Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sweeping Church History: A review of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why

Sweeping Church History: a review of:

The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

By Phyllis Tickle

Emergent Village Resources for communities of faith, BakerBooks 2008

Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why is both disquieting and fascinating. The author proposes grandiose schemes of history and offers predictive speculations which trouble me, and yet I met my past in many corners even down to her last footnote on Joachim of Fiore.[1] However, I don’t believe that I or other orthodox Christians will see our future in The Great Emergence.

This is a book which has been picked for some use as a catalyst or under girding for the recommended Presbyterian (U.S.A.) General Assembly Commission on Middle Governing Bodies coming from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. Tickle is writing about the Emerging Movement in Western Christianity. She attempts to find the movement's cause, define its progress and answer some pertinent questions about its future. And in doing so Tickle looks at past Christian movements as well as the kinds of cultural and historical events that she believes shaped Christianity in different ages.

Tickle’s thesis is that every five hundred years the Church finds itself disconnected from its meaning and must mend or remake the faith story in which it is involved. She refers to Right Reverend Mark Dyer, writing of his idea, “that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five-hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” He also suggested that we are now in the midst of that kind of a sale.

The theory Tickle explores is an idea that groups, institutions even nations are tethered by cable to the thing that gives them meaning, or that thing that is bigger then the individual or group. She uses analogies: the cable is covered by a water proof casing. The cable is called “the story.” That is the “shared history—mythic, actual, and assumed—of the social unit.” Going further there is an interior mesh sleeve which the author writes is “sometimes called the consensual illusion and sometimes the common imagination and sometimes by combinations of those two.” It is the agreement of the members about how things work. (34-5) Tickle uses the idea of a flat earth to describe how that might work. (emphasis author's)

Next she describes three ropes that are intertwined inside. They are called spirituality, corporeality and morality and make up, in order, the internal experiences, the physical evidences and the external outcome of the spirituality. Tickle writes about how each of these can become frayed, torn and need repair. It is here that she looks at Church history and notes the important points when all must be redone or reworked. And it is here that I am troubled with her historical schema as well as what I see as a parochial outcome. I will address both.

Reformation: Tickle points to several Church moments which she sees as times when the Church’s link to its meaning has become so badly damaged that the Church needed to change or as she puts it “reconfigure.” She deals with the Great Reformation and pulls in a multitude of reasons for that event including: Too many men attempting to be Pope at the same time –causing a sense of a disconnect from authority, Greek scholars leaving Constantinople for Europe with copies of the ancient classical writers, conflicts between Islam and Christianity and with that “the acquisition of a library of over four hundred thousand volumes,” the rise of city-states and nations and Gutenberg, whose invention helped spread the writings of the Reformation.

So my first concern: while all of the above historical events certainly changed society and advanced the Reformation, they cannot be the main reasons for the Reformation. Instead the main reason was because of the divine intervention of God. The Lord of the Church heard the cries for renewal, undoubtedly planned for the cries for renewal.

Various groups, in what is now Germany, had been praying for a hundred years for Church renewal. And earlier, though all that first thousand years, and beyond, there had been different renewal events such as the one in the 13th century at Cluny Monastery. Later there was Wycliffe in England, whom Tickle does mention, but not in this context. Next there was John Hus in Bohemia who died for the proclamation of justification by faith among other issues. The need for reformation and God’s intervention for his Church are the reasons. The Church did not adjust its story for the sake of or because of cultural change, but because the Lord called her back to an apostolic witness and Scripture.

The parochial outcome I am concerned about is that Tickle has taken huge worldwide events, such as the Great Schism or even “The Axial Age” and compared them to a relative small movement in the United States and Britain (As compared to the rise of a vibrant and different Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere and Asia ). Tickle’s views of what is happening in Christianity should be read along-side the writings of Philip Jenkins.[2]

Tickle goes on to write about the cultural events which brought forth what she and others call The Great Emergence. They include scientific events such as the evolutional theories of Darwin, Albert Einstein’s “special theory of relativity” and “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.” Her religious events include the newest search for the Historical Jesus, Pentecostalism, Karl Marx, immigration connected to Buddhism entering the United States, drugs in the 1960s and Joseph Campbell.

