Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What All Has the Reformation Set into Motion?

Written by: on November 5, 2022

I found myself thinking again of a constellation of readings from our spring 2022 term as I read “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution” by Carl R. Trueman:[1] “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain” by David W. Bebbington,[2] “The Protestant Work Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism” Max Weber,[3] and “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” by Jason Paul Clark.[4] Trueman’s “…aim is to explain how and why a certain notion of the self has come to dominate the culture of the West, why this self finds its most obvious manifestation in the transformation of sexual mores, and what the wider implications of this transformation are and may well be in the future.”[5] To do this, Trueman sets out to trace the historical, philosophical, psychological, and political development of the self, starting in the eighteenth century with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and onwards. He writes, “…my task as a historian is first to explain an action, an idea, or an event in context. Only when that hard work has been done can the teacher move to any kind of critique…I have therefore tried to be as careful and dispassionate as possible.”[6] I emphasize this point because he is writing about a topic that elicits anything but dispassion in most circles these days. And though Trueman gives dispassion his best shot, his personal viewpoint comes through when he adds unnecessary parentheticals like “…however obnoxious one may consider [one’s opponent’s viewpoints to be]” in the same sentence as his belief that dispassion is especially needed “…in our age of cheap Twitter insults and casual slanders.”[7]

Nonetheless, Trueman puts forth his argument in four parts:

  • Part One covers the basic ideas and terminology that are a part of his overall argument, specifically utilizing Charles Taylor’s philosophical concept of social imaginary[8] and his concepts of mimesis and poiesis[9] to articulate how it is that today’s understandings about sexuality and gender in the western world have emerged through the paradigm of expressive individualism and the development of a concept of self. He adds to this sociologist’s Philip Rieff’s understandings of culture as articulated through his seminal work, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.”[10] Rieff’s work draws on the power of implicitly understood cultural understandings that are developed over generations[11]—another manifestation of Polanyi’s tacit knowing.[12] Trueman explores Rieff’s work in detail in order to draw on his arch of human history leading to the “psychological man”[13] and build support for his argument that the self is now primarily shaped from within, subjectively, rather than through communal forces and an objective, external framework of morality and ethics. Part One concludes with a discussion again based on Rieff, but this time from his trilogy, “Sacred Order/Social Order.”[14] The idea of “first worlds,” “second worlds,” and “third worlds” is developed by Rieff and employed by Trueman in his argument, along with Rieff’s concept of “anti-culture.”[15] Essentially, Trueman concludes that the West is currently in a third world space where morality and ethics are rooted solely in the individual and nothing sacred above themselves. It is a space where an anti-cultural mindset has developed that understands external moral frameworks (the pillars of first and second worlds) to be oppressive and restrictive of personal freedom and therefore these must be destroyed through “deathworks” that cynically denigrate external moral frameworks as silly and even dangerous.[16]
  • Part Two further develops Trueman’s argument as he examines the contributions of philosophers, poets, and scientists from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the above framework—especially Rousseau, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin and their impact on psychologizing the self.
  • Part Three focuses especially on Freud and his influence on sexualizing psychology. In addition, Trueman explores the ways in which sex has then been politicized through the work of Marxist thinkers like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. He postulates, “The New Left that emerges from this synthesis sees oppression as a fundamentally psychological category and sexual codes as its primary instruments.”[17]
  • Part Four then explores and engages current-day conversations and legal decisions in light of the historical framework he has developed. He also offers in his conclusions some thoughts on the future and encouragements to what some reviewers reference as the “faithful” church[18] on how to navigate a period in history where “we are all expressive individuals now.”[19]

Trueman has given me a lot to ponder. I appreciate one of his concluding comments: “When we start to think about sexual morality today, we need to understand that we are actually thinking about what it means to be human…On that point, the thinkers of the New Left are correct…one must give them credit for understanding that when we address matters of sexual morality, we are actually addressing questions about the nature and purpose of human beings, the definition of happiness, and the relationship between the individual and wider society and between men and women.”[20] Trueman has given us one historically and philosophically based rendition of how we have arrived to where we are today. He made particular choices about whose work he leaned upon. It has merit and needs to be thoughtfully engaged.

