A terrifying event quickly approaches. It’s called the Ninth Grade Relationship Retreat. One part of my job description requires me to lead a weekend retreat for our ninth grade confirmation students in which we discuss love, dating, and healthy sexual boundaries. I told this to my four adult children (ages 18-25). They spontaneously and unanimously burst out laughing.
I am a shy and private person when it comes to my body. I’m very open about my feelings (to a point), but I don’t like talking about sexuality with my wife, let alone a room full of ninth graders that I barely know.
This stems both from my personality and from my religious upbringing. I grew up in fundamentalist culture where sex was something dirty that no body talked about. We all imagined that our conception happened through a miraculous intervention. We were taught that only “those kind of kids” think about sex. We knew that we weren’t supposed to have sex until we were married and ready to make a baby.
I won’t lie. This was not the best way to grow up and develop a healthy sexuality. Once I and my friend group hit puberty it was a difficult journey. Some went off the deep end and experimented heavily, and were shunned. Most of us simply struggled internally, in isolation, with the raging hormones that suddenly coursed through our bodies.
My wife and I married young and had babies quickly. We were fortunate to get involved in a church that was more open to talking about healthy sexuality in marriage. Couples small groups and a vibrant parenting ministry helped us navigate our marriage and physical relationship.
Yet, I remain very shy and private about these things.
The retreat happens soon.
I write this blog post for two reasons. First, I ask for prayer that those of us leading will be empowered with God’s grace and wisdom to create a safe space for our students to ask their questions and learn a healthy, Christ-centered sexual ethic for their adolescent years.
Second, I woke early this morning with an image in my mind. I got up at 5:00am and drew it. Now I would like to walk through it. This may be one of my opening presentations to the students, after I confess what I said at the beginning of this post.
Here’s the image:
First, let’s define some terms.
This chart talks about how radically society has changed from the Traditional Era to the current, Modern Era.
- Traditional Era. This covers a span of time that begins at the dawn of human civilization and officially ends in the 1500s. Many pockets of Traditional Culture still persist throughout the world.
- The Modern Era. This is the time from the late 1400s to our present moment. The transition was slow at first. The current statements on the chart have come into full force just within the past thirty years. Some argue that the current issues are actually post-modern. They are definitely late-modern. The term modern will suffice for this conversation.
- Between and Liminal. To be between is to stand in the middle ground with one extreme on either side. Liminal literally means threshold. It is a term used by anthropologists and sociologists to describe a moment when an individual or a group is between one phase of life and another. They are on the threshold of becoming something new, but are not quite there yet.
The purpose of this essay is to notice how our liminal spaces have radically expanded in the Modern Era from what they were in the Traditional Era. The Modern, Suburban, Middle Class Teenager is in a liminal space that is uncharted territory for most of us. It is important to name this situation before we attempt to construct a Biblical Ethic.
The Four Areas
This chart will compare how four topics were viewed in the Traditional Era versus how they are viewed in the Modern Era. The areas are Bodies, Relationships, Class, and Location.
There are two sub categories under bodies.
The first is adulthood. The second is gender.
The transition from childhood to adulthood was fairly simple in the Traditional Era. The typical human’s body reached puberty and changed from the fairly androgenous child body to the mature adult body that is able to sexually reproduce. This change happens over a course of a few months and typically happens between ages 11-13.
Most Traditional cultures had two main categories for all humans. You were either a child or an adult. When the body began to biologically transform from child to adult, the culture would take the child through a ritual process. This is often called a rite of passage. Sociologists call it liminal space. It is the time between being a child and an adult.
The length of time for this liminal space varied from culture to culture. The rituals were often associated with the culturally constructed gender roles. Boys were often taken out into the woods for a weekend, forced to perform some sort of heroic act, and then brought back into the village as a man. Girls were similarly taught the roles of women in the village.
The rite of passage, while it varied in length, was a momentary space between being fully a child and fully an adult. Once the new adult entered the village, it was time to marry, reproduce, and participate fully in society.
In other words, there was no adolescence. When the body was ready for sex, society was ready for the individual to be sexually active in marriage.