The authority of the Word: And this is all to say that Tickle believes that these events, alongside others, began to tear apart the story of Protestantism in particular and Christianity as a whole. But she constantly, as in her Reformation account, insists that in these events the church lost its center of authority which is Sola Scriptura (only Scripture). She in fact insists that the ordination of self-affirming homosexuals will bring an end to the view that the Bible is the Church’s authority. She writes:

“When all is resolved [the homosexual issues]—and it most surely will be—the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught by Protestantism for almost five centuries will be dead.” (101)

And this is the real story Tickle is telling. That many in today’s Church in the United States and Britain either do not or will not find authority in the Holy Scripture. Tickle even writes, “The question of ‘Where now is our authority?’ is, as we have noted, always the central and overarching one in every time of upheaval. The great Emergence will be no different from its predecessors in this regard.”

And this is where my review will now focus. Tickle sets up some suggestions for where the emerging movement might find its authority. One is in the Pentecostalism she highlights that exploded onto the twentieth century moving whole continents toward a vibrant Christianity. Tickle writes:

“Pentecostalism by definition assumes the direct agency of the Holy Spirit as instructor and counselor and commander as well as comforter. As such and stated practically, Pentecostalism assumes that ultimate authority is experiential rather than canonical. This is not either to say or to imply that there is a denial of the Holy Scriptures. It is to say, rather that forced into a choice between what a believer thinks with his or her own mind to be from the Holy Scripture and an apparently contradictory message from the Holy Spirit, many a Pentecostal must prayerfully, fearfully, humbly accept the more immediate authority of the received message.” (Emphasis author's.)(85)

Tickle goes on to state that”Pentecostalism, offered the Great Emergence its first, solid, applied answer to the question of where now is our authority.” But she is wrong about the Pentecostals.

At just the turn of the Century in California a group of Pentecostals at a camp meeting were led by one member who believed they were to understand “through the leading of the Holy Spirit” that Jesus was the true name of God and there was only one person in the Godhead. They are now called Jesus only or oneness Pentecostals and exist on the thin edges of the Pentecostal movement rejecting the Trinity. But when they first began they were members of the Assemblies of God. The Assemblies of God leaders, through the study of Scripture, said no, that was not a biblical teaching. While this kind of experienced doctrine can be an ongoing problem in Pentecostal churches it is nonetheless battled by using Scripture.[3]

Tickle follows this up when she calls for a speedy search for an authority base for those who are emerging Christians. She writes:

“The new Christianity of the Great Emergence must discover some authority base or delivery system and/or governing agency of its own. It must formulate—and soon—something other than Luther’s Sola Scriptura which, although used so well by the Great Reformation originally, is now as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities.” (151)

She then speculates on the authority that the Emerging Movement will use suggesting that they might find it in what she calls “Networked Authority.” Probably her best picture of this is her picture of the emerging church with its sense of authority. That is, “The Church is a self-organizing system of relations, symmetrical or otherwise, between innumerable member-parts that themselves form subsets of relations within their smaller networks, etc., etc. in interlacing levels of complexity.”

Accordingly none have all the truth but it comes out of the center of the community (158) and yet has run through the “hubs” of the network and is “tried and amended and tempered into wisdom and right action for effecting the Father’s will.” (153) And predicatively all of this may lead to a change in Christian belief. The cable is taken out, remade and stuffed back in. Seeing part of this process as a de-Hellenization of Christianity, Tickle writes:

“Some of the de-Hellenization on religious formation is already discernable. The actual nature of the atonement, for example or the tenet of an angry God who must be appeased or the question of evil’s origins are suddenly all up for reconsideration. If in pursuing this line of exegesis, the Great Emergence really does what most of its observers think it will, it will rewrite Christian theology—and thereby North American—culture—into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years.” (162)

In the diagram Tickle uses to explain the Emerging church, she places those who refuse to follow the patterns and process of the emergence off to the corners including some of those who she names social justice Christians (Tickle’s name for all mainline Christians). But mostly the few numbers include those who hold to biblical authority. I do not see this as a correct reading although she might be right.

