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

Carl R. Trueman

Wheaton: Crossway, 2020. 425 pages. Hardcover. $34.99.

Reviewed by Peter J. Scaer on 02/15/2021

“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Our grandparents would have no idea what such words could mean. Even a generation ago, it would have been thought the height of lunacy, a mental disorder, or a cry for help. But now hardly anyone blinks an eye. In fact, we are obligated, on pain of societal ostracism, to affirm that which is scientifically impossible. Our nation’s Assistant Secretary of Health is a biological man who claims to be a woman, even though, medically speaking, Rachel Levine should be medically treated as a man.

Carl Trueman attempts to offer an explanation of how we got here. It is necessary but not sufficient to say that we are a fallen race, or to note with Paul in Romans 1 that we are in a full-scale rebellion against our creator. In a certain sense, these things have always been true. But we have gone further than the likes of Nero or Caligula could have ever dreamed. And it is all so normal.

Trueman sets the table by explaining that every culture has a certain set of expectations, ways in which a society sees itself. Here Trueman draws on the work of Philip Rieff, who wrote The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966). Rieff contends, for instance, that the ancient Athenians thought of themselves as political men, medieval people were religious people, followed by the “economic man,” who saw his life in terms of trade and the making of money. Most recently, our culture made a shift to the “psychological man,” in which the main thrust of our ambition became personal happiness to be found within us. As Trueman contends, “For such selves in such a world, institutions such as schools and churches are places where one goes to perform, not to be formed—or perhaps better, where one goes to be formed by performing” (49).

In our new world, feelings dominate. The present is always better than the past, as history is nothing but a story of oppression. Sex has no inherent meaning or sacred value, and those who try to limit it in any way are themselves oppressors. Great heroes of the past must be forgotten or despised, especially in an age in which victimhood is the chief social currency in what Charles Taylor calls our “social imaginary,” that is, a worldview held by nearly all, often without even a conscious recognition.

What follows in Trueman’s work is a kind of intellectual history. The 1960s, Trueman shows us, was a long time coming. We are introduced to Rousseau, whose own Confessions are contrasted with those of Augustine. While the church father recognized original sin, Rousseau said that man was born basically good, and was only later corrupted by society and its institutions. Morality became about aesthetics, and ethical discourse centered on personal sentiments. Marriage itself came under attack as society’s way of keeping a person from true joy and personal commitment.

Then came the poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, who romanticized nature. Shelley, for instance, viewed religion as the manipulation of the powerful. Marriage again was seen as nothing but a way to keep people from true happiness. Following the poets, Trueman takes us to what he calls the “plastic people” enabled by Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. Nietzsche aided in the killing of God and of the moral order, which was nothing really but the application of power. Marx helped us to see everything in terms of economic struggle. Darwin’s theory of evolution made history meaningless, as well as any idea that man was somehow special, created in God’s image. There was no designer at creation, and God is not now guiding the process of history. Man was plastic, in charge of his own destiny, shape, and meaning.

From there, Trueman takes this intellectual history one step further, demonstrating Freud’s place in psychologizing man, and doing so in a way that put sex at the center, beginning even at childhood. All of this led to what the author calls the triumph of the erotic, and the truly self-made man. Perhaps this is nowhere better encapsulated than in the words of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992).

If self-identification is at the heart of our belief, no one can deny our claims, no matter how obviously they seem to defy science or, more simply, reality. If there is no God, if society and marriage are the problem, if we are plastic people who are defined by sexuality and are truly the products of our own creation, then the transgender phenomenon begins to make some sort of sense. Against such an ideological tide, there are no clear or easy answers, but as Christians, we need to know what we are up against. And then, as always, it is back to the Scriptures, a return to the story of creation. And in that, we must return to a gospel that is also a new Genesis that affirms God’s good creation. This means we recognize that we are a fallen race, but that we were created in the image of God, now found fully and completely in Christ. The road back to reality will not be an easy one, but we must begin the journey, and part of that is recognizing how we got here. For that, we owe some thanks to Carl Trueman.