I have been fortunate to have read William Strauss and Neil Howe’s seminal work Generations when it was first introduced in 1991. I was introduced to it when I read the authors’ preview article for this book in late 1990 in the Washington Post. As soon as their sequel book The Fourth Turning came out, I bought it and read it quickly from cover to cover.

The thesis of these two books is that the course of the history of the United States is not entirely linear but also cyclical in nature. There are regular patterns in the course of the life and times of the nation that are repeated usually once every four generations. The term used in Generations for this four-generation cycle is the Latin word saeculum. A saeculum usually lasts for about 88 years (the length of a relatively long lifetime), where each of four successive generations is about 22 years long.

The four types of generations come in the following order:

Idealistic, then
Reactive, then
Civic, then

As the generations move through time in four life-stages (childhood, young adulthood, midlife, elders), the eldest generation fades away from public life and is replaced shortly thereafter with a brand new generation of children of the same type.

The alignment of the types of generations specifies what is called a turning. A turning, which roughly corresponds to the length of time of a generation, strongly influences the events of the day and how the public at large reacts to those events. The eldest generation during a turning most strongly influences its events and reactions, whereas the youngest (child) geneation influences events the least.

The first turning is called a high. In this turning, a reactive generation is in charge and uses blunt-force to push through projects of national scale and scope. Society appears to be the most orderly during high turnings, yet witch hunts often occur during these times.

The second turning is called an awakening. This is where young adult idealists begin to criticize the perceived lack of spiritual depth of the society as a whole. They begin to confront the existing order of things by protest in the streets or by withdrawal to communes in the countryside. Religious questions and yearnings that were suppressed during the previous turnings are pursued with fervor, and religious revivals usually occur during such awakenings. The arts and music are usually at their most creative during this period.

The third turning is called an unraveling. This is when the spiritual fervor of the previous awakening burns out and people concentrate on individual pursuits and goals. Starting and growing businesses and the stock market takes a high degree of public focus. Civic-mindnesses deterioriates as the elder adaptive generation tries to patch over the fraying social contract with increasingly complex sets of rules and laws. Unresolved cultural disputes reach hard impasses, while show trials and silliness in the life of public figures are most likely to occur during such times.

The fourth and final turning is called a crisis. This is where the entire resources and energies of the nation are put towards resolving a crisis or series of crises. This is where society as a whole is at its greatest peril and the entire social contract and fabric is rewritten for future generations. Here, the elder idealistic generation pours out the spiritual zeal that it had found in its youth for the good or ill of society at its darkest hour. The no-nonsense reactive generation produces mid-life leaders to lead the civic-minded young adults into life and death situations. People want to see big actions taken to confront big challenges and are even willing to tolerate big mistakes along the way.

In the U.S., the latest first turning (high) came from 1945 to 1963. The second turning (awakening) lasted from 1963 to about 1984. The third turning (unraveling) started in 1984 and may now be giving way to the fourth and final turning of a saeculum, a crisis.

To give you a better idea of how serious crisis turnings are, consider previous crisis eras in U.S. history. According to these books, the periods of crisis in American history include the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and World War II (which were twin crises).


Are we now at the next fourth turning, the next crisis era in the United States? My honest answer is mixed: yes and no. Yes, as per the overall mood and state of the nation; no, as we have not necessarily seen the dramatic “catalyst” event that Strauss and Howe say must usher in each fourth turning. (For example, the catalyst event for the Great Depression was the stock market crash in 1929. The catalyst for the Civil War was Lincoln’s election.) A catalyst event is so significant that even people contemporaneous to that event can recognize in it a clear “watershed” moment in the affairs of the world.

We now see an idealist generation, the baby boomers about to enter their elder years of public and political influence. The adaptive, or “silent”, generation is starting to fade from public view and influence. An ice-cold and hardened “Generation X” is turning from its young adulthood as “slackers” into mid-life (as crisis managers?). And a young and eager generation is rising that is comfortable with moving in close step together with others in order to accomplish large-scale projects for the good of the whole society.