What I do see is liturgical churches, mainline churches, pentecostal churches and conservative churches who will still acknowledge the authority of Scripture which is after all the word of God. I still see those whom she places in the corners obeying the Lord of the Church in obedience to his word. After all, those who belong to Jesus are not simply connected to a cable which connects to their meaning; they are in a real way united to the resurrected Lord. And Jesus is after all the same, yesterday, today and forever.

[1] This would include a love for History including Church History, coming to Christ in a Southern Baptist Church, spending the first fifteen years of my marriage in an
Assembly of God Church and the next fifteen years in an independent Church loosely connected to the Calvary Chapels, and doing research on several cultic groups that embraced the kind of theological scheme that Joachim of Fiore advocated.
[2] See for instance Philip Jenkins books,
The Next Christendom & The Lost History of Christianity.
[3] J. Gordon Melton, The Encyclopedia of American Religions Volume 1, (McGrath Publishing Company 1978) 1, 287-8.


Paul said...

The parochial outcome I am concerned about is that Tickle has taken huge worldwide events, such as the Great Schism or even “The Axial Age” and compared them to a relative small movement in the United States and Britain (As compared to the rise of a vibrant and different Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere and Asia ). Tickle’s views of what is happening in Christianity should be read along-side the writings of Philip Jenkins.

So well said!

It seems that some in the Emergent camp are now understanding that the parasitical Emergent movement ain't happenin' outside of Western metropolises.

There seems to be a presenting need to hook this stillborn movement to something that actually has life.

Pentecostalism appears to be the choice, but it's not going to work, since Pentecostalism is less Reformed, and yet very orthodox.

While Pentecostals are accused of being experience-centered, the opposite is the case--the argument against cessationism is from scripture. Yes, cessationism is arguing from experience.

And while the accusation is that many in the cessasionist camp are functual binitarians--Emergents move toward unitarianism, not full trinitarianism.

Thanks for a great critque.

Viola Larson said...

Hi Paul,
Thanks. After I read the last entry on your blog it dawned on me that I had not clarified, I don't think, that I am writing from a Reformed perspective. So I should do that. Although I have the other traditions in my background I am very Presbyterian and I have always had a Calvinist theological outlook. Sometimes I forget that other people besides Presbyterians read this blog.

And I have noticed that those who wish to change the doctrines of the Church often look toward the Penecostals thinking they will find help there and perhaps they will but only on the fringe of the movement.

Paul said...

Viola, of course you are right, and I was indeed aware, having graduated from two Reformed seminaries.

Emergents tend to come out of the Reformed camp, so it is quite a leap to go from Emergent Reformed to Pentecostalism. That was my only point there.

Emergents do tend to borrow some of their ethics from the Radical Reformation, but their core theological DNA is miles apart from Pentecostals.

Having said that, I still feel I have far more in common with you, Viola, than I do with McLaren, et. al., because of the Pentecostal commitment to the authority of the canon, whether our hermeneutics is first naivete or second.:)


Viola Larson said...

Agreed: )

Anonymous said...

Viola - Thanks for posting on this.

First, if viewed from a strictly sociological viewpoint, her 'grand thesis' seems tenable. The thing is - and the thing she seems to overlook - this approach can say nothing to the substance of Christianity. The one case in which such a grand sociological analysis of a religion must utterly fail is where the content or beliefs of that religion are true. There is no real room for that in her schema.

