In Part 1 of this series, I reviewed a new book by Dr. Carl Trueman, Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Here in Part 2, I engage more deeply with his book and his application for the Church today.
Trueman mentions that his book is a platform to both present the past and launch into debates of the future. Trueman gives some of his tips on handling this evolution of ideas. Firstly, Christians should know this world is not their home. Christians are strangers in this land and should not worry about a world that appears out of control.
Secondly, don't whinge about modern challenges. Trueman talks about "an odd masochistic pleasure" to whinge at the current times and look back at the "good old days". He encourages people not to fall into this trap but to see God's guiding and loving rule through all situations.
Thirdly, our current cultural position of accepting "I am a woman trapped in a man's body" is not the problem but just the symptom. Trueman says the true root of the issue is a "deeper revolution in what it means to be a self" (p. 384). His point is to remind us that the human condition has not changed since the fall but the way it is expressed has.
What changes is the imagery we have 'to be God'. For example, the desire for the newest mobile phone is different from the desires in Shakespeare's time. However, the desire of something to complete us remains the same across time.
Fourthly, some ideas we see in this movement are good. In the 1500s individuals had no choice about issues of faith. Most were Roman Catholic. Today, we can choose to be Christians and even the type of Christian church we want to belong to (e.g. Pentecostal, Anglican etc.). Not all expressive individualism is bad. Choice is a good thing.
Fifthly, Christians are part of this change of ideas. Christians cannot be hypocritically saying they want to be separate yet enjoying the benefits of expressive individualism. Christians, Trueman warns, engage in the same them-and-us "cancel culture" bias.
For example, preaching can become a therapeutic process of bringing people towards personal happiness based on emotional experiences and what people want to hear. That is, preaching to what people want to hear.
Or look at the example of the modern Protestant church's anti-culture and iconoclasm towards their foundational creeds and confessions. Churches ignore their creeds thinking of them as irrelevant despite being foundational for their beliefs. Christians have been part of the push for change as part of this wider movement.
Sixthly, LGBTQIA+ is not primarily about sexual identity. Trueman explains, "Sexual activity that does not reflect the biblical purpose of sex is wrong and to be clearly confronted as such by the church in her teaching and in her application of that teaching. However, the LGBTQIA + discussion is much deeper than that because it connects to matters of identity, of who we think we are at the most basic level."
As such, Christians, Trueman suggests, should consider not using the same wooden categories defined by current LGBTQIA + trends. For example, is sexuality the foundation of our identity, or as Trueman suggests, is God the central source of our identity?
As Trueman suggests, ideas matter and shape cultures. He maps out the centuries of ideas that have produced a statement such as "I am a woman trapped in a man's body".
Trueman's ideas in "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" is an outstanding exploration of our current position as a product of centuries of philosophical thought. It is already being regarded as a watershed in Christian thought and lays the foundation for thoughtful Christians to engage with culture in their aim to be salt and light to their community.
From my reading, I offer some thoughts for future growth:
God is in control
Christian teleology says God has a purpose for the world. He is in control. Providence means God will order all things for His glory. As Trueman explains, Christians may not like the cards currently dealt, however God is the dealer and the house always wins. The doctrines of providence and a Christian teleology are great teaching points for pastors reading Trueman's book and searching for application.
The mission of pastors to their flock is to stay true to a Christian worldview and be encouraged because we worship a God who is in control. As an example, this is the same purpose for the Biblical genre of apocalyptic literature. The key application of the Book of Revelation is to remind the persecuted Church of the victory Jesus has already won and encourage them to persist through their trials. Pastors can use this doctrine as a key encouragement for their flocks.
Covid and the rise of the self
The rise of expressive individualism is relevant during the current Covid tensions. Many people are pushing for individual freedoms at the expense of the wider community. Trueman's conclusion helps us to explore this shift towards the supremacy of the individual contrasted with the attitude of Reformer Martin Luther who refused to flee the 1527 bubonic plague but stayed to care for the sick (a decision that cost the life of his daughter).
Luther explains the Biblical mandate to epidemics saying, "The plague does not dissolve our duties: it turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die."
Today, some are prepared to die, but on an individual political Covid agenda, not a community gospel one. This shift is the "expressive individualism" that Trueman maps out in his book and provides a litmus test for the Church to re-evaluate its current mission. Has the Church got its balance right between individual freedoms and community/unity of the body? This is a practical outworking for the Church from Trueman's book.
The fog of war
Trueman's book sets the Church up for clear reflection in this war of the worldviews. This clash of secular and Christian ideologies could put Church leaders into a fog as to which way to turn.
However, Trueman warns of the danger of Christians being "Pharisees" by pointing out the plank in a secular culture's eye, yet not seeing the great benefits these new ideas bring to their lives.
Trueman's book gives us sight through the fog to reveal humans' deep desire for relationships and a constant struggle to fight against God's loving will. It can re-focus Christians to the importance of the Gospel to open our spiritual eyes to the clashes we face with the nations that rage with war against God.
Trueman briefly touches on the importance of modern communication, such as the internet, to share and propagate secular ideas. This is an idea begging for more detail. He could expand on this by exploring the way social media has acted as a catalyst to the social movements he expounds.
Several modern philosophers, such as Neil Postman, have worked in this space to bring clarity. Postman's pivotal books, Technopoly and Amusing ourselves to death, have both explored the impact of technology and especially the media in shaping our culture.
One idea Postman explores, that Trueman could expand on, is the idea that these changes come about, not through a dictatorial edict as seen in George Orwell's 1984, but through a gradual numbing of our senses through entertainment and technology, as portrayed in Huxley's Brave New World.
Postman's son recently explained the difference his father saw and the relevance for today.
"An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan," he explained. "Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us ... [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?"
Technology, such as American sitcoms and social media postings, spread ideas that seem to permeate our culture more powerfully than a 20th century philosopher that few have read. More people would have been influenced by the Friends sitcom than Freud or Foucault. Yet the content of these is the same and the penetration into our thoughts and actions is significant.
Trueman sets up an excellent platform for viewing examples within our modern culture. While he does explore surrealism art (e.g. Dali) and literacy (e.g. Shelly) there is scope for future critics and examples. For example, he mentions the elite athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner - now Caitlyn Jenner.
The world of sport is a current battle ground in the LGBQTI+ community as it wrestles with the incongruent mix of physiology (e.g. hormone levels) and fluid gender identity. While he covers the general concepts of "can a man truly be a woman?" (with an excellent summary of Greer's radical feminist work), this is an area pregnant for further exploration.
The other area for future research is humour. It is often said that the court jester is the only one that can speak the truth. Trueman's work offers a launching point to examine modern comedy as a lens into our culture. From British comedian Benny Hill, to Australian, Paul Hogan, the Freudian themes of sexualisation, gender roles and normative cultural expectations can track the trajectory of LGBQTI+ acceptance. Contrasting this, comedy often points out the inconsistency in ideas. However, is this muffled in the current gender debates?
Postman explains the juxtaposition our culture faces:
Orwell feared those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
As Trueman proves, ideas matter and shape cultures. Whether these ideas capture or trivialize us, Trueman has started a conversation to be aware of what ideas are going around and where these have come from. His ideas in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will help shape culture and set Christian thought and apologetics for years to come.