Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl R. Trueman. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2020.

Summary: Traces the intellectual history of what Charles Taylor calls expressive individualism and Philip Rieff calls the psychological man that the author argues explains the modern understanding of self contributing to a revolution in human sexuality.

Carl R. Trueman offers in this work something of an intellectual tour de force. It is important to understand the audience for which this book is written. It is written for Christians who embrace classic orthodoxy who are trying to understand the rapid changes in society, moving from Defense of Marriage Acts to the Obergefell ruling granting gay and lesbian couples the right to marry to contemporary discussions normalizing transgender persons in society. These are changes that have occurred in the last few decades, but which reflect a movement of thought spanning centuries, going back at least to the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Trueman derives his thinking from two key thinkers–Charles Taylor and Philip Rieff. Both trace a transformation in our understanding of the self, and of our understanding of culture. Both trace a movement from an understanding of self and culture rooted in a transcendent order, in which the idea was conforming and imitating this order in one’s ethic and the shape of society. Modernity has resulted in the shift from this idea to one in which the self is created and contemporary society is conceived as an anti-culture resisting an oppressive classic order. A particularly important concept for Rieff is that of deathworks which Rieff defines as “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture. Every deathwork represents an admiring final assault on the objects of its admiration: the sacred orders of which their arts are some expression in the repressive mode.”

The assault begins with Rousseau who sees evil not in the fallen self but a misshapen society. He then traces the rise of the modern self through Romantic writers like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, all emphasizing an emotive intuition of reality. He explains the politicization of these impulses in the works of Nietzsche and Marx and the sexualization of the self by Freud and Wilhelm Reich, where sex moves from act to identity. Finally, Trueman arrives at the present day, the rise of the therapeutic self and the constructs of sexual and gender identity.

I’ve given an extremely truncated version of a long argument (400+ pages with postscript–although shorter than any of Charles Taylor’s books). The history of ideas and their implications offer a credible case for a number of contemporary phenomena. Yet I found it troubling, for all its logical coherence, for several reasons. One is that I could see someone who is a person of color or who identifies as LGBTQ who would say, “You have given the account of our liberation from repressive and oppressive ideas and rationale for our resistance to the powers who invoke them. What you consider a negative development, we consider a triumph–liberation from a repressive and abusive sexuality and racist, colonizing political structures.” And despite the “anti-historical” tendencies Trueman would attribute to these interlocutors, they might answer with historical record of their own. They would agree with Trueman’s basic account minus his criticisms and consider it a narrative of their liberation.

The second thing troubling to me is that, although Trueman disavows that his explanation is either lament or polemic, it comes off as polemical to someone accustomed to work in the public university setting. You will remember that I noted the importance of the audience for which he writes–classic orthodox Christians. While I identify with this group, I also am aware that this account would be received as polemical, and indeed offensive at points to the people with whom I engage. The use of the term “transgenderism” which Trueman considers the outcome of his genealogy of ideas, is not typically a term used by those who identify as transgender, but rather by those who oppose them. I sense, however, that Trueman’s intended audience would be nodding their heads in agreement. To that audience this would not be polemic, but simply a compelling explanation of what has occurred in a culture with which they are uneasy.

Part of the offense of “transgenderism” is that Trueman is writing adversarially and dispassionately about real people whose sense of gender and their assigned sex at birth are at variance. No matter how one construes the self, the lived experience is often deeply confusing and troubling, particularly for the children or adolescents facing this. Only once, in the last few pages, does Trueman mention compassion. Through the remainder, transgenderism is the “other,” a faceless, invidious movement that represents the ultimate expression of the modern self.

Finally, only in the last few pages, does Trueman gesture toward a Christian response. He emphasizes the importance of doctrinal instruction, including understanding the aesthetic logic used by the modern self, the importance of community and a recovery of both an understanding of natural law and a high view of the body. Some of this is similar to what Rod Dreher recommends in The Benedict Option. His recommendations in part reflect the conviction that expressive individualism has invaded the church, with which I would concur. But this feels like circling the wagons to me. I can’t help but think that a better approach would be to start by recognizing the failures of Christian belief and practice that led to the rise of the modern self–a low view of the body and human sexuality, the alliance of the church with oppressive political structures, the exchange Christendom for the faithfulness of Christ, and the justification of the subjugation of human beings that denied the imago dei in all persons. Then, the challenge is to offer a better account, rather than just critique, and models of community that live this account.

