Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Fourth Turning: Crises of American History

Imagine a society-wide crisis; not an event observed through the comforting reassurance of Katie Couric's nightly news, but a harrowing dark night of the soul that is viscerally experienced by every citizen. Imagine a time of rationing, public calls for sacrifice, and unity in the face of daunting odds. Imagine staring down upon the assembleds hosts of Mordor ready to sweep over your castle walls and wipe your civilization out of existence.

Now, imagine such a crisis every 80-100 years. That's the thesis Strauss and Howe present. Yesterday, we talked about their view of the cyclical nature of time -- today, we look at the seasons in the cycle -- or rather, one season: winter. Just as the solar calendar cycles through a summer and a winter solstice (and a spring and autumnal equinox), so does culture go through similar seasons of growth, maturity, decay, and death.

Strauss and Howe pull a Joseph Campbell and look across cultures to rituals of "cultural renewal" -- and they see that every culture recognized in some way the cyclical nature of time. And as time passes from one cycle to the next, they recognize some dark season (like the three nights of darkness of the new moon) to help break ties with the old cycle and introduce a new age. They talk about ancient rituals of purification, chaos, and feasting that marked the transition from one cycle to the next: “In the typical new year celebration, the ancients assumed that an aboriginal god or king had once died for [the purpose of purification] and that a sacrifice (literally, a ‘making sacred’) had to be reenacted before each new circle could start.” (32) On the other side time is restarted afresh and anew and culture is revitalized.

Now, the concept here is well and good -- but as an aside I must confess wariness of their language for it seems to miss out on the once for all nature of Christ's sacrifice -- it misses out on the continual nature of Christ's ongoing work in the heavenlies (see Hebrews for more on this one). We don't approach Easter as some newfangled Day of Atonement for renewal of our culture -- rather Easter is a commemoration of a renewal that has already happened once and is available to us continually (not seasonally) by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In their quest for cultural archetypes, they miss out on what is truly unique about Christianity.

Their main point, however, is not sociology of religion, but looking at patterns of society. And this is where Strauss and Howe really have done their homework. They show chronologcially the great crises -- the winters of Anglo-American culture (which roughly happen every 80-100 years), which reshaped the foundational ways in which culture worked. After these crises, everything was different:

Wars of the Roses Crisis (1459-1487) -- Medeival feifdom-structured England is torn apart by competing houses for the throne. However England emerges from the crisis as a modern monarchial nation-state with a strong centralized administration ready to direct the course of the nation

Armada Crisis (1569-1594)-- England is a protestant Isle nearly alone in the rising tide of Spanish Catholic Hegemony. England emerges as a global superpower with an expanding world empire.

The Glorious Revolution Crisis (1675-1704) American colonies are backwaters in the empire, suffering terrible defeats by the Indians and the French, and neglected by England who is locked in a life and death struggle with Louis XIV of France for control of the world. America emerges from the crisis as a viable cosmopolitan culture, and England emerged triumphant over their rival superpower.

The American Revolution Crisis (1773-1794) The American colonies establish themselves as an independent state and successfully launch an experiment in self-government that would soon inspire revolution in the old world.

The Civil War Crisis (1860-1865) -- America begins as fractured regionally, economically, and socially. It emerges with a strong Federal government and a true sense of being a union.

The Depression and World War II Crisis (1929-1946) -- transformed the isolationist America, mired into decadence and stagnation of the roaring twenties, into a global superpower whose business and industry created an economy that was the envy of the world.

Were there other crisis moments? Certainly. Did they re-shape the structure of culture in the ways that these events did? Not at all (there is the exception of the summer-counterpart seasons -- the Awakenings -- more on those another time).

Now here is a sobering thought -- by Strauss and Howe's timeline -- we're due for another culture shaking crisis right about now. Could it be that the rise of radical Islam, combined with the threat of totalitarian regimes in North Korea and China could precipitate a new crisis? What about an oil/energy crisis? What about a bloated and ineffective beauracracy (see this great article Chris Larimer pointed me to). Could it be that post 9-11, the pace of change in our culture has accellerated to a point where our institutions are teetering on a precipice waiting to come tottering down. Will it take another Katrina, another terrorist attack? And what ought we do to prepare?

Perhaps we need to learn from what people did to weather past crises? Perhaps we need to re-learn good old fashoned spiritual disciplines (like community, simplicity, gratitude, etc.) that the church should have been teaching us all along. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this -- and I'll be sharing more as we continue to work through the book.

Soli Deo Gloria

Index to the Fourth Turning Series
First post
Concepts of Time

Supplemental Articles
Kruse Kronicle: Index on Generations
American Thinker article: "Parkinson's War" (thanks Chris Larimer)