the sexual revolution as a symptom of a deeper issue.

Carl Trueman is a respected church historian and serves as professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He has specialized in Reformation history but has written on a number of different topics and key thinkers. This book is part historical survey and part modern cultural analysis. It is Trueman’s conviction that in order to understand the sexual revolution we must properly place it within the context of a larger cultural transformation, in particular a transformation in self-understanding. As Trueman writes:

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 understand the nature of human self-hood…In short, the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West. And it is only as we come to understand the wider context that we can truly understand the dynamics of the sexual politics that now dominate our culture. (20)

It is Trueman’s contention that without understanding the broader context of the revolution, and without understanding the nature of expressive individualism on our culture, we will settle for simplistic explanations of this sexual revolution. In particular, modern sexual ethics have been deeply impacted by the modern sense of self. He aims, therefore, to give us some historical context to understand the development of the modern self and its impact on modern culture, including sexuality and sexual identity.

The book is broken down into four parts. Part one aims to address what Trueman calls the “Architecture of the Revolution.” Here he is establishing the foundational concepts that paved the way for this revolution. He utilizes the philosophies of three key writers to help make sense of this new world: Philip Rieff and the psychologized man, Charles Taylor and politics of recognition and the social imaginary, and Alasdair MacIntyre and his concept of emotivism. These men provided a helpful grid for better understanding the modern self, and the loss of so much common ground on ethical discussions.

Part two shifts focus to more historical survey. Here Trueman demonstrates his skill as a historian and instructor. He draws out developments from among key thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While this section is the largest portion of the book and is easily the most dense material to wade through, Trueman does a tremendous job of making deep philosophical concepts accessible to the average reader. It does take some time to work through the content, but Trueman does a masterful job of showing connections and relevance and frequently summarizing points to keep the reader connected with the narrative being written. Here he highlights in particular, the thought and work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake. “No individual historical phenomenon is its own cause,” Trueman says (25). And so he helps readers to see how a number of ideas have influenced the direction of our culture up to the present. These men and their ideas paint a picture of how we got to the world that we currently live in.

Part three focuses, finally, on the sexual revolution, highlighting the contributions of Sigmund Freud and the New Left. “If part 2 deals with the psychologizing of the self,” writes Trueman, “Part three deals with the sexualizing of psychology and the politicizing of sex.” Here he explains how we, as a culture, have come to accept that sexuality is the most defining feature of ourselves and how that has then been turned into a political emphasis in modern politics.

He wraps up the book in part four by describing the impact that these cultural developments have had on our in America. He highlights particularly the “triumph” of the pornographic, court rulings, and the LGBTQ movement at large. The conclusions offers some brief reflections for the church to consider as it exists in this world.

Trueman does a masterful job of providing readers with a more robust explanation of the current culture than we have generally had. Many Christians have tended to overly simplify the problem and therefore the solutions to our current cultural upheaval. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self not only clarifies where this sexual revolution came from, but also how we need to think about it as we seek to interact with those who are persuaded by it. Trueman also introduces us to the reality that many of us in the church have bought into aspects of this revolution of the self and that we too are “expressive individuals.” His critiques don’t offer a lot of direction to the church on this front, but he does do a good job of introducing us to it and opening the door for further discussion and analysis.

I found this book to be utterly fascinating. The survey of philosophical ideas, the development of those ideas across time, and the influence of those ideas on our current cultural landscape offered profound insight into our world. The book is not an easy read, but its not an overly technical read either. You do not need to have a PhD in philosophy or history to understand the content, but it is not a popular analysis. This is a deep interaction with serious intellectual giants from across the world and across time. Readers will need to settle in for some patient plodding. But the effort comes with a great reward. This book provides such robust explorations of our cultural context that Christians will find it helpful for their understanding of their world, their neighbors, and even, to a degree, themselves. I highly commend this volume.

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