A Critical Review of Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
In an early scene in “The Foundling,” episode four of The Mandalorian’s third season, the mysterious character known as “The Armorer” speaks the following words to the Yoda-like youngster Grogu, as she stands at her forge, pounding out a raw hunk of beskar metal, fitting and forming it into an intricately shaped piece of body armor: “This is the Forge. It is the heart of Mandalorian culture. Just as we shape the Mandalorian steel, we shape ourselves. We all begin as raw ore. We refine ourselves.”
Carl Trueman, who in his recent book wants to explain to his mainly politically and theologically conservative audience how our culture came to be hospitable to the LGBTQ+ community/agenda/ideology, would not approve of this scene, for it implies that human beings (and not just Mandalorians) can attend to their inner lives in creative ways analogous to artistic production. It suggests that as human beings we can practice self-making, self-actualization, and self-transformation.
While for many Christians this idea is basic to the spiritual life, for Trueman it is apparently a “pathology,” a decadent fall (one of many narrated in the book) from a (supposed) bygone era in which Western civilization embraced all manner of assumptions that made it impossible for individuals to embark upon a regimen of self-transformation. Indeed, when it comes to the self, Trueman extols mimesis (imitation) over poiêsis (making), regarding the latter as undermining a commitment to “objective reality” to which we humans ought to conform.
While Trueman’s book is instructive at many levels, what it fails to see is that such issues — far from amounting to a line in the sand between Christians and their cultured despisers — actually constitute an intramural debate among Christians, within the Christian theological community.
But before developing this claim, a brief summary of the book’s overall argument is in order. Trueman develops his argument across four parts, totaling 10 chapters, and an epilogue.
Part I, “Architects of the Revolution,” provides a crash course on three contemporary theorists who provide the critical lenses through which he analyses the cultural issues of sexuality and identity in 21st-century America: Philip Rieff, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. Each of these figures provides instruments of cultural analysis. Hence, Trueman is, strictly speaking, doing neither philosophy nor theology, but rather cultural or social commentary or analysis. As he states in the first paragraph of the introduction, he is giving a historical account of how, in the 21st-century West, it became plausible for a young person today to make the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (19).
To state the matter more plainly, Trueman does not actually argue in this book against LGBTQ+ convictions. Rather, he assumes that they are wrong — a safe enough assumption given the book’s culturally conservative publisher and intended audience. He deploys the critical tools from these three thinkers to explain how LGBTQ+ ideology has, over the last three centuries, become plausible in the mainstream culture of today — how, that is, it came to dominate the social imaginary.
Part II, “Foundations of the Revolution,” begins Trueman’s historical narrative in earnest, engaging with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake. The key issues here are two: the deleterious effects of society and culture upon the more pristine and authentic “state of nature,” and the importance — even or especially political importance — of aesthetics in general and poetry in particular for determining truth and a social expression of it. Trueman’s point here: these two planks are ingredients of our current cultural embrace of LGBTQ+ ideology.
Rousseau and the Romantics give way to Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, who yield an account of human persons as truly self-made, forging their own identity and life with what creativity they can muster. The Mandalorian Armorer would joyfully concur.
Part III, “Sexualization of the Revolution,” sexualizes the self, turning to Freud and the New Left critical theorists of psychology. For Freud, sex is not an activity but the foundation of personal identity. Indeed, Trueman shows that for Freud the “chief end of man” (to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism) flows from the discovery (in Freud’s own words) that “genital eroticism [is] the central point of his life” (205 n. 5).
In Part IV, Trueman describes the “triumphs” of the revolution. While convincingly showing the pragmatic successes of the surrealist movement in art in service of sexual liberation, he then tries to show that the dramatic proliferation of culturally acceptable pornography is the natural outgrowth of the thought that precedes. Four key Supreme Court decisions in the last four decades (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, United States v. Windsor, Obergefell v. Hodges) provide further grist for Trueman’s mill, along with the “Ivy League ethics” of Peter Singer, and the campus politics of free speech. Of the three sections, the most relevant and helpful is the legal dimension involving the Supreme Court. Trueman’s point here is that, in recent Court decisions — including those by conservative appointees, such as Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion in Obergefell — the outcome has been based less on consistent legal precedent than on the shift in the social imaginary.
All of the preceding leads to the book’s grand finale: chapter 10, “The Triumphs of the ‘T.’” Much of the ink spilled here concerns the common cause forged between the various constituencies of gay, lesbian, and trans interests. Of special note is the minor role played by TERFs (“trans-exclusionary radical feminists”) such as Janice G. Raymond and Germaine Greer, both deeply hostile to the trans movement. The leading role in this particular drama, however, is theorist Judith Butler, with her notion of gender performativity and her opposition to the heteronormative gender binary.
In his “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” Trueman removes the mask of objectivity and plainly addresses his real audience: conservative Protestants. While freely (and rightly) admitting that cultural conservatives and evangelicals are as guilty as anyone else of creating and sustaining our culture of expressive individualism, Trueman issues a kind of manifesto for the conservative Protestant church in the era of LGBTQ+ prominence. This regimen involves continued opposition to gay marriage, fostering of real community within the church, and real grappling with the likelihood of the loss of religious freedom in the United States in the coming years and decades.
My critique of Trueman’s book centers on three lines: one historical-theological (regarding the church Fathers and the early modern Romantics), one philosophical (having to do with poiêsis and essentialism), and one cultural-theoretical (on “homosexuality” as a historical concept, pornography, and contraception).
The patristic critique of convention (nomos), for example, that of St. Athanasius in On the Incarnation, ought to temper our response to the Romantic denigration of society. True, authentic theology does not extol a hypothetical and pristine state of nature that the surrounding society corrupts and perverts (although we do believe in a good creation that has now fallen). And yet the Fathers, channeling the spirit of Plato, did see clearly that faithfulness to Christ was not a matter of following societal convention; we strive for the logos, the truth of things, not nomos, convention, appearance. To quote the masterful Aelred Squire on the Fathers, if we want to grow in the spiritual life, then
we shall frequently find ourselves having to cast aside conventional patterns of thought, particularly those we have picked up from a desiccated Christianity reduced to maxims of conduct and rules of thumb.
Honestly, I find that certain queer theologians channel this patristic spirit of radical skepticism of mainstream convention far more than those of Trueman’s ilk do. The Jesus of the Gospels, surely, is more “queer” — in that specialized sense —than he is “mainstream traditional.”
Ultimately, of course, we obey the law of love, which sometimes compels us, for example, to be polite to others, to observe various manners or rules of etiquette, to engage in small talk, or to dress in certain ways. Yet such behavior is, for the follower of Christ, motivated by a fidelity not to convention, but to love.
All of this Trueman seems to miss; he does little to discourage the facile conclusion that, contra the Romantics, the faithful Christian will reinforce the dominant societal conventions of the day (or, actually, of yesterday). To me, this is sad and depressing. A much better approach, in my opinion — one that inspires me to renew the entire Christian more deeply, more creatively, is expressed in this quotation from John Milbank: “… once one has realized, following the great English literary visionaries William Shakespeare and Thomas Nashe, that sexual puritanism, political disciplinarianism, and abuse of the poor are the result of the refusal of true Christianity … one is led to articulate a more incarnate, more participatory, more aesthetic, more erotic, more socialized, even a more ‘Platonic’ Christianity.” But this, alas, is a far cry from Trueman’s modern conservativism, politically and theologically.
Related, and more to the point, Trueman allows the reader all too easily to assume that Christian teaching is tantamount to “traditional sexual morality.” Part and parcel with this problem is the facile identification of the nuclear family (what most people understand by the phrase “traditional family values”) with the Christian or biblical ideal.
Yet, does Jesus in the Gospels promote conformity to (what many imagine to be) the modern, Western “nuclear family”? As David Brooks recently wrote in The Atlantic, such a definition is, practically speaking, a theoretical abstraction, a historical exception, and an unworkable arrangement (for most folks in modern America, at least). Jesus says troubling things in the Gospels such as “unless you hate father and mother, you cannot be my disciple.” Paul urges his followers to “be like me” and abstain from sexual relationships altogether, thereby launching the early Christian emphasis on lifelong virginity, as described by Michel Foucault in his posthumously published Confessions of the Flesh: The History of Sexuality, Volume IV. None of this reinforces the virtue of the “traditional nuclear family” or indeed of “family values.”
Trueman regards the thought of Romantics such as William Blake as decadent and pathological. And yet here perhaps more than anywhere else do we encounter a diatribe that amounts to one side of an intramural debate among Christians. In the Anglican tradition we have Romantic proponents such as C.S. Lewis and John Milbank, who would take serious issue with Trueman’s invective. And this Christian opposition to Trueman is not limited to the nostalgia for pristine nature. The Romantic emphasis on self-actualization, on self-construction, is also something embraced by the most compelling of Christian thinkers, from Søren Kierkegaard (see Repetition) to Leo Tolstoy (as exemplified by Who, What am I? Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self, a recent volume in Tolstoy studies).
On the more philosophical front, another issue Trueman inadequately handles is that of mimesis versus poiêsis. Trueman fails to see how deeply Christian it is to theorize the human being as homo faber. And this “making” — which takes the “creation mandate” in Genesis 1 and 2 as its point of departure — is not limited to the nonhuman. As Michael Hanby has argued, following the thought of not one but two papal encyclicals, “the deep interpenetration between human nature and human art suggests their deep mutual dependence.” Indeed, Trueman seems to imply that all Christians should be biological and metaphysical essentialists, a position at odds with the best Christian theological thinking about gender and sexuality, not to mention the thought of the Fathers and (non-nominalist) scholastics, for whom no knowledge of natural kinds can be had apart from the mind’s participation in the divine logos. Unlike Trueman, such thinkers of the past would not countenance an “objective reality” apart from theological truth; that is, they would not countenance such a vision of pure nature.
In terms of cultural/critical theory, Trueman fails to see that homosexuality (as a concept) is a recent invention historically, a fact that does, indeed, point to the socially constructed nature of sex and gender. It is a historical fact that, prior to the research of Richard von Krafft-Ebing in the late 19th century, the concept homosexuality had never entered the mind of man. Roman pederasty, yes. Ancient cultic prostitution among members of the same sex, yes. But homosexuality as an “orientation of the self,” no. Trueman’s naiveté here impairs his argument at various junctures.
Trueman’s assimilation to the rise of pornography in the contemporary West to the cause of sexual revolution and liberation is also problematic. Trueman’s salutary point throughout the book is that the sexual revolution is a movement of political liberation, and this does, in fact, accurately describe the LGBTQ+ movement. However, in the case of porn, who exactly, in Trueman’s mind, is being liberated? The predominantly male users of porn? The “performers” who play the various roles in pornographic videos? Hardly. It would be far more accurate to regard porn as a kind of backlash against the revolution for sexual rights, as a kind of insistence that women (by far the most common object of male gratification in porn) remain subservient to male “needs” and desires. Indeed, the #metoo movement — a tributary of the sexual revolution river in actuality — can be seen as opposing the kind of irresponsible male gratification that porn encourages.
Then there is the issue of contraception, over which any engaged reader of this book will feel the need to interrogate Trueman. Does he think that the use of birth control is evil? While he does mention the pill as part of the genealogy he spins, he does not really show his cards here. And that, it seems to me, is a problem, for it hints at the incoherent view of conservative Protestants. One’s position on contraception, it seems to me, is the Great Continental Divide which then directs the subsequent floodwaters of issues and arguments down one side of the mountain range or the other. Embrace the pill (as many Eastern Orthodox do, and as many in Trueman’s conservative Reformed culture do), and you have just admitted that the purpose of sex is far less clear than many assume, far less limited to procreation. From that admission, what follows is Pandora’s Box.
In short, Trueman’s book is helpful as a kind of modern historical genealogy of ideas, explanatory of the rise of current Western assumptions about gender and sexuality. Indeed, I gleaned much from his historical analysis.
Yet the real agenda, in my opinion, is less than benign, for it begs fundamental questions with which we must grapple if we are to grasp a true theology or philosophy of gender and sexuality.
 Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers: The Art of Meditation & Prayer.
 Michael Hanby, “Homo Faber and/or Homo Adorans,” Communio 38 (Summer 2011).