Wednesday, June 1, 2022
It's Wednesday, June 1st, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Who is and is Not an Adult? How Can You Tell? Evaluating Our Contemporary Confusion over the Definition of Adulthood
We have to use certain words in our cultural vocabulary, in our everyday speech if we're going to make sense, and among those words are child and adult. And we use them as if we actually mean something. But often, we need to step back and ask the question, "Exactly who do we believe is a child? When does a child become an adult? What kind of middle or transformative phase is between childhood and adulthood? Why does it all matter?" There are a lot of issues for us to consider here, but the reason we're talking about this issue today on The Briefing is because of an argument that came up about proposed gun control in the wake of recent mass shootings. Ruth Marcus, who's the deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post, recently ran an article with a headline, "Why do we let children buy firearms?"
Children. Well, in this case, we're talking about older teenagers. We're talking about the fact that these two young men, one in Uvalde, Texas, the other in Buffalo, New York, were able to get these weapons and to use them with such murderous intent and with such murderous effect. The clear implication of asking this question, "Why do we let children buy firearms," is to shock the reader, to shock the reader into the instant recognition that no sane society would do any such thing. Now, the issue today I'm going to talk about on The Briefing is not particularly gun control, although that's a part of this conversation as we think about age and who should be allowed to gain access to what. But the bigger issue here is a society that's just confused over the definition of child and the definition of adult.
And I'll simply point out that I'm going to get to this point, I'm just going to give you an advanced word. Here's the point I'm going to get to. We have certain people who say that children, that is someone who's 18 years old in this case, shouldn't be allowed to have access to this kind of weapon. But in some cases, they turn out to be the very same people who are insisting that children that age and much younger should have the right to undergo gender transition. It's a very complex situation, it shows a deep degree of cultural confusion. At least a part of our Christian responsibility is to try to unconfuse what the society is intent upon confusing all around us. As Christians think about this, there's some really big issues for us to consider. How do we define a child? How do we define an adult? How do we define the in-between?
That's the use of the term adolescence, and we often refer to young people in that period of life primarily as teenagers. But then again, we often discuss adolescence beginning before the teens. We're talking about 11, 12, as well as 13-year-olds in what we would define as, at least, early adolescence. But we also talk about the fact that 18-year-olds in the United States, at least for some reasons in most jurisdictions, are considered legal adults. How exactly do we get there? But we're looking at a deep confusion. Now, what I will discuss at the end of the segment of The Briefing is the fact that the primary biblical way of understanding the difference between a child and an adult is not just years, although the years are not unimportant. Rather, it is functional responsibility and the ability and the determination to fulfill a certain adult responsibility along with demonstrating adult character.
But we're not there yet, we're looking at the contemporary confusion. Ruth Marcus begins her article by asking, "Why do we let children buy guns?" She says, "They can't purchase alcohol or cigarettes in this country until age 21. But deadly weapons, under federal law, you need to wait until 21 to get a handgun, although there are easy ways around that restriction. If you're 18 and want a semi-automatic assault rifle, no problem, except for a handful of states with stricter rules, and those are being challenged in court as unconstitutional." Well, once you've read that far, you pretty much understand her argument. By federal law, you can't legally buy a handgun until you're 21. You can buy a long gun, a rifle or, in this case, what is described as a semi-automatic assault rifle. You can buy that weapon, at least according to federal law, when you are 18.
Now, Ruth Marcus is suggesting that that's insane. But in order to make that point, she actually asked in the headline and in the opening sentence of her article, "Why do we let children buy guns?" Now, why would she use the word children? As I say, it's primarily just shock, but it's also to make a serious moral point that we ought to note. We now know a great deal more about the development of young brains than could have been known at any previous time. For one thing, we have the technological ability to look at brain scans and understand the actual physical and physiological, neurological development of the brain. We understand the immaturity, what's called the prefrontal cortex when it comes to young people. We understand that only at some point in the 20s does that particular part of the brain reach a certain level of development.
