Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle spoke at an event during the General Assembly of the PCUSA on the subject of her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Subsequently I engaged in a discussion on my blog (Quotidian Grace)  and in a podcast with Rev. Landon Whitsitt, the Vice Moderator of the PCUSA, about her statement in the book and during her speech that "sola scriptura" is dead.

I was not at GA to hear her speak but I have now read her book. A copy was given to me by a friend at presbytery who was very enthusiastic about it, so I took it as as sign that I needed to read it.

I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about The Great Emergence as my friend.

This is a short book packed full of sweeping generalizations, which the author readily admits can be nit-picked, so I will spare you my lengthy list of nits. Tickle begins with a quick overview of the history of the church since the time of the apostles until today. She deduces that the church goes through a big upheaval ("emergence") roughly every 500 years in which it "cleans out its attic" of non-essentials and disposes of the non-essentials which have cluttered up and impeded its mission and purpose.

That's a reasonable general metaphor. However she totally loses me when she says "we begin to refer to Luther's principle of 'sola scriptura, scriptura sola' as having been little more than the creation of a paper pope in place of a flesh and blood one." Tickle throws out fundamental principles of faith along with the barnacles of human history and tradition.

Tickle is an Episcopalian and that denomination views Scripture, Reason and Tradition as having equal authority for the Christian believer (the "three-legged stool" of Episcopalian theology). As a Presbyterian, I do not believe that human reason and tradition have the same authority as scripture. This is where she and I part ways.

Tickle, like many progressive Christians,  makes the mistake of conflating those who hold to the five solas (sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus and soli Deo gloria) with those who adhere to inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible. They are not the same groups although there is some overlap between them.

My fundamental disagreement with Tickle's theological point of view, aside, I also question her emphasis on the influence of the PBS series "The Power of Myth", the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Timothy Leary as major contributors to the emergence she describes. She does do a good job of analyzing the influence of the automobile, the birth control pill and the move of women into the workforce in large numbers at the end of the twentieth century on the life of the traditional churches in America. However those points have been made before.

I stumbled around page 35 with Tickle's diagram and description of the cable of religion. I found it unintelligible and put the book aside for a few days. There are several more diagrams at the end of the book which were likewise abstruse. Readers with an affinity for that sort of thing  may find them helpful.

 One of the reasons I read the book was to learn what the "emergent church" is. Alas, this is the closest Tickle came to enlightening me on the subject:
"...when pinned down and forced to answer the question, 'What is the Emergent or Emerging Church?' most who are will answer 'a conversation' which is not only true but which will always be true. The Great Emergence can not "be", and be otherwise.
Excuse me?? Say that again?? I'm afraid that for me parts of this book are an exercise in imprecise thinking lurking beneath  a pretentiously intellectual presentation.

Tickle is correct when she observes that many within the church today are questioning or rejecting the authority of scripture as the guide for faith and life as well as what she terms the "exclusivist" claims that Christ alone is the way to salvation. That should be decried, not encouraged.

I've attended my share of conferences that focus on reviving/awakening/reforming the church over the years and seen many trends come and go. I'll be surprised if the "emergent church" isn't just another one.