We Need to Stop Sinking to the Lowest Common Denominator: TGC Reviews Carl Trueman’s New Book

by John Ellis

I have a lot to do today. Two articles are pounding in my head, demanding to be let out. And that’s on top of an article that I am (was) writing before beginning this one. I have also planned on running six miles today, clean the house, read for two hours this afternoon since I have a meeting this evening and won’t be able to get my usual evening reading done, as well as pick up my kids from school and cook dinner. That to-do-list, which has now been upended, to what degree is still to be determined, should clue you in to how irritated I am. I need to get something off my chest (which is redunant, I guess, since the almost sole purpose of blog posts is, in fact, to allow the writer to get something off his or her chest).

Moments before I began furiously typing this most-likely-riddled-with-speling-and-grammar-errors-article, I read Andrew T. Walker’s review on TGC of Carl Trueman’s new book (considering my whining in the opening paragraph, it’s probably a fair question to ask why I was on TGC’s website, to begin with). The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Trueman resides among the ever-growing list of books in my Amazon wish list. And, unless my wife happens to select it out of the hundreds of other forgotten books on my wish list while Christmas shopping for me, I will likely not be putting a whole lot of effort into acquiring the book, much less reading it. My reasons are hubristic and possibly petty, but are reasons that have little to do with any of this and would only serve to waste even more of my day if I attempted to explain. If you know me and are curious as to my reasons, call me. Just not today. If you don’t know me and are curious, well, I removed my email address from the About page, so I don’t know what to tell you.

In the review, which is a perfectly fine review, Walker adds the unfortunate charge:

“Let me confess one of the book’s weaknesses: readership. Was it written for scholars? The intended audience could stand to be honed. At over 400 pages of philosophical and cultural analysis, it’s a volume of immense importance; I’m just fearful it could go ignored, due to its complexity, by those who should read it. This isn’t to say it’s poorly edited or dense. Neither are true. To do what Trueman has done requires the necessary space. But the publisher would do well to consider popularizing the argument in an additional, more accessible version. Pastors and laypersons need this book, but they need it condensed.”

Aarrgghh!!!

No. Just, no, Mr. Andrew T. Walker. Publishers would not do well to “consider popularizing the argument in an additional, more accessible version.” Trueman’s book would be ill-served to do so, I don’t care how dense and complex it may be. Churches would be ill-served to do so. And readers, Christians and non-Christians alike, would be ill-served to do so. In fact, doing so would only serve to add grease to the slope to duncery that we are all gleefully sliding down.

If Walker is correct that “Pastors and laypersons need this book,” then pastors and laypersons should be willing to do the possibly difficult work of interacting with the book Trueman wrote. They do not need a dumbed-down, truncated, made-for-TV version. And this is where the source of my irritation lies: Our expectation that everything be reduced to a level of accessibility that appeals to the lowest common denominator.

There are plenty of books available that do not require the carving out of new neural pathways nor the frequent need to consult Wikipedia and/or a dictionary while reading. In the 21st century, our options of accesible articles, documentaries, and books are seemingly limitless. Instead of urging books like The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self be contoured to the felt-needs of a consumer base that isn’t used to being intellectually challenged, we should be urging consumers to step out of their comfort zone and do the hard work of interacting and understanding the arguments laid out in books like The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The irony is, with all the pretentious rudeness that I’ve been told drips from my fingers, I actually have more respect for the lowly pastors and laypersons who others believe will struggle to understand Carl Trueman (I briefly mentioned how this is also done to Charles Taylor here). I believe that most pastors and laypersons have the cognitive ability needed to read and understand books that are ostensibly written for those residing in the Ivory Tower of Academia. My guess is that many of those who live or want to live in that Ivory Tower have a felt-need to keep the illusion going that their beloved Tower is made of Ivory and not out of Pick-up-Sticks.

Out of my irritation comes two appeals. Firstly, to the intellectual gatekeepers of the evangelical world, stop steering all of us to the lowest common denominator. It’s not helpful (or necessary); in fact, it’s harmful. Whether you like it or not, you are operating the ticket stand at the entrance to the societal circus tent in which we are all amusing ourselves to death. Secondly, to the pastors and laypersons who have grown accustomed to being condescended to, stop paying attention to the intellectual gatekeepers. You don’t need them. Pray for the desire to love and honor God with your mind via the reading of dense, complex books. And while you’re waiting for that desire, pick up a dense, complex book and begin the hard work of being confronted with challenging concepts, learning new words, and being introduced to philosophers and their philosophies that you had previously been unaware of (that will likely means some side-studies as you read, and praise God if so). Start with The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman, I’ve heard it’s a good book.

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