You’re not crazy for feeling disoriented right now. Something has changed dramatically in our society. Watching a man win a women’s swimming championship, seeing satire accounts banned from Twitter for referring to a male public official as a man, and hearing a Supreme Court nominee refuse to define “woman” in her confirmation hearings is all strange—very strange. And it raises the urgent questions of how we got to this point and why it seems to have happened so quickly.
In 2020, theologian and historian Carl Trueman offered a surprising answer: it didn’t happen quickly. His book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self was widely hailed as a major achievement for illuminating the centuries-long process by which a statement like “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” came to be regarded not only as meaningful, but as indisputable.
Unfortunately, not everyone can commit to digesting 432 pages. Which is why Trueman has done the church and ordinary readers a service by condensing his insights to 197 pages in Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.
Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution
How did the world arrive at its current, disorienting state of identity politics, and how should the church respond? Historian Carl R. Trueman shows how influences ranging from traditional institutions to technology and pornography moved modern culture toward an era of “expressive individualism.” Investigating philosophies from the Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, Wilde, Freud, and the New Left, he outlines the history of Western thought to the distinctly sexual direction of present-day identity politics and explains the modern implications of these ideas on religion, free speech, and personal identity.
Becoming the Modern Self
This book isn’t an intellectual genealogy so much as a story. It’s the story of how a revolution in the way Western people think about self transformed how we think about sex, and ultimately primed us to accept claims as extreme as those of the transgender movement.
Like every story, this one has characters in both leading and supporting roles: political thinkers, poets, philosophers, and psychologists (some of whom the average person will never have heard of, let alone read). Trueman believes each figure he highlights has played a part in transforming the Western imagination from one that sees the facts of life and the design of our bodies as given to one that views them as malleable. How these characters manage to exercise such power over our thinking without most of us having studied their work is also part of his story.
The account unfolds in three acts. As Ryan Anderson summarizes in the foreword, this is a retelling of how the human person became a self, how the self became sexualized, and how sex became politicized. Trueman’s cast includes household names like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, as well as less familiar figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Wilhelm Reich, and Germaine Greer. But at the heart of the narrative is an earlier thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of the French Revolution. Trueman identifies Rousseau as the first intellectual figure to turn his gaze inward and search for meaning and moral authority there. In doing so he became a new type of creature—the “modern self”—an entity unlike any that came before in that it consulted feelings as its highest authority.
Yet the road from modern selfhood to sexualized and politicized selfhood, to the un-defining of man and woman was paved by more than revolutionary thinkers. Trueman believes our current predicament has been made possible by technological developments, entertainment, and a slow transformation in how ordinary men and women see themselves (what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor called “the social imaginary”). Everything from the advent of the automobile and the internet to birth control and pornography has biased Western people toward a belief that we’re masters of our destinies, no longer subject to the demands of nature, and able to rewrite even the laws inscribed in our bodies. It has made us, to use a term coined by sociologist Robert Bellah, “expressive individualists.”
Millions of our neighbors now believe that human beings can sculpt themselves into whatever they desire, if necessary through hormones, surgery, and legislation.
If Trueman is right (and I think he is), then this story is what lies behind the bewildering headlines I highlighted above. Centuries of assumptions about the authenticity of the inner self, the centrality of sex, and the political nature of identity, mixed with a double portion of scientific hubris, have produced a civilization of people who see themselves as “pieces of living playdough attached to a will” (53). Millions of our neighbors now believe—not as the conclusion of careful thought, but as an intuition they’ve caught by growing up in this culture—that human beings can sculpt themselves into whatever they desire, if necessary through hormones, surgery, and legislation.
