The Fourth Turning, by Neil Howe and the late William Strauss is a book for our time Though published in 1997, this amazing volume by the authors of Generations, arguably one of the most influential sociological-demographic books to have appeared in the late twentieth century, is as popular today as when it was written. Indeed, as the West, and particularly “Anglo-America” grapples with the seemingly sudden descent into a frigid winter of unimaginable national debt, unrising unemployment, encroaching socialism and governmental oversight of our once proud industrial giants, as well as the moral and even theological quandaries that are providing little guidance to a way out, the book offers insight and predictions.
The Fourth Turning proposed that since history is cyclical, not linear, time moves in 80 to 100 year periods. Those periods are broken into the ordinary four seasons, about 20 years per season, that constitute a normal year, or cycle of history, and propel a society (the Anglo-American society is the one featured, and there are questions about whether this model is or isn’t transportable to other cultures and nations) through growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction. The book’s subtitle is that it is a prophecy. Thus, using the simple theory, borrowed from the Romans, i.e., the Saeculum, and then updated with their characteristic genius and ability to connect the dots of data to arrive at their often startling and insightfully on-target conclusions, they predicted that in about ten years, that is the time we are living in today, a new season would begin, a season of winter.
A friend mentioned this book to me recently in a conversation about “where we are in history.” I had not thought about The Fourth Turning since 1997. Then, this morning, I read Gerald F. Seib’s article in the Wall Street Journal about America’s spirit. He said that Americans, rich and poor, working class and professional class, indeed Americans across the board, are sinking into a spirit of recession. He wrote that a “stunning 39% said they expected China would be the world’s leading nation in 20 years.”
And so The Fourth Turning is here. We are entering a season of winter: a season of economic uncertainty if not catastrophe, of increasing world tension leading to a great war, of moral collapse and social unrest. As we do, other nations will take advantage of this Fourth Turning in our history. A new nation, a new kind of leader of the world will appear. Right: think China, or India (or if you prefer “a new U.S.”); think Obama (or if you prefer Palin). The four archetypes, or generations, born into each of the four seasons, play enormous roles in determining how we as generations in community live through the seasons, and live through this season.
I like the book by Howe and Strauss for more reasons than just the fact that it grabs you like a nightmare that turns out to be real. And I don’t disbelieve the polls about the increasing despair of Americans by Seib though I would like to. But I categorically reject certain premises of The Fourth Turning and I intuitively reject a spirit of pessimism about America and about our future.
No, I don’t have better data. I have a word made more sure and thus a premise that is as old as a promise made in the presence of a serpent, diabolically coiled to strike or to run, and our first mother and father, fruit still on the lips of their mouths.
First, it is important as Christians to think critically, Biblically, and Christianly about what we are hearing and seeing. We must filter the ideas, even the brilliant ideas, through the Biblical sieve that must be continually developed in our minds and connected to our hearts. Thus, as we look at The Fourth Turning, we can appreciate their grasp of the data but we need to challenge their grasp of historical theories. Is history “chaotic, cyclical or linear”? These are the categories of historical theory set forth by Howe and Strauss. In a theory that says that history is chaotic, the primitive view observed in the tooth and claw world of harsh nature, we join Howell and Strauss in repudiating such a view. While history may seem to be that way, and I am not sure but that some souls today are reverting to this pre-civilized way of thinking about our lives, history, which is the record of the world and our lives lived in the world, is not chaotic. It cannot even be documented to be chaotic. If you do not believe, as I do, that history is under the sovereign control of the God of history, then at least you would say that it repeats itself.
Most people would say that some things may be observed in history even if you cannot find meaning in it. Much could be said about that, but let’s move on to answer our question. How about the proposal that history is cyclical? It is true that God set the world in order according to seasons. The theory of history can find Scriptural support when you consider, for example, the Book of Judges. Here you find the pattern of the rejecting of God, the judgment by God, repentance of the people, forgiveness of God, and the renewal of life in the community of God’s covenant people. This pattern is clearly laid before us as a warning and as an invitation to turn to God. So, too, we can hear Jesus speak of the future and speak of “wars and rumors of wars” but the end is not yet. Jesus taught a cyclical history, one might say. If there is any one undeniable proof text for the cyclical nature of history it is that “there is nothing new under the sun.” So, one might say, history is cyclical. We can view history, learn from it and thus not repeat its mistakes. But are we nevertheless locked into a pattern of time that is outside of our own ability?
While the Bible teaches a cyclical pattern of history that in fact God set in order, the Bible also teaches a linear history. It is here where Howell and Strauss are wrong, in my opinion. They point to the emergence of Christianity in Europe as the watermark of the rise of linearism. Christianity espoused a Pauline understanding that “the old things are no more, behold all things have become new.” Christian clergy preached that a Kingdom had come, that nothing could be the same again. Christianity held that the old order of things was yielding to a new order, a spiritual order in which Jesus Christ was Lord. This time would finally give way to the cataclysmic in-breaking of the fullest expression of the Kingdom of God when Jesus Christ returned and ushered in a new heaven and a new earth. This way of thinking about history broke the mold of the older cyclical view.
