A Question for Phyllis Tickle.

I have been at the Emergence Christianity gathering in Memphis for the last day and a half.  The focus of this conference is celebrating the life and work of Phyllis Tickle.  It’s been delightful to hear Phyllis speak, after praying the Divine Hours for over a decade and reading many of her other books.

Phyllis gave two lengthy talks — both astoundingly without any notes at all! – that gave shape to a historical narrative for emergence Christianity.  The basic thrust of this history was that there have been major cultural upheavals every 500 years, which coincided with major transitions in Christian history, and that we are in one of the these periods of transitions today.  This narrative is compelling and provides a meaningful explanation for the genesis of emergence Christianity today.

The one part, however, of this story that struck me as peculiar was Phyllis’ insistence that “the age of the Spirit” began in 1906 with the Azusa Street revivals.   I certainly agree with Phyllis that this Pentecostal movement is essential to the history of Emergence Christianity, what perplexes me though is her insistence that this was the dawning of Pentecostalism and the onset of the age of the Spirit.  It seems to me that there have movements of Pentecostal renewal throughout the history of the church, movements that were energized particuarly by the stories the Jerusalem church at Pentecost.  John Howard Yoder (and other Anabaptist scholars) have traced this history through early monastic including the desert mothers and fathers, St. Benedict, the Waldensians (and other Christian groups outside of Roman Catholicism in the late Medieval era), the Anabaptists, the Quakers (as one conference participant noted on Twitter), etc, etc.  It seems that the history of intentionally Pentecostal movements goes all the way back to … well… Pentecost.   Maybe literally speaking in tongues was a distinctive of the modern Pentecostal movement — but as some scholars have notes (drawing a blank here? Brueggemann maybe??) the speaking of tongues at Pentecost was a reversal of the curse of Babel, a breaking down of the linguistic and cultural barriers that divide humanity.  All the movements named above have embodied in their own ways this Pentecostal spirit of living out the freedom of a life where Christ has torn down the veils that divide humanity.
I love the work that Phyllis is doing and it is very meaningful for emergence Christianity, but I think it fails to convey the complexity, particuarly of the Church’s history at least in the way that I describe above and perhaps in other ways as well.

So, my question for other conference participants — or others who have read her newest book Emergence Christianity — am I off-base here? Are there points at which Phyllis’ narrative is too simplistic?  And does it matter for the work she is trying to do?

Scot McKnight – A Fellowship of Differents [Patheos Book Club]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Slow Church…
Two Slow Church-related ebooks on sale now!
Ragan Sutterfield – This is my Body [Patheos Book Club]
  • jvoorhees

    I was talking with Mike Baughman last night about the fact that she conveniently leaves out the Wesleyan stream because it happens outside the 500 year schema (200+ years later) and American revivalism as a whole. I’d agree with you in that she leaves out the monastic traditions (including the desert fathers and mothers), and the entire mystical tradition in Christianity. I think there is some value in pointing to influences, but it does fall into a simplistic narrative that can easily fall into failing to recognize the complexity of our religious heritage — a complexity which may be a reason that emergence is subdividing (according to her analysis) into our own various sects/streams.

    • http://twitter.com/ERBks EnglewoodReviewOfBks

      Yes, I should have included Methodism…. Great point, Jay! BTW, great to meet you this weekend!!!

  • http://twitter.com/adamrshields Adam Shields

    Love Tickle. She is a lousy historian.

  • tim

    I too use and love the Divine Hours and have enjoyed other of Phyllis Tickle’s books. But the Great Emergence was just awful. Yes, she has some insights throughout, but mainly it is scattered historical fact and generalization forced into a preconceived framework about the past mixed with some dubious claims for the future. It overreaches and oversimplifies at the same time.

  • Ric Hudgens

    Where is the black church? Does it only get included as part of the Pentecostal movement?

    Or is the black church the renewing stream that breaks to the surface in the twentieth century after flowing underground for two centuries?

    And who gets to decide this?

