This is my review of Matthew Roberts book – first published in Themelios here
Of the making of many books about identity there is no end! So, my first reaction to being asked to read another one was a sense of ennui. Here we go again. And yet … I ended up being pleasantly surprised by Matthew Roberts’s Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self. In fact, more than surprised. I was also stimulated, challenged and encouraged.
Pride is a relatively short book (176 pages) and is neatly divided into two main sections. In part 1, “Defined by Worship,” Roberts looks at who we are, the idolatry of self and the slavery and sinfulness of sinful desire. Part 2, “Restored to be True Worshippers,” examines the significance of sex, the gospel of who we are, the redemption of identity, and losing and finding yourself.
Roberts recognizes that the issue of identity is overblown, but suggests that this is not a new phenomenon. What is new is how the question of sexual and gender identity has become the major idolatry of our times. While the range of these identities is encompassed by the LGBT+ acronym, Roberts suggests that “‘Pride’ captures the essence of the movement best of all” (p. 49), for to claim that “our sexual inclinations are our fundamental identity is to ascribe to ourselves ultimate significance, to declare ourselves to be our own creators” (p. 46). Thus, the Pride philosophy and movement is the epitome of the idolisation of the Self. It is the ultimate in the false worship of our self-obsessed, narcissistic, secular society. Pride has become the new state religion, complete with sacraments, signs, rituals, holy days/months, and blasphemy trials for any who dare to question. The antidote to this social and spiritual contagion is, as Roberts demonstrates, the Christian gospel.
The whole book shows an awareness not only of biblical teaching, but also an excellent understanding of contemporary society, and philosophy throughout the ages. You could argue that this is a concentrated version of Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020). For most people it will be more accessible and useable. Moreover, along with an historical analysis of how we got to where we are, Roberts provides an important theological analysis as well. (In this respect, his discussion and application of the doctrine of concupiscence is worth the price of the book alone.)
One of the great strengths of the book is how clear it is. In a week where I have read one author claiming that evangelical understanding of Romans 1:18–32 is flawed, another stating that Paul “defended the Queer,” and yet another saying that Scripture “does not say gay marriage is wrong, nor that transgender surgery is wrong; because it is not talking about them,” it is clear that ordinary Christians need clear teaching—teaching that shows the truth and love of Christ, without capitulating to the culture. In this regard, Roberts’s book is a breath of fresh air and a shining light that scatters the gloom. And he manages to do so without coming across as some kind of negative, right wing, reactionary. He skillfully walks the tightrope between the twin towers of cultural capitulation and cultural cancellation.
The main point of his thesis can be summed up in these words: “The freedom to create myself according to my own desires has become the highest and final authority. And we cannot establish a new authority without coming to worship it, to lavish our devotion upon it, to willingly prostrate ourselves before it as our god” (p. 41).
For Roberts, the real divide in the church is “not between those who are conservative or liberal on sexual morality. It is between those—conservative or not—who hold a Pelagian view of human nature, and those whose view is, in fact, Christian. For if our hearts are corrupt, and our natural desires are oriented towards evil, then the ‘naturalness’ of desires says nothing about the rightness of fulfilling them” (p. 63).
Pride demonstrates that the issue is sin. Homosexual sin in this regard cannot be classed as different. The problem is not that our desires are basically good and should be followed, but rather than we are all sinners and thus cannot trust our desires as guides. “We cannot speak of them as ‘orientations’ any more than we could say that kindness and cruelty, thankfulness and gluttony, humility and pride, or even righteousness and sin are just different ‘orientations’. They are diametric opposites. Neutral language is not appropriate to describe such things” (p. 81).
Sexual freedom is not freedom at all. “If identity is based on identifying sexual desires and fulfilling them then it follows that the thing young adults need to do most is to experiment sexually as much as possible. This is the route to discovering who you really are” (p. 122). This sexual philosophy is why the Pride movement encourages everything to be seen through the sexual lens, and why they are determined to use the education system to indoctrinate that philosophy into children.
There are numerous other pithy insights. For example:
Paradoxically, for a movement which claims that it is seeking a harmonious inclusion of all, the Pride movement in fact shatters humanity into multiple groups with little in common. If our identity is in what we feel, then the only real unity we have is with those who feel the same way as us. (p. 125)
It may surprise some that Roberts argues against “conversion therapy.” But in this he is being consistent, because he does not regard homosexual lust as a psychological disorder—and sin is not cured by psychology.
On the transgender issue he argues that to give people their “preferred pronouns” is to acquiesce to a lie. He also reasons that the large increase in children being referred for transgender treatment is evidence that these desires are not just being recognized but “to a very significant degree generated by what is being normalized in the surrounding culture” (p. 160).
It can be argued that it is relatively easy to analyze the problems. In this respect, secular commentators such as Douglas Murray, Jordan Peterson and Abigail Shirer have shown us the way. But where they all fall short is in their solutions. Here Roberts shows the way.
In his last, and perhaps most controversial chapter, “The centrality of Christian worship to true humanity,” he argues that the only way to confront the idolatry of self-worship is to worship the Triune God. In dispensing with the worship of God, Western society has ended up endorsing self-worship. What we need among other things is a return to the centrality of the worship of the church on the Lord’s Day. Roberts questions the wisdom of only applying the language of worship to a life of obedience of God, and regarding the assembles of the church as occasions for instruction and edification alone. We also need to teach the biblical view of gender so that our young people know that the sex-and-gender binary is not a social construct, but the divinely ordained plan for humanity. It is the way God made us. It is the way God intends us to be. Anything else is contrary to the Maker’s instructions. Anything else is sin.
Despite the book’s many strengths, occasionally Roberts’s concern for rigour leads him into terminological pedantry and pastoral insensitivity. Faulting Sam Allberry for calling same-sex attracted Christians to celibacy (rather than, as Roberts would prefer, “abstaining from sodomy”) is an example of the first. His claim that there is “no reason at all” why a same-sex attracted man “may not court and marry a godly woman” (p. 105) is an instance of the second. At the same time, Roberts is right to warn us against defining ourselves by our sinful desires (pp. 152–54).
It may be that the Christian teaching about being male and female, though counter cultural, is precisely the kind of teaching that our culture is so desperately crying out for. As an example of such teaching, Pride is clear, convicting, and Christ exalting. Any Christian or church that has it, plus Kimberly Ells’s The Invincible Family (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2023) and Robert S. Smith’s How Should We Think about Gender and Identity? (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2022), will have a good foundation upon which to build their own culturally appropriate and biblically faithful response to a culture drowning in a cesspit of confusion.