Wineskins Archive

January 20, 2014

Book Review: The Great Emergence (Mar – Apr 2009)

Filed under: — @ 7:19 pm and

by Alan Cochrum
March – April, 2009

The Great Emergence
By Phyllis Tickle

Baker Books, $17.99

You might say Phyllis Tickle is paraphrasing that haunting Buffalo Springfield song from 40 years ago: Something’s happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear. Stop – hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.

Every five centuries or so, Tickle writes in The Great Emergence, the church has a giant rummage sale: “That is, . . . about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” The house’s contents are thoroughly inspected; some of the stuff is weighed, found wanting and discarded; the interior is rearranged; and then things eventually sort themselves out for another long spell.

In the 16th century, we had the (Great) Reformation, which birthed both Protestantism and the less-well-remembered Counter-Reformation. Five hundred years before that was the Great Schism, the break between Eastern (Greek) Orthodoxy and Roman (Latin) Catholicism that is traditionally dated at A.D. 1054.

About 500 years before that came the churchman Gregory the Great, who according to Tickle is really remembered not so much for leading a revolution but for “his brilliance in cleaning one up” – helping reorder a chaotic Europe and guiding the church of his day into the monasticism that would characterize and help protect it for centuries to come.

Now we are watching the Great Emergence. We are the people carting the old furniture into the driveway, or absent-mindedly watching it happen, or perhaps yelling: “Hey, we can’t get rid of that!

So what’s happening here? Using another metaphor, Tickle compares religion (as a phenomenon, not any particular one) to a cable securing a boat to a dock. The line consists of shared history and worldview, spirituality, morality and visible institutions. But time and cultural developments tend to damage the cable, and every few centuries there’s a major tear. When that happens, society gives the cable’s strands a thorough going-over while repairing the line.

“Each time of re-formation,” the author writes, “has the same central question: Where, now, is the authority?” The Reformation’s answer, the one that much of Western faith and culture has depended on since then, was sola Scriptura – the Bible and the Bible alone as cornerstone.

But then along came Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, the Civil War, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Pentecostalism, the Model T, Karl Marx, Alcoholics Anonymous and women’s emancipation. In one way or another, these and other factors chipped away at sola Scriptura, society’s understanding of it and/or the institutions produced there from.

Now, Tickle indicates, North American Christianity is considering that primary issue of authority and two other questions particular to this re-formation: What exactly is human consciousness? And what is the relation of all religions to one another? (Or: Can we all just get along, and if so, how?)

So just what is the Great Emergence of the title?

Picture traditional North American Christianity as a rectangle divided in four: Liturgicals (Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox); Social Justice Christians (Methodists and other “mainline” groups); Renewalists (Pentecostals and charismatics); and Conservatives (evangelicals and fundamentalists). The quadrants relate to one another on the basis of their varying emphases.

Liturgicals Social
Renewalists Conservatives

But . . . “Where once the corners had met,” Tickle writes, “now there [is] a swirling center, its centripetal force racing from quadrant to quadrant in ever-widening circles, picking up ideas and people from each, sweeping them into the center, mixing them there, and then spewing them forth into a new way of being Christian, a new way of being Church.”

The emerging/emergent church, Tickle says, is the a-borning “center” that North American Christianity has never really had before.

The Great Emergence has some memorable declarations: “The work of God may be pure, but its earthly application, as often as not, isn’t ”; and: “The marriage of doctrinal purity with political loyalties is always an unholy union, even in the best of circumstances.” But Tickle also makes some questionable assertions.

Did the PBS series The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers really have such an enormous effect on American culture? The daughters of the real-life Rosie the Riveters – were their memories of how Mom “fought” on the home front but then returned to home life a major factor in the nation’s social altered landscape? If people are unfamiliar with the Bible, are (1) an ever-more-eager search on their part for structured engagement with it and (2) the relegating of Scripture to “the attics of life” truly equally problematic approaches?

The value of The Great Emergence lies in its putting the current religious upheaval in an arm’s-length context. History brings welcome perspective. But that is also the book’s potential weakness: That sanguine attitude tends to overshadow the eternal nature of the issues at stake.New Wineskins

Alan Cochrum

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