You might be aware that a couple of years ago, Victoria passed laws to ban certain kinds of conversation about gender and sexual identity—and other states like NSW are considering following suit. The scope of Victoria’s laws goes far beyond the fringe practice called “conversion therapy.” The laws aim to ban all sorts of activities that occur “with or without the person’s consent” for the purpose of “changing or suppressing… or… inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity”. The upshot of the laws is that if Person A in Victoria asks Person B in Victoria to pray that Person A would remain faithful to Person A’s own personal biblical beliefs—that happen to conflict with Person A’s feelings about gender or sexuality—then Person B could easily be deemed to be breaking the law for praying that prayer. Why? Because Person B is understood to be “suppressing” Person A’s gender or sexual identity by praying for what Person A asks them to pray for.
Why am I mentioning this? Despite what you might assume, I’m not just lamenting the madness of modern society or trying to stir up some conservative outrage. Instead, I’m mentioning it because I believe it’s essential to ask: Why? Why are we, in our Western world, in this situation? To be more precise:
Why are we in a situation where “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are so central to our collective modern view of what it means to be a human being that it can trump biological reality and even a person’s own convictions?
Why are we in a situation where psychological well-being—especially concerning the complex feelings associated with sexuality—is seen as such a fundamental good that the state must punish anything that challenges it?
Why are we in a situation where freedom of speech and association—even entirely consensual and seemingly private conversations—must be legislated and curtailed by the state in the interests of a particular vision of individual happiness?
Why are we in a situation where religion—especially here, Christian faith—is not simply disrespected, nor merely tolerated, but seen as positively dangerous and needing state control, down to the level of individual interactions?
And why is it all seen as so obvious by enough regular people in Australia right now that elected governments can pass laws like this with so little comment or opposition?
We need to ask “Why?” because we need to understand how, through God’s grace, we can proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to real people in our world today. And to do that, we need to understand our particular world and what makes it tick. We need to do more than protect ourselves or our religious freedoms. We must do more than write off our fellow human beings as merely mad and foolish. We need to do more than call names across the left-right political divide. We need to do more than spend endless hours talking to other like-minded people in our increasingly marginalised social bubbles. Instead, we need to understand the people around us, so we can pray for them, live for the gospel among them, and speak the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to them.
That’s why I find Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self incredibly valuable. I think it’s one of the most important Christian books of this era. But the book has one problem: it’s big. Really big. That’s why I’m so glad Carl Trueman has written a more concise and accessible version: Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. This briefer version, Strange New World, is exactly what I’d be reading right now if I hadn’t read the extended version already.
Here’s the argument in a nutshell (from the extended version, which I’m sure is also true of the concise version):
If we want to understand what’s happening today in the West in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, we need to go back much further than the sexual revolution of the 60s. What has happened, at least over the last 300 years, is that the modern Western view of the “self”—i.e., what it means to be a human being—has undergone a profound series of revolutions. Each revolution in the view of the self builds on previous revolutions. Together they lead to the current situation where our view of the self—which reaches deeply into our psyches—is profoundly psychological (Rousseau), sexual (Freud), and political (Marx). That’s why, for so many in modern Western society, our “identity”—how we understand who we are, at a fundamental level—has become a matter of psychology (by which Trueman means primarily how we feel) and of sexuality (i.e., how we feel sexually). Furthermore, this is all political because our individual psychology and sexuality are intimately connected to the way other people in society feel about us.
This helps to explain why psychological well-being, sexual orientation, gender identity, and politics are fundamental to how many people think about life and their own (and others’) human existence. It also helps explain why governments and (especially) schools are all caught up in the struggle and why legislation and education are significant when it comes to these issues.
In the modern West, many of those around us assume this is just reality. They’ve learned it through osmosis. They don’t question it. But it hasn’t always been this way. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Still, that’s how so many think and feel right now.
Trueman has given us a valuable and insightful understanding of ourselves and our situation in Western history. He hasn’t said everything, of course. But he has said something very significant. This will help us as we seek to shine the light of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to the actual people living in our world who are influenced in this particular way at this specific point in history and need the gospel to be spoken to them in this particular context. Personally, Trueman’s book has given me both an understanding of those around me and a renewed sense of joy and prayerful confidence in teaching God’s word.
If you’d like to get a deeper feel for Trueman’s argument and some of the details, you might want to check out my extended review of the extended version!
 Victorian Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021, Act Number 3/2021 (legislation.vic.gov.au/as-made/acts/change-or-suppression-conversion-practices-prohibition-act-2021)