What Defines a Generation?

Michael Metzger

Jean Twenge has written an important book on the differences between America’s five most recent generations. But she overlooks what has defined all generations since Genesis.

I’ve enjoy Dr. Jean Twenge’s books on generations, including iGen and Generation Me. She’s also written many fine articles, including Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? So I was eager to read her latest book, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents―and What They Mean for America’s Future.

It’s worth reading. Twenge makes an important point: changes in technology, beginning with the Silents (born 1925-1945), are the underlying driver of each subsequent generation’s unique makeup. But she overlooks how one technological change in the 1930s undermined what defined all generations since Genesis.

What’s that definition? A husband and wife generating a child through sexual intercourse. That’s how Genesis defines the first ten generations of humankind: “he went in to her” (Gen.29:2330:438:218). He, a male husband, penetrated her, his female wife. This begins a new generation, as the word genesis means beginning. It’s related to a family of words including generating, gender and genitals. This definition of generations makes only male-female nuptial union legit, calling for self-control and abstinence from other unions.

This was a seismic shock in the Roman world of the apostle Paul’s day. It was assumed that complete self-control was impossible. Men and women were incapable of abstaining from sexual impulses. “Any man in power had to right to exploit his inferiors to use the orifices of a slave or a prostitute to relieve his needs such as he might a urinal.”[1] Men slept with men, boys, women. Women slept with women and men. Self-control was too difficult.

Self-control is difficult, to be sure. The Church has long recognized this. Yet it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Self-control assumes human beings are capable of complete abstinence. Even Tom Holland, an atheist, recognizes this. He credits the Church with remaking the world by insisting that sex outside of male-female marriage “obscenely parodied the natural order of things,” recognizing that the idea of male-female nuptial union “was a purely Christian one.”[2] Self-control was possible for all since we’re all made in God’s image.

All Christian denominations affirmed this purely Christian notion until 1930, when the Anglican Communion permitted the use of contraceptives. The term contraception means against life (contra = against; ceptio = conceiving, i.e., life). This decision was based on the assumption that “complete abstinence” is not always possible. When self-control is not possible, a contraceptive technology becomes necessary to prevent pregnancy.

This might seem like one small step for man, but it’s one giant leap backward for humankind. Which is why Twenge gets it right about technologies defining recent generations. Contraceptives were first permitted in 1930, five years into the “Silents” Generation (born 1925-1945). Sure enough, most every Protestant tradition today permits the use of contraceptive technologies. With the debut of The Pill (1961), self-control became archaic and absurd. Today, most Americans use contraceptive technologies. It’s a given.

It shouldn’t be, for if we can be against life before conception, why can’t we be against life after conception (pro-abortion)? Technologies like the morning-after pill have aided and abetted in this. In fact, the entire family of words based in genesis, including gender, is coming undone. Technologies aid and abet young men and women who seek to define their own gender, including electing to have doctors surgically remove their genitals. It’s madness.

Which is why I’m drawn to Paul Kingsnorth’s series: The West Must Die: Beyond the Revolution. He writes that we are living through a revolution called modernity. “The ultimate project of modernity, I have come believe, is to replace [human] nature with technology.” C. S. Lewis called technology “The Machine.” So does Kingsnorth. “The Machine is the nexus of power, wealth, ideology and technology that has emerged to make this happen.”

The Machine blinds us (The Matrix got that right). My wife Kathy and I are Exhibit A. We used contraceptives. As Protestant Evangelicals, no one ever suggested to us that birth control was even an issue. It was a given. We were blind to how, less than 100 years ago, every Christian tradition promoted natural family planning. We didn’t know that even leaders outside the faith like Mahatma Gandhi insisted that the only appropriate birth-control was self-control.[3] We were duped by contraceptive technologies, driving how we imagined the generating of generations of children, proving Jean Twenge’s thesis.

The good news is the gospel is about love and grace. Grace means you don’t have to get it all right. Kathy and I didn’t. Nor did the early Christians in Thessalonica. They got off to a rocky start, later becoming a model of faith, yet Paul sought to visit them “to remedy the deficiencies of your faith” (I Thess.3:10). Kathy and I had deficiencies, as does every Christian. If we had to do it over, I hope we’d opt for natural family planning. You might also, considering how the “purely Christian” notion that self-control and abstinence are actually possible rocked the Roman world. It could rock today’s world as well.


[1] Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (Basic Books, 2019), 279, 288.

[2] Tom Holland, Dominion, 289.

[3] Mahatma Gandhi, India of My Dreams, (Rajpal & Sons, 2009), 219-20.


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One Comment

  1. When Dr. John H. Gerstner (former faculty at Pittsburgh Seminary) was theologian-in-residence at Easminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas, he stated publicly his (and his wife’s) opposition to contraceptives for exactly the reasons you give. Needless to say, his was the minority view. It seemed retrograde at the time, and still does. But I think he (and you) had a point.

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