Recently, a retired pastor said something offhand to me that I found rather surprising: “Back when I was at the seminary, we never really talked about culture.” This isn’t the place to dive into why that was the case, but I share that quote to highlight why a book like The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self was even written in the first place. While it’s true that there is nothing new under the sun, it’s also true that the world we are ministering to is decidedly different than even the world not even half a century ago. Carl Trueman agrees when he writes in his introduction that if his grandfather ever heard the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” “he would have burst out laughing and considered it a piece of incoherent gibberish” (19). Yet that sentence is not only widely considered to be meaningful, but normative. Trueman wrote this book to answer the question of how we got from there to here in such a seemingly short time. To pursue that answer, he dissects and analyzes the Sexual Revolution.
The four parts of the book are: “The Architecture of the Revolution,” “Foundations of the Revolution,” “Sexualization of the Revolution,” and “Triumphs of the Revolution.” This organization is the key to what makes this book so worth reading. Trueman does not merely describe the current culture—there are hundreds and hundreds of conservative Christian think pieces and blog posts you can find that do that—rather, he gives a detailed description of the path that our culture has taken to get to this point. Understanding that path will help us understand the culture in which we find ourselves and serve the people within it with the gospel.
Early in the work, Trueman defines two terms that are worth clarifying here before you’ve picked up the book. When he uses the term sexual revolution, he is “referring to the radical and ongoing transformation of sexual attitudes and behaviors that has occurred in the West since the early 1960s” (21). This is not only the normalization of sexually explicit material, but also the repudiation of traditional values that would stand contrary to it.
The other term to clarify is the titular self, or the modern self. To be a self “involves an understanding of what the purpose of my life is, of what constitutes the good life, and how I understand myself—my self—in relation to others and the world around me” (22). Central to the concept of self is the question of what makes a person happy. Does a person find their value from without, bestowed upon them by a higher power or their surrounding society? Or do they find their value from within, generated intrinsically by one’s own feelings or intuitions? Think about those last two questions for a moment, and you’ll start to see the shift in our culture, the rise of the so-called Modern Self.
Trueman deals heavily in philosophy. Well over half the book is dedicated to introducing, highlighting, and evaluating the biggest thinkers of the past two centuries. It would certainly be helpful for the reader to have a working knowledge of philosophy before opening this book, but it’s not necessary—Trueman writes of these thinkers and philosophies as if it’s your first time hearing about them. If it truly is your first time, or if you could simply use a review, there’s something here for you. This book serves as much as a nineteenth-twentieth-century philosophy text as it does an examination of modern culture. Names like Rousseau, Shelley, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud are central to Trueman’s line of thought—and whether those names are very familiar to you or they’re a distant, faded memory of a classroom once upon a time, you’ll come away from this book with a fuller understanding of their ideas and their impact.
One concept I found particularly helpful was the distinction between mimesis and poiesis. A mimetic worldview would see the world as possessing inherent meaning, whereas a poietic worldview would see the world as raw material upon which we construct meaning of our own (71). The general shift from mimetic to poietic aligns with the growth of humanity’s ability to shape the world itself. A peasant farmer in the Middle Ages was at the mercy of the weather to yield a good crop, but farming technology has progressed to the point where we can control variables that were once completely out of our hands (39). This shift in mindset has obviously affected more than our harvests.
While the book’s subtitle promises information regarding the Sexual Revolution, the actual discussion of such doesn’t begin until around page 200. The journey is worth it, however, as the Sexual Revolution didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor did it only “begin” in the 1960s. It was built upon decades of dismantling and reshaping the foundations of people’s concept of the self, as well as the shift in prominence of religion in one’s daily life. “The whole notion of sacred order begins to collapse…. for both Nietzsche and Marx, sacred order was a sign of psychological sickness” (194). Trueman is wise enough not to just jump directly into the 60s or into the present without doing the valuable work of first explaining that these shifts happened incrementally, over centuries. Once the discussion does arrive at the Sexual Revolution, Trueman also treats the subject with care and depth, looking at underlying thoughts and worldviews rather than just creating strawman arguments to easily knock down.
The final section, the Triumphs of the Revolution, is where everything comes together. The journey through philosophies and thinkers reaches its destination, and we get to the practical impacts. “Sex now pervades every aspect of life, from elementary education to commercials to Congress and the Supreme Court” (272). Trueman gives concrete examples, from the wide acceptance of pornography to a fuller examination of the sentence he introduced already on the first page of the book, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” With each example he demonstrates how the philosophies he spent the time to analyze have come to bear in the modern day.
This book is worth your time and attention. I believe many of us pastors find it difficult to find any common ground with someone in the LGBTQ+ community, as if they’re practically unreachable or so fundamentally different from us that we could never serve them. Rise and Triumph is a book that helps you to find compassion for these people and see their hearts. It helps us love those we previously didn’t understand, and never thought we could.
Jesus prayed in his High Priestly Prayer that we are to be in the world and not of the world, but that wasn’t him giving us permission to be ignorant of what’s going on in the world or to distance ourselves from its people. In fact, I think he does the exact opposite. If we are in the world and not of the world, we do well to grow in the knowledge of what it takes to serve those who are both in the world and very much of it. A thoughtfully researched, well-crafted book like Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is an excellent tool to do just that. I’m thankful for my time with it, and I plan to read it again. It will not happen often that a book so meaningfully combines such academic pedigree, conservative biblical values, and an acute sense of today’s culture. I pray you find it useful, and that above all it helps remind you that the true triumph and victory lies not with any worldly philosophy or concept of the self, modern or otherwise, but with our God.