The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

If you have been paying attention to the world of Christian cultural analysis, you will probably have heard of Carl Trueman’s recent book titled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The foreword is written by well-known author Rod Dreher, and the book was reviewed with acclaim in countless Christian and some non-Christian outlets. It is, as they say, a must-read. I needed no such convincing for I have enjoyed Trueman’s writing for many years now and was looking forward to this book ever since I first heard he was working on it. Despite my anticipation, I took my time reading it, completing the first half in the early months of 2021, and then listening to that first half again in audiobook format before moving on and completing the last half of the book in late summer.

The book aims to shows how we got to the point as a society where it is plausible to large swaths of the Western world for someone to say “I am an man trapped in a woman’s body.” With this in mind, Trueman takes the reader on a journey, explaining the sexual revolution as a history of ideas. Rather than a loud polemical denunciation with ample Scripture verses, which may be considered as the knee-jerk evangelical reaction to every new madhouse chapter in the unfolding sexual and cultural revolution, the author did the hard work of reading and understanding the roots of this phenomenon and applying the insights of some of the best cultural thinkers of the last century: Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

In the introduction, Trueman notes how many Christians were amazed at how quickly society moved from a position where “in the early 2000’s a majority of people were broadly opposed to gay marriage to one where, by 2020, trangenderism is well on its way to becoming more orless normalized. The mistake such Christians made was failing to realize that broader, underlying social and cultural conditions made both gay marriage and then transgender ideology first plausible and then normative and that these conditions have been developing for hundreds of years.” (p.25). It is the historical development of these cultural conditions that the author goes on to trace in the rest of the book.

Before diving into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, Trueman equips the reader with some intellectual tools. From Philip Rieff he borrows the concepts of the triumph of the therapeutic, psychological man, the anticulture, and deathworks. From Charles Taylor, the modern notion of the expressive self and the ‘social imaginary’. Lastly, from MacIntyre, the realization that ethical discourse is broken “because it rests ultimately on incommensurable narratives and that claims to moral truth are really expressions of emotional preference.” (p. 26). These insights, once grasped, are put to work in subsequent chapters. Having had only some passing familiarity with these thinkers, I found this section extremely helpful, if a little dense. The value of these insights for understanding our world as we find it today is hard to exagerrate, as each thinker makes significant contributions to one’s understanding of our culture.

Throughout the main body of the book, Trueman selects a number of historical figures whose thought he considers to be causing transitions or illustrating transitions in Western thought: Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and finally some figures in the New Left such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. To trace the argument in a nutshell, we can hardly do better than this line from chapter 7:

“To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. To follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity – and therefore sex – political.” (p. 250)

If that makes complete sense to you, then perhaps you don’t need to read the book! But for the rest of us, tracing these developments across the centuries helps make so much sense of why we find ourselves where we are today in the West. I know of no other book that is so helpful in this regard.

10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

This book lays out ten great ways to destroy your child’s imagination. It’s like long-form satire, the opposite of the argument being the actual position of the author. Kind of like The Screwtape Letters, but less smooth in execution. Here are some of the main themes Esolen deals with: the power of truth (even just facts) for nurturing the imagination, the wonder of the outdoors, the importance of heroes and patriotism and virtue and fairy tales, the magic of romance and love, and the need for the transcendent.

Esolen is a gifted and provocative writer. He makes his points sharply and unapologetically. At times he overstates his case, but he is largely right and has much to offer anyone engaging in the bewildering activity known as parenting. And parents today are indeed bewildered. Let me give you 2 quick reasons off the top of my head.

First, we have the alienation between the generations driven by rapid cultural change. Now more than ever, every new set of adolescents feels further from their parents culturally. The common cultural touchpoints are fewer and fewer, and they increasingly live in separate worlds. This is slightly less the case in religious families but they are by no means exempt from this dynamic.

Second, the epidemic of broken families leaves new parents with no positive model to build upon. Children of divorce hesitate to get married for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that they have no success narrative to emulate. And even more difficult to overcome are the patterns of learned attitudes and behaviors that they absorbed in dysfunctional and toxic relational environments. It’s hard to overstate how massive a challenge this is, and by contrast what an advantage a healthy two-parent still-married family history for those forming their own families. All this to say then that books on parenting are needed now more than ever.

Esolen has a firm grasp of the classics and is constantly making reference (or re-telling portions of) these foundational stories, as well as Biblical narratives and countless anecdotes from history. He throws in a bunch of C.S. Lewis for good measure. So as he’s making his points, the reader’s familiarity with these works stretches and grows. This is characteristic of all of Esolen’s writing and teaching – it is guaranteed to be a mini-seminar in the classics and liberal arts.

The highlights of the book for me were the dozens of passages where Esolen calmly dismantles the modern secular soulless approach to childhood by laying it side by side with a fully human joy-filled alternative. Reading these passages is at once inspiring and sobering, for it is impossible to miss how far we have fallen.