What Trueman offers in this survey of intellectual history is an understanding both of how we got to where we are and why we often speak past one another. We really are working from different understandings of the world, the self, and the ground of ultimate reality. Furthermore, a biblically grounded, theologically acute account of a Christian vision has been vitiated by this modern view of the self. I hope in the future this scholar will move beyond explanation and critique to retrieval and re-articulation of an account of Christian truth not merely for a Christian audience but for a public unsatisfied with the modern self. This, it seems to me is both the harder and more important work, for which, as Trueman rightly notes, this book is only prolegomenon.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness

Disruptive WitnessAlan Noble. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Drawing on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Noble explores our longing for fullness in a distracted, secular age of “buffered selves,” and the personal, communal and cultural practices Christians might pursue to disrupt our society’s secular mindset.

When I first came across this title, I was expecting something different, a call to a form of Christian activism, a form of resistance against prevailing destructive and unjust structures. This book both isn’t and is about that. Noble’s analysis looks at deeper causes in the secularism that shapes the warp and woof of our lives.

Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, Noble focuses first on the endless distraction of our lives. He illustrates from his own life:

“Sufficient to the workday are the anxieties and frustrations thereof. And so, when I need a coffee or bathroom break, I’ll use my phone to skim an article or “Like” a few posts. The distraction is a much-needed relief from the stress of work, but it also is a distraction. I still can’t hear myself think. And most of the time I really don’t want to. When I feel some guilt about spending so much time being unfocused, I tell myself it’s for my own good. I deserve this break. I need this break. But there’s no break from distraction.”

Such distractions are inimical to Christian witness in making us and those we engage with impervious to the contradictions in our fragmented lives, unable to engage in the extended reflection needed to wrestle with hard questions, and prone to present faith as just one more lifestyle option.

All this feeds into a perspective on self that is “buffered” rather than “porous”–where meaning and our understanding of ultimate reality comes from within rather than is open to the transcendent. Noble observes, “As Christianity has ceased to offer the vision of fullness shared by the vast majority of people in the West, in its place we find billions of micronarratives of fullness.” It is critical for Christians to understand this, both because they need to abandon treating their own faith as a micronarrative and then, in engaging their neighbors, must refuse to treat faith as mere preference.

The second half of Noble’s book explores how we engage in disruptive witness in a distracted world of buffered selves. He explores personal, church, and cultural practices that eventuate in disruptive witness. He begins by commending this double movement:

“This is the movement we need–a double movement in which [1] the goodness of being produces gratitude in us that [2] glorifies and acknowledges a loving, transcendent, good, and beautiful God.” [enumeration added]

For this he commends the simple practices of silence, the saying of grace at meals, and the practice of sabbath, each of which open us to gratitude that acknowledges a transcendent God.

Noble is critical of high-tech, staged worship in which “our focus is directed to the stage rather than to one another.” In place of this, drawing on James K. A. Smith, he calls for the retrieval of liturgical practices that draw us out of ourselves and remind us of the transcendent. He contends that our observance of the Lord’s supper may be one of our most disruptive acts in reminding of the transcendent God who is also immanent, sharing our body and blood, and nourishing us with his in the bread and the cup.

He also advocates culturally disruptive practice, and observes that “intimations of the transcendent” arise in our exercise of human agency, in moral obligations, and aesthetic experiences. As a good English professor, he contends that stories are a place where we may particularly encounter these intimations, offering The Great Gatsby as an example. He concludes by advocating that disruptive witness cannot play by the rules of the secular age, but rather provide a contrast of lives limited around the transcendent that, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, draw “large and startling figures.”

As I concluded the book, I found myself musing as to whether this was “disruptive” enough. In discussing this with a friend, he observed that the re-centering of our lives around a transcendent God not of our own making is pretty disruptive! Moving from distraction to attentive reflection is disruptive. Refocusing worship from an event with high production values to an encounter with the transcendent God is disruptive. Moving from stroking our personal preferences to recognizing goodness for which we are grateful and turning that to an acknowledgement of the transcendent in our daily practices, and in the stories that shape us, is disruptive.

