The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why
Phyllis Tickle. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2008. 172 pages.
Phyllis Tickle takes on the ambitious task of constructing a narrative that brings the historical/cultural significance of the Emergent/Emerging conversation into fuller relief. Her book is an historical and sociological exploration of the movement’s relation to what she calls “The Great Emergence,” a massive cultural upheaval of a type that occurs only once every five hundred years and which is upon us now. Specifically, Tickle aims to answer three questions: What is “The Great Emergence”? How did it come to be? Where is it taking the church? This review will focus on the first and last of these.
The Great Emergence, says Tickle, is a monumental cultural disruption discernible in such diverse phenomena as economic globalism, the decline of nation-states, information overload, growing dependency on machines, environmental consciousness, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Like all massive upheavals, it brings into question basic presuppositions, in this case those regarding the nature of human beings, the conditions of a thriving, sustainable society, and the nature of truth itself. The old modernist answers no longer convince, but answers that can claim widespread assent have not yet emerged.
Tickle is confident, however, that as in other large-scale upheavals (The Great Reformation in the sixteenth century, The Great Schism in 1054, the reforms of Gregory the Great in the sixth century, and the original Jesus movement) the questioning, arguing, and fighting will eventually die down as a renewed cultural imagination takes hold. She does not imagine that we are anywhere near such a resolution yet but sees the Emerging movement nudging us in that direction.
One sign of this is its involvement in the kind of “rummage sale” that the Christian world has held in every other great disruption: old dogmas and practices are cast off to make room for teachings and practices that speak more directly to the new age. Christianity is being re-invented and is poised to become a potent cultural force once again. Indeed, for the Christian church the Great Emergence is more good news than bad: every other great “hinge time” has produced a vibrant new branch of the church, inspired a purification of the inherited church, and led to the extension of the gospel into new geographic and demographic areas. God, Tickle seems to be saying, is lighting a fire under the feet of the old Christian churches and starting a dynamic new phase in the building of his kingdom.
Tickle admits that it is unclear where the Great Emergence is taking the church, but she offers several intriguing prognostications. The perennial question of spiritual authority will be resolved in a way that properly recognizes both the Scriptures and the Bible-reading community. The Emerging church already increasingly resembles a network, “a self-organizing system of relations, symmetrical or otherwise, between innumerable member-parts that themselves form subsets of relations within their smaller networks . . . in interlacing levels of complexity” (152). The life-blood of that system and what animates the church is a conversation, producing a form of authority “that waits upon the Spirit and rests in the interlacing lives of Bible-listening, Bible-honoring believers” (153). Were Tickle not seemingly ignorant about Anabaptism, she could easily have referenced its “hermeneutics of community” at this point.
“Membership” in Emergent churches will not necessarily begin with belief. The order will more often be: belonging to a faith community, then adopting appropriate codes of behavior and conduct, and, finally, accepting the beliefs that make sense of those codes. Tickle concedes that this approach is “a leap of enormous faith” (158).
More hesitantly and yet hopefully, Tickle suggests that Emerging Christians will produce a fully de-Hellenized theology, i.e., a thoroughly Jewish theology that enables the original Jesus to be seen more clearly (162). If it succeeds in accomplishing this feat, Tickle speculates that the Emerging church could represent not merely a semi-millennial but a bi-millennial phenomenon (164 n.8).
Tickle’s tendency to make such audacious claims reveals the problem of the rhetoric used in The Great Emergence. It is one thing to put the Emerging movement in its historical context, to connect it to significant, even revolutionary, technological, economic, and social changes, but to place it prominently in a grandiose historical scheme—one that makes it part of a once-in-2000-years cultural disruption no less—prematurely inflates its historic importance. Its effect is to diminish the breadth and impact of those earlier great upheavals, especially the Reformation, with which she compares the current crisis. It also serves to abet spiritual pride, which would be lethal to any fruitful conversation with more traditional Christians, who might just have some wisdom to offer.
The “rummage sale” analogy Tickle uses to describe what emergers are doing with their spiritual heritage suffers from a similar problem. It effectively excuses the cavalier attitude to what spiritual predecessors have bequeathed to them, making a virtue of impulsiveness and subverting the more truly spiritual virtues of humility, patience, and attention. None of us living in an age that suffers from attention-deficit disorder needs to be encouraged in this direction. The more faithful route might be that of “re-traditioning” Christians, whose mission is to make their inherited church more what it originally was. Tickle, an Episcopalian, finds this group appealing herself: “In many ways, theirs is the most remarkable, arduous, and ultimately richest task of all” (141).
But Tickle may well be right in believing that the Emerging Church will be the dominant form of North American Christianity in the not-so-distant future. It is likely to stay, in some manifestation, for a good long time. We would be wise to learn from its achievements and failures, and to share lessons we’ve learned from our own. We could certainly do worse than to pray that we might catch its energy, creativity, and zeal for the gospel. There might even be something Anabaptist about recovering these for ourselves.