A recent article in New York Magazine included this bombshell: “Roughly 30 percent of American women under 25 identify as LGBT. For women over 60, that figure is less than 5 percent.”
Now, I can’t find anyone who believes the number can really be that high. To acknowledge such a dramatic shift in such a short period of time would be nothing short of a world-changing revolution. But, we know about rapid-onset gender dysphoria among adolescents and teens. We’ve seen the prevalence of social contagion in our Instagram age. So, is such a revolution in human sexuality so unthinkable? This revolution may be sudden if it’s actually happening, but it’s no more dramatic than what we’ve seen unfold in the West in the last 60 years. Historian Carl Trueman covers that ground in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway).
This is my pick for the most important book published in 2020.
Trueman locates the sexual revolution within a broader change in views of the self and identity. He joins me in this special extended episode of Gospelbound, to help church leaders understand what’s happening. I’ve heard Carl say that apologetics used to be about explaining the church to the world, but now it’s more about explaining the world to the church. That’s what he does in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which is my pick for the most important book published in 2020.
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Collin Hansen: A recent article in New York Magazine included this bombshell, “Roughly 30% of American women under 25 identify as LGBT. For women over 60, that figure is less than 5%.”
Now, I can’t find anyone who believes this number can really be that high. To acknowledge such a dramatic shift in such a short period of time would be nothing short of a world changing revolution. But, we know about rapid onset gender dysphoria among adolescents and teens. We’ve seen the prevalence of social contagion in our Instagram age. So, is such a revolution in human sexuality so unthinkable? This revolution may be sudden if it’s actually happening, but it’s no more dramatic than what we’ve seen unfold in the west in the last 60 years. Historian, Carl Trueman covers that ground in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, published by Crossway.
Collin Hansen: But, he locates the sexual revolution within a broader change in views of the self and identity. Trueman joins me in this special extended episode of Gospelbound, to help church leaders understand what’s happening. I’ve seen Carl say that apologetics used to be about explaining the church to the world, but now it’s more about explaining the world to the church. That’s what he does in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which is my pick for the most important book published in 2020. I’m eager to learn more about this road to revolution, and also ask some of your listener questions on this subject. Carl, thank you for joining me on this episode of Gospelbound.
Carl Trueman: Great to be here, Collin. Thanks for having me on.
Collin Hansen: Well, Carl, what led you to embark on this journey of research and writing? Your interests range very widely, about as widely as any historians I know. I don’t think I would’ve assumed a decade ago from your work on church history that you’d go in this direction.
Carl Trueman: No, I would not have assumed that either. It’s something of a break in terms of content at least with what I’ve typically done in the past, which has been focused very much on 16th and 17th century protestant thought. The immediate context for the book was a three way conversation I had five or six years ago with Rod Dreher from the American Conservative, and Justin Taylor from Crossway. They wanted somebody to do an introduction to the work of Philip Rieff, and I looked at Rieff, thought he was interesting, and thought I’d take up the challenge. I started to work on that, and it soon became clear that a more interesting book would be… and a more useful book would be not simply an introduction to Rieff, but a book that took some of his ideas and used them to decode or understand what was happening in our culture.
Carl Trueman: At the same time, I was at that point in time a pastor as well, and pastors are faced with concerns and questions that come from their congregation, many of which, in my experience, tended to focus on issues relating to the sexual revolution. I remember one particular question I was asked by a congregant was whether he could use the requested pronouns at work to refer to a transgender person. Was that something that a Christian should refuse to do, or was it something that a Christian should comply with? I was also aware that a lot of Christians were wrong footed, or thrown off balance by the apparent speed at which the sexual morays of society are changing. 2015 was the Supreme Court judgments on gay marriage. It seems like a lifetime ago now. No sooner had gay marriage been recognized at law by the Supreme Court that we seem to have an avalanche of transgender issues impacting us.
