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Christianity: Undergoing a Great Emergence?


Phyllis Tickle is the founding editor of the religion section of Publisher’s Weekly, a position created when the market for spiritual books exploded in the late 1980’s (she started in the early 1990’s).  From that vantage point, and given her own theological predispositions, she has had a unique perspective on the unfolding debates within Christendom that are both dividing denominations and arguably creating what she, in a recent book, terms a Great Emergence (Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, BakerBooks, 2008).

The book starts with an intriguing premise whose promise is, I think, unfulfilled as Tickle works through the argument.  The idea is that Christianity (she is also willing to concede this may be true of the Islamic and Jewish traditions; pgs. 29-30) moves in roughly 500-year cycles, each concluded by significant ideological upheaval, schism, and regeneration.  Thus roughly 500 years ago was the Protestant Reformation (dated to 1517, when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church, portrayed in the image above), another 500 years before that the Great Schism, and another 500 years earlier to the work and aftermath of the Chalcedon Council.   Following the standard accounts, the Great Schism is credited as producing, in no small measure under the example of Gregory the Great, an end to the wars that had split Christendom into three competing regional institutions.  And the debates settled or papered over at Chalcedon in 451 led in turn to the production of a monastic culture that preserved literacy and learning through the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire.  By this historical reckoning, we are roughly due for another rebooting of the Christian faith, or, as Tickle puts it, following the Anglican bishop Mark Dyer, a “giant rummage sale” – all of which will induce Christianity 5.0, as it were.

The term Great Emergence references the phenomenon of religious uncertainty and a crisis of spiritual authority in the modern world, and also broader cultural transformations, such as globalization (15), information overload (15), and the World Wide Web (53).

While one can never be certain of the outcome, Tickle takes comfort from the historical fact that “there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events.  First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge.  Second, the organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self…  The third result is of equal, if not greater significance”:  “…every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken up, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas…” (17).  This leads her to a repeated expression of optimism, even when (as follows) she is recounting the worst aspects of Christian history (here, colonialism):

…the more or less colonialized Church that Reformation Protestantism and Catholicism managed to plant was, obviously more or less colonialized, with all the demeaning psychological, political, cultural, and social overtones and resentments which that term brings with it.  One does not have to be particularly gifted as a seer these days, however, to perceive the Great Emergence already swirling like balm across that wound, bandaging it with genuinely egalitarian conversation and with an undergirding assumption of shared brotherhood and sisterhood in a world being redeemed. (29).

The ferment in the Christian world today is, depending on one’s perspective, evidence of the End of the Age and a coming Rapture/Apocalypse, evidence that rationalism has finally ushered religious superstition into the final death throes announced almost fifty years ago with the phrase God is Dead, evidence of a long overdue urgent need for Christian revival, or, as is argued here, the birth pangs of a reconfigured and stronger faith tradition.  One problem in Tickle’s argument is that she starts by asserting a case that needs to be proved:  why derive confidence from the Episcopal or Anglican schisms, or the increasing divide between mainstream Christianity as understood in, say, North America and Africa?  why believe that the denominational spasms opened by the debates over gay marriage and Terry Schiavo are the happy start of a revitalized faith as opposed to signifying irreparable breaches in the Body of Christ?  One cannot simply point to prior reformations as establishing the case for optimism.

The book goes downhill, not because the author lacks insight, but because the issues it engages are inevitably too complicated to be reduced to the metaphorical images Tickle offers as roadmaps to an ever more fragmented religious scene.  Those maps are just complicated enough to seem awkward (religious signification is like a cable connecting a boat to a dock, where the cable has an outer waterproof covering that is the story of community, an internal mesh sleeve which is the common imagination, and internal woven strands signifying spirituality, corporeality, and morality:  get it?) but not complex enough to do justice to the worlds of faith.  And all this is worsened in the final pages, where a 2-by-2 grid is made more and more complex, such that by the end the picture has been made into an unholy mess.  The grids that organize the book thus give rise to sentences that make no sense:  “Corporeality’s active presence in religion is also the reason why doctrinal differences like those surrounding homosexuality, for example, are more honestly and effectively dealt with as corporeal rather than as moral issues” (39).  Huh?

The book’s middle section, which aims to enumerate the factors that have brought us to this juncture, is the weakest.  While naming all the usual suspects (Darwin, Freud, the pill, industrial transformation, science, Marxism, recreational drug use, womens’ rights organizing that changed the family, and others), the argument sometimes veers into weird territory.  Alcoholics Anonymous is blamed for making God generic.  The automobile is accused of weakening grandma’s Sunday afternoon hegemony over religious training (instead of interrogating the kids about that morning’s Sunday School lesson, the kids took the car on a fast Sunday drive; pg. 87).  The Sony Walkman and the iPod are blamed for ruining worship services (105).  Generation X disenchantment with organized religion is ironically blamed on efforts by the church to extend programs into communities, like after-school basketball (91).

Joseph Campbell (the Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bill Moyers guy) is named the leading suspect in the collapse of Christianity authority, a claim that seems wildly exaggerated (Tickle:  “It would be very difficult, in speaking of the coming of the Great Emergence, to overestimate the power of Campbell in the disestablishment of what is called ‘the Christian doctrine of particularity’ and ‘Christian exclusivity,” pg. 67).  The central claims of Marx’s Das Kapital are significantly caricatured (89).  A couple pages later (90) Tickle implies the Great Society was a communist plot (judge for yourself:  “Twentieth century Christianity in this country met the statism and atheism in communist theory head on, and American political theory militated from the beginning against the heinous brutality inherent in unfettered power.  Nonetheless, we voted in Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society.”)  Left out altogether or only passingly mentioned are other events that seem to me a lot more theologically decisive:  the Bomb, the Holocaust, the world wars, Vietnam, the Cold War.   The case starts to feel sloppy, too quickly written.

I regret this because the book raises important questions:  Are we living in a time of religious transformation or evisceration?  Are there resources in the Christian faith sufficient to reconstitute doctrinal authority in an age that resists authority wherever asserted?  To what extent is the cultural elite rejection (sometimes articulated as postmodernism) of capitalism, middle class values, the nuclear family, and the nation-state also evidence of the collapse of institutional religion (or is religion the potential cure)?  Are current upheavals (economic, political, security) more likely to rekindle religious faith or to weaken denominations further by arousing skepticism?

Perhaps a Great Emergence lies close at hand.  Or maybe not.

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