The sexual revolution has spun many of us out. What once was taboo is now not only acceptable, but saying otherwise attracts accusations of bigotry and hatred. What has led us to this point in our society? In this episode, Chase talks with Professor Carl Trueman about his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution. They discuss some of the movements that have brought us to where we are and how understanding these roots help us as Christians to better engage the world around us.
Links referred to:
- Carl’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution
- Our 2021 event program—including information about our March event, “Can Christianity community be good for you, me and everyone else?”
Runtime: 41:33 min.
Chase Kuhn: How is it that we’ve come to see a statement like “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” as coherent and meaningful? This is the question that Carl Trueman opens with in his new book, introducing the roots of the Sexual Revolution. He says that “Every age has its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives, but to understand its problems and to respond appropriately to them.”1 Furthermore, “Understanding the times is a precondition of responding appropriately to the times”.2 Today on the podcast, I talk with Carl Trueman about how we’ve arrived at where we are as a culture and how we might do just what he’s called us to do—respond to the times as Christians.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn. I’m coming to you from Sydney—Moore Theological College in Sydney, to be precise. And my guest today on the program is Professor Carl Trueman, who lectures in biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Carl’s been a guest before on the podcast, and today it’s a privilege to welcome him back to talk about his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Carl, welcome.
CT: Great to be back, Chase! Thanks for having me on.
CK: Yeah, great to have you back! Today, I’m very excited to talk about your book, which I’m grateful was sent to me as an advanced copy to read through. And it was a joy—I mean, it is a treasure trove of so much that helps us think about just where we’ve arrived at in the world. Can you give us a snippet of the project and what you’re seeking to do in the project—just a quick overview?
CT: Yeah. The original idea was actually floated by a guy called Rod Dreher: he’s an Eastern Orthodox Christian—an influential conservative journalist in the United States—and he wanted somebody to write an introduction to a man called Philip Rieff, who is essentially a Jewish thinker, but was a profound analyst and critic of what he called the “therapeutic society”. So I got into a three-way conversation with Rod, who’s a friend, Justin Taylor, the Senior Editor of Crossway, and as the discussion developed, it became clear to me that a more useful project would be taking some of Rieff ideas and those of a few other thinkers, and using them as a grid for analysing some of the big changes that have taken place in society.
Specifically, I was interested in the question of how the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” has come to make sense. You know, on the face of it, even 30 years ago—maybe even 15 years ago—that would have been regarded by most people as an incoherent statement. And yet now, it carries so much cultural and political power that to deny the coherence of that statement is regarded as an act of hate—something that subverts the common good or the commonwealth. So I was interested in getting at how that sentence can make sense, which really led the project to kind of mushroom in size, and eventually it became a kind of history of the last 300 years of how human beings in the West have thought of themselves and their humanity, because I became convinced that one cannot understand the shifts that have taken place in what we call the Sexual Revolution—for example, the rise and legitimation of homosexuality, the rise of queer theory, the rise of transgenderism—one cannot understand these things in isolation; you have to set them against a much broader backcloth—a much bigger and deeper context of this development of thinking about what it means to be a human person—what it means to be a self.
CK: That’s very helpful. I love the way that you actually chart us through the history of these ideas, and I think the practical payoff is evident right from go: I think your introduction of that question, “How can we make sense of a sentence like this?”—how has this come to be a rational statement—a coherent statement—that “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body”—where most of us are reeling, but feel the cultural pressure to say, “I guess that’s true. I guess that’s right.”
I guess in our context, we often feel—we look back to the 60s, we see the Sexual Revolution, we blame the Sexual Revolution from where we are, and what I love is that you say, “No, no, no: the Sexual Revolution is really a symptom of something much bigger that’s been happening for a long time”. And today I think it’d be great if we could talk about a few of those things.
CK: Some of the movements you’ve talked about have real—I mean, I won’t get into all the names and the specifics and the philosophy; hopefully we’ll whet appetite of people that are listening to get in and read your book, and I really commend it to people. You’ve talked a lot about how we have separated morality out from anything that’s metaphysically grounded. Now that—that’s a lot of jargon there.
CK: What do we mean by this, where we’ve “pushed aside the metaphysical”?