Carl Trueman: I was interested in trying to explore why this is happening so fast. As you pointed out in your introduction, what I discovered as I was working on this book was that actually, it appears to be happening fast, but the fundamental transformations that make this possible are very deep seated and longstanding. The book had a pastoral origin as well. Purely speaking, I was at a point in my career where I’ve made whatever contribution I’m going to make in 16th, 17th century, I’ve made it. I can keep making the same contribution, but I thought it would be more interesting to spend my closing decades doing something different.
Collin Hansen: Was it a difficult transition? I mean, did you have to come up to speed on authors like Philip Rieff, or were you pretty well conversant already, you just needed to organize your thoughts?
Carl Trueman: I had to do a lot of reading. I’m grateful to you, because roundabout the same time, I think it was you that asked me to contribute to a book on Charles Taylor. I’ve read Taylor, but that made me go back and spend a lot more time studying Taylor. He features in the book too, so I wasn’t building from scratch, but I was certainly having to expand the canon of books that I read, and I was very fortunate and privileged to be granted a one year fellowship at Princeton University by the great Robby George, which gave me the time to devote to the catch up work I’ve got to do.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I’m glad you dropped that book, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, which came out in 2017 on the 10 year anniversary of his landmark book, A Secular Age. You’re exactly right. One of the reasons I love your book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is it does in a similar way what Charles Taylor did of helping people to understand not merely what’s in front of us, but what’s behind. What’s in front of us, which is, I think, vital for us to be able to understand the challenges and to be able to respond to them effectively and faithfully. I was going to ask, for whom did you write the book? That’s one of the things I think a lot of people are going to ask, because I mean, for me, it’s an incredibly compelling read. I moved quickly through it. I was just fascinated. I kept looking, Carl, of there’s going to be some point in this book where I fall off. At some point, I’m going to lose the trail. At some point, I’m going to start to disagree, and it never happened.
Collin Hansen: I was really surprised. It isn’t about you, it’s just about the complexity of this subject, but I do, because of some of the work you had just talked about there that you and I have done together in the past, I’m fairly conversant with a lot of the ideas in here, but most pastors are not, which is why I think it’s such a valuable resource. Who do you have in mind as the intended audience? Are you thinking mainly pastors? Are lay-leaders in sight here, or are we just talking academics? Who are you thinking?
Carl Trueman: I didn’t have any particular constituents in mind. I suppose, if I was to generalize it, say, I wanted to write for the kind of people that read The First Thing’s website, First Thing’s Magazine, or Touchstone. Are not scholars, but are thoughtful and informed people who want to have a thoughtful and informed approach to the subject. I was very careful in the way I wrote it. It’s odd. It’s not really until the last chapter that I tip my hand as a Christian. I mean, on one level, it’s very clear from the foreword, et cetera, I’m writing as a Christian, but I wanted to write in a way that was explanatory rather than evaluative a lot of the time, because I wanted people not to get carried away by rhetoric, but to follow the line of argumentation. One of the men in my own denomination said to me, he said, “It’s very interesting that when I read your stuff at First Things, I always feel it’s the preacher speaking, but you’re coming in and hitting from different… In this book, you didn’t really preach until last chapter. You were very dispassionate.”
Carl Trueman: That was a self conscious move on my part, because I also hope that… It may be a vein hope, but I hope that non-Christians, religious conservatives in general, I even hope that patient in the LGBTQ movement will be able to read this book and even if they don’t agree with my conclusions at the end, at least say, “Well, he presented the history fairly. He understands what’s going on, and he’s not a caricature of that position, even as he has ultimately offered some critique of it.
Collin Hansen: I think you succeed in that, and that’s an important clarification for people who have read your previous work, and especially who enjoy your First Things columns, or what you’ve written at the Gospel Coalition, because you know how to pack a rhetorical punch. I’ve been on the receiving end [crosstalk] of more than a few of your punches.
Carl Trueman: [inaudible] and wiser.
