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Strange New World

How thinkers and activists redefined identity and sparked the Sexual Revolution
by Carl R. Trueman
2022 / 187 pages

Just how strange is this new world we live in? Well, we’ve seen:

The world is in the throes of madness, but to assume that there is no method to the madness would be naive. In Carl Trueman’s, Strange New World, (a concise version of his earlier The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self), we take a swift trip from the Enlightenment to the 21st century to review the radical thinkers responsible for the madness of today’s identity politics.

Under identity politics an individual is only as important and valued as the racial, social, or sexual group he is part of. A black transgender woman would be near the top of this hierarchy, deserving of society’s sympathy and support while a straight white male is at the bottom, deserving of ridicule because of the privilege he must have based on the color of his skin. People are no longer judged by their character but rather by their lived experience and the history of oppression or privilege their “group” has experienced.

As Trueman details, the problems associated with identity politics can be traced back to our notion of the self. For all of history, we recognized that if our inner feelings differed with the physical reality around us it was important to realign our feelings to that reality. However, bringing the mind into line with the physical body has, in the space of only a few years, been rejected in favor of bringing the body into line with the mind.

Toleration was once… well, tolerated. But no longer. Now full acceptance of the latest new view is expected, with severe repercussions to those who do not. How does our culture justify that severity? Well, if the mind is said to be the driving force behind reality, then words have much more significance – words themselves can now marginalize and cause damage to the person. The saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” needs to be adjusted to something along the lines of “sticks and stone may break my bones, but your words are also violent.” Many institutions are quickly writing laws that carry punishments for inflicting emotional damages to those in marginalized groups.

What Trueman makes plain is that although this shift towards identity politics has occurred recently, thinkers such as Rousseau, Marx, and Freud long ago laid the foundation on which identity politics now stand. Identity politics is not some passing trend but is rooted deeply in our culture’s psyche.

Seeing it widely embraced could lead Christians to despair. However, as Trueman reminds the reader, Christ has promised His church that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. God is sovereign and His will shall be done, on earth as it is in heaven. With this hope we can continue to eagerly await the coming marriage feast of the Lamb.

This book is a must-read for older teenagers and adults alike (and ranks in my personal top 5). Understanding the history of the ideas that led to this moment gives us the power to resist our culture’s siren call into identity politics, and will better equip us to sympathize with those who haven’t resisted, and have been shipwrecked.


