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The Great Emergence Book Review

Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence:
How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Publishing Group, 2008), 172pp.
Reviewed by Mr. Storage
January 31, 2010

A major shift in North American Christianity is currently taking place, with the advent of the emergent or emerging church. In The Great Emergence, Tickle provides a history of this phenomenon, explaining the primary nature of the changes, and the historical reasons for it. She does this by answering three questions about the Great Emergence: what is it, how did it come to be, and where is it going?

Part 1 answers the question, “What is it?” Tickle explains Christianity undergoes major cultural shifts about every 500 years, starting with Jesus’ arrival in the 1st century, followed by changes during the time of Gregory the Great in the 6th century, the Great Schism in the 11th century, and most recently, the Great Reformation, 500 years ago. During these major upheavals, the Church holds a giant “rummage sale” of ideas, discarding some, keeping others, in an effort to answer the fundamental question, “What is Authority?” The Great Reformation’s answer was sola scriptura, which resulted in a split of Christianity into two traditions, Catholic and Protestant. Christianity was due for a new shift, and this time the Great Emergence is questioning the authority of sola scriptura.

Part 1 also introduces Tickle’s analogy for describing religion as a social construct. She uses the metaphor of a boat attached to shore by a cable, representing the human social unit attached to some purpose or power greater than itself by the cable of meaning. (34) The cable is composed of three parts which must be examined before the great time of change can be complete. These parts are: the outer shell, which is the story or shared narrative of the social unit; the inner mesh sleeve, which is the common imagination or common agreement of the social unit; and a three part interwoven core of spirituality, corporeality, and morality. Part 3 explores some of the impact the Great Emergence has had on the Church’s current cable of meaning.

In Part 1, Tickle emphasises how events in the years preceding each great change set the stage for the major shift to occur. Part 2 answers the question, “How did it come to be?” by describing first, the conclusions of the Great Reformation, and second, the developments of the peri-emergent period. It is the changes from the Great Reformation, the last major shift, that provide the basis for the challenges confronting the Great Emergence. The Great Reformation answered the question of authority by transferring authority from the papacy to scripture, encapsulated by the concept sola scriptura, scriptura sola.

Developments in science, psychology, and technology during the peri-emergent period have provided the agents of change that sparked the questioning of authority which has led to the Great Emergence. Tickle points to scientists like Darwin and Faraday, and psychologists like Freud and Jung as catalysts of change. Their contributions –the theory of evolution, the role of the subconscious in human thought- shattered many of the illusions held by Christians, challenging beliefs explained away for centuries as “another one of God’s mysteries.” These factors helped erode the concept of sola scriptura, bringing up anew the question, “What is authority?”

The increasing complexity of technology, culminating in the internet, allowed easier broadcast of these challenging ideas. New concepts that would have been rejected as heresy coming from the pulpit were now beamed into people’s homes via mass media. This allowed people to process potentially discomfiting ideas and information outside of the church, in a place where they felt comfortable and in control. These developments in science, along with technological globalization, and the “I’m spiritual, not religious” movement initiated in the 60s and 70s brought the spiritual strand of the cable of meaning under examination. Tickle describes a final blow to sola scriptura due to debates over the ordination of women, slavery, divorce and homosexuality. These contentious issues made it clear that, while scripture as the source of authority may not be dead altogether, the protestant method of teaching scripture was in need of serious overhaul. (101)

Part 3 answers the questions, “Where is it going?” Tickle is humble enough to admit “there is a certain temerity, if not outright arrogance, in thinking that any of us can answer before the fact such a question as where a cataclysmic shift in human affairs ultimately is going to go,” (119) but she does give a run down on the changes taking place, and the questions that need to be answered before the Great Emergence is complete. The central and overarching question that must be answered is, “Where now, is the authority?” As sola scriptura remains the foundational source of authority for Protestantism, this becomes the dividing point of contention for the Great Emergence.

Tickle proposes a series of images to understand the growth of the emergent church in the future. She begins by placing Christian denominations on a quadrilateral diagram, then shows a centripetal force of exchanging ideas swirling from the centre, which is the evolving emergent church. Finally, she points out the importance of resistance, which keeps the centripetal force of swirling ideas from spinning out of control. Tickle also touches on how the Great Emergence addresses issues like metanarrative and logic.

Tickle provides an informative and insightful perspective on the phenomenon she calls the Great Emergence. Writing a history of an event that is currently underway is a tall order, but I find her focus on the past sets the foundation for truly understanding what is happening in the present. In his review, Jonathan Brink states, “It’s much more than a history book. It’s a clear and concise look into the strings that moved and are moving the system.”[1] We cannot understand the events unfolding around us without some knowledge of the preceding events that brought about the current changes. Her discussion of the Reformation and its effect on the peri-emergent period, and explanation of the various events that shaped the beginning of the Great Emergence are invaluable for understanding where we are going.

In that regard, although the history lessons of Parts 1 and 2 are important, I felt more time needed to be given to Part 3’s discussion of the future for the emerging church. Tickle does touch on changes happening inter-denominationally, and which questions have not yet been answered for the culmination of the Great Emergence, but more discussion on what changes to theology the Great Emergence will cause would complete the analysis. I also think an introduction of some key emergent leaders, such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, and their work, would add depth to the final section.

I also found it strange that Tickle rarely mentions God. I understand she is focused on the underlying issue of the authority of scripture, but as Phil Bourne asks in his review, “Where does God, as the Bible describes him, fit into all of this?”[2] Christianity is God-centric as much as it is scripture-centric, and with the belief that he is an active participant in our history and the shaping of our world, I thought mention of him would be important.

The Great Emergence is a great resource for those looking for a brief history of the important events that set the stage for this shift in Christianity, as well as an overview of the changes that are currently taking place. While I found it had a few shortcomings, and could have cited a few more sources in order to give her claims a little more authority, I found it to be a great book for those interested in the history behind the emergent church.

[1] Phil Bourn, “Book Review: Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.” St. Francis Magazine 5:6, December 2009: 178-186, http://www.stfrancismagazine.info/ja/13%20PhilBourne-bookreview(1).pdf
[2] Jonathan Brink, “The Great Emergence Book Review,” October 7, 2008, The Adventurous Way, http://jonathanbrink.com/2008/10/07/the-great-emergence-book-review/

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