Monday, January 7, 2013

A review of Phyllis Tickle's Emergence Christianity

A Review of:
Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters
By Phyllis Tickle, Baker Books, 237 pages

History, religious movements and ideas do not come in neat packages. As a young student going to a one room country school my understanding of the past was idealistic. That is because the text books I hoisted onto my lap, as I placed my feet on the oven door to read, were written from an ideal perspective. The authors used the ‘great men’ version of history writing. But no matter, my teacher, Bessie Stevens, tall and looming, with her gray hair in a bun, after morning devotions, read us Marxists stories of the new Russia, with a bit of historical flavor. 

Historiography, the study of historical theory or how history is written, is for the history major generally a required subject. And it breaks apart most idealism including conservative and Marxist histories.

There is the method of using ‘great men,’ mentioned above—which is great reading; there is the Annals school which has great documentation but is often boring. Try reading four-hundred pages of weather cycles, crop loss, deaths and births in the Mediterranean region.  There is also cyclical history writing. That is the idea that history is made up of great cycles of events that often, in some way, repeat themselves. Phyllis Tickle in her book, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters, is forced into a cycler mode because she sees church history, in the western world, moving in circles of renewal. By this Tickle means that events begin to accumulate which change culture to the degree that eventually the church is forced to look again at such things as beliefs, worship, authority and structure—with an eye toward discarding some of its supposed baggage.

In both this book and Tickle’s last one, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, she points, among other events, to the Great Schism of the eleventh century, the Reformation and the “disestablishment of slavery” as cultural or social events that caused the church to begin remaking itself. 

In this latest book Tickle spends some time pulling in what she sees as changing events including recent events which she believes are changing the Church. Next she looks at various groups that she now believes can be seen as members of the Emergence community. The middle section of the book is filled with photographs with explanation of various groups participating in Emergence activity. The latter part of the book deals more with what Emergence Christianity believes.

I want to look at two of Tickle’s assumptions: her inclination to subsume everything under Emergence Christianity, and the theology that Tickle believes is emerging from the movement.

In my review of Tickle’s earlier book, The Great Emergence, I pointed out that Tickle had attempted to tie a parochial movement of the United States and Great Britain to the global community by connecting it to such events as the Reformation and the Great Schism. In Emergence Christianity, Tickle seemingly corrects this by pulling in a wider girth of participants. In the earlier book on Emergence she failed to see other movements within the United States that were more apt to bring renewal and change. In Tickle’s new book she simply subsumes them under emergence by referring to them as “push backs.” In other words Tickle places all Christian movements under Emergence Christianity.

Calling it peri-Emergence times and pulling in the global community, Tickle uses Vatican II and its attending bishops who came from differing continents. She refers to Liberation theology and black theologian activist James Cone; she also mentions, in the same breath Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, their Catholic Worker and hospitality houses. (72-76)

The priest Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino along with Martyr Oscar Romero also become members of the peri-Emergence times. Then feminist and LGBT rights activists get added to the mix. While some of these historical figures certainly fit with a lot of Emergent ideas some are simply strains of Christianity as it has always been, living in poverty, caring for the poor and needy and suffering in the process. Tickle’s emphasis on Romero’s death and her placement of him in the mix of peri-Emergence means she fails to understand Romero’s self-identity. He once stated:

The Church will always have its word to say: conversion. Progress will not be completed even if we organize ideally the economy and the political and social orders of our people. It won’t be entire with that. That will be the basis, so that it can be completed by what the church pursues and proclaims: God adored by all, Christ acknowledged as only Savior, deep joy of spirit in being at peace with God and with our brothers and sisters.[1]

Certainly Vatican II, although offering some reforms, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as well as Oscar Romero, given their theological foundations, would have nothing to do with the idea that they were peri-Emergence. They were all orthodox in their Christology and all pro-life in their worldview. One cannot simply gather up every Christian religious movement and person and claim them as spiritual ancestors. A gatherer of rags starts with rags, but when one gathers various materials, some shining in their reflection of light, others diminished by their inability to reflect, and suggest that they all belong to the same category—all are diminished.

