Emergence Christianity: A Review of Phyllis Tickle’s New Book

If you have been following this blog, you will have read a couple of teasers about Phyllis Tickle’s new book, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Amazon.com currently ranks this book as #27 in sales among Christian books, so it is having an impact in the six weeks of its publication life.

What is this book like? Tickle has attempted to be an analyst of what she calls Emergence Christianity, so this book is neither polemic against or apology for (for the most part). Instead, Tickle positions Emergence Christianity within a pattern of world (at least Western) history that undergoes a major upheaval and transformation about every 500 years or so. These are “turnings” of history. The first was the rise of the church in the first century. The second was the combining of the church with the secular government that began with Constantine and continued for another 200-300 years. The third was the Great Schism of the 11th century, that parted Western (what Tickle calls “latinized”) Christianity with the Orthodoxy of the East over the filoque controversy. The fourth turning was the Protestant Reformation as championed by Martin Luther. Now we are at the fifth turning, the Great Emergence, which began in the 19th century and is now in full swing.

Out of each of these turnings came something new, but the old remained, too. For example, Protestant Christianity emerged from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, but the RC Church is still around. Tickle sees Emergent Christianity as coming from both the RC Church and the Protestant Church, although both of these remain. This is a historical, cultural, and sociological move within Christianity that is tied to larger shifts in culture: the rise of technological connectedness, economic globalization, the acceptance of the findings of science, the triumph of democracy, etc. To me, this Great Emergence is similar to what Francis Fukuyama called The End of History twenty years ago. This is not the place to describe the Great Emergence, but suffice it so say that living in 2012 is as far removed as living in 1950 as it was to live in Europe in 1500 (late medieval period)  as opposed to 1650 (after the Reformation, the Age of Discovery, and the dawn of the Age of Reason). If this is a turning of history (and I agree it is), it is not in slow motion.

Thus Tickle sees Emergence Christianity as a product of its age more than as a shift driven from within the church. Just as the religious landscape changed dramatically with each of these semi-millennial turnings, so it is today.

I would recommend this book if you want to know what is going on here. Don’t wait. Things are changing rapidly. I’m guessing that this book will seem dated in 12 months. For example,Tickle speaks of a major change in Emergence Christianity that took place in 2009. This means, effectively, that books about this subject that were written before 2009 are seriously out of date and describe a situation that no longer exists.

Let me give you some highlights. Tickle summarizes Emergence Christianity in seven points (pp. 164-66):

  1. Radically obeying the words and teachings of Christ.
  2. Insisting there is only one story in the Bible, not two.
  3. Being willingly susceptible to the power of story (as opposed to propositional truth).
  4. Viewing theology as an ongoing conversation that is a means rather than an end.
  5. Always opting for grace over morality.
  6. Believing orthopraxy (right actions) always trumps orthodoxy (right beliefs)
  7. Holding the church as part of the Kingdom of God and its citizens rather than an institution.

Tickle’s penultimate chapter is “Future Pressures,” where she walks through a number of challenges facing the Emergence movement(s). These include the catastrophic future for Protestant benevolent institutions, the power struggles within Emergence communities who want to claim there are no power struggles, the formative religious education for middle-schoolers in an adult-oriented community, and the most basic question of all: where is the locus of authority in this new type of Christianity?

So buy and read this book if you are interested in the Emergence version of the church and of the Christian faith. Tickle writes in a compact style that leaves you wanting more rather than skipping paragraphs to get to the chase. While I do not endorse all of her views, I recommend the book.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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