Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
The desire to define the self or find one’s authentic self may have reached a kind of tragicomic apex in November 2018 when Emile Ratelband applied to the Dutch courts to change his legal age from sixty-nine to forty-nine. He claimed that he suffered discrimination because of his age—younger women did not want to date him—that he felt like forty-nine, and that his doctors had told him he was as physically fit as a forty-nine-year-old. He did not succeed in his case, but one judge admitted that because people are able to change the sex indicated on their birth certificate, Ratelband had raised a legitimate question. According to that judge, “Mr Ratelband is at liberty to feel twenty years younger than his real age and to act accordingly, but changing his legal documents would have undesirable legal and societal implications.” 1
Three years before Ratelband had his day in court, the family of Rachel Dolezal, the local chapter president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, outed her as white. This led to embarrassment for her, and perhaps the Spokane NAACP, while posing similar questions about identity. Is one’s race a given or a social construction? Is one’s age a given or, as Ratelband argued, a social construction? And, to highlight one of the questions that animates Carl R. Trueman’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is one’s gender a given or a social construction? What are the salient differences, if there are any, between these three questions? And in each of these three cases—race, age, gender—if the latter answer is correct (courts in the Netherlands notwithstanding), may one simply assert, choose, and become the other?
For Trueman, these questions reveal the primacy of the self in contemporary life, and his book traces some of the large philosophical and cultural shifts that have led us to the point where the self has triumphed, specifically with regard to gender. He wants to show how we arrived at a point in our cultural history where the sentence “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” makes sense. Setting out with that goal immediately raises a problem for Trueman and for anyone who reviews his book. Our culture is so deeply divided at this time that any volume with this kind of a goal will be attacked, possibly from both the left and the right. Either the book goes too far, or it does not go far enough. Trueman has either given away the store philosophically, theologically, politically, and perhaps even biologically, or he suffers from a mental health condition ending in the word phobia.
My job as a reviewer is likewise fraught with difficulties. If I approve of Trueman’s assessment of our current cultural state or his conclusions about gender fluidity, those to my left on questions of gender fluidity will think me transphobic. If I disapprove of his critique, some to my right will question whether I am really a follower of Christ. These possible receptions (and rejections) of Trueman’s book lend credence to an aspect of his thesis: individualism has triumphed so thoroughly that it is considered gauche or impermissible for an individual to question the idea that other individuals can assert a gender choice.2
Trueman is not alone in highlighting this ascendant individualistic strain in contemporary culture. I think, for example, of Habits of the Heart, which more than three decades ago described a research participant, anonymized as Sheila, who reported that she had essentially founded her own religion, one based on her own search for happiness.3 Or I think of William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson, who argue in their recent book on the unsustainability of the modern welfare state, The Sovereign Individual, that when government collapses, we are all going to have to go it alone.4 The phrase from which they craft their title, the sovereign individual, has become especially popular among those who believe that the individual, being sovereign, has no moral or legal obligation to follow any laws.
This idea of the sovereign individual has taken root in the sovereign citizen movement in the United States and the freemen-on-the-land movement in Canada and the United Kingdom. It was championed by the gun-wielding participants of the Bundy standoff in Nevada and, more recently, right-wing extremists who believe that all laws are essentially contracts and that individuals need to obey only those laws to which they consent. This, of course, stretches the concept of consent well beyond Max Weber’s classic claim that governments who would exercise authority rather than simply yield power require the good will or consent of their citizens.5 From this perspective, governments have no right to make laws, tax, or print currency. One presumes that those who travel this far with the ideology of the sovereign citizen would be consistent and would approve of the idea of gender fluidity but, to my knowledge, no one has researched that question.
I give as much space as I do to the Emile Ratelband story and the sovereign citizen movement for two reasons. First, parallels to the shifts in thinking about gender identity that Trueman laments are in plain sight. That is, asserting that gender is fluid is, arguably, of a piece with declaring that the nation in which one finds oneself is not legitimate. In that sense, Trueman has successfully demonstrated that a trajectory that began with the individualism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or the English Romantic poets has come to a sort of natural evolution point.
Second, Trueman seems to limit his critique of individualism to matters of sex and gender identity. He perhaps should also have lamented the kind of individualism that, according to some accounts, is a dominant feature of American Christianity. In Fantasyland,for example, KurtAnderson offers an unnecessarily pugilistic and yet somewhat compelling account of Christian history. In his telling, Martin Luther’s protest (and ultimate departure from the Roman Catholic Church) led to a tradition of protest and of departures.6 That is, leaving—forming our own church—is in our DNA.
