Book Review: "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" by Carl Trueman

Reviewed by Jennifer Linz

• Date Reviewed: Oct 2023

• Book Reviewed: “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution” by Carl R. Trueman

• Number of Pages:  407

This was the first time I had read a book by Carl Trueman, although I have heard him speak a handful of times.  Before you decide if this book is for you, I would encourage you to first take a few things into consideration.  If you are looking for a theological discourse on what the Bible has to say about modesty, the sanctity of life, and the Creation Mandate, then this is not the book for you.  If you are looking for a straightforward and short description of current issues, then once again, this is not the book for you.    Allow me to provide you with the text which was written about this book to describe its contents:  

“Modern culture is obsessed with identity.  Since the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision in 2015, sexual identity has dominated both public discourse and cultural trends-yet no historical phenomenon is its own cause.  From Augustine to Marx, various views and perspectives have contributed to the modern understanding of the self.  In this timely book, Carl Trueman analyzes the development of the sexual revolution as a symptom-rather than the cause-of the human search for identity.  Trueman surveys the past, brings clarity to the present, and gives guidance for the future as Christians navigate the culture in humanity’s ever-changing quest for identity.”

It is of vital importance for us to be able to understand what challenges our current culture presents to us as Christians.  I have read books about the modern culture of our day but never have I read one quite like this.  It goes back to the beginning of these issues in our history and traces them to where we are today.  There is a significant amount of lofty, philosophical terminology that is used in this book.  In Tim Challies’ review of it, he used the word “daunting” if that gives you any indication about the extensive nature of it.  Despite taking philosophy in college and being exposed to many of the names brought up in the book, I still felt ill-prepared to take on this colossal piece and at times got lost in the details and even almost decided not to finish it which I rarely do with books.  I’m sure there are others who are better equipped to tackle this book than I, but it can be very beneficial if you approach it carefully and don’t get lost in the minutia.  

A lot of us can see where we are today, but many more lack a comprehensive grasp on how we got to this point.  Reading this book will help you to understand how our culture thinks about these issues today (such as identity, abortion, pornography, gender, LGBTQ+, etc.) and how their logic is fed through historical figures that have each contributed in one way or another to the laws, mindsets, and manifestations of “expressive individualism”.

Here are several excerpts from the book:

-“…the idea that sexuality is identity is now basic and intuitive in the West and this means that all matters pertaining to sex are therefore matters that concern who we are at the deepest level.  Sex is identity, sex is politics, sex is culture.  And central to this thinking is the notion that traditional sexual codes that value celibacy and chastity actually militate against authenticity, something that is now intuitive.”

-“The philosophical claim I am making here is that the normalization of pornography in mainstream culture is deeply connected to the mainstream culture’s rejection of any kind of sacred order.  Pornography carries with it a philosophy of sex and what it means to be human that is inimical to traditional religious perspectives, in the West’s case primarily Christianity.  It is therefore both symptomatic and constitutive of the decreated, desacralized world that emerges in modern times, with roots in Rousseau and Romanticisim, and given sharp expression in philosophical and scientific idioms by Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, and the New Left.  The triumph of pornography is both evidence of the death of God and one means by which he is killed.”

- “With the ruthless assault by Nietzsche and Freud on the inconsistencies of moral codes and their psychologizing of these as being a matter of culturally conditioned aesthetics, they opened the way for what are in essence claims of emotivism to be a way of subverting traditional moral stands: ‘Your objection to homosexual behavior is simply an irrational, emotional stand based on social conditioning.’  In the hands of the New Left, this takes on a moral stridency: ‘And your irrational, emotional stand based on social conditioning reflects the politically repressive interests of bourgeois society.’  The concept now dubbed emotivism allows one to explain and dismiss the moral claims of anyone with whom one happens to disagree.  Emotivism for thee, but not for me.”

Although the CRBC library allows an initial check-out period of two weeks for books, I found that to be an insufficient amount of time to complete this particular book* and actually renewed it for another two weeks.  The length of 407 pages was less of an obstacle than the heavy philosophical language.  Please don’t let my review scare you away from reading this book for yourself.  It was a highly insightful book and really opened my eyes in a lot of different ways to the origins of the thought processes of many in today’s culture.  It is “daunting” however so if you are still interested in the content but would like a more user-friendly version that’s half as long, Carl Trueman has also published a book called “Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.”  One final note: I would recommend this book to adults only, based on the mature nature of the content.  Happy reading everyone!

* The initial check out-out period for books was supposed to have been set for longer and, for some reason, it went back to the default of 2 weeks. I'm glad for this reminder to fix it. It has now been extended to four weeks. Happy reading! - Doug

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