The Great Propoganda- A Review of Phyllis Tickle’s New Book “The Great Emergence”

October 1, 2008

Since established churches . . . could not accommodate such an ill-defined and amorphous presentation of the faith [as the emerging church], the new faithful began to meet among themselves and hold worship services among and with those of like spirit.” -Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, p.134

And these emergents, whose numbers increasingly included the white-haired as well as the young, could now use the term inherited church to name the goods being placed on the rummage sale table. Inherited church was that from which they had come and to which they, literally, now had no means of returning, let alone any desire at all to do so.” -p.136

The cub has grown into the young lion; and now is the hour of his roaring.” -p.163

The premise is interesting enough: “Every five hundred years, the church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.” And the sample, though small, can pull you in (Gregory the Great/The Council of Chalcedon, the Great Schism, the Great Reformation). But in the end, I think a discerning reader must come away from Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence feeling slighted at a lack of real evidence for this cataclysmic change that she purports.

In fact, what I think most people who are not already dyed in the wool of the whole Emergent Village/post-modern subculture will find is that this book is more an apologetic for the emerging church than it is good sociological research. The authors allegiance to this movement is unquestionable when she says things like “In the hands of emergents, Christianity has grown exponentially, not only in geographic base and numbers, but also in passion and in effecting belief in the Christian call to the brotherhood of all peoples” (p.121) or “It is not unreasonable to assume that by the time the Great Emergence has reached maturity, about 60 percent of practicing American Christians will be emergent or some clear variant thereof” (p.139). There certainly has been a re-energizing of “Christianity” focused around the EV, but to say it is “exponential growth” is a bit of hyperbole. The resurgence of Calvinism in recent decades has rivaled this emergence all the way and any look into the increased growth of Christianity in America can not deny that obvious fact.

But the real problem I see with Tickle’s argument is two-fold: one, the lack of a genuine opponent which the Great Emergence must arise as a response to; and second, the mere dismissal of sola scriptura as being sufficient for Christianity.

In every case which Tickle presents to advance her semi-millennial argument we see a clear dichotomy of two choices. Yet when we get to the so-called Great Emergence there does not seem to exist this major conflict. Tickle even asserts this herself by saying “There is simply no grand framing story or even unanimity of opinion yet about when precisely it was that this new thing- this new, emerging way of being Christian in an emerging new world- became so clearly distinct from what had been as to be worthy of a name of its own” (p.124). In effect, this movement just arose as a response to nothing-in-particular, an almost adolescent expression of angst and rebellion. Tickle tries her hardest to equate this movement with the Reformation, but simply put that idea falls flat. The Reformation was driven as a response to widespread religious oppression of the people, a desire to educate the masses, promoting literacy as well as a return to a biblical instead of extra-biblical practice of the faith. The environment surrounding the Reformation was ripe with church corruption and a manipulation of the people. Where is this today?

Of course, Tickle “perceives” much oppression in the church and uses $10 words like ‘hegemony’ to conjure up feelings of fear and distrust (surprisingly, I do not recall reading the word ‘hubris’ in here though). Some examples of this oppression, and the emergent solution, are her unsubstantiated charges of colonial injustice, sexism, and status quo theology on the church:

But 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. (p.29)

In a relatively short time, women got the vote, and men got their suppers hot and on time again. It was hardly a religious solution, but nonetheless it was a very welcome one. (p.99)

When the country preacher of the mid-twentieth-century America decried divorce as a threat “right at the heart of America,” he was neither in error nor benighted. He may not have been arguing from religious conviction so much as from his own private unease about what a Pandora’s box there was for the status quo at the end of that road; but he was still right. (p.112-113)

This type of fear-mongering does not get very far when you are trying to argue for a position, and in fact, when you misrepresent or over generalize things it could be termed as misleading or even lying. It suffices to say that the lack of a propelling force (outside of personal malaise) combined with the inaccurate portrayals of Protestantism (which I take to be the intended Satan here) is argument enough that “the Great Emergence” is not so inevitable as we are being led to believe.

The second issue I have with Tickle’s argument is her haphazardness with the authority of Scripture. As she says on pages 150 to 151,

The new Christianity of the Great Emergence must discover some authority base or delivery system and/or governing agency of its own. It must formulate- and soon- something other than Luther’s sola scriptura which, although used so well by the Great Reformation originally, is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities.

The authority of Scripture is “outmoded or insufficient”!?! Why is this the case? Oh, well, as we see, it is because of the mood of “current sensibilities.” So, the Word which is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work,” which is “breathed out by God,” who “do[es] not change,” is usurped by the authority of humanistic philosophy (2 Timothy 3.16-17, Malachi 3.6)! But Tickle does not stop there:

Now, some five hundred years later, even many of the most die-hard Protestants among us have grown suspicious of “Scripture and Scripture only.” We question what the words mean- literally? Metaphorically? Actually? We even question which words do and do not belong in Scripture and the purity of the editorial line of descent of those that do. (p.46)

When it is all resolved- and it most surely will be- the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught for almost five centuries will be dead. . . . While the erosion of sola scriptura is clearly an erosion of the base of traditional denominational Protestantism’s authority, we must remember that it is a corporeal, not a spiritual or moral, issue. (p.101)

So, not only is the authority of Scripture outdated, but that’s not such a big deal! And it’s not a spiritual or moral issue if we are questioning the Word of God as revealed to us, it’s just a corporeal matter (which is a fancy way of saying a matter of taste)!

This truly is incredible. Tickle’s advancement of the whole monster is that Scripture is no longer sufficient for us because we have changed (or as she would argue, grown and become more aware). Yet, it’s funny what God’s broken Word has to say about such dependence on intellect:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1.18-23)

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1.20)

Clearly those are the uninspired parts though (having been written by that misogynist Paul).

In the end, I find Tickle’s book to be nothing much more than propaganda in an effort to prop up a movement which is all-too-quickly being played out. Her friendliness with the emergent “conversation,” at times referring to them as “the new faithful” and with other pious platitudes, undermines any credibility she would have as a disengaged informer of the masses. Rather, in the way that traditionalists have been accused of covering up the warts in order to push their agenda, Tickle shows that the emergent crowd is not above this dishonest self-aggrandizement either.

Is the church changing? Sure. The expression of the church is constantly changing. Is there anything inside this emerging movement which is good? Certainly, I believe that the move to a more authentic worship and a destruction of the white-washed tombs which have adorned many a sanctuary for the past hundred years is a welcome change. But is it necessary for us to adopt the radical authority denying theology of “the Great Emergence”? Most assuredly not. Some pieces of church corporeality may need to change, but the casting off of sola scriptura as just another oppressive arm of Protestantism, a step which Tickle giddily takes in this book, is a step too far.