And until then, especially among young males, there is a tendency towards what can only be described as irresponsible, risky behavior. Different parts of the brain function in different ways, and different people have brains that function in different ways. But in the developing brain of a young person, there is the development of certain capacities to rightly understand and evaluate risk, and those are missing until they develop at some point in young adulthood. And that explains a great deal about teenage behavior. Another part of the teenage brain is that it tends to run very hot or very cold, if you know what I mean, and teenage emotional states are at least partly explained because of this. The lows are too low and, for that matter, the highs are too high. Part of being an adult is having a functioning understanding of the relative importance of things, able to put things in their proper context.
And we frankly understand that that is one of the necessary skills that marks adulthood. And frankly, we don't expect that kind of emotional mastery when you're talking to a six-year-old. We do expect more emotional mastery from a 16-year-old. But on the other hand, there's a reason why no major American corporation has a 16-year-old chief executive officer. This particular question, however, points not only to the necessity of any society, finding a way to make its children move along a path to adulthood and taking on adult responsibilities. We also need to note that that needs to happen basically on time because we look at a society, well, like our own right now, which you have so many people in their 20s who are functionally living the way teenagers lived in times past. We come to understand we're a society that simply is revealing a great deal of confusion on these questions.
But let's ask the question legally, "Who is and is not an adult?" Well, ask yourself that question in the United States and you're likely to say the age of adulthood, the age of majority, that's the legal term, is 18. Is that true or false? So at the federal level, that is true. But it might surprise some people to know that that's not true at the state level in all 50 states. Most states in the United States look to 18, the 18th birthday, as reaching the age of majority, being legally an adult. However, there are states that turn to another age. In Alabama and in Nebraska, it is age 19. In Mississippi and in the US territory of Puerto Rico, it is 21. The age of majority is the age at which an individual, a citizen is understood to be an adult and the age at which parental authority, in legal terms as the ultimate and proximate authority, comes to an end.
So an 18-year-old is held to be legally responsible in a way that a 17-and-a-half-year-old is not usually found to be equally responsible. Parents have a different role to play, even in the life of a young person who's 17 and a half, that legally, in most jurisdictions, goes away the moment that young person turns 18. And yet, in our society, 18 does not really constitute independence nor full adulthood. There are very few 18-year-olds who are married, fully employed, living on their own, owning their own home. No, all of that comes in the eventual and progressive acquisition of the status of adulthood and the responsibilities of adulthood. But you have to have some point in every society at which you say, at least in legal terms, "A child on that side of the line, an adult on the other side of the line." It is very interesting to note that right now, in the year 2022, around the world, actually the vast majority of nations set that age at 18. It is overwhelming, not only in terms of the number of countries but also the percentage of the world's population included in those nations.
But there are some exceptions, some nations have adulthood set as high as 21. Scotland, for example, as young as 16. But even if in the United States it's age 18 that comes first to mind, a little bit of difference state by state, the reality is that the states also, as well as the federal government, have to back off of that arbitrary age at some point. For example, in most states, a murder charge brought against a young person who is a teenager can actually come with a stipulation that the defendant is going to be tried as an adult in adult courts. If you're wondering how in the United States that age was set at 18, well, there's a little story there, a little history that is actually quite interesting. The 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect in the year 1971, so we're talking about just over 50 years ago.
Why was that age 18 set then, and what exactly was set? Well, what was set in the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution was the fact that 18-year-olds would qualify to vote, 18. Previously, it had been 21. So if you were to ask most people in the United States, "At what age does a young person become an adult," arguably during the 1960s and before that, people would've said 21, which was the age at which most people could vote previous to the 26th Amendment. But after the 26th Amendment, the answer would've been 18. But why, why was the age at which one is allowed to vote in the United States, at the federal level, why was it lowered from 21 to 18? Well, the answer is the military draft. The answer comes down to the fact that 18-year-olds could be drafted. And if they could be drafted and sent into battle by the United States Military, the argument came, well, then they are certainly old enough to have the right to vote.