Divided we stand—or sit. Unhappy with the music, or the pastor, or the preferred version of the Bible, or the acceptance of women as ministers, or with who decorated the church at Christmas, I find like-minded congregants, and we congregate elsewhere, forming what one might call The Church of the Incredible Assumption. That assumption is that those of us who protested, who reformed, who left, will henceforth get along with each other and that no future issue will divide us further.
Anderson’s aggressively unsympathetic account nevertheless contains some truth Christians need to hear. Peter Berger, a politically conservative (and Lutheran) sociologist of religion at Boston College, argued in a number of his books, but especially in The Heretical Imperative, that dividing is a constituent part of Protestant DNA. Likewise, in his History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, Mark Noll traces both individualism and the tendency to divide. Because Noll’s purpose is not to criticize the tendency to divide and the individualism in which it roots itself, he offers a less judgmental record than Anderson. Still, that record is sobering.7
If one works one’s way through Anderson’s Fantasyland and Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self at the same time, as I did, one cannot help but wonder whether the sovereign sexual individual, the sovereign citizen, and the sovereign Christian are not all expressions of the same individualism.
Trueman offers his readers the fruit of much careful reading, and he writes charitably throughout. In light of the considerable worth of the book, I wish to raise a small question about the title, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Should Trueman have referred to the postmodern self instead of the modern self?I ask because my own reading of modernity suggests concerns for universals and certainty, for example in the philosophy of René Descartes or the natural science of Francis Bacon. Conversely, Trueman concerns himself with the ways our culture has rejected certainty in favor of fluidity and individual choice. The wording of the title does not hobble the book, but it does leave me wondering.
Trueman sets his sights on the sexual revolution but misses the last few years during which a large tranche of Americans have asserted their right to live according to their own facts, which, in fact, are not facts (that is, claims corresponding to reality) but are simply beliefs—and wrong beliefs at that. The primary meaning of the phrase alternative facts, first used on January 22, 2017, is now ironic and meant to imply a negative judgment about former employees of the White House or even people on the political right generally who, for example, deny that climate change is real. That a restricted search of that famous phrase (with quotation marks) yields over a million hits speaks to the breakdown of shared agreements once considered necessary for a democratic society to function. Perhaps more than any other phrase in contemporary English, it illustrates that we now live in a post-truth society or, in Trueman’s terms, an individualistic society.
Many conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s lamented where post-structuralism, postmodernism, and cultural studies might lead. Whether those nightmare scenarios have come into being or not, the bigger threat to truth, as it turns out, came not from Jacques Derrida et al. but from the right. So as I write this in early 2021, tens of millions of Americans believe the lie that the new president took office because of widespread fraud and cheating. In effect, these millions are saying that texts—if I may use the word semifiguratively—mean whatever they want them to mean, which is precisely what the worst caricatures of Derrida have him saying. Although this belief in a stolen election requires hitherto unimaginable skills in argumentative parkour—for example, claiming that the complete lack of evidence of an election-theft conspiracy is itself evidence of the breadth and depth of the plot and of how thoroughly the plotters executed their plans—these believers continue to believe they have the truth. As they see it, they have their own facts. As I see it, they have beliefs. My point is that individualism has triumphed.
That’s not necessarily the view of Robert Putnam, who famously tied individualism to loneliness in his book Bowling Alone.In his latest effort, The Upswing, Putnam presents a more hopeful picture, one in which people, in the United States at least, are becoming more community-minded and less individualistic. Upswing does not address the particular outworkings of individualism on which Trueman focuses, but Putnam’s thesis bears on Trueman’s lament nonetheless. If as a culture we shift back toward community—and perhaps to what Trueman calls institutions and norms—will we also stop believing that our own subjectivity is the final arbiter of all that is good, true, and beautiful?8
During my writing of this review, in early 2021, toy maker Hasbro either changed the name of the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head children’s toys simply to Potato Head, or they did not.9 Their tweeted announcements were unclear, but within days of Hasbro’s not-so-brave decision regarding the plastic tubers, Dr. Seuss’s estate and publisher jointly decided to cease publication of six of his lesser-known titles that they considered racist. As a result of these decisions, another round of the culture wars erupted. I note this pair of events and the sort of combined reaction for a reason directly connected to Trueman’s reason for writing: Trueman states that his purpose is toexpresshis concern that individualism has led to the abandonment of all traditional sexual norms and that the new norms (or non-norms) replacing traditional norms will increasingly be enforced in employment law, housing law, adoption regulations, school curriculum, and so on.
