Living in an age of transition

First posted in 1999, and updated in 2005

Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old, inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh, new world began.
Hauerwas and Willimon 1989:15 (see bibliography at end for details)

The world of today is caught in the crack between what was and what is emerging. This crack began opening in the 1960s and will close sometime around the year [2020]. Trusted values held for centuries are falling into this crack, never to be seen again. Ideas and methodologies that once worked no longer achieve the desired results. This crack in our history is so enormous that it is causing a metamorphosis in every area of life. Today, the fastest way to fail is to improve on yesterday’s successes.
For many churches, the most disruptive discovery of recent years has been that few of today’s teenagers were born back in the 1950s or 1960s. A new generation of teenagers arrived with the babies born in the post-1969 era. What worked well in youth ministries in the 1960s or 1970s or early 1980s no longer works. Why? One reason is those approaches to youth ministries were designed by adults for an adult dominated world in which most teenagers looked to adults for wisdom, knowledge, leadership, affirmation, expertise, authority, and guidance. That world has almost disappeared and today largely in the heads of people age twenty-eight and over.
Schowalter 1995:8

An age of transition

My grandmother was born in 1914, in East London, South Africa. When she was born she had a reasonable expectation of growing up, getting married, working, living and dieing in a world that remained largely unchanged. After all, although there had been changes in the decades before her birth, most of these took more than one person’s lifetime to work their way into society. But not now! Since about 1950, the pace of change has exponentially increased. So, to help us understand the rate of change,consider that my grandmother was born before inter-continental air flights, jet-aircraft, space travel and moon walking, before individual telephone lines, before computers, before the first commercial motor vehicle in South Africa and tarred roads, before Johannesburg got electricity, before calculators, before “the pill”, before radar, before Elvis, before calculators and ballpoint pens, before faxes, PC’s and cell phones, before photocopiers, before miniskirts and bikinis, before television, before video machines, CDs and DVDs, before satellites and before the Internet. (Yet, every Monday morning, she sends an email to her children and grandchildren, spread around the world).

Yet, it is not just these things, and the speed at which they have arrived, that separates the young from the old in the world at the beginning of the third millennium – today’s young people are separated from their elders by incredible, fundamental shifts in thinking. There is a yawning chasm between todays adults (over 30) and youth (under 30) – in virtually every country in the world. In the last 10 to 30 years major shifts in every sphere of life have fundamentally changed the world: in South Africa it is largely defined by before and after apartheid (and earlier, before and after June 16, 1976), in Germany by the fall of the wall (9 Nov 1989), in America by Vietnam and Watergate, in Britain by trade unions and the Iron Lady, in Iran by the Islamic Revolution (1979), in Portugal by the Carnation Revolution (April 1974), in Estonia by the Singing Revolution (June 1988), in Czechoslovakia the Velvet Revolution (November 1989), in New Zealand by the end of socialism (and by the Eden Park Springbok test match that sparked Maori resurgence), in China by Tianamen Square (June 1989), and everywhere by PCs and the Internet.

We are living in an age of transition, between what was (the Industrial Age) and what will be (as we work through the Information Age into the Biotechnology era we are only beginning to discover the new socio-polital-economic geography of the world). The older generations are frustrated because the young don’t seem to listen to their advice or follow their footsteps. The young are frustrated because they see no guiding light or words of wisdom applicable to the path they’re on. We are in a dangerous place at this moment of history. So, does the Bible have any assistance to give us in such an age?

Joshua in an age of transition

In fact, the age of transition and immense change in which we live is not the first such age recorded in history. Every few hundred years, similar major course corrections take place, as one era gives way to another. One such moment occurred as the era starting with Abraham and ending with Moses was completed, and a new era in the land of Canaan was begun. Joshua was a key figure in the transition period. He was with Moses as a young leader as the nation escaped Egypt and fled into the desert. He was sent as a spy into the land and returned with a favourable report which was rejected by the people. He then spent 40 years in the desert as a nomad. Imagine the enormity of this change: from peasant slave to desert nomad. Then, after Moses sinned by angrily consenting to give the people a taste of their past (water), Joshua became the warrior general, leading his army across the Jordan to Jericho and beyond in the conquest of the land. Again, another major shift from desert nomad to soldier. Then, after a few decades of war the land was conquered, and Caleb and Joshua looked to take their reward and become settlers in the land flowing with milk and honey. From slave to nomad to soldier to settler to farmer – quite a lifetime of transition.

There is much to learn from this era as recorded in Scripture. Most of the lessons come from reflecting on how the older generations were exhorted to act. At the end of his campaign, Caleb was offered any part of the land – yet he chose the rugged hills. He never felt it was time to settle down and enjoy his retirement by doing nothing and longing for the good old days. Always looking for a fresh challenge – always looking ahead to the future. That’s the key.