CT: Well, it’s a huge question, and to sort of chart the story in its general terms, that—one of the things I think that one has to grasp about the statement, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body”, for that to make sense, really, we’re living in a world where inner feelings—that inner voice inside our head—has absolute authority over who we are. And if we chart that back in time, we see that emerging in the 18th century and receiving sort of popular artistic expression with the Romantics. But the thing about the early iterations of that idea in, say, the Romantics or the early philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they were convinced that if we could return to that inner voice—if we could get rid of the corrupting effects of the culture around us and return to the inner voice of nature—then we would be made into more civilised, we might say, human beings. We would be naturally empathetic to those suffering, and morality would arise from the spontaneous feelings we have when placed in particular—assuming, of course, was that there is such a thing as human nature and that it has a moral structure. And that’s where the sort of the metaphysics comes in, because one of the things that I would argue is what they’re assuming is that human beings are effectively made in the image of God.
CT: You know, that there is this objective, moral human nature that we all possess, intrinsic to our humanity—that we can somehow get back to. What happens in the 19th century is, you know, there is a tremendous, say, intellectual rebellion against that kind of notion. There are numerous figures I look at, but the most obvious might be, you know, Charles Darwin: think of Charles Darwin. He’s a scientist, not a philosopher. But what he does is he makes humanity unexceptional: we’re just exalted apes. And there is no grand scheme to our development: we just happen to have been the best species thrown up, given environmental factors, etcetera etcetera. So the idea that our nature has some sort of grounded moral structure, that’s nonsense to a Darwinian evolutionist.
Nietzsche does a similar thing philosophically: Nietzsche says this idea that somehow we are beholden to an ideal of human nature—that we are somehow beholden to something outside of ourselves as individuals to which we must conform—that’s a con trick played by the powerful. The powerful in society play this con trick on you to make you conform to their way of doing things. And Karl Marx is not dissimilar to Nietzsche in that in that he thinks that, yeah, again, morality is the construct of the dominant economic class to keep the subordinate economic class in its place. What all three of those have in common is there is no intrinsic morality in human nature.
So when you then think about, “Well, what does that do to this voice of nature?”, it really detaches it from anything other than one’s own subjectivity. And of all of those philosophers, in some way, Nietzsche’s the most honest and essentially says, “You’re your own work of art. The greatest thing about being a human being is to break with herd morality. Do your own thing. Realise your inner desires for yourself.”
Oscar Wilde would be a super example, I think, of Nietzsche’s vision of what a human being should be: a sexually transgressive, artistic, creative sort of rebel. Well, Oscar Wilde was an elite figure. By the time you get to the present day, there’s a sense in which we’re all Oscar Wildes now: we all think we make it up as we go along. We all think we self-create. We all bristle under the idea that somebody can impose their idea of who and what we should be upon us. So that’s it in a nutshell the sort of the detachment of morality from metaphysics: it becomes something that we create for ourselves—a purely immanent thing.
CK: Yeah. And what’s attractive about that for people, Carl?
CT: Well, I would say from a Christian perspective, you know, transgression’s is always attractive.
CT: Setting yourself up as God is always attractive.
CT: But I don’t actually think you need to be a Christian to hold that sort of position. I mean, we can all say that there is something empowering about the idea that we can make up our own morality. There is something empowering about dressing the way we want to—being the person we want to be. You don’t have to hold to a Christian metaphysic to see that the whole idea of the individual self that’s now deeply embedded in our culture, it would be attracted to things like self-invention—making it up as you go along, breaking the rules, asserting yourself. David Bowie might be another figure.
CK: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I mean, yeah, Ziggy: we can think about David’s many journeys, right? So, yeah, that’s right. [Laughter]
CT: Yes. [Laughter]
CK: I quite like some of the music, actually, that came out of those experiments! With this [Laughter] I guess, the attractiveness of that self-creation, we often frame it up theologically—
CK: —and it’s very easy. I think one of the points you make early on in your introduction is we too quickly, almost dismissively, just categorise this as capital “S” Sin—
CK: —and write it off without giving more of a deeper diagnostic of what’s happening.
