In his latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman explains how we have got to a place in our culture where, for many people, it is entirely reasonable for a biological male to self-identify as a woman. Trueman shows how the ‘expressive individualism’ of our age has deep philosophical and intellectual roots. For example, it is the philosophy of the 18th century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with its teaching that the individual is most truly himself when he acts in accordance with his inner feelings, that lies behind modern ideas of selfhood, which emphasize so strongly the importance of being ‘true to yourself’ regardless of what society – or even your body – tells you.
I’ve not yet finished the book, but the most instructive chapter I’ve read so far is on what Trueman calls the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ who did so much to disseminate and popularize the notion that how one feels determines who one is. These ‘unacknowledged legislators’ were, according to Trueman, the poets of the 18th century Romantic movement, men such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. Their poetry, with its stress upon aesthetics and sentiment as the basis of morality, psychologized – even sexualized – the nature of human identity. They may not have been parliamentarians or politicians, but it is hard to deny that the ideas of these Romantic poets have had a profound impact on the way many people think today.
I mention this because, reading about the far-reaching influence of Wordsworth et al., made me wonder who the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ of today are. Who in our culture has the power to shape how we think about ourselves – our identity, meaning and purpose in life – even though they don’t have the authority to pass laws? Who are this century’s equivalent of the 18th century’s Romantic poets? In my view, it is those who decide what we watch on our screens and who write the content of what we watch. It is those who commission, produce and write the scripts of the shows we view on various media outlets who, in large measure, shape the zeitgeist.
The cultural influence of these ‘unacknowledged legislators’ has many implications for Christians who desire to honour Jesus in this world. Let me mention just two.
First, we should view what we watch on the BBC, Netflix, Amazon etc. with a critical eye. We should be active, rather than passive, viewers, asking questions such as: what moral values are being promoted or denigrated on this programme? Is a particular agenda being advanced? If so, how does this agenda compare with a biblical worldview? Is what I’m watching true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8)?
We are, I fear, too easy moulded by the media we consume, with the result that we think and act according to the spirit of the age more than we do according to the Spirit of God. Asking the above questions, especially if we then discuss our answers with other Christians, will guard us against an unthinking acceptance of what today’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ propound.
Second, we should use the tools at our disposal to challenge and subvert the accepted norms of contemporary culture. This is exactly what the Romantic poets of the 18th century did. Why can’t Christians do the same today? For some Christians, this will mean using the artistic and literary gifts that God has given them in order to craft a narrative that both exposes the emptiness of secularism and displays the solid beauty of Gospel truth. For most of us, this will mean praying for such people, that they might, in God’s providence, become some of the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ of today. When was the last time you prayed for those who work for the BBC or Netflix? Have you ever prayed for Christians employed by these and similar organisations?
Of course, our hope does not lie in turning the culture Christian. Our hope lies in Jesus Christ. And we must always remember that he primarily changes individuals, families, churches and, through them, the wider culture, by his ordinary means of grace. It is as we faithfully and humbly carry out whatever vocation God has called us to that we live as salt and light, and cultures are thereby transformed.
Still, for some Christians (and perhaps only a very small number), faithful living means writing good scripts or producing thoughtful drama or commissioning new programmes. They are today’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ and we should pray for them.