The authors of The Fourth Turning even quote Augustine as saying that those who walk in circles are of the devil. Well, Augustine certainly repudiated any cyclical view of history, which could not save a wretch like him. Augustine rejected any understanding of history, which was gained through a philosophy of pagan determinism. Howe and Strauss go on to cite Martin Luther and the Reformation as the greatest surge of linear thinking there ever has been. For they utterly rejected the older order and taught, again, that all things are new. And the authors are right.
Indeed the Puritans spoke of a new age, a new way of thinking about history.They called the resurrection of Jesus Christ, “the eighth day.” Thornton Wilder is quoted in the book Lincoln Konkle wrote about him, Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition,
“The final major Puritan tenet that Wilder resurrected in the Eighth Day is the faith in progress on multiple levels of existence: the macrocosmic or metaphysical, the anthropological or social, and the microcosmic or personal. Indeed, Wilder understood and created works of literature that reflected his New England Puritan idea that ‘God’s plot is marching forward.’”
And this is a key: any understanding of Biblical history is not only cyclical, but also linear: “God’s plot is marching forward.” Jesus spoke of the impossibility of putting new wine into an old wineskin. This was not just a new season that had come, but also a radical departure from the old. Thus I part with the premise of a historical theory that says that what has happened before is bound to happen again.
Progress and newness and Bradford’s (and Reagan’) “city on a hill” is the Christian view of life and history. I would say that not only is this a Biblical way of thinking, but, in faith because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all things are made new. Lost causes may be recovered. Broken societies may be put back together. Hope springs eternal because Jesus Christ is alive. This is what the Puritans believed and this is the bedrock historical understanding of America, and I would say, of every believer in Christ who thinks Biblically about the world and about life.
The poet of the 20th Century, Czeslaw Milosz, opened the lines to his “Lecture V” and spoke out of the rubble and ruin of the wars of his century, when he announced,
“Christ has risen. Whoever believes that should not behave as we do.”
But He is risen. And the answer to Milosz’ understandable questioning is that while sin abounds, grace abounds more.
The bottom line to all of this is what as my son told me, “History is like the planets [and the universe]. The planets revolve, and the planets move. History revolves in patterns, but it is also moving, it is going somewhere.” And the universe is divinely predictable in that planets are moving in a certain order, but at the same time, the universe seems to be expanding. Time is cyclical. Time is linear.
And the outcome of that kind of thinking is to take The Fourth Turning: A Prophecy, and announce that there is a Fifth Turning: A Gospel Kingdom that forms the “wild card” within each season. The Fifth Turning is that while we are “caught” in historical patterns that are in some way reflective of a fallen world as well as a God ordained life of seasons, the resurrection of Jesus Christ has ushered in a new way of life that is leading us onward and forward to a new day. In short, with Augustine and Luther and with our American Puritan forefathers, we say that there is hope, there is always a new day. And if we are, in this time of uncertainty, of political and social chaos, of wars and rumors of wars, entering a time of historical winter, let us also affirm the truth of the Eighth Day. Let us confess the Gospel truth that there is always grace in winter.
And so I want to challenge those who read to join me in prayerfully, joyfully announcing the Gospel in the midst of this season of history. Let us reject any determinism, which would lock us into believing that, as Peter says,
“Knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’ For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the Word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:3-8 ESV).
Circular history, which denies linear advancement, must be rejected. Thus, we may be going into winter, but I still believe that there will be twigs with new green growth sprouting forth. I believe that under the frozen ground there are seeds that will germinate in winter and produce unimagined discoveries in medicine, technology, and, yes, in economics and government. I believe that sin will continue and get worse and more perverse. And I believe that grace will abound all the more. I believe that “God’s plot” is going somewhere, and that there is a new heaven and a new earth on its way. I believe in the basic and essential Christian truth that the Gospel of Jesus Christ obliterates the syllogisms of Man.
While I take exception with his theoloyg of the Word, I do believe that Barth was right in his understanding of a theology of the Nevertheless and a theology of the Therefore. My take-a-way from reading Barth on the therefore and the nevertheless is this: The “therefore of Man” says that since (A) is so, therefore (B) is so, and therefore (C) must naturally be thus and so. But this human, natural syllogism, a determinism, a “circle” that has no ending, is now given a new trajectory, indeed it is interrupted and even broken, by the presence of the God-Man who has entered time and history and transformed it by His glorious resurrection. Yes, He has restored the seasons that God created. We thus live not in the cronos of life, a Greek word for the ordinary time cycles of history, but we are blessed to live in the kairos of history, the “right time” of history, for:
“In addition to chronos, however, the Greeks also spoke of time as a moment, time as occasion, time as qualitative rather than quantitative, time as significant rather than dimensional…kairos.”
In this kairos Jesus Christ has come and interrupted the human syllogistic therefore of Man with the Nevertheless of God. For if (A) is so, therefore (B) is so, but in this kairos of Christ, this new time, this new age, this new opportunity for a new start over and over again, the Never-the-less explodes the (C) of the syllogism of Man. The Nevertheless of God has given us “a living hope.”
