Archive for February, 2010

Some Reflections on Phyllis Tickle’s, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.” (Baker Books, 2008)

February 25, 2010

“[A]bout every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale” (16).  So argues Phyllis Tickle, though she acknowledges this idea as coming from Bishop Mark Dyer.  Thus in the sixth century, “the Apostolic Church, with its presbyters and anchorites,  gave way to an organized monasticism as the true keeper and promulgator of the faith” (27).  In the eleventh century the “Great Schism” occurred, with Eastern or Orthodox Christianity separating itself from Western Christianity (27-8).  Then came the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (28).  And now in the twenty-first century, we are experiencing another upheaval in the church, “The Great Emergence.”  Most of the book is dedicated to describing the factors contributing to this latest upheaval, and also what to expect in the emerging church.  

 It is not my intention to write a careful analysis and review of Tickle’s book. Regarding the overall structure of the book, I will only say that I worry about a strong deterministic thread running throughout Tickle’s analysis. Why an upheaval in the church every five hundred years?  Is the work of the Holy Spirit bound to a pre-determined time frame? 

I have a fundamental problem with this book, another contribution to the emerging literature on the emerging church.  I see so little of Jesus Christ in this analysis of the great emergence that we are supposedly witnessing in the church today.  The church is emerging into something new and different, we are told.  Just as Martin Luther was the symbolic leader and spokesman for the great Reformation, so Brian McLaren is favorably cited as “the symbolic leader and spokesman for the Great Emergence (164,n7). One of McLaren’s early works was entitled, A New Kind of Christian.  And now, hot off the press, a new book, entitled, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (Harperone, 2010).  Phyllis Tickle writes an endorsement of this later book, describing it as “a stellar accomplishment, a combination of hard tack fact and unfettered hope, an overview in delightful narrative of the long way of our coming to this time and of the multiform ways of our arriving. In every way, a dispatch from the front.”

 Tickle, along with McLaren, is obsessed with what is new and emerging.  There is no way of stopping our evolution to this new kind of Christianity, it seems.  The new is better. Again we have here the worship of the idol of newness.  And what about Jesus?  Little is said about him. One looks in vain for an emphasis on Jesus as the foundation of the church. And of course, no mention is made of the fact that Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever.  Instead, as McLaren boldly proclaims in another title of his, “Everything Must Change.”

 Tickle concurs. The Great Emergence “will rewrite Christian theology, she maintains” (162).  Why?  Because we need something new and different.  The old is stagnant.  Conservative thinkers, are relegated to the outer fringes, a reactionary group, whose only value is in helping the emergent church to define itself  (136-43).  We should not be surprised at this emphasis on change and newness, because Tickle openly expresses sympathies with postmodern constructivism (33, 153).  Human beings construct knowledge, according to Tickle, and hence emergents call on Christians to construct or reconstruct their faith and the church. But again, where is Jesus Christ in all of this?  The Christian faith or the church is not there to be invented or constructed.  Jesus is the creator of our faith and the founder of the church.  And there is no other foundation that can and should be laid (I Cor.3:11).  Given the human tendencies to sin, and to veer away from the truth, what we need to hear much more of is the call to reformation, not the re-creation of the church.  Instead of waiting on tiptoes to see what is emerging, we should be spending more time pondering the original vision of the church. Instead of speculation, we need to return to the sureties of the past.  

 Yes, there is a need to make some adjustments in the church in order to be relevant to the contemporary world we find ourselves in.  Tickle devotes two long chapters to analyzing the various changes within Western civilization that provide the context for the new challenges facing the emerging church. But should changes in secular society necessarily lead to fundamental changes in the church?  Are the changing circumstances of the world around us really that significant?  And what about the many important things that remain the same.  Human nature doesn’t change.  Our basic needs don’t change.  The big questions about life and meaning don’t change.  I have been teaching a new batch of college students every year for the nearly forty years, and have found that my students haven’t changed that much.  Yes, there are some peripheral changes – back in the 1970’s students were very preoccupied with radical idealism, and today students tend towards apathy.  But even here, there are underlying similarities.  And the one thing that I have always been quite sure of is that the good news, Christian gospel, is what my students need. 

 Further, when there are calls for adjustments in the church to meet changes within society, we must make sure that we don’t do away with the foundations.  We need to remain faithful to Jesus Christ.  But, with Tickle and other emergents, it seems that the contemporary world itself calls the shots.  Thus, the frank confession that some of the impetus for a shift in the way we view authority in the emerging church is found “in the sensibilities of the secular Great Emergence around it” (153).   Of course, this is qualified with the suggestion that for the emerging church, “most of its power tools and construction theory” is found “not in the culture per se” but “in the theology and experience” of the various quadrants of the broader church that Tickle analyses in the final chapter.  But, listen to the language used – power tools and construction theory.  Sounds very post-modern to me.  And the quadrants are of course human quadrants, human formulations of theology.  That is of course what we should expect from someone who says that “religion is a social construct” (33). 

 And, where is Jesus in all this?  Where is a call to a renewed commitment to humbly follow Jesus, the head of the church?  Humility is of course not one of the cardinal virtues of post-modernists.  They like to think of themselves as being in charge – creating was is new and different.  But Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”  I call my sheep by name, and my sheep listen to my voice (John 10).  Sheep humbly following the shepherd – that is what orthodox and authentic Christianity is all about.