CK: Why does a more careful analysis of this help us as Christians, rather than just badging it and saying, “Well, isn’t that just sin in new dress?” Of course it is, but why the more careful analysis is necessary?
CT: One of the things I think there, Chase, are—one of them would be in order to respond to particular sin, we need to understand the particular reasons for that sin emerging. I talk in the book about the question I ask in my history class at Grove: I ask the students, you know, “Why did the Twin Towers fall down on 9/11?”
CK: I love this illustration! It’s great.
CT: The answer’s “gravity”! Well, that’s true, but doesn’t actually tell you anything of any significance on that day. And I think it’s the same with human rebellion: you know, the answer of, “Oh, people do that because they’re sinful”. Well, sure, that’s true. But why that particular thing at that particular point in time? What is the significance of that? Is it merely a behaviour I’m dealing with, or is this something that’s deep in somebody’s identity, for example? So, you know, when you think about homosexuality, often Christians—we think in terms of behaviour. Actually, within our modern culture, homosexuality’s an identity, not a set of behaviours. So that would be one reason, I think, that tracing the story’s important—for us to be able to diagnose exactly what the problem is and how to address it.
The second reason, I would say, that the sort of diagnostic approach also helps us realise our own complicity in it. There’s a great temptation for Christians always to have a “them and us” attitude. You know, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like those other men”—you know, those who aren’t in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney or aren’t in the orthodox Presbyterian church. I think when you come to realise that expressive individualism, which is the—the broader context—the broader notion of the self that I set the Sexual Revolution within—when you realise that expressive individualism is actually the air that we all breathe, I think it cultivates a certain modesty and humility in us.
And, you know, one of the examples I would give of how we need to be aware that we’re part of this culture too—this culture of choice and self-invention is—bottom line is, these days, as a Christian, you can’t help but choose the church you go to. If you’re born in the Middle Ages, you would be born, you would be baptised, you would be married, and you would be buried in the same church, because there was just one and you were geographically restricted, by and large. Now, we choose: I choose to be a Presbyterian or you choose to be an Anglican—choose to be a Baptist. Now, we can rationalise those choices, but they’re still choices. And at a more trivial level, how many of us know people who’ve chosen churches or left a church because, hey, the pastor wore a tie I didn’t like, or the pastor doesn’t wear a tie, or the pastor does wear a tie. We as Christians are deeply embedded in this kind of culture of choice—of which the Sexual Revolution is, perhaps, from a Christian perspective, a rather aggressive and egregious symptom. But it’s still something to which we ourselves are tied, in a way.
So I think it’s important from a Christian humility perspective that we enable us to avoid that Pharisaical prayer about those who, perhaps, we have to engage critically with at this point in time.
CK: Yeah. I really appreciate the tone of your book, actually, for that very reason. I mean, you’re really trying to set out ideas accurately as a historian from where we’ve arrived, and nowhere do you somehow excuse us from the kind of soup we’re swimming in. You’re saying, “We’re all actually swimming in the same mess right now, and we can’t just look at them versus us, but actually we have to be very careful to look at us in the midst of them. And I think that’s very very helpful for us.
Now, getting back to this expressive individualism that you’re talking about, give us a snapshot of what you mean by “expressive individualism”.
CT: Sure. Expressive individualism: it’s a term used by a number of modern thinkers—famously, Robert Bellah—Habits of the Heart; Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher in his book, Sources of the Self; Alasdair MacIntyre, an American—oh, actually, a Scottish philosopher: he’s been in America for a long, long time. Catholic philosopher. He used to talk about “emotivist individuals”, but he’s changed that to “expressive individuals”.
Essentially what it’s trying to capture is, “expressive individualism” is that notion that the human self is au—our authenticity is found by being able to express outwardly that which we feel inwardly—that we realise our humanity by making our outward performance consistent with our inward desires. Of which, for example, a figure like Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner would be, you know, I would say an extreme example, because Bruce transitions to Caitlyn. He’s always been Caitlyn, as far as he thinks, inside; now he’s able to perform Caitlyn publicly. And when you read the interviews that he did ’round about the time of the transition, the talk is very much of, “I’ve lived a lie and now I’m able to be the real me. For all of these years, society has forced me into its mould. Now I’m liberated.”