We’re the Problem Too
These are the dark extremes—the end of a story stretching back to Rousseau and his fateful decision to look inward for truth. But Trueman hasn’t written a tirade against the modern world, nor is he arguing that we need to become Amish and subject ourselves once again to the rhythms and harsh demands of nature. In fact, he’s not even convinced that expressive individualism is all bad:
We do have feelings; we do have an inner psychological space that deeply shapes who we are. Historically, while Rousseau is developing his notion of the self as rooted in inner sentiments, so Jonathan Edwards is writing The Religious Affections and exploring that inner space from an explicitly Christian perspective. Expressive individualism is correct in affirming the importance of psychology for who we are and in stressing the universal dignity of all human beings. We might also add that this accenting of the individual is consonant with the existential urgency of the New Testament in the way it stresses the importance of personal faith as a response to the gospel. Only I can believe for me. And that places the “I” in a most important place. (170)
We are all expressive individualists now to one degree or another, and our task is not to re-create a social imaginary that was lost to the centuries, but rather to faithfully love our neighbors and teach the truth about God’s world in this one. The driving conviction behind this book and its much larger prequel is that in order to carry out that task, we must first understand clearly where we are and how we got here. In that respect, I consider both huge successes.
The story Trueman tells in Strange New World is by no means airtight, and he’s frank about that fact. It faces the problem all such historical narratives, especially abbreviated ones, face: authors are vulnerable to connecting dots that shouldn’t be connected, to reading their own convictions back into history, and to telling a “just-so” story. Trueman himself has critiqued books that do this, and confesses that given human freedom and the complexity of history, it may be impossible to draw a straight causal line from Rousseau to the transgender movement. He distinguishes between necessary and sufficient conditions for a sexual revolution, noting that the thinkers and technologies he highlights may not have led inevitably to men winning NCAA women’s swimming championships or New York Magazine cover stories celebrating mutilation. But they certainly make such spectacles “more coherent and explicable” (109).
How does this story end? Again, Trueman doesn’t pretend to know. But he takes the long view and sketches a plan for maintaining Christian identity in the tough years to come. In his conclusion, he urges readers to form countercultural communities that will shape our intuitions and our children’s intuitions in a biblical direction. These communities must be defined by more than just the preaching of unpopular moral truths. They’ll also depend on God-centered worship that counters the narcissism of the modern self, plus a renewed emphasis on the reasons behind biblical rules about sex and marriage. Just as the intuitions that made transgenderism thinkable were caught more than taught, the intuitions that make Christianity plausible and sustainable will be caught and cultivated in strong Christian communities.
Not a New Problem
It seems to me, though, that the real value of this book lies in how it demystifies all those crazy headlines. It turns out the LGBT+ movement and the wider sexual revolution are not the result of a sudden and inexplicable breakdown in morality, as bewildered Christians often suppose. As much as the counterculture of the 1960s, the Obergefell decision, and drag queen story hour deserve our criticism, none of these things happened spontaneously or in isolation. They were predictable pit-stops on a journey Western civilization has been on for generations—a journey in which we’ve all taken part—a journey away from seeing our bodies and creation alight with divine purpose to seeing the world and each other as pliable playthings lacking intrinsic meaning.
The intuitions that make Christianity plausible and sustainable will be caught and cultivated in strong Christian communities.
Ironically, this realization helps us understand the moral energy with which modern activists shout their demands and advance their causes. They’re not just miscreants looking to corrupt society. They’re not just predators looking to groom our children, though such threats certainly exist. The average transgender activist is possessed of a deep, albeit misguided, conviction that he or she is liberating people to be authentically themselves. And because of the process Trueman describes, millions of modern people share that conviction and see that authenticity as the highest goal to which human beings can aspire.
Knowing this puts us in a position to be far more compassionate and understanding toward those who disagree with us. They’re looking for something they won’t find by looking within. It also reminds us of that Augustinian truth that the human heart is made for God, and will not be satisfied with anything less. As Trueman acknowledges, Augustine, like Rousseau, is famous for introspection. But what the Bishop of Hippo found when he looked within was gnawing restlessness—a restlessness that was only stilled after he surrendered himself (and his sexuality) to the God who made and loved him.
Trueman paints a bleak picture, and he doesn’t attempt to soften the edges. We are living in a society whose basic assumptions have led to the unmooring of identity from human nature. There’s no easy fix, and none of us can undo the rise and triumph of the modern self—at least not any time soon. But in understanding how we got here, we’ll be better prepared to offer a way out, to point to the truth, and to faithfully serve the God who called us to be strangers in this strange new world.