Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020)
Looking back over the past century, it’s incredible to think of the extent to which and the pace at which views on sex and gender have changed. It’s easy to think that these changes – what we often refer to as the sexual revolution – came out of nowhere. But in reality, of course, few, if any, things really come out of nowhere.
When it comes to the sexual revolution, technological developments (such as the contraceptive pill) certainly played a part, but these probably facilitated rather than fuelled the changes. What pushed the revolution forward was a change in thinking. It’s this change in thinking – the intellectual roots of the sexual revolution – that Trueman seeks to trace in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
The sexual revolution and the self
Trueman argues that the sexual revolution is just one outworking of a change in our understanding of the self. He defines ‘the self’ as ‘how we think of the purpose of life, the meaning of happiness, and what actually constitutes people’s sense of who they are and what they are for’ (p.23). The four parts of the book help us to understand the progress of this change.
Part 1, ‘Architecture of the Revolution’, introduces concepts from three philosophers (Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre) which are used throughout the book. No doubt many readers – myself included – will find that most of these concepts are new to us, but they are very helpful ways of understanding the world we live in, and they also help readers to follow the thread of Trueman’s argument.
Part 2 looks at the ‘Foundations of the Revolution’. Focussing in on the 18th and 19th centuries, Trueman shows how understandings of the self moved to focus on what we find inside ourselves – what he refers to as the ‘psychologizing of the self’. The figures discussed from this period promoted the view that our true self is squashed by oppressive external forces – such as the ethics and expectations of society – and so we must find freedom by throwing those off. Other thinkers proposed understandings of society that supported the view of it as an oppressor and they also undermined the idea that there is anything meaningful about human selfhood such that it should be allowed to direct how we live.
The third part, ‘Sexualization of the Revolution’, traces two important steps. First, looking at the thought of Freud, Trueman outlines the ‘sexualizing of psychology’. Building on the groundwork of those who had said the inner self is who we are, Freud declares that it is not just our inner self which is the ‘real us’, but our inner sexual self. The second step traced in this part is ‘the politicizing of sex’, in which the concept of society’s oppression is viewed primarily as psychological and is believed to be seen most clearly in restrictive sexual ethics that stop us from expressing our true (sexual) selves.
The fourth and final part looks at three ‘Triumphs of the Revolution’, each of which offers an illustration of how the changes traced in the previous parts can be seen in modern society. It is here that Trueman speaks of some of the realities of which we may be aware in the world around us, including wide acceptance of pornography, approval of same-sex marriage, and a pro-transitioning response to transgender experience.
An impressive achievement
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is an impressive achievement. Readers will quickly find themselves able to see how the currents of thought that Trueman outlines are at play in modern Western society. The book is a heavy read, but this is because the content is complex rather than because of Trueman’s style. In fact, considering the content, it is an amazingly readable book.
Two weakness may be worth noting. One is the handling of LGBTQ+ matters. Trueman states explicitly that he is writing a history not a polemic or lament, but I worry that the lack of nuance about the LGBTQ+ community means the book could unhelpfully be used as polemic or lament.
Trueman refers to the LGBTQ+ community as if it were one homogenised group who all share the same perspectives. However, this is far from the reality, as can be seen in his own discussion of tensions between the L and the G and, more recently, between the LGB and the T. But even to suggest that all gay men or all transgender people share the same views is inaccurate and unhelpful. The ways of thinking that Trueman outlines are of course held by some LGBTQ+ people, maybe even many, but certainly not all.
One particularly unfortunate weakness is a lack of nuance about understandings of transgender experience. The whole book is premised on exploring how we have reached a point where many people believe it is possible to be a woman trapped in a man’s body, but this way of understanding transgender experience is far from universal, even among transgender people,1 and is probably in decline even within the LGBTQ+ community.2 It is also unfortunate that the reality of gender dysphoria as a very real and painful experience is largely overlooked. This could wrongly leave Christians thinking that transgender ideology is the only trans-related matter with which we need to engage. In reality, of course, our priority should be to engage with the real people behind the ideology and debates. The choice to use the language of ‘transgenderism’ is also unfortunate.3
The second weakness is a lack of reflection on how the book’s findings should shape Christian life and witness. The last few pages do offer a few thoughts in this direction, but there is much more that could be said.
Combined together, the books length, the complexity of its content and lack of application may put off many pastors and Christians who could greatly benefit from Trueman’s incredible work. In light of this, I hope the publishers might consider commissioning a more popular level distillation of Trueman’s research with greater emphasis on application.
Both these weaknesses are unfortunate but understandable given the scope of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. There’s no doubt that Trueman’s book is an incredible achievement and a very important contribution to our understanding of the world we now live in.
- For example, Debbie Hayton states ‘I have never been a woman. Womanhood is not a feeling in my head or anyone else’s. I was certainly driven to transition, but not because I was trapped in another body. I now realise there is only me in here, and that I have always been here.’ Debbie Hayton, ‘Trans Parent: Debbie Hayton Shares Her Journey Exclusively with Hood’, Hood. Accessed 6 May 2021. Debbie has also spoken out against the kind of understanding that Trueman outlines, e.g. Debbie Hayton, ‘I May Have Gender Dysphoria. But I still Prefer to Base My Life on Biology, Not Fantasy’, Quillette.
- For example, see various perspectives in ‘Do You Use the Phrase: “Born in the Wrong Body?”’, Mermaids.
- For a good overview on why this is not a good term to use, see Preston Sprinkle, ‘Why I Don’t Use the Term “Transgenderism”’, The Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender.