Fresh off the press, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, is a profoundly insightful and helpful book. A revised and condensed version of the longer and equally helpful earlier work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, it is accessible, powerful, and quickly cuts through the denseness of modern sexual ethics from an informed perspective.
The hinge point of the book is the idea of expressive individualism. A term coined by Robert Bellah which holds that “each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” The modern self is the psychologized self, the therapeutic self – and the self needs to be happy. What makes oneself happy is completely up to oneself, and society must recognize and affirm the self, or else there will be “harm” or “violence” done. Ground zero of the modern self is modern sexual ethics and the battleground of the ongoing sexual revolution.
As Trueman writes “expressive individualism is the default setting for understanding ourselves in the twenty-first century – and the obvious question to ask is: How did this come about?” Trueman summarizes the trajectory from his earlier work through the ideas of men like Descartes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, ending up at the inevitable conclusion that “sexual desire (is) central to human identity – human flourishing is virtually synonymous with sexual fulfillment…the fulfilled life is a sexually fulfilled life.”
For anyone even remotely acquainted with a Biblical worldview, such sentiment is seen for what it is – completely false and idolatrous. Such a worldview makes the self the center of the universe, and only God should hold such a place as rightful Creator and King. Indeed, if you have ever looked at the modern LGBTQ+ landscape and asked yourself “How did we get here?” there are two answers: (1) We elevated ourselves to the throne of the King and (2) that’s how it’s always been – it’s the way sin works. (See Genesis 3)
With the shift to King Self, traditional authority structures have become suspect at best, and the enemy in the worst case. So what is the church to do in this strange new world? Trueman’s last chapter is a robust call to action for us all.
- Understand our complicity. As evangelicals have stressed a personal faith, we have unwittingly played into the inflation of the importance of the self and the church as the means to satisfy. The churchgoer is the consumer and customer and they must be catered to and made to feel as comfortable as possible. Is this really what the Bible calls us to? Hardly. We must acknowledge the consequences of ” the psychological, therapeutic culture seeping into our Christianity.”
- Learn from the ancient church. Evangelicals by and large, are guilty of historical amnesia, yet “we have a faith rooted in historical claims.” One profound point by Trueman was the question of what time period on the early church can we must learn from right now? His answer “I believe we must go further back in time, to the second century and the immediately post-apostolic church. There, Christianity was a little understood, despised, and marginal sect.” Anyone who doesn’t see this is how Christianity is viewed today is not paying attention. At the epicenter of our faith must be the local church. I applaud his challenge for us to commit to the local church and stick with it, as community is so important to our identity. Sadly, the LGBT+ community is a strong one and proves this point.
- Teach the whole counsel of God. One of the things I pray that God is doing in this post-COVID clown world is purifying his church. Recent headlines of the demise of the mega-church and celebrity pastor downfalls seem to be bearing this out. What needs to remain in focus is the church’s mission to proclaim the Word of God and base herself on it, in all aspects. “The chaotic nature of our times is no excuse for abandoning the church’s task of teaching her people the whole counsel of God. If anything, she should see such a moment as a time to examine whether that is what she is doing and make any necessary changes in her pedagogical strategy. She needs to make sure that Christians are being intentionally grounded in the truth.”
- Shape intuitions through Biblical worship. See point #3 above. Let’s get rid of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship songs, smoke and lasers, please? Let’s focus particularly on the words of the songs we sing – are they glorifying God and causing us to think Biblically about him? Or inflating the psychologized self through overly emotive and narcissistic lyrics? Take a cruise on the “Top 100” worship songs and you’ll find your answer.
- Natural Law and the theology of the body. Natural law is “the idea the world in which we live is not simply morally indifferent “stuff” but possesses in itself a moral structure.” What follows logically is that our bodies and the way they are created biologically should inform sexual morality. The body “places restrictions on what I can and cannot do. Natural law is the extension of this idea into the realm of morals.” This is in direct contrast to the strange new world, as there is no outside authority to submit to, rather the self uses the world as raw materials to create what it wants to.
- Neither despair, nor optimism. The church can exist in the extremes. An over dependence on emotions pulls us toward despair (this world is going to Hell!) or optimism (we will overcome!). Trueman, with a nod to Rod Dreher, calls us to the bedrock of Biblical hope. Christian hope is realistic, it’s based on the “assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” Hope is the reality that Jesus promised that he will build his church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it. In this hope, the church advances into this strange new world.