Alan Noble encourages me that disruptive witness isn’t found in how hip, tech-savvy, plugged in, and “relevant” we are, which may be simply Christian versions of a distracted, buffered self. Rather, disruptive witness arises when our lives and cultural engagements are disrupted by the transcendent God in the gospel of his Son. Silence, sabbath, saying grace, participating in liturgy, and the expectation that the transcendent will show up in all of life may seem insignificant, and yet may be the most profound disruptions of all.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: How to Survive the Apocalypse

how-to-survive-the-apocalypse

How to Survive the ApocalypseRobert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: Explores the fascination of the apocalyptic in contemporary film, television, and gaming through the lens of Charles Taylor’s work on secularism and the self.

“The world is going to hell.

Just turn on the television–no, not the news. Flip over to the prestige dramas and sci-fi epics and political dramas. Look at how we entertain ourselves. Undead hordes are stalking and devouring, alien invasions are crippling and enslaving, politicians ignore governance in favor of sex and power, and sentient robots wreak terrible revenge upon us” (p. 1).

With these words, the authors explore the contemporary fascination with apocalyptic that runs through dystopian fiction, film, television, and gaming. Like Andy Crouch, who wrote the Foreward to this book, I have spent far less time than these writers (almost none at all, truthfully) with the media they explore in this work, although I am aware of the contemporary fascination with this. I picked it up because I was interested in why the fascination.

For the authors, the work of Charles Taylor, and particularly The Secular Age shape their analysis of contemporary apocalyptic. They note that there has always been apocalyptic literature, but that the character of that literature exposes the character of the age and the concerns that age arouses in us. For them, Taylor’s understanding of how secularity has shaped the self makes sense of the themes of the apocalyptic in our own age. We see it in our quest as “buffered selves” for authenticity; how we are shaped, in the midst of of an impersonal order, through relations with others; and how any kind of hope for survival of the apocalypse involves addressing the “malaises of modernity”:  radical individualism, instrumentalism, in which our lives are incorporated into the efficient functioning of society, and the infinity of personal choices that leads to a paralysis that can end up in the surrender of freedom to tyranny.

These themes are surveyed through a tour of apocalyptic film and television. Beginning with Battlestar Galactica, the authors explore the efforts of characters (and Cylons) to self-define and self-actualize. We discover in works as disparate as The Hunger Games and Her (a series involving romantic relationship with an operating system) how authenticity and self-definition can occur only in relational and social contexts.

We consider the dark side of the quest for authenticity when the “horizon of choice” turns to power in series like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. In each, we see that the anti-hero’s quest for significance through power is a delusion that ends up rendering the anti-hero powerless. We see these themes writ large in the political order of Westeros in Game of Thrones.  Joustra and Wilkinson conclude, “It is the pathological forms of authenticity, anthropocentrism, and instrumentalism that will feel winter’s coldest chill. That an apocalypse is coming is proof that hidden meaning remains to be unveiled…” (p. 135).

To survive “the apocalypse” we must confront the realities behind The Night of the Living Dead” and World War Z,  that exposes the reality that there is no such think as “naked self-interest.” Given the pluralism of our society, there are a multitude of a “self-interests” for people and institutions, some pathological, and some because they are rooted in an understanding of who we are, what people are for, and where we are going, are better.

Apocalypses are about “the end.” But they also point us to “ends” beyond the end, to ways of living that anticipate what is beyond apocalypse, whether in the end we avoid it or not. The danger is nostalgia, an attempt to turn back the clock. Yet the secular age, with its radical pluralism is upon us. Better than retreats into nostalgia or personal “sheltering in place” is a posture of seeking to be architects who seek contribute to social institutions for better, seeking to shape rather than merely being shaped. The writers propose that this is always a “proximate” effort. Seeking the prosperity of Babylon will not bring in the New Jerusalem. It is always at best pursuing common cause with constructive disagreement.

It was this last that I especially appreciated. Instead of naive idealism, stark, power-hungry realism, or a disaffected retreat, the authors point us, and particularly Christians who care about society, toward a posture of being salt in society, preserving and perhaps enhancing, and in the process, enabling us to survive with our souls should apocalypse come. The authors, unpacking Taylor’s massive work and connecting it to popular media, serve us well in helping us understand our present times, the end that apocalypse represents, and the ends we might pursue as we allow the possible future to shape our present.