Why Pastors Need to Understand an Abstract Topic Like “Expressive Individualism”
I must admit: when I first came across Carl Trueman’s new book, the title and the cover did little to entice me. What does “the self,” “cultural amnesia,” “expressive individualism,” and “the road to the sexual revolution” have to do with the day-to-day things I face as an ordinary pastor? It all seemed so philosophical, so abstract, so obtuse. Nevertheless, upon the recommendation of a few friends and mentors, I took the plunge. Upon resurfacing from the book several weeks later, I was stunned to learn that every one of those philosophical topics shaped my life, ministry, and world more than I could ever imagine.
The goal of this article is to convince you of this as well.
THE DESPAIRING DIAGNOSIS
First things first: what’s Trueman trying to say? Essentially, he argues that our current time and place is morally and philosophically unique. Similar to Aldous Huxley’s dystopia in A Brave New World, but with one massive difference: in Huxley’s fantasy future, the community reigned; in our modern world, the individual reigns. Put simply, the recent onslaught of the sexual revolution is merely a symptom of a new, individualistic world order.
Indeed, sexual sin has plagued us since the Fall. Yet, never has this expression of rebellion been so acceptable, thorough, widespread, and celebrated. Trueman illustrates the uniqueness of our time by contemplating the following sentence: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (Rise and Triumph, 19ff.). Think about the so-called plausibility of such a statement in our modern day. Biblically (and logically), we know this statement is preposterous. Yet for many, it makes sense. In fact, it makes so much sense to some that agreeing with it has become a matter of legal and societal consequence.
Twenty years ago, most people would have scoffed. That’s no longer the case. And so, Trueman says, welcome to the sexual ethos of our brave, new world.
In the old world, Judeo-Christian standards of sexuality were largely understood and at least superficially embraced. Sexual sin and deviancy existed, but usually under the cloak of darkness (i.e., shame) or in abject defiance of the social order (i.e., rebellion). Now, however, a biblical understanding of gender, sexuality, and marriage is viewed with suspicion, if not all-out scorn. Simultaneously, sexual deviancy is considered normal, and perhaps even morally superior. The question is no longer, “How can anyone say he is a woman trapped in a man’s body,” but rather, “How can anyone even question whether anyone can say he is a woman trapped in a man’s body?”
Put simply, the sexual revolution has triumphed. But … why? How did we get here? In answering these questions, the genius of Trueman’s work begins to shine. He’s not answering the question we maybe want him to ask: “How do we stop or reverse the sexual revolution?” Instead, he slowly traces the sexual revolution’s triumph. Like a skilled doctor, he explains through the societal, cultural, and ethical symptoms to render an accurate diagnosis. And his conclusion will surprise you.
Pastors and church people alike would be tempted to think this is an easy answer. I can hear it now, “Class, what caused the sexual revolution?” The pastors and people yell out, “Sin!” But Trueman resists such simplistic answers. Blaming sin for the sexual revolution is like blaming gravity for the collapse of the Twin Towers.
To understand our brave, new world requires us to understand not only the gravitational force of sin but also the philosophy and political stratagems employed by it. He summarizes the main culprit in two words: “expressive individualism.” This term refers to the tendency to find our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires (46). Through careful historical and cultural analysis, the book traces the 300+ year history of the political rise of the self. At the risk of oversimplification, the devolution happened via three strategic steps.
First, through the influence of Rousseau and other post-Enlightenment thinkers and poets, the self became “psychologized.” Who we were was no longer to be determined by our family, country, or church; instead, key thinkers and artists convinced us that we could and in fact must determine who we are. According to these propagandists, identity shouldn’t be informed from anyone or anything outside of us, but created or expressed from within.
Second, through the teaching of Freud (with some scientific leveling of the playing field by Darwin), the psyche—that is, the internally determined self—became sexualized. As Darwin’s theory reduced man to an elevated animal, Freud capitalized upon this by arguing that as a higher animal humans are essentially sexual. Though many of Freud’s theories and practices are outdated and irrelevant, this insistence upon mankind as a fundamentally sexual being has taken root in popular thought.