    • http://twitter.com/ERBks EnglewoodReviewOfBks

      Great point, Ric. My intuition was that there were Pentecostal movements in Black (and other non- white/Western) Christianity prior to Azusa, but honestly I — sadly — don’t know enough about Black Church history prior to 1906… Chris

  • Gary Lynch

    Not overly familiar with Tickle (I have some of Articles, but none of books other than excerpts) or emergence so maybe I don’t have a voice here, maybe the best one to ask would be Phyliss (it may just be her opinion based on the facts as she sees them). As for the babel curse I still don’t believe that it has been totally reversed maybe temporarily suspended during that first Pentecost or maybe partially reversed. In my opinion based not on education but more on observation, their is still an awful lot of babeling going on and I have not heard any clear voice bringing it to an end, still many voices; instead of the one clear voice who cried in the wilderness, I know that the Church should be that one clear, distinct, understandable voice crying out, but I just can’t hear it through all the babel. I do hear it though when I sit alone with God in His silence and I know that others do as well and that gives me hope that one day, that one clear voice will be heard again, crying out with its unmistakable call to repentance and pointing to the Way of Christ. One day…

  • http://twitter.com/DyfedWyn Dyfed Roberts

    Why refer to Babel’s mixing of language as a curse? Could it not have been a redemptive act that reversed the curse of uniformity?

    As for Tickle, I haven’t read enough of her work. Do other historians agree with her?
    As for Tickle

    • http://twitter.com/ERBks EnglewoodReviewOfBks

      Intriguing point on Babel… Regardless, I’ m primarily interested in the meaning of Babel and Pentecost for the divine/human relationship…

  • Bill

    Thank you for saying it out loud. “The Great Emergence” attempted to suggest this grand 500 year cycle of renewal, but left out so much that didn’t fit the model. The “age of the Spirit” has always been here, sometimes prominent, at other times subdued.

    If the history behind it is so weak, why is Phyllis Tickle’s model so attractive to so many? As I see it, what people are hearing is, “We have finally found the truth! We have it together more than anybody else who came before. So we are the generation that will fix God’s church!” It appeals to a very modern conceit that this generation is smarter, wiser, more advanced in every way than any that have come before – that our spirituality is superior because we know more. And this is a dangerous conceit. It leads to a spirituality that is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep.

  • Mary

    I think it’s helpful to point out that Tickle is a journalist, not a theologian, and I think, at heart, a sociologist, so she’s describing trends on a macro scale. Her point is that these trends are cyclical. The 500 year benchmarks are simply to hang the information on. So, I believe her narrative is simplistic on purpose. We’re still building a framework, and even she says that trying to describe the Emerging Church movement from within is not something that’s really ever been done before. In a few hundred years, we’ll see it in a whole different way, but seeing the movement from within as a logical extension of what’s already been happening in Christianity for 2000 years places the movement squarely in the realm of Christian history and experience and not wildly outside.

  • David Van Biema

    i’m only a journalist and didn’t attend the conference and haven’t read the book. But from my superficial standpoint, Asuza was very important. No, its Pentecostal spirit wasn’t original, either in terms of the early church or, for that matter, at the time: as I recall, William Seymour, who was black or mixed race, had a formative experience at a white church in Kansas (listening in a window, I believe) before making his mark in Los Angeles with an interracial revival. But whatever the streams that can be legitimately said to have prefigured Asuza’s success or prepared the ground for it, it was a landmark moment in American religion, covered breathlessly by the national and international press and introducing the kinds of Pentecostalism, black and white, that we are most familiar with today. Again, I haven’t read or heard Tickle about the importance of this to the current Emerging Church, and it’s no doubt possible to overplay it in that context. But the great river of pentecostalism now flowing through the country can in large part be traced back to Seymour’s revival in Las Angeles. Thanks for putting up with the late-night thoughts of an amateur.

  • David Van Biema

    correction: “Los Angeles”

  • Viola Larson

    I enjoyed your post and good questions. Personally I think Phyllis Tickle is treading on some thin theological grounds which troubles me a lot. i wasn’t at the EC but read most of the tweets. I hope it is alright to put it here but I have written a review several days ago, before I knew of the conference, of her latest book. before becoming a Presbyterian, over twenty years ago, I was a member of a church in Sacramento which was a part of the Jesus Movement. I see little of the progressive side of emergent Christianity in what I knew then. Anyway here is the review: http://www.naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-review-of-phyllis-tickles-emergence.html

    • rdhudgens

      Good review Viola.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cccwimmer Carol Wimmer

    For now we see through a mirror dimly … Sorry, but the idea of 500-year-cycles provides me with more questions than answers. It doesn’t clarify anything because it applies the passage of temporal time to that which transcends the confines of time. Let the Spirit move without trying to pin it to the human clock. My two-cents.