“Strange New World,” by Carl Trueman: A Review
Ideas have consequences. What we believe, how we imagine the world, these things motivate, and help us make sense of, our actions individually and as a society. They shape the very fabric of our culture. Take a modern example: for decades Chinese leaders openly taught that for the good of the nation each family ought to have no more than one child, and less openly believed that male children were more valuable than female. Today, China is at risk of dying out because people are not replacing themselves, and there are far more men than women in the younger generations. Despite their recent efforts to reform, the government is unable to undo years of propagating their one-child policy; many people are still hesitant to have multiple children. The ideas which the government put into practice for years have shaped the culture in drastic ways that are not easily reversed.
Carl Trueman is poignantly aware of this relationship between ideas and their many consequences for both individuals and societies. In his book Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution he seeks to understand this dynamic in the context of American culture. With astonishing clarity, he looks at our current culture and sees how those who are now long dead propounded the ideas that have shaped our society. In his work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, he does this in great detail. However, for the average reader (myself included) this work is a little too heady to be accessible. Strange New World offers a more accessible alternative. While not a replacement for Rise and Triumph, Strange New World gives us access to insights many readers would miss out on otherwise.
Many of us may ask, why bother reading either? Is it necessary for me to know who and what made our society what it is now? Instead of reading about people long dead, shouldn’t we focus on how to live in the here and now? To this, Trueman responds that while we may not like what our society looks like now, if we want to respond properly to our times, we need to understand them (20, 29). After all, how many of us, in the face of our current sexual and moral revolution have asked, “where did this come from?” Though we saw the moral depravity of the 60s and acknowledge the rise in sexual promiscuity, many of us were blindsided by how quickly we have progressed down the road of immorality and irrationality. Without an understanding of how we got here, we are left floundering, too bewildered to know how to live, work, and serve in this culture. Trueman’s book brings clarity to confusion and in so doing, shows us how to love God and neighbor in the world in which we now live.
In the first half of Strange New World, Trueman guides us on a tour of the thinkers whose ideas transformed the way many Americans perceive truth, self, and morality. In chapter 1, he arms us with relevant definitions such as “self” and “expressive individualism” that are vital to understanding and interacting with these thinkers and their ideas. Chapters 2–4 introduce us to thinkers such as Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and their ideas. With simplicity and clarity, Trueman unpacks their teachings that crept into our own thinking, causing us to agree that the self is pure in its natural state, society and traditional morality is a threat, and expressing our psychological self (specifically our inner sexual orientation) is what makes us who we are. By the end of chapter 4, we understand how we’ve come to believe that “It is not the act but the desire, or the orientation of that desire, that defines a person” (88). And this person must be legally protected.
In his question-driven approach, Trueman asks the question many of us are thinking: how did the ideas of these academics make their way into our cultural subconscious in the first place? He offers an explanation in chapter 5. In summary: “The collapse of traditional, external anchors of identity . . . explains the attraction of the turn inward. The rise of technology feeds the notion that we can bend nature to our will . . . the loss of sacred order reinforces this subjectivism . . . and the notion that sexual freedom is central to a happy human life is made a practical option by contraception and part of our cultural imagination both by the pornographic industry and by the apparently authoritative claims of social science” (108–109).
He spends the rest of the book linking these ideas to their consequences in our society. Significantly, in a plastic, global, and technologically advanced society, the abstract ideas of intellectuals looks like people picking and choosing their communities “and that means that they pick and choose their identities” (121), as well as their own unique set of moral standards. He dedicates a chapter to showing us how this thinking specifically plays out in the LGBTQ+ community, which is flourishing in this transient, amoral environment. (And he does so without unnecessary explicit content despite the highly sexual nature of the topic.) Where does this all lead? “Knowing the story of the modern self makes the assaults on traditional freedoms, if not the inevitable, then certainly an explicable, outcome” (152). The question we are left with, and that he answers in the final chapter, is: how should we then live? What I expected to read in this chapter was something along the lines of political involvement or cultural transformation via Christian businesses. However, he offered a balanced and biblical application (while not pretending to give a handbook). In sum: worship and live like a Christian. Period.
Trueman’s book is a beautiful balance of psychology, history, and theology. He stoops to the layman’s level to help us understand and live in this current cultural moment. He takes time to explain difficult quotes, summarize each chapter, and remind us of what he has already said. He does so in a way that is not condescending to the reader nor uncharitable to those who agree with the unbiblical ideas our culture has imbibed. He did not write the book to sneer at those in the LGBTQ+ community, but as a helpful tool for Christians. His book gives us words to understand our current moment and a starting point for how to navigate it as Christians. To that end, he supplies helpful and convicting questions at the end of each chapter that ask us to summarize and apply what we have read.
Anyone who wants to understand these times from a Christian worldview would do well to read Trueman’s book. Unlike other modern books on the subject, his stands out for its distinctly Christian presuppositions. While books like Cynical Theories are helpful, Strange New World offers an explanation only possible from a Christian worldview. Therefore, I commend this book to any Christian as an invaluable tool to help him understand, prepare for, and live in these times. As Trueman himself said: “We need to prepare ourselves, be informed, know what we believe and why we believe it, worship God in a manner that forms us as true disciples and pilgrims, intellectually and intuitively, and keep before our eyes the unbreakable promises that the Lord has made and confirmed in Jesus Christ” (186). This book is one of the means to these ends.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.