Collin Hansen: I understand that, but my point is you’re right. That’s not the book that you wrote here. It doesn’t mean it’s poorly written. It just means you’re right, there’s a more dispassionate tone when it comes there, which is part of what allowed me to move through it so quickly, and I do think it can reach those audiences, and I might encourage listeners and viewers following with us here to find somebody within your community, especially if you’re in an academic community with whom you might read the book and then you might talk it through there, because I know that Christians are not necessarily equipped to understand these changes, but I’m not sure most other people who are completely supportive of what’s happened in the sexual revolution understand its own evolution.
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: All right. I think it is beneficial for that group as well. Now, I think I detected, Carl, an homage to Charles Taylor in the beginning. Taylor famously starts The Secular Age by saying, “500 years ago, you took for granted that God existed. This is the story of how that came to be fraught and how that we’ve lost touch with that narrative.” You write, not long ago, maybe 30 years ago that this statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” would’ve been incomprehensible. Now, I might say it’s incontestable.
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: How do you even begin to explain such a transformation? That’s what the book is for, but I’m just trying to ask. How do you even begin to explain that transformation?
Carl Trueman: Well, one of the biggest headaches in the book was actually getting the structure right. I was very grateful that Grove City College provided me with a couple of research assistants whose job was essentially to read what I wrote and tell me if it made sense to them, and to try to find some coherence. I think the way I ultimately solved that problem was to think, “Okay, what does society have to assume is true in order for this statement to make sense?” One of the big assumptions, of course, is society assumes that one’s inner feelings within some limits, but generally, one’s inner feelings are the real foundational definitive point of who you actually are. Big part of the narrative is exploring how do we get to a point where my body has less authority than my emotions or my sentiments?
Carl Trueman: That was the key for me. What does society need to think is intuitively true? Another aspect of that would be society has to have a notion of freedom where freedom is Collin Hansen being free to be whoever he thinks he is, and Trueman not to get in his way and interfere with that. That’s another aspect of the story. It’s the rise of expressive individualism as Taylor would characterize it is what’s being traced out there. Of course, in doing that, I also came to the rather disturbing, perhaps, conclusion that we’re all involved in this. It’s not a question of say, “Well, transgender people, they bite into this philosophy and that’s where you end up.” It tends to be rather disturbing to think, “Wow, we all kind of buy into this philosophy. We all think of ourselves as determined by our choices. We all allow our inner feelings to drive our sense of identity,” so we’re all complicit. That, I think is actually helpful for Christians, because the tendency in all of us, and especially myself, is often to say, “I thank you Lord that I’m not like other men.”
Carl Trueman: We start to put together that narrative and realize our complicity. I think it chastens and humbles us in the way we interact with those with whom we might disagree on this point.
Collin Hansen: I think, Carl, if I could identify the biggest shift in my understanding of cultural analysis, it came in realizing the point you just made right there, that it’s not about how we’re just trying to understand the world so that we can engage and defeat the world from our position of privilege and power and principled stands. It’s more about we are being compromised ourselves in ways that we seem to take for granted. It’s less of the culture war approach of issues based and more about broader, like I said earlier, cultural analysis there to understand those changes. I think that’s why coming off an election, coming off so much contentiousness over political issues and things like that, it would be wise for people to invest in picking up this book.
Collin Hansen: An example I give is years ago, James Davidson Hunter and I were meeting in Virginia at the University of Virginia, and I was asking him about politics. He dismissed me as if my questions were completely irrelevant, and I was a little miffed. Why is that the case? He said, “Well, you’re talking to me about the weather. I’m thinking about climate.” I thought, “Wow.” It’s affected a whole shift for me, and that’s what you’re doing here. You’re doing climatology.
Carl Trueman: I think that’s important. Your reference to culture war there is very significant. One thing that’s become very clear to me, teaching undergraduates, I’ve gone back to teaching undergraduates, Grove City College. The language of culture war doesn’t resonate with most of them. The task of those of us who want to defend the faith and articulate what we consider to be the appropriate model of human flourishing, worshiping God, enjoying God, looking forward to being with Him forever, we have to adopt a different strategy, and I think that emphasis upon the climate as James Davidson Hunter put it, naturally draws you away from the rather stark and aggressive battle lines of the culture. The culture, in some sense, I think is over at this point. The culture is what it is, and Christians now have to learn to be persuasive within that overall climate.
