Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Story of the Expressive Individual Self

Strange New World cover
How did we come to a place where the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is considered to be sensible by a large part of the population?

Carl Trueman answers that question in his latest book Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (of which I received a free review copy). We all know about the sexual revolution, and we all know what’s going on now is related to it. What Trueman reveals, however, is that the pattern of thought that became the sexual revolution began 400 years ago. “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is a direct descendent of “I think; therefore, I am.”

You may have heard of his earlier work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It was a bit daunting at 432 pages. This book, a mere 208 pages, is not a precise summary of the larger work but “covers the same ground in a briefer and (hopefully) more accessible format.” In it he takes us through the history of the modern era, showing how Descartes, Nietzche, and Freud, and also the Modernists, the Romantics, and the Socialists — among others — all slowly created what we can now call the expressive individual self. As Ryan Anderson put it in the forward, Trueman tells us “how the person became a self, the self became sexualized, and sex became politicized.” He then offers some suggestions for the way forward — something that he felt was lacking in the earlier tome.

However, he fails to make one suggestion that I believe is critical.

In his essay “On The Reading of Old Books” CS Lewis wrote, “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.” Most of the time these assumptions are invisible to people during that age. We have a unique opportunity thanks to the insight of Trueman and a few others — we can see one of those common assumptions and deal with it directly for once. As this book shows, we all have grown up assuming most of the ideas required for “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.”

If expressive individualism is truly at the heart of the problem, we need to face it aggressively. We teach this philosophy in our fairy tales, our classrooms, and our homes. It is in the air we breathe. As Trueman points out, expressive individualism is not all bad. Unfortunately our society has placed so much weight on it that it now rules all other concerns. The church needs to drag this into the light. We need to speak to our children about it. We should treat it the same way we do drugs and “adult content” in our entertainment choices: It would be impossible to remove it from viewing habits entirely without giving up all television and movies, but we can recognize it and discuss it with our children whenever it is detected. It took our society 400 years to get to this point; it’s not going to end overnight. But perhaps we can stop it from infecting our children the way it infects those of our neighbors.

If we fail to do this, we will continue to spend an hour or two a week trying to instill a morality in our children that is increasingly foreign to their worldview. By grabbing this bull by the horns, we may be able to raise them to be aware of the enemy’s schemes and maintain their faith.

This book is not going to appeal to everyone, but it’s an important work that needs to be widely read. So who should read it? Pastors and youth pastors, parents and teachers, writers and artists and filmmakers, and anyone who is struggling to understand how our culture has come to this place and how to navigate it. Wait, isn’t that pretty much everyone? Yes. Yes it is.

Suggested reading: Expressive Individualism by Trevin Wax

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