The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self — A Review

Carl R. Trueman. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton: Crossway, 2020. 432 pp. $20.99.

Some books we read are polemics. Some are mere complaints. But, every once-in-a-while, we come across a book that is genuinely enlightening. Such is Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Carl Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, is a Christian and historian. This work is Trueman’s analysis of the factors that have led us to our present cultural moment. As Trueman explains, his goal is to examine how our culture has come to both understand and even embrace the statement, “I am a woman in a man’s body.” This is not an analysis of basic biblical sexual ethics. Instead, this is a historical look at the forces that have come together over the past centuries to change how our society thinks so that a thought which would have been beyond comprehension to one generation is socially understood, accepted, and applauded by another.

Trueman, after looking at some ways of thinking about any cultural moment, traces the history of individualism beginning with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He then examines the influence of poets from a few centuries ago such as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake. We read the thoughts of important historical figures such as Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Then the author proceeds to more modern social and political influencers to explain how our culture has come to think as it does.

For the Christian thinker, this historical and philosophical timeline is a powerful tool to show us that the present moral and cultural situation is far more than sexual rebellion. Our present moment is tied to a full-fledged rejection of the biblical view of reality. In simple terms, the Bible presents to us reality as a thing external to us, a thing to which we must conform, a thing created and determined by God. But many throughout the centuries have begun to seek to declare that reality is internally formed by the individual and that communities do harm to individuals when forcing them to conform to an external standard. This sort of thinking works itself out in a belief that one’s gender is determined, not by one’s biology, but by one’s perception of oneself. That determination moves forward to expressing that a refusal to accept and applaud a person’s perceived reality will eventually be seen as a hateful attack on the person rather than a simple disagreement about the facts of a situation.

This work is incredibly helpful in explaining our present cultural moment. It is not, however, simple. Trueman is a skilled writer and thinker. He does quite well in presenting complex thoughts. But this book is not easy. Trueman must address the writings of philosophers, poets, and other influencers from the past, thoughts which are not always easy to unpack after a first or even a second reading. Thus, I would not recommend this book to a casual reader. This book would make an outstanding textbook for a college or seminary class. It is excellent for someone who enjoys philosophy. It is a true help to someone wanting to understand why there appears to be no common ground in the thinking of groups which differ on issues of our understanding of sexuality.

While I cannot call this work easy to read, I can say that this work is important. I have read nothing over the past several years that is even close to being as helpful as The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self in explaining how culture presently thinks and the roots that have born this fruit. Trueman is clear, fair, and kind. He does not take cheap shots. Nor does he gloss over important implications of what he sees. Carl Trueman does a true scholar’s work, and he should be commended.