The Modern Era has created a strange human experience. The complexity of our society requires a vast amount of education and monetary stability in order to be a full adult. An individual must complete Middle School, High School, College, and often a Masters Degree in order to have any chance to get a job that will provide enough income to support the lifestyle in which they were raised.
The time it takes to get to from childhood to this tipping point in education and income is increasing with each generation. The first generation of the Twentieth Century experienced an adolescence that lasted from puberty to around age 18. Most individuals graduated from high school, got married, and entered the work force.
Now, the age at which most individuals are able to successfully enter the work force and live on their own ranges from 26-29.
Think about that for a moment in regard to sexuality. The time between puberty and marriageability is now up to 15 years! It is no wonder there is an outbreak of sexual activity among young adults.
We must define two more terms in this section: sex and gender. Sex is the biological classification of male and female. The sex is determined by the presence of male or female genitalia. Gender, on the other hand, is a socially constructed set of roles and expectations for the male and the female.
There was no distinction between sex and gender in the Traditional Era. Culture dictated what men and women could and could not do within society. There was man’s work and woman’s work. A boy grows up to be a man and a girl grows up to be a woman.
One of the complexities of the Modern Era is the increasing exposure to and interaction with differing cultures. If gender is culturally constructed, then the more cultures with which an individual interacts, the more messages of what a particular gender can and cannot do the individual hears. The combination of our increasingly globalized and pluralistic society with the elongation of the adolescent years has created a new fluidity and liminal space between both categories of sex and gender.
To state it simply, it is no longer culturally universal to expect that boys don’t cry or girls don’t use power tools. The traditional gender roles within each particular society are now being more determined by the individual’s personality traits and psychological composition than simply by the sex.
For example, a young man may have a sensitive spirit, show great empathy for others, enjoy drawing and painting and cooking, and be more interested in theater than sports. The Traditional gender role for males would not tolerate this boy and reject him as a “sissy” or “gay.”
A girl who enjoys rough and tumble sports, despises makeup, thinks practically, logically, and strategically, and shows dominate leadership traits does not fit within the Traditional gender role. The Traditional gender role for females would consider this girl a “Tom-boy” or “not lady-like.”
The fluidity and liminality of sex and gender is both a liberating moment for human society and an incredibly confusing one. Most individuals who are currently in the “adult” category have no lived experience with this liminal space and are often threatened by it.
The Traditional view of male/female relationships was simple. When the child became an adult, he or she was given in marriage to a person of the opposite sex. Most marriages in the Traditional Era were arranged by the families as a legal contract that created stable political and economic bonds between them.
Love, therefore, was not a prerequisite for marriage or sexual intercourse. Marriage was an obligation and making children was an expectation of marriage. The child mortality rate was extremely high, so birth control was never an issue. The village needed healthy adults and the marriage union and subsequent family structure was the environment in which to raise them. Love was the by-product of the covenant of marriage.
Two significant changes happened in the Modern Era that have dramatically altered our perception of love and marriage. First, the value of individual freedom to choose became elevated above the need of the community to dictate an individual’s behavior. “You can’t tell me what to do,” became the mantra of the Modern individual.
Second, the emergence of the Romantic Era (the philosophical movement) shifted the source of truth from the objective reality that is “out there” and observable, to the lived experience that is “in here” and the personal expression of the individual. As a result, truth is known by how I feel about something. Therefore, the notion of love became centered in our personal emotion.
The Traditional individual said, “I’m married to you, so I will learn to love you.”
The Modern individual says, “I have strong feelings for you, so I must be in love with you.”
The Traditional person grows into love.
The Modern person falls in love.
The Modern mindset views the person as a radical individual who has the freedom to choose any path he or she desires and is on a quest to find the person with whom they can have the right feelings with and then, perhaps get married.
The Traditional Era had two classes of people. The first class was the wealthy elite. This was a small percentage of the population who had all the resources and all the power. Most cultures viewed this station in life as a gift from God and a divine right to rule.
Everyone else in society lived to support the elite. They were the poor masses who worked the farms and supplied the elite with all of their needs. There was no possibility to change class. There was no liminal space between classes. You were either rich or poor.