Collin Hansen:= Well, don’t we need to also learn to be persuasive with our own children?
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: I think one of the things I’m most concerned about is I continue to hear report after report after report of strong Christian church leaders for whom when talking with their children, a biblical sexual ethic is incomprehensible.
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: Even if they’ve been formed in the church, what do you see teaching undergrads in a Christian college environment?
Carl Trueman: I think that’s much the same. The work of my colleague, David [Ayres 00:16:21], David’s done a lot of work on attitudes among religious conservatives towards sexuality, and this is an area where really, there is a massive generational shift taking place. When I was a pastor, I remember another pastor saying to me, “Never assume that anybody under the age of 30 necessarily agrees with your view of sexuality.” I think, for the longest time, the Christian sexual ethic was also the general cultural ethic, and that made us very lazy about thinking about how to articulate these things, because we thought they were self evident and obvious. My experience with teaching undergraduates is, in a place like Grove, a lot of students come from good Christian homes and they’re good Christian kids. They want to be faithful, and they know what the Bible says, but they don’t know why the Bible says it. We need to be persuasive by providing them context, by allowing them to understand why they might struggle with what the Bible says, by pointing them to the… God doesn’t command these things simply as an arbitrary whim. They connect to a holistic view of what life is.
Carl Trueman: I think protestants really need to play catch up on that kind of game, deepening our sexual ethic in a way that we’ve not had to do for many, many generations, precisely because the culture has essentially been in the same place that we have, and that’s no longer the case.
Collin Hansen: How is it that a biblical sexual ethic that has played such a cornerstone role in the development of western culture… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Joseph Hendrich’s book, The Weirdest People in the World, just came out-
Carl Trueman: Just got it the other week. I haven’t had a chance to read it. [crosstalk]
Collin Hansen: When people read Carl’s book, then they can turn to that one. But, he’s arguing that more or less, the whole concept of western identity, western educated industrial, rich, and democratic is because of the church’s imposition of a biblical sexual ethic, which broke up the clan structure, and created the nuclear family, which then allowed free associations and things like that. How did we go from that situation to all of a sudden, it being unthinkable, and then it becomes just under this umbrella term of oppression, and it’s like the old British skit with Hugh Laurie, you look around at each other and are like, “Are we the baddies?” How did we become the baddies here?
Carl Trueman: Well, in some ways, that’s the story of my book. It takes me 400 pages to get that. I think, I mean, there are many aspects to that story. One of them is I think Freud’s notion that we’re defined by our sexual desires. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t really matter. I always say to the students, just because an idea is false doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come to grip the imagination and drive human motivation. I think his idea that we’re defined by our sexual desires is very appealing, and contains a certain amount of truth, and that’s come to grip the imagination. Of course, it morphs into a political form, because as soon as you make that move that we are our sexual desires, then political liberation gets closely connected to sexual liberation, because sexual codes become oppressive means of preventing me from being who I really am. That’s one side of it.
Carl Trueman: I think another side is technological. For the longest time, traditional Christian sexual codes did reinforce the kind of technological industrial capitalist kind of society that the west had become where disciplined work habits and personal responsibility in one’s private life were closely connected. The guy can’t go around getting lots and lots of girls pregnant, because that will cause all manner of social problems. The advent of the pill, the advent of cheap contraception, the advent of drugs that help combat sexually transmitted disease, all of these things essentially separate that what we might call the public disciplines from the private disciplines, that we can have those public disciplines now of hard work. We can still play as we wish in private, because the two don’t really kind of collide in a way that would’ve done 100 years ago.
Carl Trueman: There a lot of aspects to that story. On the one hand, there’s the intellectual aspect that slowly trickles down. Secondly, there’s the technological aspect that makes these ideas plausible to act upon in a way that they might not have been in times past.
Collin Hansen: If I remember correctly from the book, you don’t devote as much attention to the technological aspects of these things, right? You focus more on the philosophical developments?