Third, and finally, through the surprising influence of Marx and other 20th century political progressives, the sexualized psyche became politicized. If the self is inherently sexual, then any denial or discouragement of certain rights and liberties is simply another expression of hegemonic oppression. Down with the traditional tyrants advocating for Judeo-Christian sexual mores, up with the newly liberated sexual selves who inherently deserve the right to enjoy their sexual appetites free from scorn or disapproval.
The sexual revolution didn’t cause the sexual revolution. Rather, the rise and triumph of the sexual revolution owes its victory to the rise and triumph of the psychologized, sexualized, and politicized self. If churches don’t treat the issue at this level, then they may be deceived into merely treating symptoms, never striving toward an actual cure.
THE DYNAMIC SOLUTION
So what’s the cure?
Trueman admits he doesn’t have many highly formulated answers. His “concluding unscientific epilogue” concedes that there’s more work to be done here, although he does try to forecast possible futures within society and the church (383–407).
While it seems solutions could come from multiple quarters— the family, the arts, the academy, the political realm—there’s one that cannot be neglected: the local church. This is precisely why 9Marks decided to devote a Journal to this topic. Whatever other solutions may be conjectured, time and thought must be invested in leveraging the one institution accompanied and empowered by the risen Christ (Mt. 28:18–20), the one entity against which “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (16:18). Specifically, it seems that healthy churches stem the tide of expressive individualism as they continue to leverage the authoritative Word and live out authentic Christian community.
Leveraging the Authoritative Word
Healthy churches unwind the errors of expressive individualism as they leverage the authoritative Word of God. In order to preserve our children and church members from the contagion of expressive individualism, we must steadily dispense the antiviral of biblical truth. In other words, our teaching must be marked by expositional preaching, biblical theology, and the gospel.
Expositional preaching, for example, deploys the authoritative Word against many erroneous ideologies. Whereas our culture tells us that truth is something one feels or something that looks appealing, expositional preaching is an actual argument from an objective, supernatural source—God himself. As the emphasis and shape of one’s sermons consistently matches the emphasis and shape of the divine text, the congregation is reminded that truth is objective and authoritative. Furthermore, they’re reminded such truth exists outside us.
Healthy churches will also abundantly disseminate biblical theology not only in the sermons but also in additional classes. First, let us consider biblical theology as the storyline of Scripture and then examine it simply as theology that is biblical (i.e., sound doctrine, systematic theology).
As church members regularly imbibe the redemptive-historical storyline of the Bible, the popular social imaginary obsessed with the expressive individual loses more and more sway. Scripture is indeed a story and at its center is not the self, but the sovereign and triune God. This story discloses not only who God is but also what he has done. First, he created gendered, corporeal human beings in his image to reflect his sovereign goodness throughout the universe. Sin of course ruined the divine ideal. And yet, God orchestrated a rescue plan for sinful rebels, thereby restoring them to forever fellowship both here and now in this fallen world and there and then in the new heavens and earth. In fact, though the hero of the story is the Savior, each act informs our understanding of the self.
This rescue plan is the gospel.
In the opening act, God creates human beings in his image to reflect his sovereign goodness as they procreate, cultivate, and protect the created world from anything or anyone that would oppose God.
In the next act, sadly, human beings listen to the Serpent’s promise of an enhanced self and disobey God. Though the self was cursed on account of sin, God deployed promise after promise to assure his people that he would destroy their enemy and restore to them the blessings they forfeited.
In the third act, God fulfills his promise by sending his Son to become a gendered, corporeal human as a new representative for the world. Though the first human, Adam, failed, Christ would succeed—obeying God’s law perfectly, dying on the cross to satisfy God’s fully righteous wrath, and physically rising again to declare his victory over the powers of death, hell, and sin.
In the fourth act, a new humanity enjoys spiritual life now and the promise of eternal physical life in the future as they depend on the person and work of Christ for rescue. Upon trusting in Christ, they are physically baptized and invited to partake of the Lord’s Table whereby they are identified as part of the visible people of God.
Finally, in act five, the risen and still human, gendered, corporeal Son of God returns to rule with his embodied people over a new heavens and new earth for all eternity. Such a narrative is not only more compelling than anything offered by Rousseau or Freud, but it also has the advantage of being absolutely true.
