The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

What The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is About

Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a book about a single question: How and why did the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful? This statement, which in my own lifetime was once regarded as both fodder for comedy and a clear sign of insanity, has now ascended to the rank of the most courageous and truthful thing that a person could say. Those who make this good confession (or the parallel, “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body”) are lauded as heroes, and their cause has been championed by institutions of all stripes — churches, corporations, schools, universities, and governments. How and why has such a radical inversion come about in so short an amount of time? And how has it been so quickly and thoroughly adopted by average people, not just those who travel in niche academic circles?


How and why did the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful?

Trueman’s book is not a lament that such a thing has happened, nor is it a sustained argument against the logic or morality of this statement. It really is an honest and objective exploration of the question of how we have arrived at such a time and place where the question of transgenderism has come to dominate the cultural imagination. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is an intellectual history of the sexual revolution, which he makes clear “is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West.” (20)

The Social Imaginary

Trueman begins by framing the current situation in the language of philosophers Charles Taylor, Philip Reiff, and Alisdair MacIntyre. Three crucial concepts immediately reveal themselves when we deeply examine the culture that we find ourselves in. The first concept is the social imaginary, which is a term coined by Charles Taylor. The social imaginary is how the people of a specific culture tend to think about themselves, the world, and how they should act in it. It is a mass, unspoken intuition about reality, the things that we all (or almost all of us) just assume to be true. Trueman puts it succinctly: “the social imaginary is a matter of intuitive social taste.” (38) The average person doesn’t think the statement “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” makes sense because he is committed to radical gender theories; he thinks it makes sense because it seems right to affirm someone in their chosen identities and hurtful not to.

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What Live Not By Lies Is About

The coming soft totalitarianism of woke progressivism will release a wave of persecution against Christians (and other dissidents) that the West hasn’t seen since the days of communism. This is the fundamental claim of Rod Dreher’s latest book, Live Not By Lies. Granted, this persecution may not be as overtly harsh, physically torturous, or psychologically cruel as the horrors meted out in the gulags of the Soviet system, but it is coming nonetheless. Already, the Wokesheviks (my term, not Dreher’s) are making lists of those who should not be allowed to work, and therefore live, in the post-Trump United States. Today’s Left has a totalitarian impulse that is unchecked by any religious sentiment, like the necessity for forgiveness or the foundation of agape love, because the Left’s politics are its religion. Therefore, we can expect the areligious Left of today to do what the areligious Left has already done, particularly under communist rule.

The memory of the evil of communism is lost on those under 30 because they never experienced it (just 57% of millennials believe that the Declaration of Independence better guarantees “freedom and equality” than the Communist Manifesto), but there are many alive today who bore the weight of these oppressive regimes and lived to tell about it. Live Not By Lies reads like a long, well-researched, and engaging newspaper article or magazine feature, as Dreher frequently relies on the first hand testimony of those who stood up to communism and were persecuted for it. Many of the communist survivors Dreher interviewed for the book express grave concern for the West, because they hear in our culture the echoes of the totalitarian lies that claimed tens of millions of lives in the twentieth century. They offer us invaluable lessons in perseverance and faithfulness, but we must also hear their calls to wake up and get prepared for what is coming.

What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups–ethnic, sexual, and otherwise–and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.
…Under the guise of ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusivity,’ ‘equity,’ and other egalitarian jargon, the Left creates powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse and marginalizes dissenters as evil.
Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies, p. xi

Live Not By Lies takes its title from an essay of the same name by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and in many ways the book is a less gut-wrenching, less horror-inducing version of Solzhenitsyn’s vital work, The Gulag Archipelago. To live by lies, Solzhenitsyn wrote, meant “accepting without protest all the falsehoods and propaganda that the state compelled its citizens to affirm…. Everybody says that they have no choice but to conform…and to accept powerlessness. But that is the lie that gives all the other lies their malign force. The ordinary man may not be able to overturn the kingdom of lies, but he can at least say that he is not going to be its loyal subject.” (17) Dreher warns that we are being taught to practice a form of ketman, which is “the Persian word for the practice of maintaining an outward appearance of Islamic orthodoxy while inwardly dissenting.” (16) Ketman is a sort of hypocrisy where one outwardly assents to wokeness but inwardly rejects it. This is dishonest, and ultimately corrupts the individual as he attempts to conform to the system while maintaining traditional or biblical convictions. Ketman is the fiction practiced by those cowardly souls who, under Soviet totalitarianism, turned in their neighbors to save their own skin.

