When I was in college, I bought a Jeep Wrangler. I loved that car. It let me go where other drivers feared to tread. It broke with the monotony of the commute. No longer bound to asphalt, I was free to take less obvious paths to new, exciting destinations. If no path existed, I could simply forge my own. For those of my friends brave enough to pile in with me, I promised adventure the likes of which they’d never seen on four wheels before.Soon after I became the proud owner my Jeep, I noticed other Wranglers on the roads. They seemed to be everywhere, a rising tide of other wander-lust motorists. As we passed one another on the byways, it was not uncommon to exchange a lifted hand as a sign of solidarity. It said, “I get it. You too are only temporarily bound to these ‘roads.’ Soon, we will be free, my friend. Soon, we will be free.”
Within months I discovered a whole world that I never knew existed. Jeep owners would get together, back in the depths of the woods. They’d crawl over things in their modified rides, or go through them, but never around. We spoke of differential and drop, torque and torsion. Ours was a world centered on pushing limits: the limits of our cars and of our nerves. It became difficult to see why anyone wouldn’t want to drive a Jeep. It seemed only a matter of time before the majority of car owners would rise up, shake off the shackles of their commuter coffins, and trade in to a life of all-terrain freedom. But that never happened. I’m not sure it ever will, at least not in the ways that my comrades and I imagined. I feel similarly about Phyllis Tickle’s offering, The Great Emergence. Like the proud owner of a new Jeep, she is smitten by the implications of the conversations going on the current “rummage sale” of Christianity (loc. 177 ff.). Like me, she now sees other Jeep owners everywhere. “Have there always been this many Jeep owners on the roads?,” she wonders. “Certainly not. This must be the beginning of something new,” she concludes. She takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Christian history, attempting to convince us that what we’re experiencing is a semiennial (that is, occurring every 500 years) re-forming of Christianity, the likes of which has not been seen since the Great Reformation in the early 16th-century. To be sure, we are 500 years removed from that great change. But in tracing backwards from here to there and beyond to find a pattern, she plays fast and loose with people, dates, events, and their significance. It is true that we are about 500 years removed from the nailing of the 95 theses to the chapel door at the Wittenberg chapel (1517). Another jump back in time of half a millennium, Tickle asserts, takes us to the Great Schism. Actually, the Great Schism is traditionally dated at 1054, but what’s +/- 50 years among friends? Turn the calendar back another 500 pages and you come to the mid-sixth century which is the locus of the Great . . . ? Not to fear. Though there is no movement prefixed with a “Great” there is, Tickle asserts, a person. The “Great” in this instance refers to Gregory I, eventual pope. Not “the Great Gregory” (which sounds like the name of a pro-wrestler or an indie-rock band), but rather Gregory the Great. Never heard of him? Not to worry. Tickle assures us that most people outside of Roman Catholicism haven’t, but that makes him no less great. He was responsible for moving Christianity into monasticism shortly before the upheaval of the Dark Ages. As for our neat dating please, dear reader, do not be troubled by the fact that our mid-sixth century destination is the birth of Gregory. It’s not so important to note that he didn’t ascend to the papacy and effect his changes until 590-604. Remember, what’s half a century among friends? Back down into time we go, another 500 years. We come to the life and ministry of Christ and the beginnings of the apostolic church. No argument there, that was a Great upheaval. Tickle doesn’t associate a “Great” moniker to that particular area as she does to the others. Perhaps we can use “the Great Incarnation?”One final leap back in time lands us in 500 BCE. While there is no person or event attached to this year in particular, it is interesting to note that this is the time of Persian rule in the Middle East, of the Republican era of Rome, of Confucius and Siddhartha Gautama. This period is called by some, and “by some” she means Karen Armstrong, as “The Great Transformation,” although Armstrong asserts that this global period spanned 700 years total, beginning in 900 BCE. The problem with all this is not that the things she is emphasizing aren’t true (they are), or that they are not “Great” (though Gregory I seems a stretch, faneagled to make for a pattern), or that she skips over other, arguably more important, events and people because they don’t fall close enough to a 500 year mark (both Councils of Nicea–325 and 787, respectively–and Constantine I, widely known as “Constantine the Great”). The problem is that she presents her survey as generally comprehensive, though apologizing along the way for the brevity of her generalizations (see loc. 1152). Such a cherry picking of history is reckless at best, and revisionist at worst. All of this she offers with caveat, buried in a note at the end of the sixth chapter which simply reads:
Every honest writer, especially one with any academic experience at all, knows the tension inherent in talking about work that has no one, single footnotable originator to whom credit can be given. Yet, at the same time, when the writer has himself or herself been one of the commentators who has refined, amended, and updated an evolving concept, one can hardly disavow the result. Accordingly, what is right and correct here and in the rest of this volume is hardly of my own creation, though much of its adaptation is. What proves to have been in error, I will take responsibility for. (loc. 1783)
However skewed and incomplete her telling of how Christianity got to this point may be, I do agree with much of what she says in the third part of her book. Briefly:
- There have been significant challenges to the place of sola scriptura, scriptura sola as the basis for authority. This indeed threatens the very nature of Protestantism since it was founded on the very idea that scripture alone is the final revelation and authority by which we know God.
- There have been, and continue to be, scores of people who are leaving their cloistered denominational traditions in search of a Christianity that feels more authentic, historical, and inclusive of others both within the Christian tradition and without. I have written about my many hyphenated pedigree ad naseum on this site.
- Christianity will never be the same. Whether we are in the throes of a new upheaval, as Tickle argues, or that upheaval is just beginning, only to have its defining moments and people sometime in the next century (which, given the +/- 50 year window, seems highly possible), the days of church building programs, family life centers, and spaghetti suppers are numbered. I, for one, see something akin to Christ-centered Patrilinear Kinship Groups re-emerging as Western mobility continues to fracture the nuclear family. (bug Chris Marshall for more information on how Christianity took off in the first century due to PKGs with Jesus as the shared ancestor).
- Community and Narrative will shape the new source of authority. The outpouring of the Spirit of God will be undeniably present as communities of Christ followers live out their narratives–shared and separate–in ways that are oddly consistent with one another and with Scripture. Such a “one-mindedness” has seldom been seen in Christianity, though we have examples in the opening chapters of Acts, where the phrase recurs often. I can think of little more than the Spirit of Christ that could unite the hearts and actions of Westerners wrecked by individualism.
In total, Tickle’s book offers some worthy insights into the tremors of the current Western Christian landscape. She arrives there through sloppy history, but for someone who is truly emergent, as she no doubt considers herself to be, history is relative anyway.