We see other touches of this, for example, you may have noticed, where a sports star will leave his wife for another man, and often the press present this not as a betrayal of the wife, but as the man leaving his wife and pairing up with somebody else—another man—as him coming to his true self as an act of authenticity. Well, that really rests upon this broader understanding of the self’s expressive individualism, where we realise our own humanity by actualising our inner feelings and desires in the public realm.
And, again, I would say, you know, Christians are not exempt from this: when you think about worship, how often have we maybe said it ourselves—well, certainly heard good brothers and sisters say, you know, “I like the worship at that church because it’s spontaneous”? Or “I’m really able to express myself through it”. That’s interesting, because, I mean, you’re an Anglican, Chase: of course, Anglicanism has, you know, one of the greatest liturgies in the world—The Book of Common Prayer. The whole purpose of liturgy, of course, is you go to the worship service to lose your individuality! [Laughter]
CK: Right, it’s about common worship. That’s what we call it: common worship.
CK: Yeah. [Laughter]
CT: You use these common prayers. You use the same formulas. And what you’re expressing is that that which binds me together with those around me and those throughout the centuries [who] have used these words is far more significant than anything I might particularly feel myself. It might, if you like, say “Liturgy says that the self becomes truly the self when it conforms to those outward forms that are established”, whereas typically as modern men and women, we want the outward forms to express our individual emotional psychological overflowings. So, again, I think, although I’ve used Bruce Jenner as an extreme example, it may sound controversial, but I see him as on a kind of a sliding scale of which, you know, when we talk about worship as being all about us expressing ourselves, there’s analogy there—
CT: —maybe an uncomfortable one, for some of us. But there is an analogy.
CK: Yeah, we’re actually acting out a very similar kind of desire, just in a different way.
CT: Oh, well, I’ve heard transgender people say that, you know: “I express myself through my choice of gender; you express yourself through your choice of religion and religious forms”.
CT: That’s an interesting point.
CK: It really is a very interesting point, and I think one that we need to be very careful about. Within this, I mean, I think about expressive individualism as sort of the biggest nightmare for me as a sinner. So I mean, if I really feel [Laughter] that I am depraved and I have all kinds of tendencies that are twisted towards wrong ends, the me living out all of those things has real, real problematic potential, I guess. It has potential for real problems.
CT: Yeah, yeah.
CK: But of course, even though I don’t act them out, I also have to recognise that a lot of those desires still remain in me when I’m not acting them out too. And so—
CK: —that also’s something I have to do battle with.
CT: And that is the tension, of course, in our culture, because one could make the case provocatively that the serial killer is the most authentic person out there: he has this instinct and he acts on it. And society won’t, thankfully, tolerate that.
CT: So there are limits set to expressive individualism. It’s just that they’re rather flexible and changing all the time.
CK: Yeah, and this is the worry of a lot of people. I mean, they worry about the slippery slope, and I realise there’s always a danger of fallacy there, but I mean even something like paedophilia or even, you know, multiple partners in marriage or whatever it may be—these things all become concerns when we throw out all standards, if you will—
CK: —apart from authentic self-expression—
CK: —and I know that that’s a real concern people have in society—about where we may actually end up—and it’s tough to say. I mean, what you raised there for MacIntyre before, and his emotivism that he talks about is it effectively becomes a shouting match for us—that, you know, because I have no other basis to judge my morals against yours, except for what I feel that I want, I just shout you down and we end up yelling at each other about what’s better.
CK: And in many ways, we see this acted out in so many different places in society.
CT: Yes, I mean, you see that particularly in the United States in the abortion debate—
CT: —where really there is no common ground between the two sides that allows them to have a constructive debate. And the language becomes interestingly emotive fairly quickly—“pro choice” and “pro life”. Now, my sympathies lie entirely on the pro life side. But “pro life” is not an—that phrase is not an argument; it’s a pull on the heartstrings—
CT: —in the same way that “pro choice” is, because “choice” resonates deeply with western people who value their freedom—value their ability to choose. So, you know, the abortion debate is a good example of what MacIntyre talks about—that’s there’s really no discussion. There’s just a—volleys of rhetoric fired from one side to the other.
