The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why

Phyllis Tickle Baker Books, Grand Rapids October 1, 2008
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Tickle is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and a recognized expert on religion in America. In this book she evaluates the current state of Christianity in America and makes predictions about its future. Her focus is clearly defined: “We are looking at emergent and emerging Christianity from the North American, and primarily the United States, perspective. Yet emergent Christianity in this country does not exist in isolation, either geographically or culturally” (p. 120).

Following the metaphor proposed by Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer, Tickle observes that approximately every five hundred years the church holds a giant rummage sale. In short at about half-millennium intervals “the empowered structures of institutional Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur” (p. 16). Counting back from the twenty-first century in five-hundred-year intervals, she calls attention to the Great Reformation (sixteenth century), the Great Schism (eleventh century), Gregory the Great and monasticism (sixth century), and the Great Transformation (at the time of Jesus). Her designation for the most recent change is “The Great Emergence.” As she uses it, “Emergence” is a broader designation than the “emerging/emergent” conversation, although, of course, the two cannot be separated.

In the bulk of the book Tickle presents a compelling case for transformations in American Christianity during the twentieth century as a result of the impact of Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday, the advent of radio and television, Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, the quest(s) for the historical Jesus, Pentecostalism, automobiles and the interstate highway system, Karl Marx and materialism, Alcoholics Anonymous, Buddhism, recreational drug usage, Rosie the Riveter and the reconfiguration of the family, the first and second Vatican councils, the loss of scriptural authority, and others. Her observations and the connections she draws between these factors make for a fascinating story. Any such treatment in a book of this size is necessarily brief and shallow, but Tickle’s sketch of the twentieth century illustrates the confluence of multiple influences within a relatively short period of time. Surely no one could ignore the fact that the effects of such factors have radically reshaped the religious culture of the twenty-first century.

When she moves from description to prescription, or from historical survey to futurist predictions, Tickle becomes more controversial. Some of her claims strain credibility. For example she argues that “the new Christianity of the Great Emergence must discover some authority base or delivery system and/or governing agency of its own. It must formulate—and soon—something other than Luther’s sola scriptura which, although used so well by the Great Reformation originally, is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities” (pp. 150–51). Surely evangelicals do not jettison the authority of Scripture just because the culture thinks it is outmoded or insufficient.

Other claims are clearly overstated or oversimplified and thus are inaccurate. For example she asserts that “doctrine as a codified part of Christianity was born under Constantine and was, among other things, formalized for his convenience” (p. 161). However, doctrine and confessions were developed by and used in catechism by the apostles and the apostolic fathers. Although Constantine likely used doctrine for his convenience, he did not invent doctrinal Christianity.

Also some of Tickle’s conclusions are dangerously naïve or even insidious. She makes the bold claim that “the actual nature of the Atonement, for example, or the tenet of an angry God who must be appeased or the question of evil’s origins are suddenly all up for reconsideration” (p. 162). Does she intend to advocate reconsideration of substitutionary atonement as an essential Christian doctrine? In a stunning summary she writes, “If in pursuing this line of exegesis, the Great Emergence really does what most of its observers think it will, it will rewrite Christian theology—and thereby North American culture—into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years” (p. 162). Tickle seems to be advocating a rewriting of Christian theology into something that will emerge as less than Christian.

This work helpfully summarizes the current state of American Christianity in popular culture and clearly illustrates the challenges facing evangelical Christians who are committed to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology, and the Reformation solas. The challenges are great, but so are the resources provided by the God who is truth. Even in the midst of rapidly changing cultures, the God of truth remains constant and unchanging. His Word is eternal, and it remains trustworthy. Tickle’s book articulates well the cultural challenges. Her solutions to these challenges are not as helpful.

—Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2009 vol. 166 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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