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Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman 2020 / 425 pages Carl Trueman has lost his sense of humor. I’ve read several of his books and they all had clever moments of wit. However, there’s nothing to laugh about in Trueman’s latest. There’s a definite risk in it being otherwise. Our day doesn’t tolerate any joking around when it comes to the sexual revolution, particularly from those who might be critical of it. Even when we come with gravitas, the revolutionaries will not be pleased. While progressives “Christian” or secular won’t bear any critiques of their revolution, Bible-believing Christians need such critiques more than ever. If we’re going to withstand the forces arrayed against us, we need deep-digging analysis. And Trueman delivers. For those unfamiliar with him, Carl Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He was previously a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. He’s an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the author of numerous books and articles. By training Trueman is a historian and this book is primarily a work of history. It explains how things came to be as they are. Trueman writes: My aim is to explain how and why a certain notion of the self has come to dominate the culture of the West, why this self finds its most obvious manifestation in the transformation of sexual mores, and what the wider implications of this transformation are and may well be in the future. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is not, therefore, so much of a theological analysis of intellectual and cultural trends past and present. There is some such analysis, but The Rise and Triumph… is primarily historical -- albeit written from a Christian historian’s perspective. It essentially traces the historical development leading up to the sexual revolution of our present day. 4 parts In Part 1, “Architecture of the Revolution,” Trueman lays out some helpful conceptual categories and tools for understanding the history to be examined. In Part 2, “Foundations of the Revolution,” he explores how philosophers (Rousseau, Nietzche, and Marx), scientists (Darwin) and poets (Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake) played key roles in the development of the psychologized self. Part 3, “Sexualization of the Revolution,” features psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whom Trueman asserts, “is actually the key figure in the narrative of this book.” More than anyone else, Freud is responsible for sexualizing psychology. As Trueman notes, “…before Freud, sex was an activity, for procreation or for recreation; after Freud, sex is definitive of who we are, as individuals, as societies, and as a species.” Marxist scholars Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse took the next step and politicized sex. Accordingly, “Sex is no longer a private activity because sexuality is a constitutive element of public, social identity.” In Part 4, “Triumphs of the Revolution,” Trueman demonstrates how the sexual revolution has carried the day in terms of: pornography how feelings govern ethics (the therapeutic mindset) and transgenderism The last of these is the most interesting, as Trueman describes how transgender individuals were not initially welcomed by the gay and especially the lesbian community. Even gays and lesbians weren’t always on the same side. So, how did the T come to stand with the L and the G? Trueman answers: “…it is a political coalition forged on the basis of a common enemy – a socially and politically enforced heterosexual normativity.” Two highlights There are many good insights in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, but let me isolate two that especially grabbed my attention. For many years, I understood the sexual revolution as something that more or less developed out of the “hippie”/anti-war movement of the 1960s with the catalyst being America’s involvement in Vietnam. I thought of it as an anti-authoritarian and at times anarchic, at other times Marxist, social phenomenon. However, Trueman’s work shows that to understand the present day, we have to reach back at least two centuries. The other insight has to do with the way sexuality has become key to selfhood and identity. Trueman notes that, in today’s world, not recognizing someone’s identity leads to feelings of inferiority. This is akin to a personal attack. He goes on: This observation is important in enabling us to understand why, for example, in a society where sexuality is foundational to personal identity, mere tolerance of homosexuality is bound to become unacceptable. The issue is not one of simply decriminalizing behaviour; that would certainly mean that homosexual acts were tolerated by society, but the acts are only a part of the overall problem. The real issue is one of recognition, of recognizing the legitimacy of who the person thinks he actually is. That requires more than mere tolerance; it requires equality before the law and recognition by the law and society. And that means that those who refuse to grant such recognition will be the ones who find themselves on the wrong side of both the law and emerging social attitudes. The person who objects to homosexual practice is, in contemporary society, actually objecting to homosexual identity. And the refusal by any individual to recognize an identity that society at large recognizes as legitimate is a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference. The question of identity in the modern world is a question of dignity. For this reason, the various court cases in America concerning the provision of cakes and flowers for gay weddings are not ultimately about the flowers or the cakes. They are about the recognition of gay identity and, according to members of the LGBTQ+ community, the recognition that they need in order to feel that they are equal members of society. Trueman nails it. The sexual revolution doesn’t want our indifference or our toleration. It wants our affirmation, recognition, and celebration. Anything short of that is considered phobic – defined as a form of irrational bigotry. Conclusion The book ends with a “Concluding Unscientific Prologue.” The last word there is Trueman’s hint he may have more to say on this subject. He does already here propose some constructive ways in which the church could be engaging with the world, besotted as it is with the sexual revolution. One of his points here did however raise my eyebrow: “Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body” (p.405). I have no problem with the latter. But “natural law” here would seem to demand a little more explanation than Trueman provides. He frames it in the context of teaching the church should provide to its members regarding moral principles. So, it would seem, he’s proposing the recovery of an understanding of the moral order God has revealed in nature. But since that moral order is more clearly revealed in the Word of God, and we’re talking about the church, why not focus our attention on Scripture? All Christian leaders need to read this book, whether they’re involved with leadership in education, business, government, or the church. The sexual revolution threatens Christian hearts and minds which are sometimes naïve to the consequences of accepting some or all of its key premises. Christian leaders need to be conversant with the history and philosophy behind the revolution, so they can speak the truth in love from God’s Word. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self meets that need. I believe it will be recognized as one of the landmark Christian books of our time....


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