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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sexual revolution and christianity

One of the most remarkable things about human beings is our ability to think. We can think about ourselves, other people, or our environment. We can ponder abstract concepts like love or justice. We can imagine things that don’t exist and create whole new worlds in our minds. We can investigate the space around us, discover facts, do math. We can think of ways to accomplish tasks more safely and efficiently, and then we can create the machines that help us to achieve those goals. The human brain is the most incredible object in all of creation, and the fact that you’re now thinking about the thing that does your thinking proves the point!

Ideas are powerful things that shape both ourselves and our world. Sometime around 2008 somebody had an idea for a smart phone, and now the world has been changed forever. We could say the same thing about microprocessors, airplanes, automobiles, birth control, guns, toilets, printing presses – this list could go on forever. But ideas that shape the world don’t always take concrete forms. Sometimes an idea stays an idea, like a philosophy or a worldview, shaping the world by spreading from the mind of one person to the next. A culture is transformed by the behavior of people, and people’s actions are influenced by their thoughts. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea. Think about what we find right in the beginning of Scripture: The idea that humans are created in the image of God. This idea has had as profound an impact for good in this world as any other idea ever thought up!

Jesus People are Idea People

In significant ways, followers of Jesus are idea-people. The Gospel isn’t simply an idea, of course, but rather a message about things that happened in a real place at a real time — that Christ was crucified, that he died and was buried, and that he rose again on the third day. This is more than an idea; it’s a fact of history that can reasonably be proven to be true. But there are many ideas that flow from this message: God loves humanity; God is Trinity; We are saved by grace through faith; We don’t have to fear death and can have hope for a resurrection; We should love others just as God has loved us. The ideas that the Gospel reveals form the heart and soul of the Christian faith. We lose those precious ideas if we change or compromise the message of the Gospel. We all know that nature hates a vacuum, so we need to be aware of new ideas that will replace the old ones. If we lose the Gospel, what ideas will we come to believe? And how will those beliefs shape our words, actions, and desires? If we lose the Gospel, will we become more like Jesus, or less like Him?

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