Book review: The Great Emergence

Phyllis Tickle, compiler and editor of the excellent Divine Hours series of prayer books, was the Tuesday night speaker at Midwinter, the conference I attended in Chicago at the beginning of February.  She was one of the conference highlights for me.  She got up on stage, leaned casually on the lecturn and then spoke for an engaging 45 minutes or so, without a glance at a note, about “the Great Emergence” (the concept, not the book).  Not long into her session I knew I wanted to buy the book: The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  I bought the book at the conference and started reading it on the flight home.

Tickle suggests in the book, as in her talk, that the Church has been going through a series of 500 year cycles, all with a name prefixed by the word “Great”, because they are times of great significance in church history.  She begins with the Great Transformation–the time arising out of the life of Jesus (though she says you can go back 500 years from there and get to the Israelites’ Babylonian exile and 500 years before that the Exodus);  500 years after Christ we find (Pope) Gregory the Great, the (final) death of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Papacy; 500 years after that, in the 11th century, we find the Great Schism, when the church finally, decisively split between East and West, with the Orthodox Patriarch excommunicating the Roman Pope and vice versa; 500 years after that, in the 16th century, we find the Great Reformation, when what would become Protestantism split from the Roman Catholic church; 500 years after that we find ourselves in the 21st century, and the church is once again going through a major change.  She calls this time The Great Emergence, and the changing element in this time is the “emerging church” and its variants.

Each of these “great” periods are times of change in which the church goes through, as she calls it, a major “rummage sale”.  There is an ebb and flow to these periods and it’s difficult to pin down the exact moment of change, because they build up to a peak and then trail off over the course of a hundred years or more.  We mark them with events like the mutual excommunications of the Great Schism, or Martin Luther’s alleged nailing of his 95 theses to the doors of the church at Wittenburg, but they cannot be historically pinpointed in other than such symbolic ways.

The central question underlying each of these periods of change is, in Tickle’s words, “Where now is the authority?”  Thus (and this is me talking now) the source of authority changed in the time of Christ; with the end of the Roman Empire, authority (finally) moved from the Emperor to the Pope; in the Great Schism, one of the foundational issues was recognition of the Papacy; in the Great Reformation, authority moved from the Pope to the scriptures (in an unmediated way).  In our day we are once again asking, “Where now is the authority?”, and we don’t yet have an answer.  (When she mentioned this, I immediately thought of the current upheaval in the Anglican communion.)  It’s an interesting theory and hard to argue with, given the historical evidence she presents.

As is to be expected with any book, I didn’t agree with everything she said (e.g. I found her examples about the sola scriptura problem a bit of a charicature), but it’s an undeniable and interesting way of highlighting the fact that the church is changing.  It can’t be denied.

What’s particularly interesting is that in the history of this 500 year cycle, those who held pride of place prior to the change did not die, but simply diminished and reformed on their own, while another took their place.  The same thing is (in her theory) happening now.  Many conservative Christians in particular feel threatened by the changes happening (and perhaps are denying them), but if Tickle is right, the church as many know it won’t die, but simply be dethroned.  And it will also act as ballast in this floating ship called Church.

My major critique of the book is simply that it ends to suddenly.  Tickle is able to provide a more neutral look at the emerging movement in the church, as opposed to some of the recent books which actively oppose or attack the movement.  So I wish she would have spent a little more time on the “emerging” way of thinking (though I suppose there is no hegonomous view at this point) and, even more so, on “the way ahead”.  The bulk of her book is about the details of the 500 year cycle–and it is important, necessary and fascinating stuff–but it’s a thin volume and more time could be spent on where we’re (potentially) heading a church.

It’s a fascinating read and I heartily recommend it.   If you are at all fascinated by overarching theories of this and that, this book is for you.

3 thoughts on “Book review: The Great Emergence

  1. Toni

    2 comments:

    I suspect the ending is short because the future isn’t readily extrapolated from the past, and she may be wise enough not to guess and look silly.

    The church has been ’emerging’ for quite a long time in this country. This is where the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians etc have come from. Each one has moved out as God has taken them…. and then stopped as they’ve lost sight of the pillar of cloud. A bit later another group see it and move out, only to settle down again. What we ARE seeing is a social structure in the west that’s giving every man a megaphone and telling him that he should go ahead and use it. But you’d be hard pushed to make a case for that being God shaping the church.

    It is an interesting perception, but one that’s distinctly using selective viewing to make it’s point IMO. There has been quite a lot of ebb and flow in the church over the centuries, and although one can try to break history into handy 500 year chunks (just like one divides up ‘books’ in the bible) I don’t think they are necessarily a reflection of reality or significant.

  2. Marc

    I don’t think Tickle would deny things are constantly in flux and the ebb and flow on either end of the times of change will last 100 years or more. You can’t pinpoint a specific moment of change (and she argues this), but wouldn’t you say that it’s pretty clear that there are these momentous ages in the history of the church?

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