At the end of his life, Joshua called the people together and read the Book of the Law to them and asked them to choose to obey it (Joshua 24). The Book that was read was most likely Deuteronomy. This is not the book of daily devotions in favour these days, and we often overlook it. However, in context there is a huge lesson for us. Many of the laws in Deuteronomy were written down but not immediately applicable. For example, there are laws relating to the temple – most of which talk about the fact that the Law is only going to be applicable when the Lord had chosen the place in which I will put My Name. There are laws related to the King (the first of which was only installed about 300 years later), to priests and prophets (who only came later in the forms related in Deuteronomy) and to all manner of activities related to when you are in the land. In other words, most of the laws were not applicable to the people who first received them. The Laws were for the future, not for the present. The current leaders were simply custodians of the future, always learning, always changing, yet ever reliant on God.

In fact, in Deuteronomy 6, the Shama Israel, the daily prayer prayed even to this day by devout Jews begins with a statement of Gods eternal nature: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. It goes on to emphasize that this should be imprinted on the hearts of those who hear it. But the very next command is to pass the laws on to the children, in every possible way, in every circumstance. Deuteronomy is by no means a boring book of rules – it was the key to the future entrusted to the desert nomads, reiterated to the settlers and held in trust for the children who would become the first real citizens of the new land, and later even the subjects of the king. Deuteronomy anticipates new styles of worship (the temple), new authority structures (the king), new methods of connecting with God (priests and prophets) and new connections with God unheard of by the existing generations. It is a book for the future. God wanted to ensure that when His people entered the new land they would not continue outdated practices, structures and expressions that would make no sense when everything had changed. The role of the adults was not to preserve the past, but to ensure the future by providing laws that would only make sense in the new land.

At the end of the book of Joshua, we read about the generation of leaders who were contemporaries of Joshua – those to whom Joshua read the Law. Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel (Josh 24:31 NIV). Notice that these people had personally experienced God and served him faithfully throughout their lives – they had gone from desert nomads to soldiers to settlers to farmers in their lifetimes.

In the next book, we read about their children, the generation that followed: The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel (Judg 2:7 NIV).

This generation served the Lord, too, but notice the subtle shift in wording – they had not personally experienced God, they had seen God at work. These were the children standing on the hill overlooking the destruction of Jericho, the children who had inherited a land they had not had to fight for. And then, we read this sad description of the next generation: After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the
LORD nor what he had done for Israel (Judg 2:10 NIV).

Figurative lessons

Margaret Mead was an anthropologist, explorer and teacher, who spent most of her life studying and documenting the tribes of New Guinea. She was fascinated to see these tribes in their ancient forms, and equally intrigued to see the transformation of these tribes as they came into contact with civilisation for the first time. She was able to watch, over the course of nearly 5 decades of direct involvement, as these tribes changed rapidly through the many stages of development (not necessarily implying progress) that other nations had taken a few centuries to do. Even though some of her methods have recently been questioned, her results have proven invaluable in many generational studies in different parts of the world. In particular, her division of different cultures into three main types is helpful. She used the concept of a figurative ability (to imagine and extrapolate) to demonstrate this development. There are three stages: (1) postfigurative, (2) cofigurative, and (3) prefigurative.

A postfigurative culture is one in which change is so slow and imperceptible that grandparents, holding newborn grandchildren in their arms, cannot conceive of any other future for the children than their own past lives. The past of the adults is the future of each new generation (Mead 1970:1). Many older members of churches, although not living in postfigurative cultures, impose postfigurative methods of spiritual training. They expect their children to blindly, and unquestioningly, put on the mantle of spiritual expression that they themselves put on. This phenomenon, also observed by Mead in Polynesian and New Guinea cultures may help us to understand the rejection of the church by young people who have had a postfigurative spiritual experience that is very far removed from the world in which they live. Churches that have failed to see the contextualisation process as important will battle most with this.

A cofigurative culture is one in which the prevailing model for members of the society is the behavior of their contemporaries. In a society in which the only model was a cofigurative one, old and young alike would assume that it was natural for the behaviour of each new generation to differ from that of the preceding generation. In all cofigurative cultures the elders are still dominant in the sense that they set the style and define the limits within which cofiguration is expressed in the behaviour of the young (Mead 1970:25). Mead goes on to identify times when cofiguration will be dominant. The main cause is a substantial and sudden change in culture, such as with immigration, causing the experiences of the young to be very different from those of the old (cf. 1970:29).

