A Note on Fellipe do Vale’s Review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

This review was published yesterday at London Lyceum: https://www.thelondonlyceum.com/book-review-the-rise-and-triumph-of-the-modern-self/

Fellipe do Vale, fellow at London Lyceum and TEDS Professor, makes the following critiques:

(1) Historical arguments, especially genealogical arguments, must be extremely careful about establishing claims of causation.
(FAIR POINT, though this methodological constraint would have made broad analysis like this book almost impossible; I am sure Trueman was very aware of what he was doing.)

(2) one also finds some significant historical inaccuracies
(do Vale cites one example. I am not competent to judge this on most of the historical figures. I did wonder about Trueman’s characterizations in a few points. I’d have liked it if do Vale had referenced more examples even if he did not unpack them.)

(3) The identifying traits requisite for a figure to contribute to the development of modernity are poorly defined
(I take it do Vale is gesturing toward what I complained about above [on my goodreads review], that Trueman’s categories are a bit blunt. do Vale cites an example I too noticed the notion of the “psychologized self.” It’s not that it obviously doesn’t refer to something real in the world; it probably does. The problem is without clear definition it is hard for the reader to judge what developments contribute to it.)

(4) [Consequently], Trueman’s selection of examples often appear unwarranted

(5)–cited at length:
“Finally, there is a pastoral worry. Even if the above objections were avoidable, is this the kind of book that would help a pastor shepherd a flock through the complexities of sex and gender faced today? I don’t think it is. Individuals today experiencing gender dysphoria or who are same-sex attracted are not helped if they are assumed to be a part of a movement or a revolution, especially a political one. Some might have political motivations, others may not; it seems unwise to assume one way or another. Pastors are more successful if they pay careful and compassionate attention to the particular story of the individual in question, not automatically placing them within a broader story they may not themselves recognize. Rather, their sensitive listening should help the person find their home in God’s story, that of the gospel. In the end, it does not seem to me that Trueman’s book encourages careful and gentle attention to the individuals who may walk through the doors of any church”

I am appreciative of Fellipe do Vale’s review and concur with at least half of it. On this last point, I agree that people should treat individuals experiencing gender dysphoria with compassionate attention. This is an important caveat. My sense is that do Vale is offering this as a “pastoral worry” rather than a critique. If so, I wholeheartedly concur. Though I see it as poor form to criticize a book for what it does not address, Trueman might have said something about this. Yet, I am not sure that do Vale’s analysis appreciates the importance of what the book is doing with regard to personal care. Trueman explicitly traces how private sexuality has been politicized. The inverse is also true: public ideas about sexuality are always part of private experience. The politics of sexuality must not dominate caring for people, as it very often does among religious conservatives. But we are not able to bracket out “social imaginaries” from individual experience. Cultural narratives contribute to our embodied habits and our interpretations of bodily experience at a pre-conscious level.

For example, evangelical sexual culture can be Exhibit A for how damaging a cultural lens can be for self-understanding. Evangelical men have often adopted a hyper-sexualized interpretation of their own sex drives. They largely do not think that chastity is a virtue necessary for married men (it may be that this last sentence doesn’t even make sense to most readers, see Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s Glittering Vices). Evangelical men tend to see their sex drive as unalterably who they are and that it is a grace that they’ve been given their own lawful sex partner to deal with it. This is a deplorable way to serve their wives. Understanding the contribution of Freud, for instance, to this unconscious assumption is helpful for learning new ways of being for our own flourishing and for that of others.

Feeding on Words

I am thoroughly enjoying Alan Jacobs’s, The Narnian. I would heartily recommend it to fans of Lewis. An excerpt,

Remembering, later, that moment of revelation, [Orual] also rememers her tutor, that philosophical Greek called the Fox, and that is what leads her to the passage with which I ended the previous chapter:

“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech, which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all the time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble we think we mean?”

The Fox, who is among the dead who thronged that dark courtroom, does not hear her say this, but having heard her speech, he realizes what he has done, and accuses himself more strongly than she could accuse him: “Send me away, Minos, even to Tartarus, if Tartarus can cure glibness. I made her think that a prattle of maxims could do, all thin and clear as water. For of course water’s good; and it didn’t cost much, not where I grew up. So I fed her on words.”

Anyone who thinks this is merely a critique of Greek philosophy or cheap rationalism has, I believe, misunderstood the passage, for it is equally a critique of Christian apologetics. The emptiness of Fox’s words is scarcely greater than the emptiness of the apologist’s words. No doubt, what Lewis had written and said as a defender of the Christian faith was truer than what Fox had taught Orual–indeed, far truer–but it had the defect of being in words, and it is easy to forget that even true words bear the limitations of all language: they are, inevitably, “thin and clear as water.” The gods demand more than water: indeed they demand blood, for, as the author of the letter to Hebrews writes in a passage at which the priests of Ungit would have nodded sagely, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin” (9:22).

Jacobs, The Narnian, 240-41.

Finally Alive

This is a very important book by John Piper. Whether or not you track with him 100% on Christian hedonism, this book is a must read. It is staggering to consider how neglected the topic of regeneration has been when we consider its importance for the church. Piper does a fantastic job tracing the doctrine through scripture. He answers the questions: What is the new birth? Why must we be born again? How does the new birth come about? What are the effects of the new birth? How can we help others be born again? Pick this book up and read it. Every pastor should.

D.A. Carson says,

I cannot too strongly celebrate the publication of this book. Owing in part to several decades of dispute over justification and how a person is set right with God, we have tended to neglect another component of conversion no less important. Conversion under the terms of the new covenant is more than a matter of position and status in Christ, though never less: it includes miraculous Spirit-given transformation, something immeasurably beyond mere human resolution. It is new birth; it makes us new creatures; it demonstrates that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. All the creedal orthodoxy in the world cannot replace it. The reason why ‘You must be born again’ is so important is that you must be born again.”