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What Why Liberalism Failed Is About

The title is provocative for those who are politically inclined. How could anyone think that liberalism has failed? But Patrick Deneen isn’t talking about liberalism in the sense that we most often use it – as political and cultural progressivism. No, in Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen has set his sites on the entire political theory of liberalism, which is the very foundation of the American political system. This sort of liberalism is a political theory based on the premises that individuals should have the liberty to make autonomous choices about their lives, and that human beings must conquer nature in order to thrive.

The first premise, what Deneen calls “anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice,” is a radical redefinition of the word liberty. In classical thought – including Christian teaching – liberty was the power to rule oneself, to demonstrate the virtues over against the baser appetites. These lower desires, particularly those for food, drink, and sex, were understood to be tyrannical, and a man could not be free unless he was able to exercise self-control, or what the classical philosophers called temperance. Temperance was understood to be the true liberator, and a society could only be free insofar as its leaders exercised self-control.


Temperance was understood to be the true liberator, and a society could only be free insofar as its leaders exercised self-control.

Liberal theory turns this on its head, and posits that liberty is experienced only to the extent that individuals are free to make the choices they desire to make. “Liberal philosophy rejected [the] requirement of human self-limitation. …Liberalism instead understands liberty as the condition in which one can act freely within the sphere unconstrained by positive law.” (35-38) The only laws that liberalism allows are those which prevent us from directly harming other people. All else is permissible.

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What The Unseen Realm is About

The story of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm began when he was confronted with the Hebrew text of Psalm 82:1. That text reads like this: “God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgment in the midst of the gods [elohim].” Many Christians know that the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures used the word elohim to refer to God. This noun is plural, but it is very often used in the singular. However, elohim doesn’t always refer to the singular God, Yahweh, of Israel. Sometimes, like in Psalm 82, it is used like a normal, plural noun, where it means “the gods.” But how can this be? The Bible tells us over and over again that there is only one God, Yahweh. Surely there aren’t other gods. The gods of the pagan nations are false gods, mere idols with no real power or authority. As it turns out, the truth about the spirit world – the unseen realm as Dr. Heiser calls it – is much more complicated than we’ve been told.

The ancient authors of Scripture had a vastly different understanding of the world than we do today. Our culture is thoroughly modern. Materialism is our dominant cultural lens. Scientism is our superstition. We are, in large part, blind to the supernatural, culturally conditioned to reject anything that can’t be explained through scientific inquiry. While we may understand the processes and particles of our universe better than ever before, due to our inherent antisupernaturalism, our world is much smaller than the world of the ancients. This is a problem for believers. Heiser laments, “The believing church is bending under the weight of its own rationalism, a modern worldview that would be foreign to the biblical writers.” (p. 17) Our rationalism prevents us from reading the Bible aright, thereby impoverishing our theology and, more importantly, keeping us out of the mission to which we are called.

God is not the only elohim. While none of the other elohim, other spiritual beings, can compare to God in majesty, power, glory, goodness, etc., the Bible clearly teaches that there are spiritual beings other than the one Creator God. In fact, several texts speak of a divine council, and the book of Job tells us that the satan was a part of this council! We are all familiar with angels and demons, but the divine council texts indicate that there are beings who go beyond these oversimplified categories. There appears to be some kind of hierarchy in the unseen realm, though it is not at all clear to us exactly what that is. The overall point, however, is that the spiritual world is far more complex than we typically understand.

This is not a book about spiritual warfare as evangelicals perceive it. Heiser is not saying that demons are responsible for every cough or sneeze, or that the devil could be hiding just around the corner. His work is far more sophisticated than that. The book could be summed up this way:

  • The fall of physical beings mirrored the fall of spiritual beings.
  • The fall of spiritual beings is told in Genesis 6:1-4 when “the sons of God” came to earth and impregnated human women.
  • God disinherited the nations at Babel, handing spiritual dominion of human peoples over to the fallen spiritual beings.
  • God would build his own portion of humanity through Abraham and Sarah, and in some mysterious way, bless all the peoples of the earth through them.
  • Jesus has defeated the fallen spiritual beings and stripped them of their power and dominion in a way that they never expected – through physical death and resurrection.
  • Through the Spirit-empowered church, God is announcing his message of reconciliation to all the peoples of the earth.
  • When the time is right, Jesus will return and defeat the fallen spiritual beings and their allies in a great battle, bringing full and final restoration to God’s creation.