When I have more time, I want to read further on how other historians would trace this development in order to develop a more consilient map—especially those who integrate this history with the development of how prophetic work against oppression has been and is currently understood. My sense from conversations in my own denomination is that the conversation is more complex than Trueman states…it is more than a psychological category. And if that is the case, then what other aspects of Trueman’s historical development of his argument might have more dimensions to it?

I started my blog with how reading Trueman recalled earlier readings on our DLGP journey. I am wondering how the roots for the expressive individualism we experience today might actually be found in the Reformation. Jason Paul Clark writes: “Protestant reformers, having left behind doctrines of assurance, suffered resultant anxieties about their personal salvation. If the church was no longer able to dispense an assurance of salvation, how did someone know they were saved? There was a paucity to life before the industrial revolution, where salvation was a compensation for the sufferings of life. That assurance was now removed. We might understand that Protestants now stood on their own as a kind of ‘naked self’, determining their own salvation before God with much ‘fear and trembling’.”[21]

How might that dynamic of experiencing the anxiety of standing on one’s own before God have also contributed to the development of expressive individualism? And if our own historic roots have contributed to this development (and not just the philosophers and scientists named by Trueman) AND has fueled an activism “distinct to Evangelicals,”[22] a dimension of what Bebbington describes as “…a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism,”[23] how might this conversation about human sexuality be taken up by different parts of the Protestant family in a way that challenges all of us to listen with fresh ears for the implications the dimensions of the quadrilateral might have for this conversation? Is there room for humility to listen with fresh ears to what those we disagree with might have to say and acknowledge that none of us may fully understand the complexities and mysteries facing us in this conversation about the nature and purpose of human beings, let alone all of how God may view this?


[1] Trueman, Carl R. 2020. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.

[2] Bebbington, David. 2005. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Transferred to digital printing. London: Routledge.

[3] Weber, Max, Peter Baehr, and Gordon C. Wells. 2002. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. New York: Penguin Books.

[4] Clark, Jason Paul, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018). Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary.  https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132

[5] Trueman, 31.

[6] Ibid. 30.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 36-39.

[9] Ibid., 39-42.

[10] Rieff, Philip. 2006. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. 40th anniversary ed. Wilmington, Del: ISI Books.

[11] Trueman, 42-43.

[12] Polanyi, Michael, and Amartya Sen. 1966. The Tacit Dimension. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

[13] Trueman, 44-50.

[14] Three volumes: Rieff, Philip, Kenneth S. Piver, and Philip Rieff. 2006. My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority. Sacred Order/Social Order, v. 1. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press; Rieff, Philip, and Alan Woolfolk. 2007. The Crisis of the Officer Class: The Decline of the Tragic Sensibility. Sacred Order-Social Order, volume 2. Charlottesville: University of Virginia press; Rieff, Philip, Arnold M. Eisen, and Gideon Lewis-Kraus. 2008. The Jew of Culture: Freud, Moses, and Modernity. Sacred Order/Social Order, v. 3. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

[15] Trueman, Chapter 2, 73ff.

[16] Ibid., 96-100.

[17] Trueman, 28.

[18] “Summary of Carl Trueman’s, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” March 18, 2022. 9Marks. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://www.9marks.org/article/summary-of-carl-truemans-the-rise-and-triumph-of-the-modern-self-cultural-amnesia-expressive-individualism-and-the-road-to-sexual-revolution/.

[19] Truman, 25.

[20] Ibid., 264.