And that was a legally compelling, morally compelling argument that was sufficient for Congress to send the issue to the states and a sufficient super majority of the states to similarly ratify the amendment. And it went into effect, as I said, in 1971. But does that clarify everything? No, of course it doesn't. Let me confuse it a bit further. In the United States, there are two different legal issues that go on here, one is the age of majority. Again, in most places, that's 18. But the other is the age of licensure or the age of license, as some people will call it. And that means that there are certain rights and privileges and functions in society that we set by age, some lower than 18, some higher. What's lower than 18? Well, in most states, the right to drive. 16-year-olds can get a driver's license in many jurisdictions, but they can't vote, not for another two years.
There are those who are arguing on behalf... They argue of young people everywhere that 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote if they're allowed to drive. But you could also look at the opposite argument, they shouldn't be allowed to drive until they are allowed to vote. The point is you could argue that either way. But at least in terms of our law right now, you have an age of license, which is 16, and you have an age of majority, which is 18. What about the right to buy alcohol? In all 50 states right now that is limited to young people only after they have a 21st birthday.
And so you look at that and you say, "Well, we just said that the age of majority at which one becomes an adult, can be held to adult responsibilities, can sign contracts as an adult, can get married as an adult, can vote as an adult, that age is 18. Except, well, we're going to make it a little earlier if you're charged with certain kinds of crimes. We're going to make it a little earlier if you can pass the test and drive a vehicle. We're going to make it later when it comes to alcohol."
My point is this, we are a confused society. Well, you say, "Where do Christians turn? For example, what is the wisdom of the past on this?" The wisdom on the past is there actually was no stable age, no specific arbitrary age in the double digits or, for that matter, even before in most of Western civilization. But nonetheless, you still, at least community by community and, eventually, nation by nation, had laws that began to set the age of majority. But even as you have now a difference between the age of majority and the age of license for certain kinds of responsibilities, the same thing was also true in the ancient world and in the medieval world, even in the early modern world. The age of consent at marriage was often lower than the age of majority, which meant you could actually have people who were still legally defined as children who were nonetheless wedded to each other.
Something else we need to think about is that certain issues, especially when it comes to the age of license or licensure, should have our attention because we basically don't want anyone doing those things. But nonetheless, they are considered to be a matter of, at least to some extent, adult choice where you wouldn't say the same thing for someone who had not reached the age of majority. But we're also looking at the fact that as you think about the debates in our contemporary world, I just want to go back to that very basic confusion in which you could have someone like Ruth Marcus opening her article by saying, "Why do we let children buy guns," and yet the same newspaper runs articles over and over again, enthusiastic about teenagers and children when it comes to the LGBTQ revolution.
Now, arguably, let's just think about this for a moment, when you're thinking about some of the issues in the age of licensure, you are looking at something that's a little less significant, certainly when it comes to, say, looking at extending a driver's license that when you're talking about extending what's considered to be an adult right to determine what gender or sex you are. And just think about all that then follows in terms of hormonal or even surgical interventions. But my point is this, once again, Christians have to come back and say, "We don't believe that that is actually a right context at any age. We don't believe that that's something up for just individual choice or ratification or affirmation at any age."
But I do find it to be quite perplexing that when it comes to this issue of gun control, and that's not even what we're arguing here, there are people who say it about an 18-year-old, that's a child, and yet they have been arguing for years that that same adolescent, young adult, however you want to define them, should have the right to identify as someone opposite from the birth sex and have medical treatment, sociological treatment, treatment in the public schools and in the public arena that goes hand in hand with that self-affirmation. What kind of sense does this make?
‘When I Became a Man, I Put Away Childish Things’: The Biblical Concept of Adulthood
But this is one of those issues that I wanted us to discuss and think about in intellectually honest terms. But we also need to come back and say, "Well, what does the scripture say?" Well, I think about a passage like 1 Corinthians 15. The Apostle Paul in that famous chapter on love says, beginning of verse 11, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things." Well, that's the progression that the Bible sets out. And by the way, it is ratified not only in the Bible and not only in just about every society on planet Earth, it's also ratified or demonstrated by the development of the human being. Even physically, there is a marked distinction between the child and the adult, and there is a biological phase in which that transformation is taking place.