As we have already seen, such changes have occurred within culture during recent decades. The fact that no major geographical migration has taken place has served only to exacerbate the problem, since people have had no reason to anticipate this cultural shift. Because no geographical migration has taken place, many older people refuse to see that a cultural migration has taken place anyway. Conflict between generations in such situations is not initiated by the adults. It does arise when the new methods of rearing children are found to be insufficient or inappropriate for the formation of a style of adulthood to which the first generation, the pioneers, had hoped their children would follow (Mead 1970:29). As Mead looked at 1960s society in America, she saw the worst of cofigurative generational tensions. Her concern was with the attitude of parents to these expectations. Simply expecting a child to behave with more of the same values that they had been raised with was not necessarily a good response to the change:

[This attitude] does not extend to a recognition that the change between generations may be of a new order. In much the same way, children in our own and many other cultures are being reared to an expectation of change within changelessness. The mere admission that the values of the young generation,
or of some group within it, may be different in kind from those of their elders is treated as a threat to whatever moral, patriotic, and religious values their parents uphold with postfigurative, unquestioning zeal or with recent, postfiguratively established, defensive loyalty. It is assumed by the adult generation that there still is general agreement about the good, the true, and the beautiful and that human nature, complete with built-in ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and acting, is essentially constant. Mead 1970:47f. (emphasis in original)

Prefigurative culture is the current dominant paradigm in the world: “We are now entering a period, new in history, in which the young are taking on new authority in their prefigurative apprehension of the still unknown future” (Mead 1970:1). Mead anticipated the prefigurative culture, identifying much of the globalised world as being cofigurative at her time of writing. Yet, she was never able to truly define what a prefigurative culture would look like possibly this is the whole point. From a cofigurative viewpoint, a prefigurative culture is incomprehensible. She did, however, accurately describe the conditions under which a prefigurative culture would arise: Today, nowhere in the world are there elders who know what the children know, no matter how remote and simple the societies are in which the children live. In the past there were always some elders who knew more than any children in terms of their experience of having grown up within a cultural system. Today there are none (1970:60f.).

In case you haven’t seen where this is going, let me be explicit. The pre-1940s generations can be equated with the postfigurative (Mead) nomads, who were forced out of the land they were born in to venture into the vast unknown, and a nomadic life of change. However, many of the better thinkers of this generation, such as CS Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, and obviously a whole host of secular philosophers, foresaw the vast changes coming with the demise of the Enlightenment Project (modernism). They began the process of pioneering a new land of thought. The leaders were Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Kant, Sartre and others who explored postmodernism well ahead of their time intellectually. It was on the basis of the exploration done by these explorers that the pioneers were able to begin to move into this land, albeit with tentative steps. And the pioneers were able to make the land their own, as postmodernism began in various forms in the 1950s.

Yet, as good and important as their efforts were, the first generation settlers, the Boomers born in the 1950s and 60s, rejected much of what they had achieved by moving to this new land. Pioneers are on a journey, knowing that they have never arrived, yet as old age sets in, knowing too that they must now set up camp and live it out in the rough new land. They often do so by trying to create fortresses for themselves. Their children, those born in the old land but with few memories of it, learn very quickly to live in the land and accept it as normal territory. However, having grown up in the fort, the children are wary of the land, and attempt to dominate it, rather than live in it and integrate with it. History shows that first generation settlers are often the most savage and driven of the generations of settlers fighting fierce and demanding battles. This is like the Boomers, who see themselves as warriors in a war, battling to survive the onslaught of this hostile new land called postmodernism.

The next generation are neither pioneers nor settlers. They are inhabitants they begin to come to peace with the new land, accepting its rugged beauty for what it is, and not feeling the need to dominate and attack it. Possibly this is because they have accepted it as their own in a way their parents and grandparents were never able to do. Speaking of the youth of her day, Mead (1970:59f.) says, in words that chillingly foresaw the struggle Xers (born in the late 1960s through 1980s) have had to deal with thus far in their lives:

The young generation, however, the articulate young rebels all around the world who are lashing out against the controls to which they are subjected, are like the first generation born into a new country. They are at home in this time. They live in a world in which events are presented to them in all their complex immediacy; they are no longer bound by the simplified linear sequences dictated by the printed word.

Although I have said they know these things, perhaps I should say that this is how they feel. Like the first generation born in a new country, they listen half-comprehendingly to their parents talk about the past. For as the children of pioneers had no access to the memories which could still move their parents
to tears, the young today cannot share their parents responses to events that deeply moved them in the past. Watching, they can see their elders are groping, that they are managing clumsily and often unsuccessfully the tasks imposed on them by the new conditions. They see that their elders are using means that are inappropriate, that their performance is poor, and the outcome very uncertain. The young do not know what must be done, but they feel that there must be a better way.

The final stage of moving from an old culture to a new one is to become a citizen of the new land. This will be left to the Millennial generation (born 1990 and later, in South Africa), followed of course by their children and grandchildren after them. They will be the first full citizens of this new land of thought. The transition we now call postmodernism will be over, and just like the wild west was tamed, so too, the Millennials will live in an ever-tamer world.

The key to understanding this is to remember that we are in an age of transition. We must understand that the rules may be different in this wild west, and the rules may only be temporary as well. We need to focus our attentions on surviving the transition and preparing the best possible future for the future citizens. This may involve, as it involved in America’s history, the setting up of a framework that future generations can hold as self-evident even if we, the people of the transition, do not do so with much confidence ourselves. This is our challenge but it cannot be achieved by a generation that is fixated with itself or with the past.

“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”
(Josh 1:6-9, NIV)


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