“Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” And thus began the adventures of Alice in Wonderland — who discovered just how deep that rabbit-hole went.
Now, I know it’s a tired and overused cliche but Lewis Carroll’s classic is useful to begin this brief commendation of Carl Trueman’s newest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Like the curiosity that goaded Alice to jump into the rabbit-hole, Trueman’s book begins with a similar curiosity: “The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’” With both feet Trueman has jumped down the rabbit-hole of culture and every reader who follows him will find themselves falling down a very deep well.
Of course, the answer to that curious question isn’t easily discovered. Why? Because that sentence has within it incredible assumptions about sexuality, civil rights, and individual liberty. It is the fruit of a deeply rooted tree. Or, to express it this way, it’s an offshoot of a much bigger question. What is the question? It’s the question of identity: who am I.
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of that question. The old philosophers often lived by the motto: “Know Thyself.” In a similar way, John Calvin famously wrote: “Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”
When Calvin wrote that he was reflecting a biblical priority. “What is man?” is not a question left to arm-chair wisdom seekers. It’s a question that is uttered by Job in the depths of anguish (Job 7:17) and exclaimed by David in the heights of praise (Psalm 8:4). It is also a question that confronts us with the point of our existence and trickles down into the mundane details of every day life.
In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Trueman proves to be a competent guide helping us to understand the patterns of thought that flow under the culture. In fact, he’s more than competent, he’s brilliant! This book isn’t superficial cultural commentary. Rather, with acute ability Trueman is able to trace out the cause and effect relationship not merely observing how our culture understands identity but why — in the last three hundred years — we have arrived at the how. Paraphrasing his own work, Trueman shows how identity has been psychologized, how psychology has been sexualized, and how sexuality has been politicized. This kind of analysis is a rare skill in the world and even among Christians.
Thankfully, Trueman has an ability to communicate well to the reader and this book is not only rich in content but in style and tone. To be clear, this isn’t a lightweight book or lazy read. In fact, if Amazon reviews reflect the normal person, an echoed criticism is the level on which it’s been written. But the Gordian knot that has been created by every sector of our culture of confusion isn’t easily untied, and I, for one, am glad people like Trueman are up to the task.
Brilliant as it is it’s also frightening. I say that because as Trueman helps to define the modern idea of self you cannot escape the conclusion that you and I (all of us) have been taken captive by empty philosophies (see Colossians 2:8). It’s not simply the LGBTQ+ community or progressive liberals who have been influenced. We may not be eating the same apples but we’re eating from the same tree. Too much has been yielded to the modern self by Christians who, equipped with their Bibles, should know better.
Is this book a must read? Well, I usually hesitate declaring any book as a must read. But if a book was written in 2020 — or, according to some in the last fifty years — that is a must read, it’s this one. So, my encouragement is follow Carl Trueman down the rabbit-hole and see just how deep it goes.