Book Review #2: The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle

Tickle’s book begins with an image of the church holding “rummage sales” every 500 years.  In these cycles, the church undergoes some great upheaval in which it not only splits, but the old system is revamped in such a way that both configurations (old and new) serve to further the spread of the Gospel.  In Christianity, we can look back 500 years to the Great Reformation, 500 years before that to the Great Schism, and back another 500 years to the time of Gregory the Great.  It can be argued that a similar cycle is seen in Judaism, Islam and humanity in general.

Chapter two reminds us that religion is a social construct, and introduces us to religion as the “cable of meaning” which keeps humanity attached to some greater power or purpose.  The cable of meaning consists of an outer sheath which symbolizes our shared history, the inner mesh sleeve symbolizing “common imagination,” and a three-strand cord consisting of spirituality, morality and corporeality.  The re-formation of the church occurs when something breaches both the inner and outer coverings, exposing the three-strand cord to humanity’s scrutiny. 

 Chapter three offers us an historical overview of the causes and effects of the Great Reformation, while chapter four looks at some of the events in recent history that have exposed the three-strand cord to our examination.  In science, Faraday’s work with electricity and electromagnetic fields and Darwin’s theory of evolution began society’s questioning.  In psychology, the ideas of Freud, Jung and Campbell increased our questioning of Christian doctrine.  Tickle also draws parallels between recent events and events surrounding the peri-reformation phase, such as the arrival of radio and television compared to the invention of the printing press.  She leaves us with two primary questions of the Great Emergence:  “What is human consciousness and/or the humanness of the human?”  and “What is the relation of all religions to one another?” (73)

 In chapter five, the author takes us through some of the major social events that influenced the coming of the great emergence in America. Affecting the scriptural strand were the development and effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous, the prevalence of Buddhism, the coming of the drug age, and serious questioning of sola scriptura.  The erosion of sola scriptura also affected the corporeal strand; undermining sola scriptura resulted in the undermining of the authority and traditional basis of Protestantism.  The moral strand was largely defined by the pro-life/pro-choice debate, starting with Roe v Wade and continuing in debate to present day.  There were, of course, many other social and cultural influences over the last century that played a part in the great emergence:  women in the workplace, technological advances, changes in family structure, etcetera. 

Chapter six illustrates the divisions and forms of the church.  The first model presented is the quadrant, in which there are four distinct types of churches.  This is followed by the “Cruciform” which shows how churches are not easily defined by only one characteristic, but borrow from other traditions.  Finally, we see the “rose”, which is a picture of the emergent church, in which all faith traditions are intermingling to some degree. 

Chapter seven expands the “rose” even more.  The original horizontal line of the quadrant becomes two lines, which move the four classifications to the outer edges and makes room in the center for orthonomy and theonomy, a division between harmonious truth as ultimate authority and only God as the ultimate authority, a return to sola scriptura.  Despite how much we may know about the Emergent Church, where she came from and how she came to be, the theology of the Emergent Church is still developing and we have no way of knowing exactly what will become of her.


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