But reactions to the combined Potato Head and Dr. Seuss decisions illustrate a problem. Many of the same people outraged by the Hasbro decision have bundled their outrage with their anger at Dr. Seuss Enterprises and Random House for pulling the offending Seuss titles; for many this is nothing more than cancel culture,the right’s new term of favor for any decision they disagree with. Christians who claim that all people are created in God’s image might want to give a couple of minutes of reflection to this situation. Based on what they consider God’s norms for the sexual dimension, they may believe they have a legitimate gripe with Hasbro for, in their view, its having caved to the cancelers (I do not share that view). But when they bundle that complaint with a publisher’s decision to discontinue six titles considered racist, they show that their deepest commitments may not, in fact, be to God’s norms. Rather, their deepest commitments seem to be to a conservative and possibly racist political ideology. Even that assessment may be overly generous. They may not even be operating at the level of ideology. In fact, they may be simply responding in the ways that Fox Noise and other voices further to the right of Fox have told them to respond: for them, cancel culture presents an existential threat to the soul of America, and Tucker Carlson–style outrage is the only appropriate response. Imagine if, instead, Christians applauded the withdrawal of the Seuss titles and, at the same time, spoke out in support of what they consider to be Christian sexual values.
The second section of Trueman’s book, “Foundations of the Revolution,” is a gem, comparable in some ways to Paul Johnson’s 1991 monumental volume, The Birth of the Modern. The two are similar inasmuch as they both treat the development of modernity, although Trueman traces its arc over a much longer period.10 Some readers might wish for more than the one chapter Trueman gives to Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin, but in view of his overall project, his relatively brief treatment of these three is perhaps understandable.
Trueman begins the third section of this book, “Sexualization of the Revolution,” with Sigmund Freud. He takes careful note of Freud’s understanding of sexuality, its alignment with the ideals of the Romantics, and its continuing impact on twenty-first-century understandings of the person. He also notes Freud’s critique of religious faith, an important part of Freud’s overall project and also important to the shift toward individualism identified in Trueman’s book.
Then, having treated Freud in chapter 6, Trueman turns to what I view as the three central chapters of his argument. This argument begins in chapter 7, “The New Left and the Politicization of Sex,” where Trueman notes how what some have called the marriage of Marx and Freud brought forth not only a critique of capitalism but also a whole body of critical theory focused on such matters as patriarchy and traditional sexual mores. In the hands of Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Wilhelm Reich, the seeds planted in the 1700s and 1800s produced a bountiful and critical harvest of ideas, all of which Trueman traces. Early on, with reference to Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Trueman expresses the wish that he could “provide helpful insights into understanding not simply how modern Western society thinks but how and why it has come to think the way that it does” (36). Then, in chapters 8 and 9, “The Triumph of the Erotic” and “The Triumph of the Therapeutic,” respectively, Trueman returns to the themes and, to some degree, to the thinkers he treated in his opening chapters. Like chapter 7, chapters 8 and 9 are argued carefully and, on my reading, charitably. Early in the book, Trueman notes his wish that those whom he disagrees with would at least recognize themselves in his narrative. That is, he wants to treat his subjects with fairness. Throughout the book, and certainly in these key chapters, he has done that, so far as I can tell.
Finally, Trueman draws the many threads of his argument together in chapter 10. “The Triumph of the T” (with T standing for Trans). He proceeds with great care here by noting, for example, that the L and the G in the acronym LGBTQ+ designate sexual orientations whereas the T and are “transgressive ideologies in the sense that they aim at the demolition of any construction of reality that takes male and female as representing something that is at root essential” (341). In effect, while the acronym LGBTQ+ represents a variety of sexual minorities, significant differences exist between some of those minorities.
Trueman offers some significant insights for a world in which an individual’s perspective is the one ring that rules them all. For example, he considers whether individuals who view other people’s sexual orientations negatively should or should not be classified using the language of mental illness (phobia). One might take a negative view of child abuse, for instance, because one sees such abuse as a violation of a moral norm. Such a person should not be labeled phobic. Yet that mental health category is applied to people who take a negative view of same-sex sexual relationships or of trans persons. Trueman points out this name-calling to illustrate how deeply the sexual revolution has worked its way into a whole culture’s ways of thinking, and he finds the situation to be a quite sobering state of affairs. That is, we do not live in a world that has simply abolished traditional sexual norms. Rather, we live in a world with new sexual norms, one in which it has become increasingly difficult to express a view contrary to current cultural mores and one in which enforcement mechanisms will soon be as powerful as those mechanisms ever were for enforcing traditional norms.