“’And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’” (Revelation 21:5 ESV).
Our Puritan and Pilgrim forefathers and mothers believed that, held to that newness. And their grandchildren codified at least the seminal truth of their belief. So I believe that America is based on an idea. Indeed, from a private in the US Army to the President of the United States, our leaders vow to defend, not a king or a man or even a piece of ground, but “the constitution of the United States”—an idea! This is why George Santayana, the great Harvard philosopher, poet and literary critic wrote:
“American life is a powerful solvent. It seems to neutralize every intellectual element, however tough and alien it may be, and to fuse it in the native good will, complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism.”
So as I have been thinking through where we are as a nation, thinking about the ideas in The Fourth Turning, and thinking about the truths of the implications of the Kingdom of God and how it has impacted out nation, I want to say that I believe in a Fifth Turning, a new day coming, a new spring on its way, a theological truth that will be sparked, as it has time and again, by the spiritual dynamic embedded in the idea of our nation.
I believe that freedom is that idea. I believe that freedom is in the heart of every man and woman and is placed there undeniably by Almighty God. Freedom makes the heart longs for spring. I believe that may be dormant now, in our national conscience, but it cannot stay that way for long. The greatest trigger that sends us into any cyclical winter is to deny that freedom, and the greatest trigger to thaw the icy grip of such a season is to embrace that freedom, through a spiritual renewal of God’s people, and from there, a genuine revival from on high that will come to others. I believe that a new spring is coming, and though it comes through prayer and brokenness and contriteness, and a calling out for God, that spirit that leads to the new spring is ultimately under the sovereign hand of the God of history. In short, I am optimistic. I am an American. I am a Christian. I am not saying they are one in the same. But I am saying that one idea springs from the other.
I rejoice in all of the seasons of life, and of history, and even am grateful to be alive during the one we are in. I want to learn from the seasons of history. But I am not locked down into them pre determined, as in some pagan religion, to never escape. The ancient circle has been broken. Christ is risen. And nothing can ever be the same again. Every turn, every cycle, every season, is a season of His grace available to us to start again, until He comes. And thus Isaac Watts wrote and we sing, through the winter, until by faith we see a green sprig of new life coming up through the frozen ground:
Mighty Redeemer! Set me free From my old state of sin; O make my soul alive to thee, Create new powers within.
Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas Forsyth Torrance. Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957.
Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Milosz, Czeslaw. The Collected Poems, 1931-1987. 1st ed. New York: Ecco Press, 1988.
Reardon, Fr. Patrick. “Chronos and Kairos.” Orthodoxy Today.org (2005).
Santayana, George. Character & Opinion in the United States, with Reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and Academic Life in America. New York,: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1920.
Seib, Gerald F. “Us Hurting in Wallet and in Spirit.” The Wall Street Journal2009.
Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. Generations : The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069. New York: Morrow, 1990.
________. The Fourth Turning : An American Prophecy. 1st ed. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
 William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning : An American Prophecy, 1st ed. (New York: Broadway Books, 1997).
 William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations : The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069 (New York: Morrow, 1990).
 Simply typing in “The Fourth Turning” with quotations, into Google, returned 308,000 pages as of this date (December 19, 2009). http://www.fourthturning.com/ has provided not only a home page for the authors of the book, but a way for readers to also interact with the claims of the book.
 The four “turnings” of the seasons
 Gerald F. Seib, “Us Hurting in Wallet and in Spirit,” The Wall Street Journal 2009.
 Heroes are born as crisis emerges. Artists are the children of the crisis. Prophets grow up in post-crisis days and mature into a time of social upheaval. The Nomads, Howe and Strauss, described as those who grow up under the influence of the Prophets, and seek to find normalcy in the mist of the storms. Again, the theories are expounded in greater detail concerning the generations in Generations.
 “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15 English Standard Version, ESV).
 I tend to believe in the quote attributed to Einstein: “the levels of intelligence are ‘smart, intelligent, brilliant, genius, simple!’” See http://alberteinstein.worldhistoryblogs.com/2007/03/25/ipod-iphone-i-crash-multitaskers-stop-reading-in-traffic/
 “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years’” (Genesis 1:14 ESV).
 “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6, King James Version).
 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-9 ESV).
 Lincoln Konkle, Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006).
 “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17 ESV).
 Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems, 1931-1987, 1st ed. (New York: Ecco Press, 1988).
 See Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas Forsyth Torrance, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), Volume 3, Part 3, 44.
 See Fr. Patrick Reardon, “Chronos and Kairos,” Orthodoxy Today.org (2005).
 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3 ESV).
 George Santayana, Character & Opinion in the United States, with Reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and Academic Life in America (New York,: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1920).
 Isaac Watts, “Hymn Number 130,” The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts
with all the additional hymns and complete indexes (located at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/watts/psalmshymns.i.html).
© 2009 by Michael A. Milton.
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