The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

The book ends with a “Concluding Unscientific Prologue”

This reiterates Trueman’s intention of providing a historical foreword to contemporary issues. While his history has been largely descriptive and included only the occasional disapproving remark, he now turns to consider responses and possible futures.

In light of current tensions and contradictions, Trueman sketches some brief considerations about what might be the possible futures of sexual morality, gay marriage, transgenderism, and religious freedom.

The final few pages offer three suggestions for the church. They are disappointingly brief, but the stated purpose of the book is, after all, history.  

  1. “The church should reflect long and hard on the connection between aesthetics and her core beliefs and practices” (p. 402). Put simply, a much larger number of people today think with their hearts more than their brains, and so personal stories that trigger emotive responses carry more weight than reasoned arguments. In this context the church must respond to moral changes not on the basis of emotive appeals, but on its own doctrinal and pastoral charter: the biblical mandate of God to his creation and to his church.
  2. Commitment to Christian principles over and against aesthetics requires churches to be community. Christian faith, character, and practice will be formed and reinforced by relationships with other Christians – a challenging fact in our urbanized societies: “our moral consciousness is very much shaped by our community. And for this reason, the church needs to be a strong community” (p. 405).
  3. “Protestants need to recover both natural law and a higher view of the physical body” (p. 405). Pastors, for the sake of their churches, must be able to articulate a biblical conception of the created order that humanity is a part of and what it means for human choices on modern moral issues.

The final paragraphs of the book point to the ancient Church of the second century as a historical precedent for our own new post-Christian context, and how it serves as a useful model for engaging the issues whose history Trueman has narrated and analyzed in his book:

“In the second century, the church was a marginal sect with and a dominant, pluralist society. She was under suspicion not because her central dogmas were supernatural but rather because she appeared subversive in claiming Jesus as King and was viewed as immoral in her talk of eating and drinking human flesh and blood and expressing incestuous-sounding love between brothers and sisters … the second-century world is, in a sense, our world, where Christianity is a choice – and a choice likely at some point to run afoul of the authorities.

            It was that second century world, of course, that laid down the foundations for the later successes of the third and fourth centuries. And she did it by what means? By existing as a close-knit, doctrinally bounded community that required her members to act consistently with their faith and to be good citizens of the earthly city as far as good citizenship was compatible with faithfulness to Christ. How we do that today and where the limits are – these are the pressing questions of this present moment and beyond the scope of this volume. but it is a discussion to which I hope the narratives and analysis I have offered here might form a helpful prolegomenon.”

pp. 406-407

Readers who are interested or concerned in the changing attitudes to sexuality will find Trueman’s history a fascinating read. His analysis is helpful in that it brings much-needed clarity to ideas and ideology that are familiar yet often fuzzy, regularly unarticulated but increasingly pervasive. The book could perhaps be likened to the unveiling of a covered statue, whose contours have been visible in plain sight, but have eluded entire comprehension until they are uncovered.

There is much valuable material in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self that is not mentioned in this book summary. This is unsurprising given the substantial amount of history and discussion and observation on a social issue that is as fascinating as it is fraught. Many chapters could well have their own summary – but then one really ought just read the book for themself.

Reviewers have given high praise to this book, with one even claiming that this will be the book of the decade for the subject of “Christianity and Culture”. For those with the interest to understand the bewildering and changing climate of public opinion on sexuality, and why it can be so aggressive toward challengers, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self to be invaluable reading. It is not an ‘easy’ read, but neither is the topic; and deserves and repays careful reading.

For further comment on how issues raised in Trueman’s book have affected Christian schools across the Tasman in Australia, see the recent articles by Steven McAlpine below:

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self : Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, is available at Book Depository for NZ$56 (Feb 2022).

Carl Trueman has also published more recently a shorter and simpler book covering the same subject: Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. 2022, 209 pages. See here.

[1] Side thought – is the imposition of the local or global environment a sign of an attempted shift back to a second-world culture, in that something transcendent and universally applicable is being presented as the reason for making certain decisions binding on all. This is not to make a value judgement on environmentalism, but merely an observation of what current trends might be signalling about the way western cultures are developing.

[2] Freud had seen a constructive and creative value for civilizations in the repression of sexual urges.