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: Which is noteworthy, because we know in historical account they interplay, they feed off each other, and part of that’s the whole challenge of the analyst is to decide how they do. One thing you did in Our Secular Age that I felt was so significant is… I’ve seen it from others since then, but you talk about the role of the automobile in church discipline. Why does church discipline disappear? Because, at the point where you can simply drive to a different congregation, even in your same denomination, what power do you have of locking people out of the fellowship and treating them as unbelievers? Why didn’t you give more attention to the technological developments in this particular book?
Carl Trueman: That’s a good question. On the one hand, I did not want to write something of the length of Our Secular Age. [crosstalk]
Collin Hansen: It was 800 pages. You’re right.
Carl Trueman: It was certainly not because I don’t think that aspect of the story’s important. I mean, I say, right at the very beginning, “This is not an exhaustive account of how these changes have come to dominate society.” I do allude to technology on a couple of occasions. Certainly, in the section on pornography, I think one cannot separate… Pornography shapes the way people think about other people, about the way they think about sexual morality, and the triumph of pornography in contemporary society cannot be separated from its technological fore. Times past, there were obvious social restraints that prevented people from indulging this. Now, anybody can indulge it in what, at least, they imagine is private. It may practically be a little more complicated than that.
Carl Trueman: But, other than that, the technological story is… It’s another story in itself. A little bit like, I think, there’s another aspect of the story I don’t really address, and that’s the institutional aspect. One of the things, I think, that facilitates the rise of the plastic notion of the self, we can invent ourselves, is the liquidity of institutions that we now live in a world where the typical solid anchors that would’ve allowed us to… we could grab hold of to give ourselves firm identity have dissolved. I think that, too, has a huge impact on how we think about ourselves. No longer do we get born, married, and die in the same location. We are very fluid in terms of our institutional relations now, and that’s another part of the story that, really, I didn’t have a chance to address.
Collin Hansen: You mentioned Freud earlier. I’m wondering, did you identify any particular turning point or maybe most important figure? Seems, if I had to guess, would’ve been Rousseau.
Carl Trueman: Rousseau, is in some sense, the founder of the feast. I was teaching my historical methods class yesterday, and I used my book as an example. You always have to choose your starting point, and there’s always something behind the start of it. Could’ve started with Descartes for example, but I think Rousseau is significant because he is the man who doesn’t just internalize the self in the way that, say, a Descartes does, but who emphasizes the importance and priority of feelings that both reflect my identity, also give him a certain view as society is corrupting, and also, point towards a particular ethical understanding where ethics becomes a matter of empathy. All of those things, the internalization of the self, the priority on my feelings as determining who I am, and empathy as the foundational ethical category, all of those become very important in the modern moment, particularly, vis a vie the sexual revolution, so I would say Rousseau’s the kind of founder of the feast. Obviously, his ideas have developed and transformed in subsequent centuries, but he’s the man who really sets the ball rolling.
Collin Hansen: Can cover a lot of ground in discussing the development of western thought and history in A Tale of Two Genevans.
Carl Trueman: It would be trite but true to say the thing that makes unbelievers unbelievers is they don’t accept biblical authority. So, simply quoting the Bible isn’t going to solve the problem. But, I also think it’s hard to argue from natural law or something like that. Arguments that I find quite compelling will not work with those who are deeply embedded in the radical expressive individualism all around.
Collin Hansen: Emotivism.
Carl Trueman: Emotivism, yeah. [crosstalk] The best I can do, and I’m no expert in this at all. I’m in the same boat as the person asking that question, wrestling with how to go about this. One, I think, a one size fits all answer probably doesn’t work, because every human relationship has its unique aspects. Two though, I do think a big part of the solution and I sort of point towards this at the end of the book, it’s interesting that the person said friends, and where does a friend lose hope? Because, there’s always hope that, at minimum, this person might ultimately turn around and say, “Well, I think your views are crazy, but the way you relate to me and the way I see you relate to other people and the friends you have indicates that it’s not hatred that’s driving you. It’s confusion.” I think the key is, the context in which these discussions take place, that it’s important that they occur in the context of community and friendship. I do think Rosario Butterfield is a classic example of… The example, not a example, the example. Her conversion is rooted in the friendship she has with this pastor.