As do all writers, I must use pronouns. Mostly, I’ve written about education and, in the last year or so, I have found myself wondering whether in a few years those who quote me will use the word sic to indicate what will then be considered my wrongful use of such words as he and she. Thus, I lament with Trueman that our culture cannot show its love for or its ethic of care to sexual minorities without compelling an entire population to abandon the idea that there are norms at all.
As I write, two months after the January 6 riots in Washington, DC, and the attack on the Capitol building, I have another sadness: the same individualism that created the sexual landscape Trueman describes also created the most syncretized form of Christianity anywhere on earth and at any time in history. When, as a seminary student in 1979, I first heard the word syncretism, the example I was offered was of Brazilian Christians who allowed components of animism into their Christian faith. In my recollections of those conversations, no one suggested that Christians of European descent from wealthy nations might have made our own accommodations. Yet we have all recently observed the extremes of white Christian nationalism in the United States.
I write as a Canadian but not as a smug Canadian—our nation has its own original sins to address. Rather, I write as someone who admits that Christianity is always embedded in a culture; it will always reflect some elements of its surroundings. With that caveat in place, I wonder whether the sexual revolution will have worse effects on the Christian church and on contemporary culture than will the failure of so many millions of Christians to condemn racism, to support government policies that attend to the widow and the orphan, to proclaim that we are serious about God’s command that we act as stewards of the planet, and even to wear masks as an expression of love for our neighbor. Type Christian hypocrisy memes into Google, and you will get an eyeful—perhaps more results than you may want. In a cultural context where many people’s first thought when they hear the word Christian is hypocrite, we might be wise to give energy to identifying and then aligning with those cultural themes consistent with biblical norms.
Trueman has obviously dedicated years of careful reading and research to his volume, and in a sense, he has already done the homework necessary for his next. That volume could be called The Rise and the Triumph of the Modern Self: Individualism and Christian Faith. I say this without sarcasm. We need that book. We need it primarily because we have strayed from biblical norms for the church’s life together.
But a secondary reason warrants our consideration. We need that book to show that we are concerned about what we may see as God’s norms for all the dimensions of life, not only for the sexual dimension. May many writers take up Trueman’s example and offer us similarly careful volumes about God’s norms for the economy, God’s norms for government, God’s norms for food and agriculture, and God’s norms for the environment, to name four examples of great importance to a significant number of youth and adults under forty.
I recommend Trueman’s book, but I must underline my wish that it become only the first volume in a series. Whether Trueman completes that series or Crossway publishes it are immaterial. But lest we prove the popular image that most Christians are hypocrites, a raft of writers needs to publish books that lament our culture’s departure from God’s norms—in all areas of life. Of course, establishing that we are not hypocrites is only a secondary reason for producing such books. The contemporary world faces real threats, ranging from inequality to environmental collapse, and we need Christians to call that world to norms that will increase human flourishing. In my view, and I hope Trueman’s, those norms are biblical norms, God’s norms.
- See Camila Domonoske, “69-Year-Old Dutch Man Seeks to Change His Legal Age to 49,” NPR, November 8, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/11/08/665592537/69-year-old-dutch-man-seeks-to-change-his-legal-age-to-49; and “Emile Ratelband, 69, Told He Cannot Legally Change His Age,” BBC, December 3, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46425774.
- Popular books about transgender individuals and society include Kelly Novak, Let Harry Become Sally (Andover, MA: Hypothesis, 2018); and Ben Shapiro, Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings (Hermosa Beach, CA: Creators, 2019).
- Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1985).
- Rees-Mogg and Davidson, The Sovereign Individual: The Coming Economic Revolution and How to Survive and Prosper in It (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2020). Also see Andy Beckett, “How to explain Jacob Rees-Mogg? Start with His Father’s Books,” Guardian, November 9, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/09/mystic-mogg-jacob-rees-mogg-willam-predicts-brexit-plans.
- Weber, Economy and Society, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischoff (New York, NY: Bedminster, 1968). In Psalm 110:3, we find troops “willing in the day of battle” (paraphrase), a possible reference to the same kind of legitimacy.
- Anderson, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (New York, NY: Random House, 2018).
- See Berger, Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1979); and Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).
- Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000); and The Upswing: How American Came Together a Century Ago and How We can Do It Again (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2020).
- See, for example, Joseph Pisani, “Mr. Potato Head Drops the Mister, Sort Of,” AP, February 25, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/mr-potato-head-goes-gender-neutral-d3c178f2b9b0c424ed814657be41a9d8.
- See Johnson, The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815–1830 (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991).