Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman. Crossway. 198 pages. 2022
In 2020, the author published The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, a 434-page book, to wide acclaim. Trueman was encouraged by Ryan T. Anderson (who wrote the Foreword to this book) to write this condensed version of the original book, making it more accessible to a wider audience, but still a bit of a challenge to read. My wife and I read and discussed this important new book – using the helpful study questions at the end of each chapter – which we found to be excellent.
Trueman tells us that for many people, the Western world in which we now live has a profoundly confusing, and often disturbing, quality to it. Things once regarded as obvious and unassailable virtues have in recent years been subject to vigorous criticism and even in some cases come to be seen by many as more akin to vices. He welcomes us to this strange new world and states that we may not like it, but it is where we live, and therefore it is important that we try to understand it. To respond to our times, we must first understand our times. That is Trueman’s goal in this book.
Trueman offers much to take in and ponder in this book. In this brief review, I’ll try to share some of the main takeaways my wife and I had from the book, which we recommend that you read and discuss with others.
Trueman addresses the modern self early in the book. He writes:
“The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same. The modern self also assumes that society at large will recognize and affirm this behavior. Such a self is defined by what is called expressive individualism.”
He adds that the modern self is one where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inward feelings.
Expressive individualism is a key concept in the book. He writes:
“Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.”
He states that expressive individualism provides the broad backdrop to these aspects of what is commonly called the sexual revolution.
Trueman looks at the thoughts of several thinkers such as Descartes, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Reich. He then writes:
“How have the thoughts and ideas of thinkers whose books and even names may be unknown to the majority of people today come to inform the intuitions of the man and woman in the street? How have we moved from the arguments of a few elite thinkers to the instincts of the masses?”
He writes that the question of why these nineteenth-century thinkers became so influential in the subsequent century is therefore an intriguing one, and for the purpose of the book, it is also somewhat important. He then looks at a number of other factors that come into play in the twentieth century that serve to show why the revolution of the self, particularly in its sexualized form, is a plausible development.
Among the topics Trueman addresses in the book are the authority of our inner feelings, the social imaginary, alienation, technology, internet pornography, recognition, the Yogyakarta Principles, LGBTQ+, personhood, speech, victimhood and the church.
Trueman ends the book with some helpful and hopeful ways to react to our strange new world. He writes that we can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole. He tells us that we can stand strong at this cultural moment and address the specific challenges we face only if our foundations in God’s truth are broad and deep.
He offers this final challenge:
“The world in which we live seems set to be entering a new, chaotic, uncharted and dark era. But we should not despair. We need to prepare ourselves, be informed, know what we believe and why we believe it, worship God in a manner that forms us as true disciples and pilgrims, intellectually and intuitively, and keep before our eyes the unbreakable promises that the Lord has made and confirmed in Jesus Christ.”
Below are some of the most important quotes from the book:
- If the individual’s inner identity is defined by sexual desire, then he or she must be allowed to act out on that desire in order to be an authentic person.
- The transgender person sees inward, psychological conviction as the nonnegotiable reality to which all external realities must be made to conform.
- The modern self is not simply one that sees inner feelings as authoritative; the modern self also largely rejects the idea that human nature has any intrinsic moral structure or significance.
- The sexual revolution did not redefine modesty; it overthrew it completely. In short, the very concept of modesty is now considered to be repressive, an oppressive assault upon individual authenticity.
- Sex is no longer a matter of behavior, of what we do; it is a matter of who we are. It is not the act but the desire, or the orientation of that desire, that defines the person. This changes everything.
- If a person is in some deep sense the sexual desires that they experience, then how society treats those desires is an extremely important political question.
- The rise of technology feeds the notion that we can bend nature to our will, that the world is just so much raw, plastic material from which we can make whatever meaning or reality we choose.
- People can now pick and choose their communities, and that means that they can pick and choose their identities.
- Today, the self is entirely plastic, and the external world—right down to our bodies—is liquid, something that offers no firm ground upon which to build an identity.
- Feminism is deeply divided over trans ideology in the same way that many lesbians and gay men are: taking seriously the sex binary inevitably places one at odds with the trans movement.
- The trans issue has become the most pressing and intrusive aspect of the LGBTQ+ transformation of society.
- Expressive individualism has a profound impact on matters of life and death for several reasons. Ethics of life and death in a world of expressive individualism tend to default to a form of utilitarianism.
- There is a clear connection between the sexual revolution and the growing antipathy evident in our culture toward freedom of religion.
- If we are above all what we think, what we feel, what we desire, then anything that interferes or obstructs those thoughts, feelings, or desires, inhibits us as people and prevents us from being the self that we are convinced that we are. Such obstructions inhibit identity in a deep and substantial way.
- With the rise of the psychological self, words have taken on a new cultural power, as witnessed by the fierce debates that now rage over pronouns. The use of a word deemed hurtful or denigrating becomes in the world of psychological identity an assault upon the person, as real in its own way as a blow from a fist.
- The church protests the wider culture by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.
- The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human.
- Expressive individualism in the form in which we find it in contemporary society is problematic for the ways in which it places individuals and their own desires—we might even say their own egos—at the center of the moral universe.
- Older Christians can no longer assume that biblical ethics make sense to younger Christians because the social imaginary in which they operate is so different to the one many of us grew up in. And that means we need to work harder at explaining not simply the content but also the rationale of Christian morality.
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