Otherwise, practitioners' remaking of their religion in response to social and philosophical 'changes' would be beyond their ability or authority - they would, in effect, be departing from the religion - abandoning it in favor of the new understanding.

Where this comes up in her attempts at broad analysis is that she fails to adequately distinguish between the content of Christianity and its trappings. Is there a difference between Christianity and the religion practiced by people who call themselves Christians? Is it possible for someone identifying him or her self as Christian to be mistaken in that assessment?

Will Spotts

Viola Larson said...

Great questions and good thoughts Will.

Tickle writes as someone on the side-lines in some cases but toward the end she does make some commitments. And on a video she did say she is Emergent, so that settled it for me that she feels herself to be in the middle of what is happening in the Church.

Anonymous said...

I find 'emergence' to be making great inroads among Arminians as well as in Reformed circles.

Yet, while there are clear differences, I'm struck by the overall similarities between the 'emergent' church and spiritual progressivism. It appears as if the conversation calling itself 'emerging' or 'emergent' is a variant of spiritual progressivism designed to appeal to those with a more conservative or evangelical background. The central views, the main concerns, the alternative styles of prayer and Bible reading, the emphasis on politics - notably pretty far 'left-leaning' politics, the disputation about what the Gospel actually is, the preferred methods of interpreting Scripture, the tendencies toward pluralism / universalism, the de-emphasis on the atonement, the de-emphasis on grace, even the particular social justice agendas - especially when combined with the unfair, mildly hypocritical and overly harsh criticism of 'evangelicals'... all of this has a vaguely familiar ring.

Will Spotts

Anonymous said...

Yes, Tickle is a self-identified emergent. But her arguments and rationales - while fascinating, for the most part take the format of 'outside observation'.

I find it particularly interesting that she is broadening the term - so that 'emergent / emerging' become much more widespread than those conversations have been. I think she is accurate to do this in terms of trickle down effect. But it does help to further muddy the waters.

Will Spotts

Viola Larson said...

That was one of my biggest problems with the book. Tickle attempting to write from a position of outsider when she is in the middle of the movement. That allows her to put each person or group where she wants them in relation to her position and the emergent position. Only God has that kind of knowledge.

Another problem I had that I did not write about was the errors scattered here and there. I did write about her Pentecostal problem but another was a reference to the Calvary Chapels and John Wimber. She was partly off on some of that. And I was right in the middle of that as far as being in a Church connected to the large Calvary Chapel in LA, and then as someone working in ministry to New Religions and writing about some troubling movements surrounding Wimber.

And then she fixed the interest of Buddhism as an event that occurred in the United States because we finally opened the doors to Asian immigrants. But that isn’t how it happened at all. Instead it was the Parliament of Religions and such people as Alan Watts (sp) who introduced it into this country. The type of Buddhism that most Immigrants brought with them does not interest most in the United States. That is Amida Buddhism or Pure Land Buddhism which is the only Asian religion that offers grace and heaven. These seem like small things but they add up to too many errors.

Anders Branderud said...

"Historical J....."!?!

The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

Viola Larson said...

Anders I think we have exchanged comments before. What you are writing about has nothing to do with anything I have written.
However, having said that let me point out that the Ebonites that you are writing about simply faded from history because they were not a vibrant branch of Christianity. They were not excised as you put it. The problem is you do not understand Christianity. Jesus Christ fulfilled the law- he was the only innocent person who ever has. And then he affirmed who he was by dying and being bodily resurrected. Let me ask you have you ever disobeyed even one tiny bit of the law. Do you truly love Yahweh with all your heart? If not you are condemned by the law. Not to bring an intellectual subject down to a simple discussion but Jesus fulfilled the law and died for your and my sins.
But then we could play that game of my scholar against your scholar. May I suggest a very good book by a very good scholar? Usually his books are long and difficult but not this one. “God Crucified: Monotheism & Christianity in the New Testament by Richard Bauckham. You read that and then we will have a discussion. By the way have you ever read the New Testament?