A former teacher, college administrator, and publisher who has written more than two dozen books — many of which describe her own faith journey and practices as an Episcopalian — Phyllis Tickle is also the founding editor of the religion department at Publisher’s Weekly. This position afforded her a unique view of the trends sweeping through late- 20th century Christianity. As she writes in The Great Emergence, “I became a student of religion by being cast dead center of the maelstrom and having to learn to swim right there and right then.” After Tickle left Publisher’s Weekly, she began to gather information from sources throughout the Christian community in North America and elsewhere and put together her own impressions of the movement dubbed “The Great Emergence.”
In her new book, Emergence Christianity, Tickle takes up the subject once again, while narrowing her focus to consider in detail many of the new pathways the Great Emergence has produced in the Christian community so far. Beginning with the Catholic Worker movement, the birth of Pentecostalism, and the founding of the ecumenical Christian communities of Iona in Scotland and Taizé in France, Tickle then examines how these unique visions led to the establishment of small house churches and pub theology groups, among others. These organic, loosely structured organizations tend to be communal and self-correcting, with an emphasis on equality, diversity, peace and justice.
The author charts the development of these decentralized and deinstitutionalized faith communities as “a people to be, not a place to go to.” Phyllis Tickle recently answered questions via email:
In Emergence Christianity, you write, “This is now the fourth time I have spoken in book form about what is happening to us as North American Christians in the 21st century.” Why has this subject captured your attention so completely and for so long?
I spent the bulk of my earlier working life in the book-publishing industry. When, at age59, I decided to retire from all of that, I was … less than successful at doing so. My intention had been to devote myself to writing, but within 13 months of my non-retirement retirement, I received a call from Publishers Weekly, the trade journal of the book industry.
It was 1992, and religion books were suddenly selling like crazy, becoming not only the country’s bestsellers, but also its best-margins moneymakers. Because the bulk of religion publishing had previously been done by denominational houses, Publishers Weekly had never had a religion department, much less any need for one. So the call was a simple question: Would I come out of retirement for 18 months, set up a department, and get it in running order before returning to my intended writing? Well over a decade later, of course, I was still at Publishers Weekly, but the question had changed.
I had to do what every old academic always does: I went to the scholarship and there found literally reams of commentary, historical analysis, informed conversation, etc., about exactly what was indeed happening and why. In a manner of speaking, in other words, I became a student of Emergence by default and for what originally were purely commercial reasons.
You argue in The Great Emergence that Christians in North America are participating in a “conversation” that crosses denominational lines and that will ultimately “rewrite Christian theology into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical.” Five years later, do you still believe Emergence Christianity is on the same path?
There is no question but that Emergence Christianity is indeed on that path. There is, however, one difference of significance now over my earlier words: that is, what could legitimately be called a “conversation” a decade ago has now become a movement — a full-blown and maturing movement.
“Religion, whether we like it or not, is intimately tied to the culture in which it exists,” you write in Emergence Christianity, and your most recent books focus on the ways that culture and other factors are changing our religious practices. What about the influence that Christianity brings to bear on the culture surrounding it — is that relationship, too, being redefined?
Absolutely. And we need to note just here that the relationship between any religion and the society or culture hosting it is always a two-way exchange. It is the business of religion to answer for its hosts the question of where ultimate authority and meaning rest. It answers, in a sense, the “How now shall we live?” question. At the same time, the hosting society orders or ranks the issues that need addressing and resolution.
You have written that “the injunction against homosexuality in all its forms is the last of the biblically based injunctions still standing” in the historical church. In The Great Emergence, you go so far as to categorize Christianity’s turmoil over this issue as “a battle to the death.” What do you see as the spiritual and cultural consequences of such a fight?
Well, first let’s clarify or nuance that partial quote, which is a bit truncated here: that is, the gay issue is indeed the last puck or playing piece in a very serious fight — but it is the last piece in one particular area of a large playing field.
The immediate consequences of the gay part of the conflict are, of course, very apparent just now in public (as well as in ecclesial and theological) furor. Each time we have made a move farther up along this sociological spectrum — i.e., from abolition all the way now to gayness — there have been violent repercussions and analogous distress. The only real difference with the gay issue is that, because it is the last piece with which to play this part of the game or delineate this segment of the larger argument, it brings with it an added intensity — an intensity, if you will, almost of desperation.
By Phyllis Tickle
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.