Book Review: Strange New World, by Carl Trueman
The world has changed. Things are not the way they were 60 years ago, 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago, especially in America. These changes feel drastic and sudden, like a revolution fought and won overnight.
While many in our society celebrate these changes, many others—particularly Christians—lament. We find ourselves wondering:
How was gay marriage legalized less than 20 years after a democratic president signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law?
How can we allow men who identify as women to compete against (and usually defeat) biological females less than 50 years after Title IX was signed into law?
How is it that a book questioning the transgender narrative was banned from Amazon when Mein Kampf is still for sale?
How? How did we get here?
These are the questions that Carl R. Trueman is seeking to answer in Strange New World: How Thinkers an Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.
Trueman’s earlier work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, is by all accounts a masterful treatment of the subject. But it’s a seven-course meal: 400 pages of detailed history and thorough argumentation. That seemed too much to stomach for many potential readers, so Trueman wrote this volume to present his thesis in a more digestible size.
THE LONG, WINDING ROAD TO REVOLUTION
Many Christians look back to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and conclude that most, if not all, of our current problems began there. But Trueman shows that the road to the sexual revolution was paved hundreds of years earlier by the advent and increasing influence of a worldview that American scholar Robert Bellah coined “expressive individualism.” This worldview demands that our inner feelings must be expressed if we are to become our true selves.
Trueman offers a convincing argument that this worldview began with Romantic thinkers Descartes and Rousseau, who granted final authority to inner feelings, which are always pure and true guides to who human beings are.
Marx and Nietzsche then politicized these beliefs. Marx argued that morality is historically conditioned and designed to maintain unjust structures, and Neitzsche argued that morality is a fiction invented by one group to subordinate another. For both men, moral codes are manipulative and must be transgressed if true freedom is to be found.
Finally, Freud and Reich sexualized the psychology that Marx and Nietzsche politicized. Freud argued that sex is foundational to human identity and happiness. In his mind, sex isn’t something we do; it is who we are. The labels “straight,” “gay,” and “bisexual” make sense even when applied to people who have never engaged in sexual activity. Reich argued that because sex is foundational to human happiness and inextricably linked with our identity, the State must take a proactive stance in promoting sexual freedom.
Trueman shows that by the time of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the hippies weren’t blazing a new trail. They were walking down a completed road that had been in construction for several hundred years.
That road leads directly to our current destination—a world where only hours after his inauguration, our president signed into law an executive order requiring public buildings to open women’s restrooms to biological men identifying as women. That’s only possible in a world that believes our feelings are the true and infallible guide to who we really are; that sex is foundational to human identity and happiness; and that the State must therefore protect and promote sexual freedom.
YOU CAN RUN, BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE FOREVER
If you don’t live in an urban context or a university town, it’s possible that your daily life has been largely unaffected by the aggressive activism of those who support the transgender narrative. But as they say, it’s coming soon to a theater near you—and that theater is your local government, your child’s elementary school, and even your own workplace.
Since the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, many Christian and conservative leaders have declared war on the culture, believing that the only way to win it back is through activism and political engagement, which usually means political victory for the “right” candidates.
Trueman respectfully disagrees with that approach. He writes, “I am not here calling for a kind of passive quietism whereby Christians abdicate their civic responsibilities or make no connection between how to pursue those civic responsibilities and their religious beliefs. I am suggesting rather that engaging in cultural warfare using the world’s tools, rhetoric, and weapons is not the way for God’s people” (177, italics mine).
Instead, he advocates an approach that is biblically rooted and confident in the sovereignty of God to achieve his purposes through his people. He counsels readers to begin with self-examination, repenting for the ways we have compromised the gospel by conforming to the spirit of this age.
He encourages us to humbly recognize where we have been complicit in lending credibility to expressive individualism, from the way we approach the church as consumers looking to have our felt needs met, to the way our worship music tends to use individual pronouns and overemphasize feelings, to the way we’ve accepted no-fault divorce on the grounds that personal happiness has not been met.
Finally, and most importantly, Trueman argues that the best way to engage the culture is to protest it by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God. Since modern sexual and identity politics are functions of deeper notions of selfhood, we must understand the Christian view of the self; and since the self is created in God’s image, we must hold a biblical doctrine of God.
Identity is shaped by the communities to which we belong, so the church must be our strongest community, and we must invite others to come, see, and experience that supernatural community, which Jesus said would persuade others that we are truly his disciples (John 13:35).
THE BUILDING IS COMING DOWN—ARE YOU READY?
Strange New World is a remarkable combination of depth and readability, clearly presenting the arguments from his earlier work without sacrificing essential background information or insightful analysis.
Each chapter concludes with questions that are well-suited for individual reflection or group study. And though it may sound bleak, ultimately, the book is hopeful, arguing that Christians in this strange new world shouldn’t despair, but rather should work to prepare themselves for the task at hand, keeping God’s unbreakable promises before our eyes.
The worldview of expressive individualism is built on the idea that authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with our feelings. This ideological structure is destined to collapse. When it does, Christians must be the first responders, running to the rubble to remove those who have been seriously wounded, and to apply the healing balm of the gospel.
Trueman’s work will help train you for that upcoming mission.