CK: I’m delighted to announce that our live event program for 2021 is now available. Next year, the major theme for all of our events will be “community”. Under this umbrella, we’ll be thinking about how community can be good for so many different people, how we can deal with sin together, what it means to forgive, and how we can raise the next generation. These events are designed to be engaged in community. Our hope is that you’ll be part of the conversations that we’re facilitating, that you’ll consider these events with others from your church, and that the topics will benefit the communities that you’re a part of. Our first event, “Can Christian community be good for you, me and everyone else?” will be held on March 3rd in 2021.
Also, I highly want to recommend to you the new book by Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, being released this month. The book is an insightful overview of the history of ideas that has brought us to where we are in our culture—both in the nature of thinking about our self or as selves, and how sex has become such a large part of that. I believe this is crucial reading for thoughtful Christians wishing to engage our world, and I would highly recommend that you purchase it.
Now back to our program.
CK: And how do we make any moral appeals, then, in this space as Christians?
CT: Very hard. And I think the answer is not a simply intellectual or doctrinal one—
CT: —for precisely those reasons. I think that one of the things that I became convinced of while I was writing the book is that community is actually important. And there are various reasons for that: in the book, I go into how identity is often a community construct: we think it’s a monologue, but actually, we’re in dialogue with the world around us. Every teenager thinks that their clothes express them as an individual, and they will dress exactly the same as each other. [Laughter]
CT: Which tells you there’s something going on there. So I think the aspect of community is important on two fronts: one, I think the maintenance of Christian ethics amidst the Christian community requires strong community. And Paul points to that when says in Corinthians, you know, “Bad company corrupts morals” (1 Cor 15:33).
CT: You know, “You hang ’round with a bad crowd; you’re just going to end up just like them”. Community shapes who you are.
But I also think it has an evangelistic dimension. So often—particularly as Reformed Protestants—we’re very cerebral. You know, we’re looking for that apologetic strategy that blows our opponents out of the ground or whips the ground away from under their feet—forces them to face up to the gospel. Jesus, of course, makes that very interesting statement, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35)—not by your clear grasp of presuppositional apologetics or—
CT: —something like this. “By the the love you have for each other”.
CT: And I think the rhetoric of the world and the cultural framework is such now that Christian doctrine is just going to hit up against a brick wall when you’re talking to people out there—unless it is authenticated by emerging or being part of the context of a real, living Christian community. I don’t know how big a splash the work of Rosaria Butterfield has made in Australia, but—
CK: Yeah, she’s—
CT: She’s well known—I was going to say, you know, she’s the lesbian, queer theorist at [a] top university, converts to Christianity. She goes from a queer theorist to an exclusive psalmody pastor’s wife. You know, there’s nothing more dramatic than that.
But the big part of her testimony is she didn’t bump into a street evangelist who just browbeat her into submission; a Reformed Presbyterian pastor befriended her and had her for dinner and became a friend long before he really engaged her with the gospel. And she’s become a big advocate for hospitality. Which is hard for an Englishman ’cause, you know, I don’t like seeing people, I—you know. When I say to you, “Come and visit me next time you’re in the States”, I mean, “You must never visit me. I’m just being polite.” [Laughter] You know, I’m not a hospitality kind of guy! But, you know, on a serious note, I think her testimony is a powerful one, and points us to the way that communities validate the truth of the message.
CT: Some people might see this as controversial, but in the book, I make the point that one of the reasons why the LGBTQ movement has moved from the margins to the centre of political and cultural life in a mere 50 years is the powerful nature of the community.
CT: They looked after each other, they had each other’s backs, they laughed together—they were a real community. And I think that’s something that the church can learn from—
CT: —at that point.
CK: Yes, certainly. I mean, there’s a couple of things I’d love to tease out about that element of community you’ve just raised. I mean, the first thing is at the end of the book, you know, you kind of suppose what are other parallels that we have in history? And I guess you look back towards the second century, you know—spoiler alert: you say, “It’s the second century there. That’s where we’re most like there.”
CT: Yeah, yeah.
CK: In that time, I mean, it was quite a tightknit community under a lot of cultural heat.
CK: It had to live out a very authentic existence.