What I Learned from The Unseen Realm

Some of the most interesting material in The Unseen Realm covers the mysterious Nephilim. While in seminary I had to write a paper on the Nephilim in which I was forced to decide if “the sons of God” of Genesis 6 referred to spiritual beings or humans. I couldn’t decide. But after reading The Unseen Realm, I’m confident that “the sons of God” are spiritual beings who rebelled against God’s proper order, crossing a boundary that ought never to be transgressed. The unholy offspring of these unions between “gods” and women were the Nephilim, called giants in other texts. Goliath was a descendent of the Nephilim. In fact, paying careful attention to the text and ancient geography, Heiser demonstrated that Israel’s conquest of Canaan was tightly linked to the locations where these tribes of giants lived. In other words, the task of Moses, Joshua, and David was to destroy the last remaining descendants of the rebellious “sons of God.”

And then there’s this fascinating nugget. There is some ancient Jewish literature that indicates that the spirits of these fallen giants became demons, or unclean spirits, that roamed the land looking for people to possess. The Old Testament has no records of anyone being exorcised of a demon, but there is one biblical character for whom exorcism was central to his mission: Jesus. It’s possible to interpret Jesus’s exorcisms as his way of “finishing the job” started by Moses, Joshua, and David.

My Recommendation of The Unseen Realm

There is so much more that I could include in the previous section, especially about the significance of, and relationship between, Bashan, Mt. Hermon, and the gates of hell. In fact, Heiser has another book called Reversing Hermon which I am anxious to read, so perhaps I will leave that subject for a later review. But overall, this is a readable and informative book.

With brief but deep chapters, The Unseen Realm is a readable book that can be digested thoroughly. There is also a companion website that provides more information for the curious reader. This is the first book that I would recommend for those who are interested in learning what the Bible has to say about the spiritual world. It will expand your universe, while at the same time giving you proper context for finding your place in it. The world is far larger and more complicated than we know, but so is God’s plan for us, mere humans.

Part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints: Bible & Theology series, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church is a constructive, and helpful, dialogue on the most significant cultural issue of our time. The four contributors – William Loader, Megan DeFranza, Wesley Hill, and Stephen Holmes – represent two views on the issue of homosexuality and the church. Loader and DeFranza argue for an affirming view, meaning that homosexual relationships should be encouraged and sanctioned within the church, while Hill and Holmes argue for the traditional view, that God designed marriage to be a procreative, covenant relationship between one man and one woman. All four contributors take the Bible seriously, maintaining a high view of Scripture whilst arguing their positions. Each contributor also demonstrates how Christians ought to engage in this significant matter by maintaining a respectful tone toward one another. As General Editor Preston Sprinkle says in his final comments, it really does seem that all four writers could push back on one another’s arguments, “yet still be able to hit the pub together afterward.”

In this review of Two Views on Homosexuality, I will briefly reflect each contributor’s argument as faithfully as I can, and then provide some of my own thoughts on the book and the arguments presented.

The Arguments of Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church

William Loader’s presentation comes first. He thoroughly outlines the biblical case against affirming homosexual relationships, including a valuable survey of contemporary, extrabiblical writings from both a Jewish and a Gentile perspective. The overwhelming weight of the evidence is prohibitive, meaning that homosexual relationships are not affirmed in Scripture. Despite this, however, Loader argues that new insights into human sexuality and psychology should cause us to go back to Scripture and seek a fresh understanding. “It is not disrespectful of writers of Scripture…to suggest that their understanding of human reality needs to be supplemented.” We have done this, he argues, in regards to cosmology, slavery, and the role of women. He concludes with a warning, “We can too easily find ourselves on the wrong side of the pattern of conflicts that have characterized the development of faith over the centuries, rather than on the side pioneered by Jesus.”

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