Phyllis Tickle Book Review: The Great Emergence & the Re-Emergence Conference, Belfast

image Phyllis Tickle is one of the featured speakers at the Belfast Re-Emergence Conference on March 16-18, 2010. Her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008) sets contemporary controversies, upheavals, and developments within Christianity in a sweeping historical context, proclaiming that we are at one of the ‘hinges’ of a great 500-year cycle. She argues that Christianity is being changed into something new and dynamic, and responding – as it has done in epochs past – to the probing questions of the present age.

Lest post-moderns begin to worry that Tickle has constructed a grand, overarching narrative that explains everything: rest assured. That is not the project with which this book is concerned. Rather, Tickle provides us with a concise, elegantly written interpretation of the 2000-year Christian story that allows us to gain some perspective on what may seem, to us, a tumultuous time in which Western Christian faith has been battered almost beyond recognition.

In fact, one of the book’s enduring lessons is that in the battering of faith almost beyond recognition, there is nothing new under the sun. This process has happened time and time again, from the Great Reformation to the Great Schism.

The bogeyman of secularisation, which some social scientists once confidently proclaimed would lead to the elimination of faith altogether, hardly gets a curtain call in Tickle’s account our times, which has been termed ‘the Great Emergence.’

Yes, Tickle acknowledges that church attendance in the West has declined, and that many in the West no longer have a working knowledge of the Bible. But Tickle suggests that such trends are symptomatic of the ‘one question’ that is always present during periods when Christianity re-forms (p. 45):

‘Where now is the authority?’

Tickle argues that the last time that this question was asked – and eventually answered – was during the Great Reformation (the adjective ‘Great’ has been recently added by some scholars). The answer then was that authority is in the Bible: sola scriptura.

That answer, of course, was never definitively accepted by everyone. And Tickle claims that answer is increasingly inadequate, because the authority of scripture has been eroded by developments both within and outside the churches. Such influences range from Biblical criticism to the rise in popularity of the motor car, to changes in family structures, to the ‘marginalisation of Grandma’ as a transmitter of Biblical knowledge and values.

The question of authority is one looming large for Christians almost everywhere they are found. On our island, we need look no further than the Catholics who are now questioning the authority of their church, which they believe has betrayed and abused them.

Tickle writes from a North American context and many of her examples of this questioning of authority come from the ‘emerging’ and ‘emergent’ movements within Protestantism (particularly Protestant evangelicalism) in the United States. Here in Belfast, the Ikon community has been considered part of these wider, international movements.

Tickle also acknowledges that a defining feature of Pentecostalism, now the second largest type of Christianity in the world after Roman Catholicism, is the way in which it questions previously received forms of authority.

Many Pentecostals and charismatics, from Africa to Latin America to Belfast, have answered that question this way: Authority lies in experience.

The ‘experience’ answer is hardly a settled one, however, and the African Pentecostal who experiences a Holy Spirit miracle is vastly different from someone in Ikon who experiences an acute absence of God.

Where now is the authority, indeed.

Tickle’s account of the cultural developments that constitute the Great Emergence is a tour-de-force, examining the contributions of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. From these swirling intellectual currents Tickle extracts three further questions which have haunted our time (p. 73; 112),

  1. What is human consciousness and/or the humanness of the human?
  2. What is the relation of all religions to one another – or, put another way, how can we live responsibly as devout and faithful adherents of one religion in a world of many religions?
  3. What now is society’s basic or foundational unit?

Tickle argues that the Great Emergence will not achieve any sort of equilibrium until those questions are thoroughly dissected, debated, accommodated – and perhaps even answered!

One of her talks at the Re-Emergence conference is titled ‘Emergence Christianity in Historical Context,’ so there should be plenty of opportunities to push the discussion further.

Possible directions include a deeper and broader discussion of where Catholicism fits into the ‘emergence’ picture. Although Tickle mentions the seminal importance of Vatican II, the book does not really engage with Catholicism as deeply as it does various forms of Protestantism. The book also is quite firmly rooted in North America. It would be helpful to push beyond North America not just to this island, but to non-Western contexts.

6 thoughts on “Phyllis Tickle Book Review: The Great Emergence & the Re-Emergence Conference, Belfast”

  1. Your last point is something I wonder about when people talk about the Emerging Church. It doesn’t seem to have any real significance beyond the walls of American Protestantism. Even then that significance is rooted mostly in, as you pointed out, evangelical protestantism. The mainline denominations don’t seem to have noticed or attempted to take on some of the forms, because the focus on social good has been part of their thinking for a long time, and Catholics and Orthodox churches don’t pay much heed to it because their traditions already emphasize mysticism and tradition and ritual.

