The Great Emergence

The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why
By Phyllis Tickle
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008
Review by Carl McColman

The cover of this book— featuring four images of Jesus, cobbled together to kinda sorta create a composite image of the Christ — is a hint about where Phyllis Tickle ultimately takes her introductory survey of emergent Christianity. This is a useful and often entertaining, if not entirely satisfying, short overview of the historical forces that have led to what is probably the most controversial movement within American Christianity today, particularly in the evangelical world. Emergent (or emerging, both variants get used, it seems interchangeably) forms of Christianity are diffuse, decentralized, and therefore somewhat maddeningly impossible to pin down, but the easiest simple definition of this phenomenon would be “the expression of Christianity that has emerged following the encounter between the faith and the postmodern world.”

Naysayers argue that Christianity doesn’t need to be shaped or influenced by postmodernity, any more than the Republican party needs to be influenced by Barack Obama. But this kind of purity-driven rejection of anything perceived as “un-” or “not sufficiently” Christian has been around since the early days, when some of the church fathers tried to engage in dialogue with the Greek philosophers while others rejected such efforts as threatening to Christian identity. Similar tensions have arisen around Christianity’s engagement with science, modernity, Eastern religions, and now postmodernity. Phyllis Tickle avoids any hint or moralizing or sermonizing and does not try to weigh in on whether postmodern expressions of Christianity is a good thing or not — although her upbeat assessment of how the faith holds a “rummage sale” every five centuries or so (she sees the flowering of monasticism in the sixth century, the great schism in the eleventh, and the reformation in the sixteenth, as pivotal events in Christian history, and asserts that “the great emergence” of the 21st century will stand alongside those earlier transformative events) suggests that she is pretty much affirming of the emergent conversation.

Tickle is a natural born storyteller and she truly shines when she simply and succinctly traces the  history of the social, cultural, scientific, religious and spiritual events over the last century or so that have culminated in the roiling transformation of Christianity that she calls the Great Emergence. She’s not afraid to look at the particular challenges to Christian concepts of authority that are inherent in the emergent conversation. She writes primarily for a Protestant audience, which left me disappointed in how she didn’t give more coverage to the role that Vatican II has played in the Christian community at large.

The final fourth of the book attempts to situate the Great Emergence in the social dynamics of American Christianity as a whole, and to do this, Tickle uses a four-quadrant model of the church, eschewing old denominational boundaries in favor of seeing the church in terms of conservatives, renewalists (Pentecostals and Charismatics), liturgicals (Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and so forth) and the “social justice” crowd (liberal mainline Protestants, for example). She then considers how each of these groups includes those who embrace the idea of a unifying great emergence, as well as those who resist such meta-ecumenical trends. It’s an interesting way to think about Christianity on a macro scale — but ultimately this discussion felt incomplete, for Tickle basically avoids committing herself to the question of “whither emergent Christianity?” She neither risks predictions or prescriptions: we never find out in any detail what she thinks emergent Christianity is going to look like, or (perhaps more important) what she might suggest that it should look like. Following her four quadrant model, she suggests that the Christianity of the future will include new, emergent expressions of the faith, retrenched conservative/reactionary expressions of traditional forms of the church, both Catholic and Protestant, and various shades of “counter-emergent” expressions within the traditional denominations but to varying degrees shaped or influenced by the Great Emergence. That all makes perfect sense, but I’m left wishing that she would have offered more details about what she herself thinks will (or ought to)  happen.

But that’s really the only misstep in what is otherwise a very accessible and useful introduction to emergent Christianity, that can be used to dispel any feelings that emergent spirituality represents a “novelty” or a radical break with tradition. Tickle shows that even to whatever extent the emergent movement breaks with the past, it does so having been shaped by the very past it seeks to distance itself from. And that, alone, makes this a book well worth reading (and sharing with others).

Concerning Emergence, Contemplation, and the Faith of the Future
Five Things I learned from Phyllis Tickle
Sister Joan Chittister and the Way of Paradox
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
  • PrickliestPear

    “Tickle shows that even to whatever extent the emergent movement breaks with the past, it does so having been shaped by the very past it seeks to distance itself from.”

    I think one of the differences between traditional and more progressive (or “emergent”) forms of Christianity is that traditionalists see “tradition” as a fixed norm against which the individual’s faith is to be measured (and judged “orthodox” or not), while more progressive Christians understand that tradition is part of the context that shapes who we are. When we run into problems with that which has been handed down, we don’t “break with tradition” so much as we expand it by finding newer and (hopefully) better ways of expressing our understanding. When you look at the changes Christianity (like every major religion) has gone through over the centuries, it’s pretty clear that this is what participating in the tradition has always entailed.

  • Steve Hayes

    Thanks for a comprehensive and comprehensible review. I don’t think I’ll rush out to buy the book though. I might take it out if I see it in the library.