Carl Trueman: They built a real, true friendship before they ever got into any of the nitty gritty of the difficult stuff that divided them. I think friendships, one cannot underestimate the power and importance of friendships in this context. No magic bullet there, but I would say continue to be a friend. Continue to be a friend and your arguments may gain plausibility simply because you’re a caring, loving friend to that person.
Collin Hansen: Much of the first 10 years of my career, Carl, was watching… You think about the 2004 presidential election, the so-called values voters, all these bans on gay marriage, many of my… Those years were watching the west simply be overtaken with gay marriage, transgenders and things like that, things that were impossible to imagine in 2000 were simply taken for granted in 2010 or 2015. The only time I began to see Christians find their footing is when Christians who are celibate or in biblical marriages began to feel comfortable speaking out about their experiences and their willingness to stand firm in the faith and with biblical truth, and Rosario’s at the head of that. We’ve seen others, whether it be Sam Allberry or Vaughan Roberts or others who have followed in their wake, but it was… We were simply caught off guard, caught flat footed, and just sliding down that hill until finally, it was like, “Okay.” Clearly, people who had struggled in that way inside our churches did not feel comfortable talking about that publicly.
Carl Trueman: Yeah. Yeah.
Collin Hansen: That was the big hurdle, but once that hurdle was jumped, it seemed as though, okay, now we’ve got a fighting chance here to be able to help people to understand personally and relationally what we mean about this unchanging biblical truth. Now, the second question, Carl, I think I probably know the answer to it, and I think it’s going to fit well within the narrative you explained in your book, but a listener asks, “Why does secularism frame LGBTQ rights as civil rights, but not life in the womb?
Carl Trueman: Well, I think it comes down to a couple of things there. First of all, the notion of personhood is important, and personhood is increasingly, I think, understood in an expressive individualist climate as an independent self consciousness, and a denial of dependency. Just as an aside, I always say Rousseau’s philosophy is built on this idea that man is born free [crosstalk] If ever there’s a self evidently wrong statement, it’s that. Man is born utterly dependent for an unusual period of time upon his bed, but the myths, the unique self that grabs hold of us is an expressive individual one that prioritizes individual rights rather than dependent duties and responsibilities. That creates, I think, a natural adversarial state between the individual and anything else. The way that pregnancy is conceptualized in that study is kind of adversarial. The embryo in the womb is an invader, a parasite. It is jockeying for the rights of the mother, and the mother is a more mature and independent self consciousness is always going to win.
Carl Trueman: The LGBTQ stuff operates with a similar frame in that you’re choosing your own identity. You’re setting forth your identity. You’re requiring that to be recognized by others. I think both of them operate with the same kind of model of self conscious free personhood, but in the one case, the embryo lacks self consciousness, lacks personhood, and stands in an adversarial relationship to the one who does.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I would add a little bit informed by Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher’s writing in particular that the rest of the sexual revolution depends technologically on abortion. It becomes the backstop that allows the free expression of sexual activity, because it eliminates the one consequence, or one of the chief consequences, I should say, of sex.
Carl Trueman: It takes sex out of any kind of story and makes it a joyful moment with no significance beyond that.
Collin Hansen: Right. This question is not directly addressed in your book, but I think it fits broadly within the same understanding. A listener asks, “How do we determine biblical gender roles versus secular or traditional gender roles?” Easy one. I’m going to give you 30 seconds.
Carl Trueman: Well, I am both a radical misogynist and a radical feminist depending on which Twitter feed you read, actually. I mean, there’s some basics there. Women can conceive and have children. We can start with the real biological basics. I think beyond that, there is a lot of flexibility. I mean, anybody, and you’ve done this, Collin. Anybody who’s traveled to different countries will know that the relationship of men and women is constructed differently in Britain to South Korea, to North America, to China. We have to allow, I think… Well, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t rayify our own cultural preferences. On the other hand, I think we do need to acknowledge that there are key biological differences. We’ve talked about some of them on this program. Women are by and large physically weaker. That doesn’t mean that every woman is physically weaker than every man. But, by and large, that is the case. Women can conceive and have children. Women can breast feed. There are clear roles that women have that men cannot have.