In each of these acts, God exercises his sovereign grace over his physical creatures. As we teach this narrative, we defang the pliable and ultimately nihilistic notions of the self propagated by others.
Healthy churches ought to be a “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). This phrase assumes the protection and propagation of propositional revelation. In other words, local churches bear the unique responsibility to uphold sound doctrine. We must “contend for [all] the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jud 3), which means doctrines connected to anthropology may warrant special attention in our day. Now more than ever, churches need to fight for the truth and beauty of embodied existence and related truths such as the imago dei, complementerianism, gender, marriage, and sexual ethics. Trueman rightfully points out that Protestants especially have some make-up work to do: “Protestantism with its emphasis on the preached word grasped by faith, is perhaps peculiarly vulnerable to downplaying the importance of the physical. … A recovery of a biblical understanding of embodiment is vital. And closely allied with this is the fact that the church must maintain its commitment to biblical sexual morality, whatever the social cost may be” (406–407).
As grateful as we may be for seminaries, denominations, para-church entities, and websites, the local church is still the “pillar and buttress of truth.” Even if the gospel is “folly to those who are perishing,” to those of us who are being saved it is still “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).
Living in Authentic Community
At the same time, healthy churches are more than proclaimers and defenders of gospel truth. Healthy churches also stem the currents of the modern self through their gospel community. Trueman shows the both-and nature of the church’s charge, “If the church is to avoid the absolutizing of aesthetics by an appropriate commitment to Christianity as first and foremost doctrinal, then, second, she must also be a community” (Trueman, 404). This is true because the self is not merely understood from reading and study but through interactions with others around us (for more on this see pp. 56–59).
Consider, for example, the act of being baptized into membership. It’s a remarkably passive act. One does not baptize himself or unilaterally “decide” to belong to a local church; rather, he must be baptized and she must be received into the fellowship of that church. In healthy churches, one cannot merely “identify” as a Christian; Christ has entrusted this job to his churches. In fact, one cannot even choose to remain identified as a Christian apart from the regular approval of a congregation; that’s what it means for a local church to bear the authority and responsibility to excommunicate those who persist in unrepentant sin (Matt. 18; 1 Cor 5). Church membership and its counterpart, church discipline, draw a bright line between who belongs to Christ and who does not. And this strikes at the very heart of modern views of the self.
But the gospel community enjoyed in healthy churches is the result of much more than its formal structures. Healthy local churches not only make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” but also by “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19–20). Once more, we do well to affirm the transmission of gospel content, but the goal of said content is conduct. Just as baptizing assumes the instrumentality of another, so does the teaching unto obedience.
In other words, Christianity is not a self-improvement project. Healthy churches not only make disciples by marking them via the sign of baptism (initially) and Communion (ongoingly) but they also mature these disciples via the modeled, mentored, and interpersonal application of the Word. We grow not only by instruction, but by imitation (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). Therefore, healthy churches exhort their members to both grow in holiness and help others do the same. All of this directly confronts the modern notion of the self. Instead of the church member expressing himself, he is exhorted by others to die to self and mimic Jesus instead.
In many ways, ministry in the 21st century West really is the best of times and the worst of times. Some unhealthy churches have fully capitulated to the rise and triumph of the modern self. Others have effectively rebelled against its influence.
Let us conclude with the following hypothetical examples.
The less healthy the church, the less potent its impact. Popular sermons centered on felt-needs will likely only further fuel unbiblical notions of the self. For at least thirty years, evangelical churches have tried to create “community” around applicable sermons and personal affinities such as music, hobbies, or life-stage. Such churches haven’t equipped people well to understand and confront the modern view of the self. In some cases, attractional churches not only fail to dampen the flames of expressive individualism; they fuel them.
On the other hand, imagine a church where God’s Word is proclaimed and protected. Imagine gathered saints regularly being formed and shaped by the gospel, expository preaching, sound doctrine, and biblical theology. And imagine those same believers officially covenanting together as a Christian community, preaching the gospel to the lost, practicing the Lord’s Table until he comes, provoking one another to godliness, and protecting one another from the errors and evils of sin. In a church like that, the self is minimized as the Savior is magnified. Yes, sin still frustrates and persists—and it will until the Lord returns. But until then, such churches will have a positive influence on a darkening and decaying world.