Surviving a Cultural Apocalypse : Advice to Churches

This essay concludes my five-part review of Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In the interest of space I will skip a summary of the arguments presented in the four previous essays and ask the reader to consult those essays in preparation for this conclusion.

Optimism and Pessimism

In general, I am an optimist. My optimism is grounded in my faith and hope in God. God’s good will most certainly will be done in the end despite appearances to the contrary. But I am not optimistic that the cultural trends described in Trueman’s book can be reversed. Nor is Trueman optimistic; for as the title of the book foreshadows the modern self has “triumphed.” The dominant culture assumes that the psychologized, sexualized, and politicized self is the only morally acceptable view of the self, and it considers those who disagree as ignorant, bigoted, and oppressive. Efforts to marginalize traditional Christians and churches are growing in frequency and intensity. Recent court decisions, anti-traditional policies of big corporations, media caricatures of conservative Christians, indoctrination by educators, and censorship by social media giants do not bode well for the social position of confessing Christians in the USA. Legislatures and courts have recently expanded anti-discrimination laws to cover those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. These new laws threaten to restrict the “freedom of religion” to the silent spaces of the inner self.

It is against this “rather bleak analysis” (Trueman, p. 402) that Trueman offers three bits of advice to the church:

The Moral Blindness of False Compassion

(1) “The church should reflect long and hard on the connection between aesthetics and her core beliefs and practices” (p. 402). The modern self was created in part by replacing moral categories grounded in moral law with aesthetic ones grounded in inner feelings. The LGBTQ movement has been propelled forward not by ever deepening moral insight but by rehearsing narratives of oppression, victimhood, and personal unhappiness that evoke “sympathy and empathy” (p. 403) from a culture that has already accepted the psychologized, sexualized, and politicized self. It is disturbing but not surprising that huge numbers of self-identified Christians have without knowing it assimilated to that culture. Many churches talk and act and worship in aesthetic categories and are silent about sin…unless the sins are also “sins” for the secular progressive culture. For the most part, churches long ago assimilated to what Phillip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic) called the “therapeutic culture,” marketing themselves to society as supporting the common good and promoting individual wellbeing. In response to this assimilation, Trueman calls on churches “to forgo indulging in, and thereby legitimating, the kind of aesthetic strategy of the wider culture” (p. 403). We must not allow false compassion and threats from progressive culture, to replace reason, moral law, the scriptures, and tradition as the determining factors in our moral teaching. Indeed, the church needs to rediscover Christianity’s “dogmatic, doctrinal, [and] assertive” core (p. 403).

The Church as a Moral and Theological Community

(2) The church “must also be a community” (p. 404). The church must form strong and intimate communities based on a common faith and moral vision in self-conscious opposition to the dominant therapeutic culture. These communities must meet together often to encourage, teach, and support members to live thoroughly Christian lives. Apart from such communities, individual Christians are vulnerable to the ever-present pressure to assimilate.

Recover Reason and Moral Law

(3) “Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body” (p. 405). Protestant neglect of natural moral law is one reason churches have been so easily assimilated to the aesthetic view of morality. Traditionally, Protestants grounded their moral teaching in specific biblical commands or principles derived from commands. A thing is wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong. Does this mean that the absence of a biblical command against something gives us permission to do it? Or, what happens when clever theological “experts” create all sorts of confusion about the meaning of a command? In future essays I plan to pursue these failings at great length.

For Trueman, recovering “a high view of the physical body” involves rediscovering God as the creator of the body, Jesus Christ as the savior of the body, and the Holy Spirit as the purifier and life force of the body. The church must resist the culture’s view of the body as a mere means of sensual pleasure or as nothing but raw material for us to drug, cut away, and shape as we please. I wish that every church could hear and take heed to the following words from Trueman:

And closely allied with this is the fact that the church must maintain its commitment to biblical sexual morality, whatever the social cost might be. If, as Rieff claims, sexual codes are definitive of cultures, then an abandonment of Christian sexual morality by the church can be done only on the basis of a rejection of the sacred framework of Christianity and at the cost of the loss of Christianity as a meaningful phenomenon (p. 406).

I placed the words “whatever the social cost might be” in the above quote in bold because I believe the cost doing this will be very high. Many will find it too high. But the cost of assimilation is even higher:

“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matt 16:26).

2 thoughts on “Surviving a Cultural Apocalypse : Advice to Churches

  1. Reader With Many iFAQs About Theology

    I don’t disagree that the Church should maintain its “commitment to biblical sexual morality,” as it should maintain its commitment to all biblical morality. But to the extent this language suggests that Christians should continue to fight in the ever-worsening culture wars, I disagree. I think the culture wars have been really destructive, distracting, and discouraging, and they have not advanced the gospel or strengthened the Church one bit. If anything, the culture wars correlate with Christians hypocritically embracing corrupt political and media figures, the heresy of Christian Nationalism, and the pursuit of secular political power and judicial victories, all at the expense of their credibility and witness for the gospel. They’ve caused Christians to focus on the wrong things; we really do not need approval or anything else from the dominant culture. If I were giving advice to Churches, I suppose my advice would be for all Christians to instead focus on living as instructed in Romans 12 and Colossians 3, loving as described in I Corinthians 13, and remembering that “those who look to [the LORD] are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34:5). As we “[l]et the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts” (Col. 3:15), and let that reflect in our lives, many may find that our message is far more attractive than any alternative offered by the dominant culture.


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      I agree with everything you say here. Struggles over who dominates culture are inevitable. And in so far as Christians embrace the “rights and duties” of citizenship they will be involved in that struggle in one way or another. To abstain completely from any role in politics would require abstaining completely from the exercise of the “rights and duties” of citizenship. But dominating culture is not the church’s mission and churches should not in the name of Christ try to determine the behavior of anyone by force, especially that of outsiders. As you say it will create resentment and a stumbling-block to serious consideration of the gospel. The church should preach and live the gospel. I don’t think it is an act of culture war, however, to explain to the world, if we have the opportunity, the Christian way of life. The gospel can advance truly only by persuasion through word, deed, and example. It must be embraced freely.

      My concern in this series is that the world’s philosophy and immorality are being adopted within churches and by people who not only call themselves Christians but even teach that the world’s philosophy and immorality is Christian. The culture war has invaded the church.

      Thank you for your analysis. As I said, I resonate with it.



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