Virtually every sphere of American culture—from the university to the church to the mass media to multinational corporations and Big Tech—has become host to hotly contested debates over gender, race, sexual orientation, and a host of other issues. As the fight for control of these spaces rages, polarization has only increased. Books written by journalists and campus activists lambast various occurrences of perceived impropriety or “crossed lines” by both right-wing and left-wing actors and provide a picture of a nation gripped by increasing vitriol and partisan division. What the reader may be left short on, however, are solid answers for the why of our current situation. How did we get here, and what should be the response of Christians to current controversies? Attempts to trace the roots of these problems inevitably lead us beyond American history to the philosophical underpinnings of our very civilization. In this quest, Reformed theologian an historian Carl Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution is a worthy guide.
Trueman made waves in 2020 with his momentous work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Lauded by many in the Christian and broader intellectual world, the book nevertheless clocks in at 432 pages, a length that renders the valuable insights slightly less than accessible for some. Strange New World, at slightly less than 200 pages, presents a more digestible version of Trueman’s philosophical and cultural analysis of the modern self. One hopes this condensation of ideas will help bring his critical thesis to an ever-larger mass of readers.
Trueman begins the book by drawing parallels between the modern state of society and works of dystopian fiction. While this may strike the reader as a bizarre and even extreme comparison, he explains why it is necessary. To the average American, the debates echoing throughout our public spaces have taken on a new and worrisome quality. Battles are no longer being waged over how best to achieve realistic goals or order moral behaviors within society; instead, our current discussions have veered into questioning the very nature of reality and whether morality ought even to be part of the discourse in judging behavior. “The Western world in which we live now has a profoundly confusing, and often disturbing, quality to it,” he writes. “Things once regarded as obvious and unassailable virtues have in recent years … come to be seen by many as more akin to vices.”
The modern self, as Trueman describes it, is a state of being in which one’s self-perception determines how to manifest oneself in the world, “where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s feelings.” This understanding of the self, Trueman argues, has led to the explosive growth of what he calls expressive individualism, where the core of human purpose is to reconcile one’s real existence—out there—with one’s inwardly perceived state.
Much of Strange New World is dedicated to tracing the origins of this altering of reality to match one’s expressed identity. Trueman focuses much criticism on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, noting how the Enlightenment thinker placed the core of identity within the psyche of the individual, as opposed to the spaces where the individual interacts with other people. While a radical idea at the time of the Enlightenment, Trueman notes how Rousseau’s thinking on this matter raises nary an eyebrow among the modern reader, an indicator of how pervasive his thinking has become over the years. He also draws a political parallel, noting how an increase in the number of politicians expressing their “inner selves” has caused us to judge the authenticity of politicians differently. For example, the use of vulgarity by political figures going back to the Watergate era somehow makes them seems more real to us, as opposed to uncouth. Nixon may be an example suited to an older audience, yet a younger reader can certainly look to the public personas of more recent presidents as proof positive of Trueman’s point. It would admittedly be overselling the point to ascribe all increase in political profanity to a mere shift of what it means to have an authentic self; as political polarization widens and hysteria around politics increases, increased profanity may simply be an outgrowth of an ever-more fervent desire to win at any cost by people on both sides of the political spectrum.
Another compelling (and troubling) figure Trueman takes note of in the manufacturing of the modern self is Friedrich Nietzsche. One might expect a theologian to harp on the German philosopher’s famous assertion “God is dead,” yet Trueman focuses on Nietzsche’s Superman concept. Trueman argues that the Superman of Nietzschean thought was not likely to be some Aryan or Nazi-like figure, given Nietzsche’s disdain for anti-Semitism. Rather, he is more likely to be in the mold of the Irish poet Oscar Wilde, whose intense individualism, rejection of morals in connection with art (and therefore expression), and conflation of ethics and aesthetics seem to fulfill the Superman ideal to a T.
Trueman further points out how intense individualism, aided by the superficial nature of the modern social media sphere and the increasing sexualization of popular culture, has led to viewing human interaction, sex in particular, through the lens of immediate context. For many, sex has been redefined along lines of mere consent (consensual casual sex is no longer an act that elicits shame). For cultural elites, a transactional view leads one to define sex in terms of power dynamics and the status of the individuals involved; in a case such as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s, even consent is horrifically overlooked in this new sexual ethic. Trueman offers several examples of how this has led to all manner of abuses, including the hypocrisy of many Hollywood celebrities before and after the #MeToo movement. Perhaps even more poignant examples include recent incidents of harassment inside the walls of the church. From Mars Hill to the fall of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, abusive interactions have too often been judged through a lens of context, casting essential moral quandaries aside. If the brand of a dysfunctional church or the status of a wayward church leader is deemed too important to jeopardize, even Christians have avoided making inconvenient moral judgments and taking the steps either to discipline or excommunicate key individuals when necessary.
A cursory examination of Trueman’s public lectures and articles shows him to be a man very careful with his words and argumentation, and Strange New World is no exception. Near the end of the book, he makes clear to the reader that his aim is not to destroy the idea of individualism wholesale or to hold Christians guiltless in the decline he describes, as if this were merely a secular byproduct. In a section entitled “Understanding Our Complicity,” he stresses the importance of being conscious of the inner self, a concept valued by Christian thinkers like Jonathan Edwards, as well as the myriad ways Christians have strayed from biblical sexual ethics in areas like no-fault divorce or how to respond lovingly to a gay or transgender relative. Trueman’s pastoral side shines here, steering clear of the often caustic moral polemics other writers employ. While his tone is firm, he reminds the Christian reader that repentance and humility are vital to correct thinking, even when the moral stands we take run afoul of modern social mores: “There can be no place for the pharisaic prayer whereby we thank the Lord that we are not like other men.”
Trueman’s analytical style makes his arguments and applications easily accessible to the reader. His many insights into the modern self, including extended sections on the influences of Freud, Marx, and the American Founders, are too detailed and numerous to do them justice in a short book review. The reader would do well to pay particular attention, however, to the final chapter, “Strangers in This Strange New World,” for a brilliant illumination of where Christian readers ought to direct their thoughts in this confused and confusing age. While painting a picture he admits is likely to depress the reader at times, Trueman makes clear that action, not regret, is the task of the Christian in this strange new world.
At the same time, however, Trueman steers away from merely drumming up culture war narratives. “The culture is most dramatically engaged by the church presenting it with another culture,” he exhorts, “by offering it a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.” Strange New World is no simplistic cultural whine-fest or naive call for cheap unity; his words in this final chapter come across less as in-depth commentary and more as those of a concerned pastor calmly urging his congregation to be courageous in the storm. “Let us lament the ravages of the fall as they play out in the distinctive ways our generation has chosen,” he concludes. “But let that lamentation be the context for sharpening our identity as the people of God.” Although Strange New World may seem dark and appear to offer little encouragement for the Christian hoping to reform the culture, its message is one of neither optimism nor pessimism, but that of realistic hope—an educated hope that can still delight the mind and cheer the heart of the 21st-century Christian.