Carl Trueman: I simply think on this, we need to be sensitive to our cultural predispositions without dissolving the relationship, the difference between men and women in its entirety.
Collin Hansen: I’ve noticed, Carl, in publishing the last 10 years in particular, that writing anything within an internet context on gender roles is virtually impossible, because people bring so many different fraught expectations and anger and experiences and fear to the conversations, and not to mention a global perspective that it’s very hard to write on this topic and have somebody speak in a way that transcends some of those differences. Now, the Bible says enough, because that’s how God has set it up to be, but it doesn’t also say as much sometimes as we would want it to say on these things. It seems to me that we’re stuck with one group pushing for… In an era that what we’re talking about here, you need to reassert the difference, the complementarity of the genders.
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: Then, another group saying, “But yeah, but we’re dealing with a long term legacy of cultural appropriation and stereotyping that doesn’t make sense either historically, or internationally.” It seems like both perspectives are valid, but we can’t figure out how to make them both work together. It’s that whole middle ground that we can’t… I don’t mean middle ground as in a little bit of that. I just mean it’s like we’re back to back and we can’t figure out how to go face to face and to move forward together.
Carl Trueman: Yeah, and I think in a particular time like this when the culture war, I think, is coming to an end, but it’s certainly still being fought fairly vigorously, there can be a temptation for Christians to react against the extremes. It seems to me that it’s been interesting what’s happened on some complimentarian side of things, which have gone in a more radically complimentarian direction. I can understand that as a reaction to transgenderism. There’s a danger, I think, that we can overreact to things. The key is to try to hold onto the biblical middle ground, but try to hold the biblical ground, not get beyond that which the Bible states, but not shortchange the Bible either.
Collin Hansen: Here’s a question from a listener, Carl, which is I think, good for a historian. I had the experience this year of reading through Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, and one thing I loved about it is how terrible it showed the founding fathers to be as human beings, except for Washington, he kind of comes across as a dolt, but I mean, other than that, he sounds like a great guy. That’s the kind of thing that, oddly enough, encourages me. I’m encouraged to know that people are people.
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: Whether their names are capitalized as founding fathers or whatnot. I mean, I should’ve known that biblically, because that’s ever hero being torn down except for Jesus, but it’s still helpful for me as a historian, and maybe that’s the perspective that you could bring to this listener’s question. This person asks, “It seems as though we’ve crossed the line from differences that lead to disagreement to differences that lead to deconstruction or cancel culture. Is this just a misunderstanding of the past, or are we really more divisive now?
Carl Trueman: That’s an interesting question. I think that part of the problem is, we seem to have lost sight of the moral complexity of human agency somewhere down the line. It’s odd to me, for example, the debates that take place around, say, George Whitfield and slavery, or Jonathan Edwards and slavery. I’ve always taken the opinion that anybody I studied in history was a mix of the good and the bad. The key is, I certainly don’t want to follow Whitfield in slavery anymore than I want to follow him on how he treated his wife. There are other problems with Whitfield. On the other hand, I don’t want to throw out some of the good things that these guys did just because they were done by, I think you used the word dolts. They were done by dolts. We’re all doltish to some extent, and again, I think in the kind of polarized culture we’re in at the moment where we’re craving identity, the usual identity markers, family, religion, nation, are kind of crumbling.
Carl Trueman: One of the easy ways to grab identity is to find a tribe that we can belong to and demonize all other tribes. The problem with that is it doesn’t provide you with a very good lens for, say, parsing the moral complexity of human action. One of my really big concerns today is that Christians are falling into that. You commented earlier on about you’ve been on the end of a few slaps from me over the years. I have consciously changed my style over the last six, seven years, because I don’t want to be part of that kind of culture. I think it behooves us all to try to model approaches to issues that reflect that moral complexity and avoid that. I thank you Lord that I’m not like other men, this guy over here.
