The following is a review of the book, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman (Crossway, 2022).
This review was written by Pastor Will Pareja
If your breath has been taken away at the blistering pace of moral change today, you might want to read this book. Dr. Carl Trueman is a specialist in the history of ideas/philosophy. An ordained minister (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) who teaches at Grove City College (PA), Trueman published The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution (2020). That volume was about as groundbreaking as the tectonic subject he treated. So much so that in light of all that came in the wake of the pandemic, Trueman updated and abridged it to help the average church member access the heart of his magnum opus. So… Strange New World!
The foreward by Ryan T. Anderson states the book “as an account of how the person became a self, the self became sexualized, and sex became politicized” (12). Most of us who have a basic understanding of 20th-century American history might know the 1960s as the “Sexual Revolution.” Truman excels in showing that though that was one of the presenting problems of the 60s decade onward, a social imaginary had been in place far before. Borrowing from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Trueman presents that term “social imaginary” as a key to understanding the sexual revolution. He says (169): “The truth is that the last vestiges of a social imaginary shaped by Christianity are rapidly vanishing, and many of us are even now living as strangers in a strange new world.”
Trueman warns that he “offer[s] no easy answers” and that the book “is neither lament nor a polemic” (29). Vital, however, to understanding the problem he tackles, is his definition of the self as “the deeper notion of where the ‘real me’ is to be found, how that shapes my view of life, and in what the fulfillment or happiness of that ‘real me’ consists.” “The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same…. Also it assumes that society at large will recognize and affirm this behavior” (21-22). Another essential term for this is ‘expressive individualism’ (22). The bottom line for Trueman is that not only do “we all share more or less the same social imaginary” (29) but also that authenticity is authoritative.
Chapters 2-4 start tracing the development of our sexually evolved transgender ‘moment’ through René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, and other Romantic thinkers. But, “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” (51). And this is where Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the likes of Oscar Wilde took the Romantic baton of the self and applied it to the institutions of economics and religion. And “as soon as one side in the cultural conflict politicizes an institution, the other side has no choice but to engage on those terms” (69). And it is to that sexualizing of psychology and politicizing of sex that Trueman takes us in chapter 4. There he summarizes and exposes Sigmund Freud and the (perhaps) lesser-known Wilhelm Reich (a Marxist)— who in the 1930s was drawing the blueprints for the sexual revolution of the 1960s— as the idealogues who re-framed ‘sex’ as “no longer a matter of behavior, of what we do; [but as] a matter of who we are. This helps us understand why language such as ‘straight,’ ‘gay,’ and ‘bisexual’ now make sense, even if one is a virgin and has never engaged in sexual activity. It is not the act but the desire, or the orientation of that desire, that defines the person” (88).
“How have we moved from the arguments of a few elite thinkers to the instincts of the masses?” (91). That’s a great question, Carl! It’s in chapter 5 that Trueman starts to tease out the societal implications of going from institutional authorities to the individual as autonomous; authenticity as authority. “To put it bluntly, the modern cultural imagination sees the world as raw material to be shaped by the human will” (95), and technology has also “served the cause well” (96). The elevation of the expressed self has basically resulted in the abandonment of “a sacred order” (101).
Basically, our plasticity of personhood has promoted a “politics of recognition” (115) and has led to this strange new “liquid world” (126). “National narratives are not the means for social unity but have instead become battle zones, and it is very hard to be part of an imagined community when the nature of what is to be imagined is itself a primary source of division…. A moment’s reflection indicates this: the language of community is now routinely applied to categories that have little or nothing to do with nation or religion or family” (120). All of this leads up to the sexual revolution of the LGBTQ+ (ch 7).
Trueman closes the book by saying: “The truth is that the last vestiges of a social imaginary shaped by Christianity are rapidly vanishing, and many of us are even now living as strangers in a strange new world (169).... Sooner or later every single one of us is likely to be faced with a challenging situation generated by the modern notion of selfhood” (170). Thus, we are called away from “despair and optimism” (185) and to a renewed identity in and commitment to the Church. So, “...the strongest identities I have, forming my strongest intuitions, derive from the strongest communities to which I belong. And that means that the church needs to be the strongest community to which we each belong” (175).
With this commitment locked in (and never assumed!), local churches stand a good chance of letting their lights shine in this dark world. Trueman deftly warns, however, 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. The church’s teaching on gender, marriage and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human” (178).
So, instead of hating people or escaping or denying our cultural reality, do you want to live faithfully in this strange, new world? What if you could not only protect yourself and your children from the plasticity and liquidity of our vapid age but also model for and mold them into a durable alternative that blazes a pure light of a redeemed and glorified self? Take comfort, Christian. Don’t shrink back. The hell of the modern self hath no fury against the new humanity that Christ is creating.
Reviewed by William E. Pareja, 15 June 2022