Great Emergence

I recently read The Great Emergence. It is an important piece in the conversation and there’s a lot to talk about in it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s an easy read, and it’s friendly for lay people. Phyllis Tickle places the emerging church in the context of gritty history, and her writing style shines when she reminisces. The way that she details the women’s movement, for instance, is charming.

Tickle has a refreshing perspective, and much different than most Episcopalians that I’ve met. As an example, she highlights John Wimber and the Vineyard Church has an important moment in church history, while I’m often hard-pressed to find a mainliner who knows what that is.

At the heart of Tickle’s analysis, there is the question of power. And in particular, she points out the threat to sola scriptura. In the Reformation, “scripture alone” (along with the five other sola’s) became the source of authority as well as the passionate cry for so many who wanted to critique the Roman Catholic Church.

And now, in the midst of postmodern upheaval, with the evolution of literary criticism, we are beginning to realize how one cannot rely on the words of Scripture alone. There has to be someone reading, there has to be someone interpreting. And since we are all different, with a multiplicity of passions and histories, when we sit down with the Scriptures, we cannot divorce ourselves from the process.

We bring ourselves into it. We have on that page, not only the words, but also the context of the author. And the choices of the translators. Add to that, we have our own our educational background, our personal history, our historical context, our motivations. The page gets very crowded. And so, we realize that a plain reading is not possible. When there is a text, there is disagreement. And sola scriptura breaks down.

So, where is the power now?

It is in Scripture and in the community, the conversation, the network.

I appreciate the way that Tickle broadens the conversation, explaining the upheaval not only from the conservative corner of the church (which we most often hear about), but also pointing out what is happening with Social Justice Christians (Mainline denominations like PCUSA), Liturgicals (Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics), Renewalists (Charismatics, Pentacostals), and Conservatives (Evangelicals).

There are a couple of places that I have some disagreement, maybe in what was left out more than what was there. Although Tickle brought up the women’s movement and much of her conversation hinged on Diana Butler Bass’ important idea of sacred re-traditioning, I was hoping that she would write more about women.

All of the amazing and fresh work that is happening in theology, where women’s voices are being heard and taught. They have been earth shattering and courageous as they have take on texts of terror and demanded that their perspective be heard in our academies, with all of their particularities. What women have been doing in our pulpits for the past fifty years, surely that has shaken the foundations of Christendom. Feminist critiques, whether they be from Julia Kristeva or Rita Nakashima Brock, have had a highly significant impact on our faith in the midst of postmodernity.

Unfortunately, The Great Emergence does not reflect the great diversity of gender or ethnicities that are causing shifts in American religion. It is an account of players who are almost exclusively white males. This is not a new critique of the emerging church, and certainly not a new one from me. I was just hoping that Tickle would bring a much-needed corrective to the conversation.

There are other points of discussion that I could bring up. For instance, we could talk about technology, crowd-sourcing, and whether is it truly egalitarian (Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s convincing me otherwise).

There also seems to be a sense, from Tickle’s analysis of the gathering center, that there are pure emergents, and others who are more on the edges (she nods to the metaphor of rose petals).

I would tend to disagree with this. It seems to me that we are all emerging from something, but Tickle seems to be saying that those who are emerging from evangelicalism are somehow more central to what is happening in the whole Christianity.

Am I understanding this correctly? And if I am, if evangelical emergence is at the heart, then that could explain the movement’s propensity for glossing over important women’s voices.

I’ll close with a question. In the pages, Tickle says that the hyphen-mergents (presbymergents, Angli-mergents, Metho-mergents, Luther-mergents) will need to decide, “Which are we, and where do we belong?”

This aside is probably the one place where I disagree with Tickle the most. I am a postmodern Presbyterian. I may not fit into a chart very easily, I may not fit into my own denomination very easily. But I do not feel any pressure to make a decision one way or the other about who I am or where I belong.

So, what do you think?


6 thoughts on “Great Emergence

  1. I’d partially concur with Tickle’s assessment. It’s the post-“evangelical” conversation that’s most central, because…and I’ve pitched this idea your way before…it primarily represents generational resistance to contemporary American Christianity’s combination of predigested emo-liturgics and idolatrous bible worship. While I’m simpatico to emergence, I don’t see it’s narrative as entirely my own. That may just be a factor of my own personal narrative. I had the *cough* good fortune *cough* to have been a cradle Presbyterian, after all.

    That said, I similarly feel no great desire to declare myself one or the other. We belong where God calls us, and at the moment, God hasn’t made that kind of party allegiance mandatory.

    I think the answer is: “We are both, and we belong where God calls us.”

  2. Carol,

    I always appreciate your incisive comments and this review is no different.

    I suspect that Phyllis may have neglected gender because she assumes it–a rather different approach than other emergent leaders whom you have called to task.

    But, now that you point it out, I, too, wish she had been more overt in talking about the way in which feminist theology has shaped emerging Christianity. She accepts and lives out that theology. Perhaps she needed to be more intentional about that in her analysis.

    Sounds like a good topic for your next book!

    (And speaking of next books, my next one has LOTS of women in it…!)

    Peace, Diana

  3. Pingback: The Great Emergence : presbymergent

  4. Diana,

    That’s so good to hear. Just as we cannot separate the author from the text when talking about Scripture, we also cannot separate the fact that The Great Emergence is written from the perspective from a great feminist thinker. And that is certainly an undercurrent flowing throughout the book.

    And, I can’t wait for your next one!

  5. I think the time is coming when the hyphen-mergents will have to decide where we belong. In most instances we have more in common with each other, as products of postmodernism, than we do with whatever name we put after the hyphen. We don’t fir the old liberal/conservative divides of the mainline and those delineations simply annoy us.

    It is possible that we will still wear the “Presbyterian” mantle in the future but it will be a very different Presbyterianism from the one we have today.

  6. Thanks for this fine review. Two thoughts–I’d concur with Diana’s take on Phyllis’ work–a strong smart woman writer will naturally write out of that experience and not feel the need to point out how smart and strong women can be. And I too think authority is going to be not just scriptural but communal–that ecclesiology, whatever ecclesia looks like, is going to be vital to people’s experience of faith. It certainly has been for me.

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