Do you feel as though you woke up one day and found yourself living in an strange new world? As if the world in which you thought you understood changed, seemingly over night? If so, then you are not alone. Many in Western society, especially those who are followers of Christ, feel the exact same way. Western culture has been changing for decades, particularly since the end of WWII to a more individualistic view of society. In fact, an individualistic way of thinking can be traced back about one hundred years. These changes in culture, however, seem to be coming at a faster rate than ever before. So how are followers of Christ supposed to live in an ever changing and ever more pluralistic society? This is what author Carl R. Trueman discusses in his new book Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2022).
Much of the material from this book was covered more in depth in Trueman’s earlier book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Crossway, 2020). It must be noted that in Strange New World, Trueman has condensed the material from his earlier book to a more palatable form for a broader audience. The book is not, however, merely a concise version of the other, it is a completely different book that hits the same themes. Trueman’s main purpose in the book is to help Christians who live in modern Western culture, better understand the way that culture has shifted with the intent of better being able to engage for the sake of the gospel. One of the Christian sub-culture’s knee-jerk reactions is to retreat when the culture shifts against them. Yet this is not the command of Jesus to be in the world, but not of the world. So how can a follower of Christ, understand this modern cultural moment?
Trueman traces the current cultural worldview back a couple hundred years to thinkers such as Rene Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx. Since Descartes first coined the phrase, “I think therefore, I am” Western society has slowly shifted from a communal model for society, and more to what is known as “expressive individualism”. This shift has slowly eroded our trust in key institutions that held society together. These include: the family, the church (or another religious institution), and the state. In the modern world, the self is the place of highest authority in one’s life. For one to truly “find themselves” one must allow their inner feelings and intuition to unfold and be expressed. In the past, a person would find their place in the world through one or more of societies institutions, but not anymore. Society encourages a person to shed these archaic hinderances and find themselves “out there”. This is seen in popular kids books and movies such as Dr. Seuss’ Oh The Places You Will Go and the song from Disney’s Frozen, “Let It Go”. It is also seen in books for adults such as the popular What Color Is Your Parachute, and Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. Yet the main way that expressive individualism has shaped modern culture is through the normalization of expressive sexuality.
During the majority of history in Western culture, sexuality was not something that was expressed in public. While this does not mean that everyone in society was adhering to the biblical model of sexuality, it did indicate a common decency in society. Yet this all began to change in the 1960’s during what is now known as the Sexual Revolution. Until this point in history, sexuality was expressed behind closed doors. One of the main reason this began to shift was the invention of birth control pills and the legalization of abortion. To this point, sexual activity outside of a committed relationship was very risky because if the woman got pregnant that would be life changing for both. Now, with reliable birth control a person could have a sexual relationship with several uncommitted partners relatively risk free. In the case that the birth control failed, an abortion could be performed legally. Sexuality then became a way for a person to express themselves. This shift has been very detrimental to western society. In the years since the Sexual Revolution we have seen the rise of divorce rates (even among Christians), and this has also brought rise to what is now known as the LGBTQ+ movement. The cultural shift on this issue has shifted dramatically just in the last decade. It is now not only acceptable, but expected for individuals to express themselves sexually no matter where they are on the sexual spectrum.
Moving Forward Biblically
As followers of Christ, this cultural shift must drive us to think biblically about how to move forward. There is now, no going back. These changes are here to stay and more change will come, it is only inevitable. In the last chapter of the book, Trueman provides several ways that Christians in Western culture can move forward in the current cultural milieu:
(1) Understanding Our Complicity
The typical response from evangelicals when culture is pressing in is to retreat. Yet it is important to realize that we too are complicit in these cultural shifts and are in no way innocent. In many Christians have been shaped by the culture instead of helping to shape culture. We have played a role by partaking in the culture’s entertainment and have not stood firm (as a whole) on the biblical view for marriage and sexuality. Even Christians are guilty of sexual relationships outside of marriage, and contribute to the divorce rate. While many Christians would be considered “pro-life” their actions do not always line up with that political sentiment. Even many Christians today are conceding cultural ground and becoming openly accepting of public displays of sexual expression.
Churches and church leaders have also been complicit. It seems like every year there is a high profile scandal regarding sexual misconduct or abuse from a pastor or famous Christian leader. Even recent headlines regarding the coverup of sexual abuse by pastors and leaders in Southern Baptist churches and entities shows just how deep sexual sin permeates our culture.* Additionally, the same type of behavior was tolerated within Catholic churches and other denominations as came to light several years ago. These systemic sins should grieve us and force us to examine ourselves and pray as David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24, ESV).
(2) Learn from the Ancient Church
Early followers of Christ were persecuted by the Romans because they would not conform to cultural norms. They were even misunderstood and seen as weird, incestuous cannibals. Yet upon closer examination they were none of these things. They were not guilty of incest, they merely viewed each other as family in Christ, and they were not cannibals, they simple partook of bread an wine as a way to remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. One of the main apologetics that early Christians gave to their persecutors was that they were model citizens. Even though they would not bow to Caesar as the ultimate authority and would not worship the gods of Rome, they wanted to seek the welfare of society because that is Jesus had called them to do. Modern followers of Christ would do well to model this as well.
(3) Teach and Understand the Whole Counsel of Scripture
This advice from Trueman is crucial. The best way for believers to move forward in an ever-changing culture is to hold fast to word of God. If we fully know and trust what God’s word says on marriage, sexuality, and a whole host of other issues, we will not be tossed to and fro when the cultural winds shift. It may not be popular, but is the safest way forward.
(4) Be Shaped by Biblical Worship
Trueman’s view on this point is very insightful and proves helpful. In a society in which the greatest authority is the self, it is crucial that Christians find their greatest authority beyond themselves. That is to say, the Christian must understand that our deepest sense of worth and identity is not within oneself but in their relationship to God their creator. Trueman makes the point that it biblical to express oneself, particularly to God, but in so doing one must find their rest in God as their only hope. He argues that the Western church could use more of this in the corporate gathering. I would tend to agree with Trueman on this point. Many of the modern worship songs sung corporately can be emotion and individual based. Worship in the Western church needs to be less consumer based and more God focused.
(5) The Natural Law
Trueman’s point here is that God has put in place a natural law. Paul talks about this in Romans 4 in that the law is written on the hearts of men. This is not talking about the Jewish law, but the natural law. All humans have an innate sense of right and wrong. In regards to the material discussed in the book, sexuality and the self, the natural law seems obvious. Yet in the modern world we are running counter to not only Gods written law (i.e. the Bible) but also the natural law. Many in modern culture would disagree with Trueman on this point, but he is nonetheless correct in his assessment.
In the end, Trueman’s outlook is rather bleak. Strange New World proves to be a helpful resource in understanding the modern world and as Christians, knowing our place in it. Trueman makes the point that society will only get worse. The Apostle Paul also made this point in 2 Timothy 3:13. Jesus is the only hope for this world and it is only with his second coming that the brokenness we see all around us will finally and fully be made right. This does not mean that we despair, but that we do not look for an earthly answer to a spiritual problem. We can work towards reconciliation and shine as lights in the darkness, but only in Jesus’ return will all things be made new. In the meantime, we must fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith and run the race with endurance. Even so our hearts join with the Apostle John in saying “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
* For more information, read Kate Shellnutt’s article from Christianity Today titled “Southern Baptists Refused to Act on Abuse, Despite Secret List of Pastors”
Editor’s note: This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Like the content you see on Reading for the Glory? We invite you to subscribe to the reviews by providing your email at the bottom on this page. You can also follow us on Twitter @reading4glory and Instagram @readingfortheglory