(I hope you people don't expect real insight from me. You should know better than that by now. :P)
I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately, for various reasons. Partially about how things never really change: The sixteenth century had their courtship rituals, as did America in the 40s, as we do now.
Professor Peter Saccio, in his lecture series, released by Recorded Books, Shakespeare: The Word and the Action*, speaks of the courtship rituals of the Sixteenth Century. Young men and women exchanged love notes and tokens of affection through third parties, met and women flirted in public and at parties, and (this is my favorite part) every young man of good character was expected to write a sonnet to the girl he was courting! These sonnets praised the girl's features, compared her to Greek goddesses, and so forth. I don't know enough to give any in-depth detail about this, but any well-annotated version of the comedies, as well as the above-mentioned lecture series, has lots of info.
Professor Saccio goes on to say: "5o years ago, a middle-class young American, falling in love, courting a young woman, might go to her house. He might take to her a bouquet of flowers... or a book of poetry--nothing big, nothing expensive, you don't want to suggest you're trying to buy the girl. And the code of behavior was you would sit on the front porch and carefully make conversation about the rising moon, or something innocent like that. And inside in the front room her mother or her aunt would be discreetly chaperoning the encounter. This seems ridiculous to us now...
"My students, courting each other, think that they behave a lot more freely than their parents or their grandparents. But in fact we just have a different set of conventions. I look at my students at Dartmouth courting, what do they do? They go down to the campus cafe or some other local eatery, and they order diet Coke and tacos, and they sit across the table from each other, and they gaze into each other's eyes, and they proceed to discuss the psychological ramifications of what they call Our Relationship. The... Diet Coke and tacos, that's not obligatory, it could be pizza and beer. But the psychobabble IS obligatory. That's the language we have for love."
[He uses this to segue into talking about Elizabethan courting conventions. I will less gracefully segue into something else.]
Today's film genre of "romantic comedy" is directly comparable to Shakespeare's romantic-comedic writing (Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, etc.). The first example that comes to mind is the not-quite-outdated Hitch. All right, let's compare Hitch and As You Like It. Both stories are, ultimately, about love. Both have some gimmick(s): the former is about a man who can help you win any girl; the second is about a group of lovers who get lost in the woods. Both have a central love story, and a couple sub-plots that are also basically love stories. And both present an idealized, stylized version of their culture's basic 'love story', or courtship ritual.
To make a rather gross generalization, Shakespeare's love stories tended to go something like: boy falls in love with girl, boy woos girl with poetry and gifts, then boy proposes. Of course, it's never that simple: the girl is resistant to being wooed, girl's father wants her to marry someone else, boy and girl's families are in a generations-long fued that can, under no circumstances, be ended, etc.
To make another rather gross generalication, today's standard movie 'love story' goes something like: boy meets girl, boy asks girl out on date. If first date goes well, boy asks girl out on second date. If second date goes well, boy asks girl out on third date. And so forth. Eventually, boy and girl move in together. And, maybe, they get married. Or not. And either way is fine, because we can't judge people. Ahem.
Of course, in all of the above-mentioned cultures (16th Century England, '40s America, and ours), there is a way of dealing with that touchy side of the love story, known very unromantically as the physical aspect. Indeed, the '40s one seems primarily concerned with it, or in preventing it, though of course it was never spoken of directly. Shakespeare's characters, too, often seem very conflicted, as they have been strongly taught that physical indulgences were to be saved for marriage, and at the same time the temptation is very strong. See Romeo and Juliet.
This temptation is dealt with in the American pop culture romance as well: It is simply given in to. After a few dates, or even after the first if it goes really well, hey, why not go to bed together? You really should try sex before commiting anyway, to see if you like it. (Sorry. Dropped into mild sarcasm for a moment there. It won't happen again.)
Of course, this "process" is even more objected to, or at least ignored, than the courtship ritual of Shakespeare's day. And SOME studies seem to indicate that at least the sexual behavior commonly portrayed in the media is actually in the minority. But it is what is portrayed in the stage plays of our time (ie, TV and the movies). And, like it or not, even those who go directly against it are, ultimately, defined by it.
This is my main problem with Fundegelical (Fundementalist/Evangelical) dating books-- that is, apart from the usual self-righteous tone, the look-at-me-I'm-so-cool-and-relevant style, and the fact that most of them are written by evangelicals: they are largely defined by the "accepted" dating scheme. I haven't read nearly all of the "revolutionary" "methods" coming from Evangelical publishing houses, but quite a few have passed through my hands, mainly from working at the library. And they seem to fall into one of two categories: The ones that mock the "secular" version of dating--you can do all the things the other kids get to do, except for these "few things." (The "few things" differ, but mainly center around intimicay. Of any kind.) The other version, by which I mean I Kissed Dating Goodbye, is basically taking "dating" and doing the exact opposite. Notice that you are still defined by the culture here, only in an opposite fashion (just as a "nonconformist" is still defined by the culture around him, but negatively).Many dating books, and even much of the dating advice I've seen, falls under what I call the Harris Fallacy: One Size Fits All dating advice. Based on much observation I have grown very skeptical of generalizations on the topic of dating, even when given by well-intentioned, well-taught Christians. Obviously there are certain generalizations to stick to as Christians: Don't date for sex. Dating, as all things, should be done for the glory of God, and should be founded on a basis of love. And so forth. But when you get too far into specifics, things tend to get hairy.
To be less vague, I'll give the example of long-distance dating (thank you, HT Forums :D). Now, one might have the idea that internet dating is bad, that in no case can it "work." One might construct an airtight case to conclude that it is, in fact, a bad idea, and that nothing good could come of it. One might point to people they know who it hasn't worked for, and conclude that it will not work for anyone. I don't specifically know of any such case; I do know, however, of several cases where long-distance dating has worked, has even resulted in marriage. In contradicting this mysterious person known as One, I might point to such cases. In this case, both One and I would be commiting the Harris Fallacy; One concluding that because it didn't work in his examples, it must not ever work, and I concluding the exact opposite. The truth is, that each realtionship is different, just like each person is different, and things that will work in one relationship might not in the next one.**
So what can a "good" Lutheran conclude on this topic? Many different things, apparently. But if you asked me, I'd say to have fun, don't be afraid to try and fail. Stick to your basic principles, and do things to honor God. Failing that, confess your sins and recieve God's forgiveness. There is (necesarily, I think) a lot of Law involved in this territory, especially for teenagers who date; but let us never lose sight of the Gospel of Jesus, who died to forgive us all our sins. My final piece of advice: seek the wisdom of parents and pastors, and other people who know more than me.
*I'm not sure how you properly credit a college lecture series released by a book-on-tape company, so this was my attempt.
**For the sake of clarity, I obviously don't recomend carrying out an entire relationship online or over the phone. Despite the comic possibilities, proposing to someone over AIM isn't going to work out real well. And anyway, that's not what long-distance dating is. ***
***If Nat can use footnotes, so can I. :P