In Tickle’s proclivity for gathering all Christian religious movements under her heading of Emergence Christianity she does recognize the rise of Calvinism in our own day. But failing to recognize them in their own right, Tickle identifies them as push backs against Emergence. Tickle, after writing of what Calvinism is, states:

None of this is new, of course, but neither is it revival. Rather, it is, as we have said, push-back. It is the application of one integrated body of orthodox, Latinized Christian teaching to Great Emergence circumstances. It is resistance to Great Emergence in many ways, while at the same time sharing Emergence’s etiology and essence. As such and because of its sheer size, it will be a participant in, or at the very least a potent influence upon the events and decisions that, during the coming decades, will determine the shape of Emergence Christianity in its full maturity. (189)

Tickle names Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City as one of the new Calvinist. One wonders if Keller would be surprised to find out that his identity is as a push-back to Emergence. (See note 6, 190)

Tickle attempts to explain somewhat the beliefs of those she sees directly involved in Emergent Christianity and Emerging Christianity. Yes, she does split Emergence Christianity into two movements.  This is important information because it does change how one might view one group of Emergence Christianity as opposed to others. Tickle writes that there are emerging Christians and emergent Christians. Of the difference she writes:

Emergent Christianity/Village Church/Christians are aggressively all-inclusive and non-patriarchal. They are far more interested in the actuality of Scripture than its historicity or literal inerrancy. … By and large, Emerging Christianity, Church, Christians could not differ with these positions if they tried.[2] (142)

Tickle also points out that although several well known members of Emergence Christianity, Scot McKnight and Mark Driscoll, at first referred to themselves as emerging/emergent, they changed to simply emerging after Brian McLaren published his book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. The point for me is that there are some who reside closer to orthodoxy than others. Tickle’s theological explanations often do not resemble orthodoxy. (143)

In explaining Emergence Christianity’s theological outlook, Tickle sometimes tends, toward a monarchial view of the Trinity, the persons are simply the actions of God during various ages. After referring to the Trinity as It and explaining many of the Trinity’s actions throughout the Bible, Tickle writes:

The Trinity comes now near to the promised realization of its intention. It comes, as It said it would. And What we saw and feared in the image of the Father, What we saw and embraced as Savior-Brother, we now know as Spirit and cling to as Advocate, even as It has said of Itself from the beginning. Now, without need of image or flesh, It comes, and we receive It as in the last of creation’s ages.(208)

One of the misunderstandings here is what is implied when one speaks of the Trinity. Trinity is always Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so one cannot refer to God as Trinity without including each person. In the same way the persons are not parts. They are each fully God. They are of the same essence. The Trinity is a mystery worth understanding—which is truly paradox.

At other times in her book it is fairly clear that Tickle understands the distinctions within the Godhead, as when she writes about perichoresis, but even here she refers to the distinctions as parts.[3] (172-73) The problem for Tickle is that she sees the ages divided into different manifestations of the Trinity which is itself an old heresy. And the emphasis in the heresy is always on the time of the Spirit which is always contemporary with whichever particular person or group is promoting the theology.[4]

As in The Great Emergence the authority of Scripture is also questioned in this book in several places. Tickle first of all suggests what is needed for authority—which in itself is scary, in another place she offers what she believes will be the authority. Her idea of what is needed is:

… Emergence Christianity, hopefully in conjunction with other communions within the faith, is free to discover and acknowledge an authority based on the paradigm of the kingdom of God on earth. At the same time, however, it must also discover and acknowledge an authority, if possible, that provides for Christians  a peaceful cohabitation with the political or secular authority that frames the physical life … (193)

Tickle believes that Emergence Christianity has and does use both Scripture and story as a “code.” They will also use community, in prayer, as the “agency” for finding authority within the code of Scripture and story. Tickle asks “what shall animate the union of those two and make of them a sacred authority.” (206)

The final big doctrinal issue that is addressed by Tickle as it relates to Emergence Christianity is the atonement. She calls it the bitterest question. Tickle, like some before her, writes as though Scripture has nothing at all to say about the atonement. But this is also a misunderstanding. Atonement theories are theories about how the atonement works—not about whether the atonement is true or not. And all of the theories if understood properly work together.

