Do you feel like a stranger in today’s world?
Carl Trueman gives good reasoning for this in his recent book, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (2022).
Since its release, this book has received high praise from many of today’s thought leaders. It is Trueman’s abbreviated version of his much longer work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (2020), making it an easily digestible yet foundational resource in discerning the times.
Dr. Trueman has a PhD in church history and is a religious studies professor at Grove City College. He is a contributing editor at First Things and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is an esteemed historian and the author or editor of over a dozen books. At the risk of repeating much of what has already been said about the book, I will give a brief summary for those who are unfamiliar with its premise and offer some important takeaways.
As Ryan T. Anderson describes in the foreword, Strange New World explains “how the person became the self, the self became sexualized, and sex became politicized” (page 12). Trueman does this by drawing philosophical connections between some of the West’s most prominent historical figures: Marx, Freud, Rousseau, among others. Through the influence of these thinkers, Trueman argues that our culture has experienced a gradual decline towards what is described as “expressive individualism”—the idea that “the modern self is one where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inward feelings” (page 23).
Trueman concedes that expressive individualism is not a completely false idea; we are, after all, created beings with an inward soul and emotions that tell us a lot about who we are. However, like with most problematic ideologies, the expressive individualism we see today working itself out in our culture has taken this truth and morphed it into something quite sinister: that emotions are what create the human self and these emotions have authority over all external realities.
This thinking, coupled with the rise of modern technology, opened the door to the sexual revolution and what made the rise of transgenderism possible. It is what has made the LGTBQ+ movement the civil rights movement of our era. It is what has led to the “politics of recognition” (page 115) which has resulted in the rampant victimhood mentality, cancel culture, suppression of free speech, and much more in our Western society today.
Trueman, of course, understands the shortcomings in presenting a philosophical “theory of everything” to explain the seismic shifts we are witnessing in our culture. However, through the course of the book, Trueman stacks quite a compelling argument by examining the necessary pre-conditions: Western philosophy, theology, culture, and technology leading up to this point have certainly played a role in the malleable way in which we view ourselves—what Trueman describes as a culture “marked by plastic people who believe they can make and remake themselves at will; and by a liquid world in which, to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, all that is solid seems continually to melt into thin air” (page 112). As expressed in the title of his original book, the idea of expressive individualism paved the way for the rise and triumph of the modern—and highly problematic—self.
The Decline of Our Social Imaginary
Why problematic? Besides leaving no room for any kind of objective truth or foundational reality, the modern self, Trueman argues, is fundamentally destroying the West’s “social imaginary.” Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor used this phrase to describe the way people “imagine” their collective social life. It reinforces the idea that a society has shared values, beliefs, and principles shaped by the course of their shared history, not that they invent reality solely between their ears. To take this a step further, Trueman highlights the importance of social imaginary for a nation-state: “for a nation to exist, its members must imagine that they hold things in common that give them a coherent identity as a body of people” (117).
This brings us to the plight of America today: With the rise of expressive individualism, we no longer see ourselves as part of a collective whole. Our identities are rooted solely in our own psyche, and we are free to choose any community to offer primary loyalty. As the Left continues to attack our national history and foundational Christian principles, citizens faction into ever smaller groups, often conflicting, and we lose our shared identity.
If you feel like a stranger in your own country, it’s because you are. The average American today might share nothing in common with his next-door neighbor.
Biblical Truth & Natural Law
While this is a discouraging reality, Trueman wants it to be a wake-up call for Christians. In the last chapter of his book, he gives practical advice on how believers can address the issues that have resulted from unfettered individualism. Considering the declining social imaginary, Trueman writes in response to a younger person struggling with the idea of a biblical sexuality:
“Older Christians can no longer assume that biblical ethics make sense to younger Christians because the social imaginary in which they operate is so different to the one many of us grew up in. And that means we need to work harder at explaining not simply the content but also the rationale of Christian morality. Now, in this scenario above, it is therefore helpful not simply to point to what the Bible teaches in a few texts but also to show that those texts make sense within a larger picture. And this larger picture has both a broad biblical side, where sex is a function of what the Bible teaches about human personhood, and also a ‘natural law’ side, where, for example, the sexual complementary of male and female bodies is relevant, as is the evidence of damage done to the physical body by certain sexual practices. It is not that nature here offers the decisive argument; yet it does help to show that biblical teaching is not an arbitrary imposition on nature but instead correlates with it. In other words, it assists us in showing that God’s commands make sense, given the way the world actually is.” (page 184-185).
To summarize, Trueman is arguing that to reach others, specifically the younger generations, we need to recognize that they are often operating out of an un-shared social imaginary and that it is the responsibility of the believer and the church to explain biblical principles accordingly. The old way of “because the Bible says so” is not enough for someone who doesn’t acknowledge the authority of the Bible in the first place. While the church’s primary function is certainly to preach the Gospel, Trueman emphasizes the need for a new apologetic approach. We must show how biblical truth best explains and works with reality.
We recently argued for much the same: a worldview approach to complement evangelical efforts.
The Self & Imago Dei
This does not come without a warning, however. Christians must be careful not to hyper-fixate on certain issues and neglect to explain the coherent whole of a biblical worldview:
“Yet there is a danger here: we can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole. The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human. The doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are important foundations for addressing the specific challenges of our time. If, as I have argued in this book, modern sexual and identity politics are functions of deeper notions of selfhood, then we need first to know what the Christian view of the self is in order to address them. And as the Bible teaches that the human self is made in the image of God, we need a good grasp of the doctrine of God. In short, we can stand strong at this cultural moment and address the specific challenges we face only if our foundations in God’s truth are broad and deep.” (page 178)
Here, Trueman calls on believers to “know their stuff.” If it’s the self that’s under attack (which we would agree with Trueman that it is), then we need a good theology of God and what it means to be created in His image. In other words, good or orthodox Christian worldview. Only then can we address the identity crisis that the West is facing today.
At Praxis Circle, we like to end our interviews by asking our Contributors if they are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America. What is Trueman’s answer? We should not hopelessly despair nor have naïve optimism, but instead realistic Christian hope:
“The world in which we live seems to be entering a new, chaotic, uncharted, and dark era. But we should not despair. We need to prepare ourselves, be informed, know what we believe and why we believe it, worship God in a manner that forms us as true disciples and pilgrims, intellectually and intuitively, and keep before our eyes the unbreakable promises the Lord has made and confirmed in Jesus Christ” (page 186).
I’m thankful to be a part of a church that was handing this book out to its congregants for free. I believe a healthy step in the right direction is to make these resources as known and accessible as possible for the equipping of Christians. As Trueman writes in his opening chapter, “To respond to our times we must first understand our times” (29). In just under 200 pages, Trueman does this by helping us understand the ideas that are shaping the West’s new social imaginary, so that we can respond in a confident yet gracious way.
We might feel estranged in this world, but Strange New World helps us connect the dots in understanding why. It ultimately serves as an encouragement to the faithful Christian and calls us to love both God and neighbor more deeply in heart, mind, and deed. I hope many more churches will give this book out as a resource and help Christians navigate this strange new world.