One matter that constantly perplexes me is just how difficult it is for young Christians today to figure out dating and romantic relationships. What was quite straightforward in my day seems to have become much more complicated in these days. But as I study the cultural ethos, it begins to make sense, for in my day the cultural assumptions and the Christian assumptions were quite similar. Today, though, they are worlds apart. Paul Grimmond expresses this helpfully in his book Water for My Camels. He lays out seven features of our modern Western context that impact dating in profound ways.
Marriage is simply a social construct. In the past few decades there has been a seismic shift in society’s understanding of marriage. Once understood to have originated in the mind of God as a component of his design for humanity, marriage is now believed to be a human-created social construct (and, in many minds, one designed as a tool of oppression). “Modern Western societies have essentially rejected the idea that God created and designed marriage, and that he therefore defines what it is and what it’s for. Instead, we now take the view that marriage is a social construct. That is, it’s seen as a human institution: we invented it, and we can therefore change it to be whatever we say it is.”
Sex is just an appetite. Where sex was formerly understood to belong within the institution of marriage and to be bound inexorably to procreation and marriage’s unique relational intimacy, today it is commonly regarded as merely a biological appetite. “If you’re hungry, find something to eat. If you’re thirsty, find something to drink. If you feel sexual drive, go and do something about it. And if sex is defined as an appetite, it’s only a short step further to say that sex is virtually morally irrelevant. We feel no shame or guilt for eating when we’re hungry or drinking when we’re thirsty, so why attach any morality to any sexual practices that flow from our sexual appetites?” Sex has been downgraded from something that is exceedingly precious to something that is just a meaningless bodily function.
Sex and dating are synonymous. The assumption today is that couples who date are having sex with one another. Hence where dating was once a means to an end—marriage and the sexual relationship within it—, today it is an end in and of itself. “This fusion of sex and dating is the cultural air that we breathe. But it’s a new innovation. This is the first time in human history that a society has joined these two things together. Sure, it may have happened on a private, individual level, but it was not the cultural expectation. Today, dating but not having sex is decidedly weird.”
Smartphones are great for relationships. “It’s hard to overstate the way smartphones have changed our lives—especially the lives of teenagers and some young adults who have never known a world without them. Among all the changes that these devices have brought, the smartphone has radically changed the dating experience in ways that you cannot comprehend if you’re under the age of 25.” Couples are no longer ever separate from one another, but always bound together by their devices. This means a dating relationship is constant and follows them everywhere. Not only that, but it often takes place through a private medium and in private or intimate spaces (e.g. late at night in bedrooms). It is hard to believe that this is always, or even often, a healthy dynamic.
Pornography is just harmless fun. While pornography has always existed in one form or another, it has certainly never been as prevalent and as accepted as it is today. It would be rare today to encounter a couple for whom it has not been a significant part of at least one of their lives. This is nearly as true for Christians as for unbelievers. “This is the only world that today’s teenagers know. The vast majority of teenagers and young adults have some kind of experience with pornography. Even if, by the grace of God, you’ve avoided any form of pornography, you’ve still grown up in a world that thinks of pornography as normal, a bit of ‘harmless fun’, when it is anything but normal, harmless or fun.”
Choice is king. While Western culture is rampantly individualistic, we are unlikely to see or understand how unusual this is. Everything in our lives is a matter of choice and choice is the way in which we express our individuality. This impacts dating in a key way: “We have reached a point in history where, for most people, dating is a choice to be made independently of your social sphere; independently of your parents and your wider family.” Not only that, but our culture of individualism convinces us that we should evaluate relationships primarily through the lens of what that relationship does for me and how it makes me feel. This, of course, contrasts the biblical emphasis on looking outward to love and serve others.
If marriage doesn’t work, just end it. The era of no-fault divorce has made marriage function as a relationship of convenience that can be easily terminated when it is no longer enjoyable, no longer fulfilling, or just plain difficult. “No-fault divorce was part and parcel of a worldview that saw marriage as a human institution that the state was free to redefine. At that level, no-fault divorce represents a belief that marriage is not permanent. For most people living in the world around us, marriage is seen as something that creates stability (which is why so many couples still get married when they have children) and offers a powerful declaration of two people’s love for each other at that moment. But fundamentally, we live in a world where divorce is the solution for marriages that don’t work. Put bluntly, marriage is temporary for anyone who wants it to be temporary.”
Though these are secular ways of thinking about dating, marriage, sex, and relationships, they are so deeply ingrained in the culture that even Christians are impacted by them. They are such a part of the culture around us (and, sadly, within us) that it takes time, thought, and effort to identify and counter them—a key task for Christian leaders in the days to come.