Did I wake up in a strange new world?

Did I wake up in a strange new world?

I love Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Not only because Carroll and I studied the same degree at the same school, but because I think Alice’s story is a parable for the world in which we now find ourselves. Over the past 50 years, perhaps even over the past 15 years, it feels like we have fallen through a rabbit hole and entered a fantasy world where what we once held to be common sense is nonsensical.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, take the statement, “I’m a woman trapped inside a man’s body.” Fifty years ago, such a statement would have been viewed as insanity, but today, not only is it viewed as normal in our culture, but a statement to be celebrated and championed. How did such a thing come to be?

That’s the subject of an excellent book that was gifted to me by Pastor Mark and Cyndi: Strange New World. Author Carl R. Trueman, another British immigrant to the U.S., and a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, seeks to present a case for how such a situation has come to be.

Trueman’s argument posits that this shift in our world began with the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes reflections, resulting in the now famous statement: “I think; therefore, I am.” From that point forward, a transition in our collective understanding of human identity began to take place.

Traditionally, humans have understood their identity to be shaped and formed through relationships to others: God, humans, and society at large. However, beginning with Descartes in the 17th century, pushed forward by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, and expressed in the 19th-century Romantic movement of art and literature, our identity began to be viewed as something we discover ourselves, through expressing our own internal thoughts and feelings to realize who we truly are.

This idea, which in the 1990s was termed “expressive individualism,” by American scholar Robert Bellah, has moved from the academy, to the arts, to the common citizen. This has been accelerated by several other factors, explored by Trueman, such as the now commonly held beliefs that true happiness is found in sexual fulfillment, human nature has no moral structure, and technology can be used to shape and form our bodies as we desire.

All this has resulted in us waking up in a “Wonderland”-style world where traditional Christian beliefs are not only seen as wrong, but dangerous to society. The world around us has changed, and as Pastor Mark challenged us two weeks ago, we must be courageous in a new way.

Trueman offers some excellent suggestions for how to respond in the final chapter of his book, and this is an ongoing conversation with much still to be worked out. Personally, I took away two key beliefs which we must clearly teach and articulate as the church in this strange new world:

1.  Identity

Our identity as human beings must be defined by God and not be ourselves: in the words of a song we have often sung, “I Am Who You Say I Am.” We must recognize that in God’s eyes we are endowed with an innate dignity because we are made in his image. He views us as his beloved, and his Word teaches us, out of that love, how to express our humanness most fully in this world. God defines who we are, and his definition enables us to flourish as humans in a way that no other definition can.

2. Purpose

The Westminster Shorter Catechism (part of the larger Westminster Standards, which form our constitutional document regarding our beliefs) begins with the question: “What is the chief end of man?” Understanding our purpose as human beings was determined to be the starting place for this, the part of the Standards designed to teach children the faith. And the answer to that vital question is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Our pursuit of happiness is not wrong, it is just misplaced. We are not to pursue happiness in anything we find in this world, but in the person of God himself, whom we will enjoy and glorify forever.

Obviously, this is just a 30,000-ft summary of what I have learned from this book, and I would encourage anyone who is interested to pick up a copy. Alternatively, Trueman spoke on this topic in a series of three lectures (1, 2, 3) at a Presbyterian church in Houston last year, which provide an excellent summary of his book.

My prayer is that this strange new world would become a place in which the church is strengthened and flourishes in a new and profound manner as we grapple with our unique identity as a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9 KJV). And out of that will flow a mission that captivates people and draws them into a community where they can discover what it truly means to be human.


Pastor Ellis