CK: What I love is that you said, “It’s not doctrine or community”. I mean, one of the mistakes of, say, the emerging church as they were trying to grow up as a community in sort of a postmodern era kind of in the early part of this century was that they were real doctrine-averse.
CK: Community-heavy, doctrine-averse. But what you’ve said is actually, doctrine articulated into community life so that there’s a real authenticity of what that doctrine means for our living.
CT: Yes! Yeah.
CK: As we think about that, I mean, is it then that we need to do away with more doctrinal statements in our churches? Or how does this actually—how does the rubber meets the road here, is what I’m wondering?
CT: Yeah. I think that the problem is that we tend to think of it in terms of “either or”—
CT: —or a sort of zero sum game. Whereas, if you emphasise one, you deemphasise the other. I think that we have to think in terms of, kind of, creed, code, cult. For a community to survive—a religious community to survive—we need a creed: we need things we believe in—that bind us together. We need a code: we need a way of living. We need an ethical framework for our lives. And we need a cult: we need a pattern of worship. And if you have all of those three things, you actually have a community. They’re all component parts of this broader notion of community. And while there’s a lot of despair about the marginalisation of the church at the moment, yeah, one of the things I say in the book is, you know, “There’s no point in lamenting”. It may upset some of the more godly of your listeners, but, you know, it’s like playing a game of poker: if you get dealt a bum hand, there’s no point in wishing you’d got four aces and a wild card—
CK: You’re stuck with it! [Laughter]
CT: —you got to play the hand—yeah, you got to play the hand you’re dealt. And there’s no point in wishing we lived in the sixteenth century. There were no antibiotics or flush toilets in the sixteenth century. I don’t want to live in the sixteenth century! There’s no point in wishing we lived in the high Middle Ages, as some Catholics do. We live here and now. We’ve got to make the most of it.
Well, one of the things that I think that cultural marginalisation does is what you pointed to in the second century. It makes the tightknit nature of creed, code and cult that much easier.
CK: That’s very helpful.
CT: Because when you have sort of identifiable enemies, to put it in the most negative terms, or when you feel overwhelmed by the outside world, you become pretty tightknit. That was why the LGBTQ community became a community—because they were bound together by the fact that they were on the margins. And I think, you know, do I rejoice in Christian marginalisation? Absolutely not! I quite enjoyed living at a time when there was this sort of generic Christian culture that allowed us to live fairly comfortably. But I’m not prepared to say that my generalisation isn’t entirely a bad thing either; I think it could revitalise the church in very important ways.
CK: Yeah. And so, as we avoid sort of the pushing aside of doctrine, but also the embrace of culture—I mean, one of the things that you raise here is that there’s a particular intrigue with the aesthetic and ways that this actually norms our culture now—
CT: Yeah, yeah.
CK: —and I’ll quote you here. You say that “The church needs to respond to this aesthetic-based logic, but first of all she needs to be consciously aware of it”—
CT: Yeah, yeah.
CK: —“and that means she herself must forgo indulging in, and thereby legitimating, the kind of aesthetic strategy of wider culture”.3 So what do you mean by that? I mean, what kinds of things are we actually attracted to that could be—
CK: —potentially harmful in our communities there?
CT: Well, of course, you know, the aesthetic problem’s right there at the beginning, “Eve saw that the fruit was good for eating and she reached out and took it” (Gen 3:6). And we have David: he saw that the woman was beautiful and he had her brought to his palace (2 Sam 11). So it’s a perennial weakness of human beings, I think, that we get taken in by the outward and don’t see through to the inward reality. The cross, of course, is another great example: Paul says, you know, if you’re taken in by the aesthetics of the cross, you’ll either think it’s foolishness or a moral outrage (1 Cor 1:18-25). You won’t actually penetrate to what’s really there. And I think that it’s tough for Christians on this point, because there is a sense in which we want to offer our best to God. And, you know, when I listen to Renaissance polyphony—these wonderful hymns of praise set to these amazing musical structures—there’s part of me that says, “That’s good. That’s a good thing to hear that.” What we have today, though, of course, is an aesthetic that’s entirely detached, really, from the notion of the truth.
