by Ty Fischer
A review of Carl Trueman’s “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self”
Have you ever been lost? I mean really lost. As a boy, I misread a map as we were leaving a St.Louis Cardinals game. My dad realized something was wrong when I mentioned that the last sign gave the mileage for Wichita. “Wichita, Kansas?” he inquired. We were headed for Kansas. We lived in Indiana. Bad maps or map readers get you lost; good maps get you home.
Our culture, the Christian West, is lost. Not permanently perhaps, but we are very thoroughly currently lost. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than the ever accelerating sexual revolution and its dogmatic complement: cancel culture. When you are in a dark woods, how can you figure out how you got lost and how can you find your way back? You need a good map. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is that map. In the last issue of The Classical Difference, I asked you to buy a case of Voddie Baucham’s Fault Lines. This issue I am asking you to sell plasma if needed to buy a case of Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
We have reached a point of mass hallucination. A point where the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” makes so much sense that people face firing, assault, and ridicule if they don’t celebrate something that every past age would have recognized as delusional. Trueman does not ask, “Where are we?” but rather, “How did we get here?” For my money, it is the clearest, fullest, best explanation of the West’s descent into chaos.
How did we get here? Trueman takes us on a journey back in time. Back, not to the 2020 election, or to the 1960s, but back to 18th-century Geneva and Jean Jacques Rosseau. After a masterful survey of the concepts of self and culture, this is the first stop on the wild ride toward the present. We weave through Percy Shelly, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud as we careen toward our upside-down world.
I won’t spoil any of those stops for you, but the reason this is a masterpiece is that he takes all of these puzzle pieces that we might label under broader terms like “unbelief” or “bad ideas” and shows you how they are related to each other and how one bad idea births the next. I have been knee-deep in the Great Books for 20 years, but I never saw so clearly the entire puzzle connected so well.
But you might say, “so what?!?” Why does it matter that we know the genealogy of the ideas that have us on the run today? It matters because knowing where something came from makes it a lot less scary. Having a road map that shows us how we got lost is one of the first steps in charting a course out of the neighborhood of make-believe where we crucify that whippersnapper that mentions that the naked emperor not only has no clothes but that he is not a “he.” Knowing how someone can say with a straight face, “I am a woman but you have to call me a man,” helps us understand them without compromising our faith commitments and love and pity them because they can’t see the logic leaps that make the puzzle pieces fit together. Seeing the map helps us understand how we can argue wisely without fear and with compassion for people who have swallowed a lie that is chopping them to bits.
Finally, Trueman helps us begin to plot a prudent course home. You might not agree with every point in this last section. I don’t. But his thoughtful approach in this section does not diminish the depth of the mess we are in. It also avoids silly triumphalism and recommends some intriguing applications like “the church should reflect long and hard the connections between aesthetics and her core beliefs and practices” (p. 402). He also hits the same point that Rosaria Butterfield often hits, noting that the church often fails because it fails to be a community. Spot on!
There are a few caveats. This book is thick and strong like good coffee or some very dark brew. It is more academic than popular. It is worth the work, but if you struggle please note that he has a shorter summary titled Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution due out in February 2022. Odds are he will be canceled from Amazon by then, but if you are in The Back Room, I will make sure you can find it.
All in all, the book is brilliant. Like a good old road atlas, it helps you see how you got lost and, while you might be in a strange land today, how you can help lead others home. ✤
TY FISCHER Headmaster at Veritas Academy in Leola, PA, and ACCS Board Director of Strategic Growth