But evidently Emergence Christians, alongside feminist theologians and progressives consider the death of the Son child abuse. Tickle writes:

For Emergence Christianity—and here there is more unanimity than in some other areas of belief—the concept of an omnipotent and omniscient God who could find no better solution than that to the problem of sin is a contradiction of the first order . Even more repugnant is the notion that, if penal substation as it is popularly and colloquially understood today is indeed the correct understanding of what happen at Calvary, then Christians are asked to accept as Father a God who killed his only Son. (197)

Tickle is quick to explain that those who believe in substitutionary atonement would reply that it is God who sacrifices himself. But she believes that most would not understand and perhaps the better way would be to follow the views of Greek Orthodoxy. But there is a bit of misunderstanding in all of this. While Orthodox theology is more concerned to align salvation with the incarnation and the Christians union with God, and protestant Christianity is more concerned with atonement there are overlaps. And Orthodoxy would not say that Christ did not die for our sins, however they would, wrongly I believe, insist Christ was not a substitute for us.

But the more important position is the biblical text—which includes Jesus’ death for our sin as well as our union with Christ.

For while we were helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. … But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled we shall be saved by his life. (Romans 5: 6, 8-11)

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me. (Gal. 2:20)

Here and there Tickle’s information is interesting and some of it is new. The pictures in the middle of her book with written explanations about their meaning are helpful as is her annotated bibliography. But there is so much misinformation including a rigid, twisted view of church history, that Emergence Christianity is more problematic than helpful. Church history is sad yet good, bitter with sin, joyous with saints, bloody with martyrs, glad with charity and gloriously full of the work of the Trinity. And it’s foundations, essentials and faith will not change.

[1]Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Words of Oscar Romero, trans., James R. Brockman, forward, Henri Nouwen, reprint, (London: Fount Paperbacks, Collins 1989). 10 Quote found at, “Liberation Theology and whippoorwills.
[2] Tickle places all those involved in Village Church, as belonging to Emergent rather than emerging.
[3] Tickle states that the idea of perichoresis, the understanding of the communal relationship between the persons of the Trinity, belongs to the Greek Orthodox; perhaps it does but I first learned of this term from an excellent Reformed professor, James Torrance.


Noel said...

Great review. I found Tickle's earlier work reason enough to avoid this one. Her willingness to group movements, people, and historical eras into useful categories makes her an absoulte master of lame generalizations. The hype over her work is frankly hard to understand, except that she captializes on the overwhelming self-interests of the present generation.

All in all, her work appears like a semi-Christianized rehash of Marilyn Ferguson's "The Aquarian Conspiracy"--an epic tome of New Age wishful thinking--the fruit of which has been nil.

While this book is likely to fuel the flames of many younger Christian's lust for historical significance, its contribution to the Church's self-understanding is negligable.

Viola Larson said...

Thanks. You said in a few words what I tried to say in too many. I had not thought to compare Tickle's book to The Aquarian Conspiracy-but it fits.

Mr. Mcgranor said...

I am not an intellectual; nor do i support them. I can tell your free from intellectual debate and college dissertation; that this book reflects postmodern Western pseudo-Protestantism. Of which all churches are a part of--to a higher or lesser degree. Its just that the Emergents want to completely topple those institutions not merge with them.
You want college grade for instances? Compare what has happened since the 60's, to now.

Viola Larson said...

It does reflect post-modernism. I don't believe all churches are a part of that-the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church.