But the Bible, as it speaks of the child and the man, is speaking more of the intellect here, of the rational ability, of reasoning as a child, that's what the Apostle Paul is talking about, versus reasoning as an adult. Does the adult know more than the child? Yes, but most important for the acquisition of adulthood is adult reasoning, responsible adult reasoning. By the way, it also comes down to speech. "When I was a child," Paul said, "I spoke as a child. But now, I am a man." The other thing we see in the Bible is that adulthood is measured by functionality. There are functions. Adults show up, fulfilling those functions in scripture. To be a man, to be a woman, to be a husband, to be a wife, to be a father, to be a mother, you'll notice that those are not just nouns, they are functions.
And the biblical worldview is established upon the successful acquisition of the maturity, the character, the knowledge, the wisdom to fulfill those functions. I hope it was helpful just for Christians to think through these issues, but we are a society that's confused at the most fundamental level because we are a society in which, clearly, something is broken in our process of assisting children to become functional adults. A part of the problem might be that in contemporary entertainment, we tell adults to act like, talk like, and laugh like children. On the other hand, we sometimes now put on children what can only be described as responsibilities from which they should be protected, choices, questions they should be protected from having to answer, much less even be asked. I'll simply end by saying that as we think about biblical wisdom, the Christian worldview, and our Christian responsibility, it comes down to understanding the difference between a child and an adult, between a boy, and yes, that is an essential term, and a man, another essential term.
Two more essential terms, girl and woman. And between that young man, young woman, we know that there's a transitional period. But the problem is that in our society, we have elongated that transitional period so long that many people, regardless of the number of birthdays they have had, have not emerged from childhood or adolescence into anything that can be rightly described as adulthood. That's not the entirety of our problem, but I think we do have to understand it is a huge part of our contemporary problem.
Wall Street Journal Feature Argues for the Strategic Use of A Curse Word or Two to Increase the Strength of Your Online Reviews — But How About the Moral Use of Words?
But next, while we're thinking about words, let's talk about a different category of words, bad words, profane words, swear words, dirty words. We're talking about that because of a recent article that ran just in yesterday's print edition to the Wall Street Journal.
That's right, the Wall Street Journal. We're talking about bad words in the Wall Street Journal? Yes, because in a special section of the Wall Street Journal published yesterday about customers and customer service, we find an article, "Why you should swear in online reviews." A very interesting article. Here, you have one of the most influential newspapers in the world saying, "If you want to understand how to be an expert in customer experience, maybe you need to use bad words." The article is by a pair of psychologists who write about the reviews that customers write online, and the suggestion is that someone went into a cafe, really liked the gelato and decided to say so online, and said that they found that the gelato was, I'm not going to use the word, then, "You post the review and then pause for a second. Should you have used a swear word, should you have used a different word? What will readers think of you?"
And then we are told, "Most people can relate to this experience based on our research and the research of others. We estimate that about 8% of Twitter posts and Yelp reviews contain at least one swear word." They then ask, "Are swear words really necessary to make a point about a product or service?" They go on to say, "Well, arguably, yes." They use statistics in order to say, "If you want to get a certain amount of attention, you want to have a certain kind of impact in your online statements, well, a dirty word here or there just might go a long way in amplifying your influence." I raise this today not to praise this advice but to condemn it, but also to suggest we're a society that's pretty well described by this article. That's the interesting thing. It's not so much what this tells us about online reviews and online behavior, it's about what gets attention in this world today.