And the example I use in class—I think I might use it in the book, but I certainly use it in class—is the Hollywood red carpet. When you watch the stars parading across the red carpet, we see all these beautiful, powerful, rich, influential people, and even a cynic like me—and I don’t watch it on the night, but I catch a bit of it on the news the day after—but even a cynic like me feels a little pull—that, “Yeah, I wish I had Brad Pitt’s hair!” [Laughter] You know? “I wish I was as good-looking as him”. We get pulled in. But one of the things I say to the kids in class is, “Okay, now, stop: think about how many abortions are represented on the red carpet. Think about how many broken marriages. Think about how many kids have been torn apart by the infidelities of their parents—are represented on the red carpet. How many broken hearts?” And it’s a reminder to us that in our world, aesthetics has got entirely detached from the truth. Going back to something, you know, rather like Renaissance polyphony, I would say, “You set a Psalm to Renaissance polyphony, and there’s that wonderful coincidence there of—of the true and the beautiful”. And what I think the church needs to do is to make sure that whatever aesthetic strategies we use, they are consonant with the truth: they do not overwhelm the truth, but rather enhance the truth, if I could put it that way.
Now, I’m hopefully culturally sensitive enough to know that might look different in different cultures. It might look different in Grove City, Pennsylvania, to that which it does in Sydney—to that which it does in Nairobi—to what which it does in Rio de Janeiro. But we need to make sure that in our presentation of worship—in the outward aesthetics of worship and of our Christianity—we are not simply accommodating to the vacuous forms of the world around us, but we are seeking forms that do justice to the truth content.
I’m always intrigued by Martin Luther’s comment on vernacular liturgy: he calls for a vernacular liturgy in—really, in 1520—a “Babylonian captivity of the church” is when he says, you know, “We need to be worshipping [in] the vernacular”. He doesn’t implement one in Wittenberg—a full one—until 1525. And he says there are two reasons for doing this: one, he didn’t want to move too fast and disturb the common people. And when I was teaching at seminary, I would always say to students, you know, “When you become pastor of a church, don’t change anything for five years [Laughter]—unless there’s heresy involved”. You know.
CT: Build up your capital and bring the people gently. Second reason, though, [it] intrigues me, is Luther said he couldn’t get the music right: he wanted German music for German words, so it would really communicate to the people the exalted nature of what they were doing. And I think we need to think very carefully along those lines—that, yeah, there’s a cultural connection to aesthetics. But we need to make sure that what we’re doing is also consonant with the truth that we’re trying to express. It enhances it, rather than overwhelms it or eclipses it.
CK: Yeah, I’m reminded of one of the letters that Dorothy Sayers wrote in the middle of last century—that “the dogma … is the drama”.4
CK: And I think we often think that truth is sort of not beautiful, really boring—
CK: —but actually, when we understand the truth properly, we can actually lay it out as what it is: truly beautiful and wonderful. And even useful for Christian living. I mean—
CK: —it’s really great stuff. But the dogma’s the drama.
CT: And it’s interesting, Dorothy Sayers, of course, was a High Anglican.
CT: And generally speaking, Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics have done this stuff better than us low church Protestants—
CK: That’s right.
CT: —tend on the whole to be suspicious of aesthetics. And not without reason, historically.
CT: But there’s a danger we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
CT: That’s why, you know, The Book of Common Prayer is aesthetically beautiful. And yet it’s so solidly true—
CT: —as well.
CK: Scripturally saturated. That’s right.
CT: Yeah. Yeah.
CK: Yeah. Just as maybe we finish with a closing word here, Carl. I mean, one of the things you encourage us not to do is despair at a time of like this, and you mention at one point in your book that we need to recognise a particular plasticity to selfhood, and we need to balance it with a liquidity of our age.
CK: Now, I’d love for you to kind of clarify what you mean there: “plasticity of selfhood” and “the liquidity of our age” and how does that actually, then, reassure us and help us to not despair?
CT: Well, it’s—yeah, I’m trying to remember how I connect those to not despairing. I certainly explain the—
CK: Well, I don’t know if you connect the “not despairing”! [Laughter]It seems to me that there’s a connection there to “not despairing”.