The Modern Era saw the growth of the Middle Class. These are people who are not necessarily wealthy, but have created an economic system that is built upon hard work and trade. The middle class has evolved and become stratified to the lower, middle, and upper middle class.
The ideal of the United States, known as the American Dream, is that anyone who gets the right education and works hard enough can move up the social class scale. The most powerful stories are those where a person works him or herself out of poverty, through the middle class and lands in the category of the rich.
In light of this conversation, however, the Middle Class is a liminal space. The Middle Class brings with it the expectation to continually look for ways to move up the scale. The American Dream is to be rich and famous. We are not “there yet” until that happens.
The Traditional Era had two locations. You either lived in the city or in the country. Cities were small but crowded, walled-in structures. The city typically served as a fortress to protect the elite and the precious resources of the society. The country folk farmed and mined the natural resources to supply the needs of the city. The location of cities were dictated by transportation technology, requiring access to waterways and roads.
The Modern Era, with the development of transportation technology, combined with the Middle Class drive to move up the social class ladder, gave birth to a liminal space called the suburb. The suburb was given birth by the auto-mobile. The word auto means self. Once an individual could own an automobile he or she was no longer limited by public transportation. Once the interstate system was built, the middle class person could work in the city and live out in the country and have a mini-estate. The 1950s, 60s, and 70s saw a mass migration of predominantly white, middle class people moving out of the urban centers and owning plots of land in the suburbs.
These suburbs were built with one single assumption. Everyone who lives here owns a car. Shopping centers were built in one location, schools were built in another location, and housing tracts were built in still another location. The only way to get anywhere in the suburbs is to drive.
Suburbanites are in a liminal space. We are always moving. We are moving up the social class scale, always looking for the better job, the better house, the better car, the better cabin, the better child. We are always moving in our cars: driving to work, driving to the store, driving to entertainment, driving children to a myriad of activities, and, perhaps, driving to church, if it fits into the schedule. We never arrive.
How did this happen?
How did society shift from the Traditional Era to the Modern Era? The answer to that question is complex, and scholars don’t all agree. It is important to dwell deeply in the “why” question. However, that is too broad for this already-too-long blog post.
How does this connect to the Relationship Retreat?
I started this post talking about how intimidated I am about leading the relationship retreat. Part of my anxiety stems from the fact that most of the sexual ethics in which I was raised were formed in the Traditional Era and made lots of sense in that world.
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. That scares me. I am a Traditional Man who has a PhD in Modern/Postmodern theology. I understand this chart with my mind, but I don’t understand it with the core of my DNA.
My sexual ethic says, “Don’t have sex until you’re married. End of discussion.” I still think that’s the best path. But our kids deserve a more thoughtful approach than that.
I want to end this post by bringing this all together and attempting to describe the liminal space in which our teenagers find themselves.
Our ninth grade confirmation students are early adolescent, middle class, suburbanites who live in a society that tells them, “You are the master of your own destiny. If you feel it, it’s true. If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be, because you deserve it.”
They have most likely already biologically shifted from child to adult. Their bodies are ready for sexual activity, but they have at least ten more years until they will be ready to marry. This liminal space seems like an eternity for the hormonal body.
They live in a middle class world where they have enough money to have access to more information than any generation that has ever lived…combined…in the palm of their hand. They feel pressure to be involved in as many activities as possible in order to achieve as many merits as possible so that they can get scholarships to go to the college they want so they can be assured to get a job that will allow them to sustain their upwardly mobile suburban lifestyle and move further up the ladder than their parents (I hope that sentence made you tired).
They live in a suburban world where, most likely, both parents work and they have to be driven anywhere they want to go. That means parents are either a perpetual taxi service, constantly moving from one event to another, or the hormonal teen is left alone for long periods of time with access to internet and various mature media.
In other words, it is very challenging to be an adolescent, middle-class, suburbanite. Additionally, the story of the Bible seems to be a still small voice in a very loud culture that screams a different song.
My Challenge and My Prayer
I am a new pastor at this church. This ninth grade class does not know me, and I don’t know them. My prayer is that we can create a safe space at this weekend retreat in which we can learn to trust each other. My prayer for this group is the prayer of my life verse:
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)