Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

by Dec 22, 2020Books, Culture, Worldview5 comments

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m hoping to publish in a journal a more extensive review of this excellent—though long and at times tedious—book. I’ll say here: Trueman asks an intriguing question that builds a narrative expectation and structure into his book: How is it that so many average people in the West fail to see “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” as a self-evident absurdity?

Trueman sets out to answer this question by following the work of Rieff, MacIntyre, and Taylor—but adding a lot of studious book reports of his own as he guides the (evangelical) reader through Western intellectual history.

I think Trueman delivered. He helped me see how we got here. Evil ideas don’t come from nowhere, or even just “from Satan.” They trace a path; they get introduced; they slowly gain traction after at first seeming ridiculous.

I’m not realistically going to sit down and read all the books Trueman read in order to build his narrative of intellectual history (Freud, Marcuse, Marx, Wordsworth, Rousseau, etc., etc., etc.). I feel, because I’ve followed Trueman for many years, and because he showed so much of his work, that he did all that reading work carefully, charitably, and incisively. I do better understand my world thanks to Trueman.

And I have a keener sense of how many desperate human needs are met by the simplest doctrines of Scripture. The doctrine of creation tells me that my body has a purpose—leading among them, faithfulness to my spouse. The doctrine of the fall explains why my desires don’t always match the purposes for which my body was made. The doctrine of redemption tells me that Christ died for my sexual sins (Matt 5:27–30) and provides healing and power. I’m not at the mercy of my desires; I don’t have to “find out who I truly am and be that person” without reference to any transcendent guidance for who that person is and ought to be. I’m not stuck in any of the social imaginaries that are beholden to an immanent frame.

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  1. Jeremy Patterson

    I want to read the book now, and I followed everything you said until the very last sentence: “I’m not stuck in any of the social imaginaries that are beholden to an immanent frame.” Do you mean that you are not stuck in any social imaginaries at all, or only those “that are beholden to an immanent frame”? If the latter, what type of social imaginaries would those be? (And maybe that’s a reference to an idea in the book that I therefore missed by “virtue” of not having read it yet.)

    • Mark Ward

      Right—I live within a social imaginary (probably a set of overlapping ones); I hope I’m not actually “stuck” in it, but I’m in it—but the one I’m in is not itself inside an immanent frame. Another book I’m in right now, one I highly recommend to you, Jeremy, in particular (and one that repeatedly references a book you led me to buy but that I haven’t read yet, *Imagined Communities*), is Pagans and the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. Stephen D. Smith has become one of my top favorite writers. I’ve just got to read more of his books. It’s quite a tome at nearly 500 pages, but he’s kept me interested the entire way. I wasn’t sure I was going to be persuaded… but I am. He basically reviews Roman paganism in great and fascinating detail, talks through its long conflict with Christianity, and argues that the “immanent religiosity” of (much of?) today’s secularism overlaps a great deal with ancient paganism. In fact, of course, the “saeculum” is just this world or this age—it has immanence baked into it. Smith is a great writer, and the argument really builds. I loved his Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. And how could I not at least be interested in a book when its author cites Stanley Fish as a friend and conversation partner?

      • Jeremy Patterson

        Got it. Thanks for the further explanation. Smith’s book sounds interesting. Have you read Modern Social Imaginaries, or anything else by Taylor?

  2. Jeremy Patterson

    Also, it is always acceptable to buy heady books even if you never get around to reading them.

    • Mark Ward

      Right! Or it had better be…

      I haven’t read any entire book by Taylor, I’m embarrassed to say. I’ve shifted this year to trying to get through fewer books but bigger books. If I keep it up next year (or even this year), I may get to A Secular Age. Josh Privett got me onto another smaller Taylor book I may start with, though not that one: *Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited.*


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