Now, that just points to something else that Christians understand. Most Christian parents say this at some point to their children, "The reason people use that kind of bad language is to use a certain shock effect in order to try to amplify or intensify what they otherwise might think would be a weaker statement. Throwing those kinds of words in are intended to raise the emotional and the moral temperature, like a thermostat, they're intentional." Now, we're living in a society, by the way, that is using these words and inventing new bad words at such a rate, it is hard to keep up with the ability to shock people. But one of the most interesting aspects of this report in the Wall Street Journal is that you have researchers quantifying exactly how companies should use and customers should leverage bad words in online discourse for maximum effect.
Now, just as we're thinking about how confusing all this is, these researchers tell us that the most effective use of a swear word online is in a review directed at a product, not so much a person, like a dishwasher. You want to talk about a really good dishwasher or a really bad dishwasher? Well, there just might be a bad word that might amplify your point. This first point also comes down to the fact that the researchers say you're on safer ground using bad words about products more than people. Who would've figured that?
The second thing is that the researchers say you can't use too many bad words, or people will think you're a bad person. That's not exactly the way they write the advice, but that's the bottom line. If you use just a few bad words, well, it's the words that are bad. If you use too many of them, then it's you that's bad. Again, the moral confusion of our age, as if all this is just a matter of advertising and political public relations strategy.
The third issue they raise is, "Don't break the rules." That means the online rules, but don't censor yourself unnecessarily. They went on to say that their research investigated different types of square words, I'm not going to mention them, and they found that, well, you just don't get much of an impact by using almost bad words. You can know exactly what we're talking about. My mother was really hard on those. Now, most of this article is about how companies are well served to let customers or the general public use these swear words, as they're defined here, these bad words, profane words, ugly words, dirty words, to use these forbidden words, to allow them to be used in order to amplify customer satisfaction. But the writers then say, "Finally, none of this says anything about whether companies should use swear words in their own communications with customers." They stipulated, "We studied only customer-to-customer interactions."
All right, how should Christians think about this? Well, Christians should understand that in every language, there are certain terms, certain words... We're told in just about every single language, there's a list of forbidden words. They are words that are considered unacceptable. There are often words that, rightly understood, are incredibly crude. Sometimes, they are racist. Sometimes, they are just simply derogatory. Sometimes, they are scatological, which means they have to do at the bathroom. Sometimes, they are sexual.
The Bible tells us that we're known by our speech. And whether it's the Psalmist or in other portions of the Scripture, you find the exhortation to let our speech reveal our character and our character reveal Christlikeness, obedience to God, godliness. The Scripture also says, and this is really interesting, "Let your 'Yea' be 'Yea' and your 'Nay' be 'Nay'. Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'." Let that be clear enough, let your character be strong enough and trusted enough that you don't have to use some kind of additional word just to get attention, as if no one's actually going to believe your yes means yes or your no means no. But next, we simply have to note that the Bible has a category of language that is worse than profane, sexual, crude, worse than curse words or swear words.
And those are words that amount to blasphemy, which is an assault upon God, his character, his being, and his glory, a direct assault. And blasphemy is a very real sin. Of course, the secular world has no category for sin in that sense and no category for blasphemy. But the biblical worldview must. But you know, in a sinful world, it really does tell us something very interesting that here, you have consumer and marketing experts saying, "Hey, when it comes to bad language, maybe you need to think about it more strategically." You'll notice the one thing they are not saying is, "Maybe you need to think about it morally." We're supposed to be an adult, grown-up society, right? And yet, this is the kind of argument that seriously minded people in our consumer society are taking and making very seriously. A world that adopts this kind of coarse language as a strategy, well, that's a world that's going to have to keep inventing new bad words.
And there's a parable lived out right before our eyes. But then again, you have to wonder sometimes if these arguments aren't just being trotted out to see how far someone can get with them. I remember one time hearing a word as a very young boy, I didn't know what it meant, I heard it at school. And seated with my family at the dinner table, I decided to try it out to see how it worked. Well, it didn't work, it shouldn't have worked. I had no idea what it meant or why it got such a strong response. But I'll just tell you, the civilization at that point came down to this, my dad's nay was nay.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.