[21] Clark, 64.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Bebbington, 3.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

10 responses to “What All Has the Reformation Set into Motion?”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie: My favorite part of the book was the tracing of historical developments that help give clarity on how and why were arrived today in the state we are in. I agree that this will be an ongoing conversation and debate. But the church gave provide insight and redemption to the conversation don’t you think?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Troy…thank you for your comments on my post and your question. Yes, I do think the church can provide insight and redemption to the conversation. The challenge is that across the Christian family, there are different voices and perspectives. So, some people experience some of the input from some parts of the Christian family redemptive and others find it quite wounding or heretical depending on one’s understanding of scripture. This is also then quite confusing to the world beyond the Christian family (let alone to those within the Christian family). I’m not sure what the path forward may be. Jesus shared the parable of the wheat and tares when he spoke of the Kingdom…perhaps this subject is part of the dynamic in this generation of Christ’s body. But, depending again on how one engages scripture, there would be debate over whose perspective is ‘wheat’ and whose is ‘tares.’ Perhaps it is only Jesus who is wise enough to sort this out. This is the hope expressed through the book of Revelation. I lean into that hope.

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    This was a challenging read for the reason you mentioned, everything he is talking about is a HOT topic these days. Well done dissecting the book. I “hear” tension in what you think, feel, and believe in relation to this book. I pray the Lord give you both time and discerment as you navigate these challenging waters.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Eric…thank you for your comment on my post. I appreciate your discerning spirit. Indeed, I do experience tension over the subject matter of this book because I know different parts of Christ’s body view these issues very differently. It’s not the first time in our history as followers of Jesus where there has been deep disagreement over something. Part of what I wonder is what lessons from our past can we apply to today’s struggles. We have made some progress in how we disagree…at least at this time we are not killing each other over our different understandings. I do think we have something important to learn from each other’s differing viewpoints. That is part of what I hope to be facilitating. We shall see.

  3. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, Thank you for offering a regulated reflection on our book. What I don’t understand is how in the world did you manage such a beautiful integration of other readings with the schedule you had this week?????

    Trueman shares our denominational heritage…sort of…how would you encourage someone from the LGBTQ+ community to engage this book without anger?.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Nicole…thank you for your comments on my post and your question. I really had to sit with this week’s reading and sort through my own reactivity to dig down to what I hope was a more academically grounded engagement with the material. Your question is a good one. I’m not sure that someone from the LGBTQ+ community could engage this text without anger, but perhaps, depending on their own differentiation journey, they would be able to not only express their anger, but also provide us and/or the author with additional insights as to the history of the development of the self, how they engage with a moral/theological framework, and how they have experienced the role of community in their development of identity. Based on my own research in attachment theory, I think the development of identity is more nuanced and complex than Trueman describes. But I wanted to do my best to understand his argument on his terms before trying to argue with him.

  4. Elmarie, what a wonderful post here. I greatly appreciate your thorough, thoughtful, and gracious reflection. You reminded me of what my only takeaway from the book may be, that the Church needs learn from the LGBTQ community about how to be human. Of course, his transphobic and homophobic tone undercut those words, but standing alone, they are beneficial.

    Well done getting your post in!

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Michael. Thank you for your reflection on my post. Yes, that comment of his late in his book was one that I found very helpful and hopeful. It’s such an important conversation for us all to have. And to do the work of really seeing each other, our God-given dignity and humanity, and to learn from one another where and how we ground that gift. Is there room in the body to agree to disagree on issues that are so fundamental? I don’t know. But at the very least we need to be able to listen and truly hear each other without condemnation. I do wonder what Trueman’s conversations have been like with people from the LGBTQ+ community. I’d love to read transcripts of them and to hear from him his humble learnings (not just his vehement disagreements). I wonder how our readings next term will add to this conversation.

  5. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Thank you for your post. It is evident that this is something you have wrestled with. I think we are both wrestling with it from opposite sides of the issues. You question, “Is there room for humility to listen with fresh ears to what those we disagree with might have to say and acknowledge that none of us may fully understand the complexities and mysteries…?” resonates with me. That somewhere in the conversation, while embracing one another in humility, and grace, with fresh ears we will come to the place that reflects the Father’s heart more completely.

  6. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, thank you for you thorough reflection and your distillation of Trueman’s thoughts and argument. Like you, I found the issue at stake identity. I also found it odd that the claim of a historical study included some very obvious statements about the dire cultural situation in Trueman’s opinion. I guess no one is objective, even in the study of history! As you think about reading other authors on the development of sexuality over the centuries, do you have any leads on authors who might present a different conclusion?

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