For anyone fully immersed in our modern world, putting these truths into practice is an exercise in swimming upstream. But it is an also an exercise in truly living. What a refreshing vision of life fully lived, with our faculties engaged and aware and amazed at the incredible world around us. As Chesterton said, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

Esolen helps every parent who wants to be fully awake to the paltry state of childhood and fully alive in pursuing something much better for oneself and for one’s children. Although the book was first published in 2010, the last few years of cultural upheaval in the West have perhaps primed a greater readership than ever for its bracing message. Parents seem to be waking up to the inadequacies of the education systems, as well as their increasing ideological bent. And with skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among school-aged children, it’s hard to ignore that the kids are not alright.

It’s almost as if their imagination – and perhaps more – has been largely destroyed.

Where Men Fear to Tread

Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.

Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.

These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.

First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:

The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.

She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:

But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.

Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-­somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.

1. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/05/gender-after-eden

Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.

In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.

2. https://www.lifesitenews.com/episodes/conservative-author-explains-how-englands-greatest-poets-shed-light-on-the-meaning-of-jesus-words/

Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.

3. https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/07/76816/

The Reasons for Unbelief

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie (audiobook)

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” (You’ll see variations on this memorable quote by Blaise Pascal because it was originally written in French: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”)

This book is in some ways an in-depth historical exploration of that statement and the truth it contains. The author, historian Alec Ryrie, states explicitly that he seeks to counter the prevalent narrative that atheism and secular humanism arose from changes in philosophical reasoning and intellectual beliefs. Rather, he argues that two powerful emotional currents – anger and fear – animated unbelief for centuries before it ever emerged as a coherent set of beliefs. In order to make his point, Ryrie garners evidence from across multiple centuries and the whole of Europe (with a special emphasis on England).

The historical work seems sound to this layman. Ryrie has unearthed dozens of fascinating first-hand accounts. Whatever issues one might take with how Ryrie summarizes the meaning of all the material, I think it’s undeniable that he’s onto something really worthwhile here. There really does seem to be a powerful emotional current at work in so much unbelief both in the past and today.

I found myself wishing he would apply these insights more thoroughly to our own day. But this was not his stated goal so I cannot fault him for anything except failing to write precisely the book I would have preferred. He does however make some interesting comments in the concluding chapter which are worth repeating and reflecting on.

Ryrie argues that, since WW2, Adolf Hitler now functions as the universally agreed fixed moral point. It is now unthinkable to praise Hitler just like it used to be unthinkable to criticize Jesus in centuries past. This manifests itself in another interesting way also. In the 17th Century, the argument-ending slander was to call someone an “atheist,” and Ryrie made clear in previous chapters just how endlessly that insult was hurled from one group to another. Today the argument-ending tactic is to call someone a “Nazi.” Lastly, in terms of imagery, the most potent moral symbol in past centuries was the cross. Today it is the swastika.

I might wish it was different, but this argument strikes me as correct. Modernity and subjective moral reasoning have chipped away at all the shared moral points of reference and really there are not very many left, of which Hitler and Nazism seems to be the one that has the most purchase across the breadth of our society.

These reflections are especially timely for us Canadians as the Freedom Trucker Convoy in the first couple months of 2022 led to some significant political and cultural turmoil, including endless talk about swastikas and accusations of Nazi-sympathy. It is interesting to step back and see that, in a time of massive moral transformation (one might even say revolution), this is indeed the one fixed moral point. Whatever else we believe is right or wrong, everyone agrees that THAT is wrong. And all ends of the political spectrum seem unable to resist the temptation to weaponize that moral certainty to score political points in our troubled age.

Why Hollywood Can’t Pull Off Goodness (According to C.S. Lewis)

I’m no movie critic – not even close. I don’t seem to have whatever artistic antennae are required to appreciate the subtleties of the cinematic medium. Nevertheless, like most people, I do have eyes in my head and do enjoy a good movie. And it happens to be a fact that every movie works from a script – a story with characters and dialogue. So the basis for every movie is the written word, while it cannot be said that every book is based on a movie. (Woe to the book that is based on a movie: Thou art a fraud.) My point is that the same dynamics of moral imagination are at play in a movie as in a novel or any other creative work of fiction. And this is where the following quote by C.S. Lewis collided in my mind with a simple observation I’ve made about many of the movies and TV shows made in recent decades, which I’ll get to in a moment.

It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago [the scheming antagonist from Shakespeare’s play Othello], the Becky Sharp [the morally vile protagonist from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair], within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. … To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.

C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, Chapter 13. Emphasis mine.