Collin Hansen: Well, interestingly, Carl, when I was working on Our Secular Age as early 2017, I kept asking people, “Who do I need to include in this book,” and I’m really happy with the lineup that we ended up with with Michael Horton and Bret [McCracken] and Allan Noble and Mike Kosper and the whole… Jen Michelle, a great lineup of people. The one name that kept coming up, other than Charles Taylor and Jamie Smith was Carl Trueman, which was interesting, because I was like… I think it was Justin who said, “Well, I think Carl’s changing some of his emphasis in terms of the kinds of things that he’s researching, and this will be a good fit while he’s working at Princeton.” I thought, “Wow, I just didn’t expect that.” Then, I thought, “I’m pretty sure Carl hates me.” I just kept thinking, “I don’t know if that’s going to go well.” I thought, “Well, I’m going to give it a shot. I want to see what the Lord is going to do with this.”
Collin Hansen: I’m so glad that I did. I’m so glad you responded the way that you did.
Carl Trueman: I can give you the backstory on that.
Collin Hansen: Okay, go ahead. Go ahead.
Carl Trueman: When I got your email, I was surprised. I thought, “I assumed Carl thought I hated him.” I sent it to a friend, and I said, “What do you think?” This friend gave me good advice. He said, “When people are kind, accept that kindness.” And, I did, and I was very glad to do so. As I say, we get older, and we get wiser. Hopefully, we get kinder as well.
Collin Hansen: Well, I love that Carl, because I also had… I was so encouraged by our exchange, that I then proceeded to try that with somebody else who had very critical of me. It didn’t work at all. It, in fact, backfired on me in a major, very public way. But, I still thought, “It’s always worth taking a chance,” because like you said, we do get wiser, hopefully, with age. Ultimately, God is honored, and in light of the challenges that we face, we need each other.
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: You mentioned Robby George. You’ve mentioned Rod Dreher. Both of us have significant theological disagreements with both of them, George being Catholic, Dreher being orthodox, and yet, when it comes to a lot of these issues, which are about our churches, they’re about our public witness, they’re about our children, they’re about our collective future as a society, we need their help. We need to be working together wherever possible on these things.
Carl Trueman: It takes no courage to take on other Christians by and large. It doesn’t. The courageous stands at the moment are being taken against those who are seeking to destroy the faith. I became very convicted of that a few years ago. It’s time to focus on helping Christians address the bigger, the real problems. Not the disputes between Presbyterians and Baptists, Presbyterians and evangelicals or whatever. The real problems are the problems that the person in the pew, the Christian teaching in the public school, the guy at a company who’s being asked to use gender pronouns, those are the people that are taking really courageous stands. Those of us who have the luxury of operating in a Christian community, we should use our time to produce stuff that helps those people with those courageous stands that they have to take.
Collin Hansen: In the most church-going city in America, Birmingham, Alabama, if you’re a pastor or an elder, you will deal with the following issues. In the town where I sit right now, the state of Alabama’s just approved a new gay charter school. Parents are commonly dealing with their children wanting to transition in elementary school ages or junior high ages within Christian homes, and if you do not celebrate gay weddings or things like that within your workplace or engagements, you will be ostracized and perhaps even fired from your job.
Carl Trueman: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: That’s what’s happening in Birmingham, Alabama, the most church-going city in America. If you’re a pastor, you’re going to be dealing with those things. That’s what your book helps to do, and that’s why I’m so enthusiastic about it, Carl. Like I said, I think it’s the most important book that’s been published in 2020, and it’s a good cap to the end of year one of Gospelbound, so thank you for helping to celebrate that, Carl.
Carl Trueman: Thanks for having me on.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, make sure everybody sees the book and they can pick up the book from Crossway. Crossway also did a beautiful job with the design, with the cover, with the feel of everything as they always do. Again, my guest on Gospelbound, Carl Trueman, author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Thank you, Carl.
Carl Trueman: Thanks, Collin.