The recent financial disturbances can be seen as a classic harbinger of a crisis turning. We see here the careful compromises of the past thrown out for quick and decisive public action: for example, very large bailouts of failing financial institutions with very little forethought or debate. We observe the yearning for change and hope for a new civic-mindedness that is expressed in Senator Obama’s presidential campaign. We look at the possibility of divided government giving way to nearly one-party rule (we’ll see in one week after the election), which is something characteristic of a fourth turning. We notice popular movies starring teens like the High School Musical series, where all of the young adults are dancing and singing together in choregraphed steps. (This is something that would have been unthinkable in the previous young adult generation of so-called slackers.)

If this is not the start of the fourth turning, then it must be right around the proverbial corner.

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There was a dramatic news story on CNN this morning (Sunday, October 26, 2008) about a remarkable random act of kindness in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Evidently, CNN picked up this news story from TXCN channel 8 in Texas. I can’t find the video of the news clip on the web. (If it’s posted later, I’ll add a link here.) However, a brief written description of the local news story is provided at:


Evidently, a woman whose home was about to be foreclosed upon decided to go and attend a large, Dallas-area house foreclosure auction where her house was being auctioned off. The woman had already moved all of her possessions out of her house and was going to the auction to try to find some sense of emotional “closure” for her life. Caught up in the pain and anguish of the moment when her house was the one put up for sale, she began crying uncontrollably.

At that moment, the woman next to her asked her why she was crying. She told this complete stranger she was crying because her house was the one now being auctioned off.

Then, moved with compassion, not having intended to buy this particular house or even knowing the town where this house was located in, the stranger made a bid for the distressed woman’s house and won the auction. She then turned to the tearful woman and told her that she was giving the house back to her and that she should make arrangements to move back in.

This is the point where the TXCN TV news crew came upon the two women, who had never met each other before in their lives. The woman who was crying was still crying but her tears had suddenly been changed to tears of joy.

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Decision 2008

Posted in: Current Events by bill-o on October 18, 2008

For those of you in the United States (and, yes, perhaps also those in Canada who watch U.S. television), the very long presidential campaign is almost over. For those of us who live in the so-called “swing states” (states that could vote in favor of either of the two major presidential candidates), we are especially relieved that this seemingly unending process is coming to an end on November 4.

It is the current policy of Shadows and Symbols not to endorse political candidates. For one, this blog is friends with supporters of both Senators Obama and McCain, as well as those who support third party candidates or no candidate at all. It is the intention of this blog to be as non-political as possible and thus welcoming to everyone regardless of political opinions. Two, as much as is possible, I believe that the followers of Christ should not use the political process to further the purposes of the kingdom of God. Jesus said plainly, “My kingdom is not of this world”. While it’s perfectly alright for followers of Christ to have and express political views, it would be foolish and dangerous for the body of Christ as a whole to align itself with one particular candidate or party. I have never seen an election where those elected did exactly what they had promised to do. And even if, when elected, they do what they promised and those policies are “pro-Christian”, then they will also make decisions re: other issues that are against the will of God. (After all, does not the Bible warn: “Do not put your trust in princes”?) And not only that, what does that say to supporters of Party A if the followers of Christ all decide to vote for Party B and say publicly that that is what Jesus would do? How would the love of Christ be demonstrated to them?

Do I know who Jesus would vote for? No, I do not. Do I know what Jesus would say about the 2008 U.S. election? Not exactly, but I can take an educated guess about what he might say …

A McCain supporter ran up through the crowd and yelled to Jesus, “My brother, an Obama supporter, is trying to steal the election from us. Tell my brother to stop that.” And Jesus said to him in response, “Who made me a judge of this matter between the two of you?” And then Jesus turned to the crowd and told them, “Beware of greed and those who lust after power; for your lives don’t really consist of how much money and power that you have”. Jesus then proceeded to tell them about a rich and powerful man who was very content but then suddenly died.

Is this what Jesus would say? I don’t know for sure, but it’s something to think about between now and Election Day on November 4, 2008.


