“When an overly institutionalized form of Christianity is, or ever has been, battered into pieces and opened to the air of the world around it, that faith-form has both itself spread and also enabled the spread of the young upstart that afflicted it”1 claims Phyllis Tickle in The Great Emergence. Believing that we are right in the middle of this process, Tickle explains a paradigm of change in the Church. As all of North American society shifts, Christianity is changing as much as it has since the Reformation. In The Great Emergence, Tickle skillfully weaves together the many changes in the world, technological, cultural, and intellectual, to explain and predict trends in Christendom. However, the book is weakened throughout because it fails to draw strength from the significance of the gospel and to acknowledge areas of stability in the Church.

According to Tickle, fundamental changes to the world and religion follow a five-hundred year pattern: the Reformation occurred approximately five hundred years ago; back another cycle is the Great Schism which separated Greek Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism; and another five hundred years brings the fall of Rome and the rise of monasticism, five hundred years after the life of Christ. Furthermore, each cycle has a general structure. First there is a hundred-year period of adjustment to the changes. Next there are two hundred and fifty years of relative peace and stability in this new worldview and form of religion. Finally, there is another hundred and fifty years in which this construct falls apart again before the next revolution occurs. She believes that we are nearing the end of this part of the cycle and beginning something new.

Tickle’s descriptive interpretation of the past hundred-fifty years is both scholarly and readable, touching on many major changes without becoming bogged down in details. Examining the past century and a half, she formulates four pressing questions which she claims are driving the Great Emergence and need to be addressed by Christianity:

• Where is the authority?2

• What is human consciousness?

• What is the relationship of all religions to one another?3

• What now is society’s basic or fundamental unit?4

While she succeeds in establishing the importance of these questions in North American society and the need for any religion to deal with them, she focuses on the intellectual issues and outward problems and patterns of the Church, rather than on inner life. Although important, these are not the main business of Christians or the Church, which is to become more like Christ and to spread the gospel. Tickle has an unfortunate tendency to portray the Church as a passive reactor to changes happening in the world of society, economics, and culture. Moreover, she writes as if these reactions are progress — and therefore automatically good, often implying that new, non-traditional answers will become standard for these questions. For example, as she discusses her fourth question in terms of family structure, she inserts this comment about the introduction of the pill and its effect on gender roles: “There is, again, nothing inherently right or wrong in these changes. There is only change itself.”5 Throughout, she ignores the objections of various groups of Christians, neither refuting them nor justifying the goodness of the changes, but presenting the most non-traditional form of Christianity as the form that is going to prevail doctrinally in the Great Emergence.

So far, Tickle only notes an emerging response to her first essential question: authority lies in “Scripture and the community.”6 Theological discussion outside of traditional religion and exchange of ideas replace the more traditional hierarchical forms of authority. Tickle predicts that mysticism, emphasizing experience and paradox, will become much more prominent, as well as interest in pre-Constantine Christianity. Codified doctrine, which assumed a much greater role in Christianity after Constantine and was closely associated with temporal authority, will decline in its importance in unifying communities. What is emerging through these changes is not Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, but rather something new that comes out of conversation and the mixing of all forms of Christianity. Appropriately, then, Tickle calls the new form of Christianity “emergent Christianity.” The Church is a network rather than a building, a fixed set of beliefs, or a tradition inherited from the family. Tickle’s clearest description of the nature of this new form of Christianity is that “‘emergent’ Christianity is fundamentally a body of people, a conversation, if you will.”7

While emergent Christianity puts more emphasis on community and less on doctrine and theory, this change is not reflected in The Great Emergence. The influences on history mentioned in the book are almost exclusively intellectual and theoretical social issues. As Tickle discusses the origins of the Great Emergence, she focuses on intellectuals, such as Einstein and Freud, and social trends, such as the automobile and the rise of women in the workplace, in order to explain the increased importance of community. Even worse, there is no hint of an active God in any of these changes. Her perspective and presentation of the matter tries to absolve the Christian of any blame in the state of affairs, taking away any responsibility for action on the part of the Church. The system of cycles slips into a kind of history where there is no actual progress or regress, only change. Ideas are portrayed as becoming outdated, with little explanation of why they are outdated or why the changes are good. With this perspective, guilt is “neither appropriate, justified, nor productive,”8 and history takes care of itself. Both those who choose to remain in traditional settings and those who embrace change are given similar gentle approval, which dilutes any enthusiasm for the work of God, personal action, or leadership.

Through all of this, Tickle does not define Christianity, either what essentials should remain through all the changes,or what does in fact remain the same. While she claims to include every form of Christianity, her lack of opinion, judgment, or any central doctrine leaves many Christians out of the conversation that is her “Great Emergence.” Arguing that Christianity is reacting to societal changes, Tickle misses out on the grandeur of saying that God is doing a new thing.

[1] The Great Emergence, p. 28

[2] 45

[3] 73

[4] 112

[5] 114

[6] 151

[8] 104

[10] 42

Jennifer Delurey ’12 is a History and Literature concentrator in Winthrop House.

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