CT: Yeah, one of the things I say in the book is it’s typical for, you know—the job of the historian, typically speaking, you see, you’re at a party and somebody says, you know, “The times are uniquely terrible”, and the historian pipes in and says, “Oh no, actually, in Florence in 1427, almost exactly the same thing took place and”, you know—so to relativise and score points. And I do think there’s a temptation—you know, we got to be careful that we don’t overdramatise the uniqueness of our age. And I—as I say in the book, I think there are potent similarities to the second century that we can learn from.
But the—I think there is something unique about our age and it’s this: it’s the confluence of two unstable things, really: one, we have this plastic view of the self—that I can be whatever I want to be—this sort of expressive individualism. The other thing is that the institutions by which we typically define ourselves are now in constant flux and accelerating in that direction as well. I talk to the students at Grove and I say, “You know, if you’re born in the Middle Ages, you got—” as I’ve said already on this program, “—you’re going to be born, you’re going to live and you’re going to die probably in the same place. The geography—the land’s not going to change much. The look of the buildings isn’t going to change much.” Even fairly re—you know, down to the last century, the bank in my home town in Gloucestershire, it was built out of sandstone, but looked like the Parthenon in Athens. And I bet I could go there today and it would look just the same.
We live in a very different world now. The bank I bank at—if I actually go to a building, which is not very often, ’cause I can do most of it online—you know, is built out of cardboard. That the bank in my hometown was sending this message that “We were here long before you arrived and we’re going to be here long after you’ve departed”. There was a stability to the surroundings that one is able to shape oneself in relation to. Now, things are changing all the time: we move around a lot. We don’t have the same sort of solid static things that we can define ourselves in relationship to. I go back to London these days: I look at the skyline. It’s starting to look just like any other city in the world—skyscrapers popping up. There’s still a few distinctive landmarks. But it doesn’t look like it did when I used to visit as a kid. It’s changed. And that impacts the self, because the self is constructed. We think it’s constructed as a monologue, but it’s also constructed in relation to the things that we can latch hold on that don’t change.
Think of the family: so many families now break. The parents get divorced. I’m very grateful that my parents stayed together: they were lifetime partners. They were a stable feature in my life and helped me know who I was. We live in a world now where the things we might in old times have grabbed onto to give us some stability, they’ve become fluid at the same time that the burden on creating ourselves has become intense.
Just as an aside, I think this is probably one of the reasons why we have such high levels of anxiety and, tragically, suicide in the West.
CK: Yeah. I was going to say the same thing.
CT: We’re more prosperous than ever. If it’s just material prosperity, we should be okay. You know, my dad spent his early years running to the bomb shelter to avoid the Blitz in Birmingham. I’ve never had to live with that kind of terror. And yet my age is much more angst-ridden than his, and I think it’s down to this massive instability of the self that expressive individualism and the liquidity of the world around us has created.
This is where I think the church can be optimistic, and it goes back to my earlier point about community: people are going to be craving community, because community is what gives us identity. Why are so many kids claiming to be transgender these days? I don’t think it’s because throughout the centuries, there’ve been a lot of kids who are transgender and society just forced them into its mould. I think being transgender makes them special—gives them a community to belong to. It allows them to know who they are, in a weird way. Why can’t the church do that?
CT: The church is a strong community. Then people who are craving stability, when they wander through our doors, they may not believe the gospel on the first hearing, but I bet they’ll think, “Man, these people love each other!”
CT: “They must be Jesus’ disciples. I mean, if that’s what Jesus thinks, then, too—”
CT: “I want to be part of this”. So—
CK: I was going to say that loving is part of abiding—
CK: —and part of abiding in the truth, and so actually we can give them a sure footing of somewhere to be identifying—we actually identify with—
CK: —absolute goodness, absolute truth.
CK: And that’s what forming the foundation of community, that we’re loving each other and—
CK: Yeah. Carl, I’m really grateful for the time that you’ve given us today, and I’m really grateful for the book that you’ve written. I’m looking forward to it coming out this month, and hopefully many people getting their hands on it. Thank you. Hopefully we’ll get to see you again sometime.
CT: Thanks for having me on, Chase! Always a great pleasure to see you.
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As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.
1 Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Crossway, Wheaton, 2020, p. 30.
2 Ibid., p. 31.
3 Ibid, p. 401.