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Book Review: “Quitting Church”

Posted in: Reviews by bill-o on October 11, 2008

“Quitting Church” is a very good snapshot of the current state of the Church in the United States. As the field of accounting has both the balance sheet (a snapshot in time of the finances of a company) and the income statement (the top line and bottom line), this book could be compared to the balance sheet of Christianity in the U.S. The book is written by  Julia Duin, religion editor of The Washington Times.

[A little background that is not in the book might be helpful here. “Church quitters” are often looked upon very negatively in evangelical church circles. They are usually seen as spiritual backsliders, a dangerous spiritual state for Christians. “Church hoppers” are those who frequently change church congregations. While not as bad as quitters, hoppers are sometimes looked at with some level of caution, depending upon the circumstances involved. Finally, churches that lose a substantial number of members are often called “dead” or “dead churches”.]

In the past, mainline denominations were losing members during the last few decades. Today, it is the evangelical churches that are cresting in attendance and beginning to lose congregants. Evangelicals, who once openly criticised mainline churches for being “dead” are now beginning to watch their own members head out the doors. The author says the following about what she calls (appropriately) the “evangelical monolith”: “… [It] is simply the emperor before losing his clothes. The form is there, but the substance-the strength and the people-has long departed.” “Quitting Church” is a book which discusses the issues surrounding this new phenomena of people quitting the evangelical church.

A key part of the book was how Ms. Duin compares the state of the Church in the U.S. in the 1970s to today. The 70s were the last move of true spiritual power and fervor in Christianity in the U.S. The 70s were the peek of the Charismatic movement as well as an influx of new believers into non-Charismatic evangelical churches. However, the spontanaeity and freshness of the move of the Holy Spirit thirty years ago has now been replaced with services that are either micromanaged and packaged to the point of being cold, dry, and boring or that revolve around the personalities of their pastors.

The reasons for people quitting their churches are varied: spiritual abuse (not a main topic of this book), boredom, or loneliness (especially in large churches). Men and singles, in particular, are abandoning traditional church structures as they perceive that their particular spiritual needs are not being met. Working mothers may be the next large group of believers to leave. Young adults are also absenting themselves from churches: As Ms. Duin notes, soon, only 4% of U.S. teens will be Bible-believing Christians. If present trends continue, the church in the U.S. will be half of its current size in 15 years.

As with most problems in organizations, we must start by looking at the top, and pastors (ministers) come in for both criticism and sympathy in “Quitting Church”. In the book, pastors are “surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail”. In “Quitting Church”, pastors who started out fearless eventually became timid. After all, fearless leaders “unnerve the structure”. Pastors are caught in a system that requires them to spend 12 to 15 hours of preparation each week to give a sermon each Sunday. This inevitably leads to cutting corners as per the intellectual substance of their messages. What is preached on Sunday mornings is now less and less challenging. Pablum is substituted for substance. In today’s churches, new Christians are spiritually fed, but the more mature are bored. Today’s messages from the pulpit are “spiritual baby food”. Many pastors themselves are burned out and are quitting church, too. Churches in the U.S. are much more akin to Corporate America than to the 1st-century communities of Christ-followers. They are institutions where “senior pastors” and “executive pastors” (terms found nowhere in the New Testament, by the way) act like CEOs and vice presidents of corporations.

So, what would draw people back to church? An answer that Ms. Duin points to is the yearning for community. After all, following Christ means living a way of life. Churches may become more open in format and less focussed on the audience vs. preacher paradigm. House churches are also on the rise. Some will abandon evangelical churches for Catholicsm or Orthodoxy. People could even move to web-based churches where “congregants” log in and out. The emerging church will also draw its share of those who had previously quit church.

As Mark Batterson is quoted as saying in this book: “Coffeeshouse are postmodern wells, and we are following in the footsteps of Jesus and meeting at wells. I have a sense that God is calling the church out of the church.” This reflects what Sam Soleyn calls the “decentering” of the Church. Mr. Soleyn has noted how this decentering process must precede the Church’s eventual “recentering”. The book “Quitting Church” is a good snapshot of the decentering work that is going on in today’s Christianity.

As Ms. Duin quotes a friend of hers saying: “The church is not like Christ”. The church needs to “decenter” to the point where it is like Christ and then it can build towards a brighter and more organic future.