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. 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.
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.
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.
 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.
 See for instance Philip Jenkins books, The Next Christendom & The Lost History of Christianity.
 J. Gordon Melton, The Encyclopedia of American Religions Volume 1, (McGrath Publishing Company 1978) 1, 287-8.