Now since I’ve already dipped into the mode of the woe-throwing Old Testament prophet, I’ll allow myself one more: Woe to the one who looks to Hollywood for moral clarity. And all the people said Amen. But even without looking to movies for moral clarity, it remains a fact that so much of what is compelling about a movie is the moral fabric of the main characters, both good and evil. I am limiting myself here to those movies which are a essentially a contest between moral opposites: crime dramas, thrillers, action movies, or the never-ending series of original or rebooted or off-shoot superhero movies. The simple observation I am making about such movies and shows is that the good characters are becoming more troubled and morally compromised. It is so very rare to see a compelling protagonist that is good. The anti-hero is the hero for our age; the anti-hero is the only kind of hero we can believe in.

The above quote by Lewis is commenting on the scholarly consensus that Milton’s Satan (in Paradise Lost) is more compelling as a character than any other in the story. Lewis then lays out a morally insightful explanation for why that is necessarily the case in fallen humanity’s literature. Another example of this principle is found in the fact that Dante’s Inferno is by far and away more popular and compelling to the typical reader than either Purgatorio or Paradisio.

I used to think that an author’s characters had no vital connection to them – that an imagination could dream up moral monsters and virtuous heroes without it being a reflection of itself. But this is not true. As Lewis says, “It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists [and screenwriters] make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations.” Indeed, we are infected with moral cynicism. We look back on the virtuous heroes of past literature and we groan at the naivety of such caricatures. But this reaction reveals far more about our modern moral weakness than it does about anything else. And our modern writers cannot conceive of a truly virtuous person because our culture has jettisoned objective morality and the priority of character formation.

Adam and Eve and the obedient angels may not have been Milton’s best characters, but I dare say he was able to make them far more compelling than our typical cadre of authors and screenwriters could today. Even when they attempt to treat subjects of similar greatness, it seems they cannot avoid falling into caricatures either of rigid moralists and unhappily repressed religious people on the one hand, or vile hypocrites who are only pretending to be good on the other.

Small wonder then that the heroes we see onscreen, whatever technical mastery and skill they may have, are hardly ever compelling examples of deep moral goodness: Iron Man and the whole Marvel cast, John Wick, Deadpool, and so on. There are of course blessed exceptions to this rule, such as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s LotR Trilogy and Franz & Fani from Terrence Malick’s recent movie A Hidden Life. It takes real effort to pull off these characters well and avoid portraying a plastic pseudo-goodness that comes across more as naivety than virtue. One common element between them is suffering. Perhaps goodness untested by suffering and evil is never very compelling. But I am straying from my main point, which is that we do learn all too much about the storytellers of our time by the manifestations of goodness that they are able to imagine and conjure for us.

Simply put, we do not have deep and compelling moral goodness manifested in our entertainment because a writer’s imagination is constrained by his or her own moral character and by and large we have forgotten (or rejected) the possibility and priority of conforming ourselves to an objective standard of virtue.

I mean, have you ever seen Caillou? That kid’s a brat.

“Weak point, sir. I’m from Canada, not Hollywood.”

Blinded by Celebrity Culture

The culture of celebrity is so pervasive that we have forgotten and lost something very important and obvious.

We tend to think that the very best example of a given talent or discipline will be found in the person who is the most famous for it. But this is a very irresponsible assumption to make.

Someone of greater or equal talent to the celebrity may have decided that they were going to make family and privacy a priority. Other talented people don’t have ‘the look’ and therefore can’t create an image that will sell. Still others simply haven’t been discovered yet, and many never will. They will simply continue to write and perform and sculpt and cook and paint and sing in your communities, your coffee houses, local art galleries, your churches, always being less in our eyes because they have none of the waxy sheen and glitter that we wrongly associate with true greatness. The case in point for this is the true story of the world-class violinist who played in a subway for 45 minutes while hundreds upon hundreds of people walked by without ever noticing.

And I think most of us are guilty of ‘not noticing’ all kinds of wonderful talent and greatness all around us. It’s a darn shame is what it is.

This holds true in the spiritual world as well. The church has bought into the celebrity culture so completely that it has forgotten there was ever an alternative. Our worship bands are good but they aren’t exactly Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, or Michael Gungor. Our preachers may be good but they aren’t (insert favourite preacher here). If only we had someone in our church who was a spiritual giant like so-and-so, who could pray like other-so-and-so. But the fact is we are looking at the waxy sheen instead of the substance, and the truth is that there are fantastic preachers in your town, and probably your church.

The truly great prayer warriors and spiritual giants will never be celebrified, and they abound in the quietest of corners in most churches. The music can be as much of a distraction as a help. The North American worship experience has been profoundly and perhaps irrevocably knocked off balance by the inappropriate elevation of the rockstar worship leader, the conflation of worship service and concert, and the confusion of emotional effusion for spiritual power.

What I’m saying is that the celebrity pastor most worth your time is your pastor, the celebrity worship leader most worth your voice is your worship leader, the spiritual giant most worth approaching for advice and prayer is that sweet older person who sits two rows back and to the left and smiles at you when you walk in.

It’s simply the way God has always done things. Greatness comes in the most ordinary vessels.