    Lots of Emerging thinkers seem to think the movement will lead to a renewed ecumenism, but I haven’t seen Emerging thought reaching much beyond the bounds of American Protestantism, much less to the Church in other parts of the world. I guess we’ll see.

    What the movement has done in my case is move me closer to a Catholic/Orthodox theological worldview. I just can’t make that final leap because of the churches positions on women and gays. I’m not really sure what it’s done for other friends, though.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Chris.

    I think what Tickle is talking about when she is talking about ’emergence’ is something much bigger than the ’emerging churches’ birthed from American evangelical Protestantism. If I’m reading her right, I think she sees these as raising a lot of the radical questions and influencing other forms of Christianity (which may or may not acknowledge that they have picked up ideas from the emerging church). At the same time more traditional forms of Christianity also influences the emerging church. I don’t know if it is quite right to say that she thinks the emerging church are at the centre of THE wider process of Christian emergence, but I think that’s one plausible interpretation.

    You note that the mainline denominations don’t seem to have noticed the emerging church. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. And they do get noticed a lot by traditional evangelicals. There are a couple of responses here. Take the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, which generally engages with some of the ideas but ultimately is worried that emergents have given up the search for ‘truth.’ i.e. they worry that the emerging church has given up on Biblical authority. Then there’s some, particularly from the Reformed tradition I think, who see the emerging church as a kind of transient passing fad.

    I am not quite sure to what extent the emerging church is worried about ecumenism, either. I think some in the movement here want to transcend ecumenism rather than work with the old, tired Christian denominations, but that could be a mis-interpretation. Or, I could be right, but the emerging church in the US could be more interested in ecumenism?

  3. Plenty to chew over on here.

    I too would be more inclined to suggest that Emerging Christianity has had a marked influence on the mainline religious denominations in recent years, not just in the UK and Ireland, but in continental Europe as well. “Emerging Church” initiatives and similarly inspired alternative worship can be found among many different denominations outside the US. For example, the Fresh Expressions programme in the UK, which began in the Church of England, is now co-sponsored by the Methodists and United Reformed Church as well. As part of the programme, clergy are deployed specially to work on various projects. Admittedly, the standard of the “finished products” varies greatly – at an “alternative” Sunday evening service I visited in Germany last year, the congregation was expected to stand up for the Gospel reading and join in the liturgical responses!

    My other main concern for “emergent” Christianity is the way it’s talked up. Phyllis Tickle acknowledges the overall decline in Church attendance in the West, but where does this lead to when attempting to measure any success in engaging the “unchurched” – those with little or no previous experience of Church culture – who Emergent initiatives are often keen to target? My own anecdotal observations suggest that Emerging Church movements seem to be mainly populated by those who either attend another “mainstream” church, or are “dechurched”: having had some experience of church in earlier life. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would be keen to know if there has been any recent research carried out on the outcomes of emerging church projects.

  4. Hi Tim, It is always difficult measuring outcomes of such things, especially when the various emergents can have such different goals. My guess is that people in Ikon, for example, would shudder at the thought of trying to measure ‘success’ … (whatever that may mean!)

    There’s an interesting perspective on mission & emerging church by Ben Edson, ‘An exploration into the Missiology of the Emerging Church in the UK through the narrative of Sanctus1’ in the International Journal of the Study of the Christian Church, 2006, v. 6, no. 1.

    Although from 2006, this whole issue of the journal is devoted to research on the emerging church.

  5. You’re certainly right about the different goals of emergent movements and different ways of measuring success.

    Thanks for the recommendation. For any readers not familiar with Sanctus, it’s an emerging movement in central Manchester, which meets Wednesdays, aimed at young adults, and has developed into holding meetings on Sundays as well, aimed at families. The meetings take place in the Nexus Art Cafe, which is a shared ministry with Sanctus.

    I’ve visited Sanctus1 a couple of times and I met Ben Edson once (briefly) while he and I have a few mutual acquaintances. Edson has now been ordained in the Church of England and has moved on from day-to-day leadership of Sanctus to serving in a parish in the centre of Manchester. I’ve found my visits and contacts with Sanctus both engaging and inspiring. Ben Edson’s blog can be found at

  6. Thanks for the review of Phyllis Tickle’s book, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.” I am planning on joining you for the conference, and I look forward to discussing this work!

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