Through a series of vignettes and a 32-page photographic essay, Phyllis Tickle, former and founding editor of the religion department at Publishers Weekly, takes readers on a journey through the world of what she calls "emergence Christianity." No stranger to this terrain, Tickle's Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters(Baker) is her fourth installment on "this new thing that God is doing," her own descriptive tag from the preface. Building on her previous books, such as The Great Emergence (2008), this book offers another interim field report.
I for one am grateful for Tickle's work. Getting a handle on the present is no small task, and when that present includes something as amorphous as the "emerging church" phenomenon, the difficulty only increases. As one endorsement of the book notes, Tickle has a way of seeing and making connections among varying pockets of emergence Christianity. She weaves these divergent stories into a larger, unified one. In other words, this book helps us see emergence Christianity. The photographic essay makes that description more than a metaphor.
Tickle's historical discussions of both the distant and more recent past significantly shape her sense of the present. She starts the book by noting that significant changes tend to come every five hundred or so years, including the coming of Christ in the first century, the era of the consolidation of the church under Gregory in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Great Schism of the 11th century, and the Reformation of the 16th century. From this historical trend, Tickle deduces that, here in the 2000s, we're poised for another such seismic change. She also offers readers a handy take on the more recent past, that of the last few decades and the emergence, if you will, of emergence Christianity. Those new to the party will appreciate her back-stories in chapters one through twelve.
In chapters thirteen to nineteen, Tickle takes us along on her travels to emergence outposts in both words and, as already noted, pictures. Her travels through these "fresh expressions" of Christianity cross geo-political boundaries (though the book mostly talks about the West and Latinized Christianity) and ecclesiastical boundaries, as Anglicans and Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and more come into view. She even crosses the boundaries of concrete existence as she looks at cyber-world manifestations of emergence Christianity, such as 1PSL (First Presbyterian Church of Second Life), which congregates in the world of "virtual reality."
The final chapters offer an assessment of these trends and a bit of prophecy, as Tickle attempts to decipher where emergence Christianity may go. She raises two theological issues as her book draws to a close. First comes a problematic treatment of emergent attitudes toward atonement. She begins by declaring that "Christianity, in its early days, had no theory of atonement or of its mechanics." She then proceeds to note the remarkable unanimity of emergence Christianity in rejecting the view of substitutionary atonement, seen by her as the most recent of theories. She rejects this "repugnant" theory of "God as cosmic child abuser," and adds, "Substitutionary conversation in any form is in error." And Tickle makes all these pronouncements without ever referencing or discussing a single biblical text.
But she also rather acutely lands on the question of authority, a telltale issue for emergence Christianity now and to come. Tickle envisions authority, in the emergent world, as a union between the "primacy of Scripture" as an authoritative text and the "primacy of community, of the body together in prayer" as the instrument through which Scripture's authority gets worked out. What shall animate the union of Scripture and community? In posing this question, Tickle has identified an important question on the horizon.
Emergence Good, Traditional Bad?
Though Emergence Christianity deserves appreciation for helping make sense of the current horizon, the book does not stand above some objections. First, the book offers no real criticism of emergence Christianity. Though she admits to certain failures on the part of emergence leaders and undertakings, she pulls back from more full-throated criticism. Tickle has the opportunity to ask hard questions of emergence leaders, but she doesn't. She assumes their motives are pure and, as a general rule, accepts what they say and do at face value. Conversely, she has no problem decrying the traditional church, as with her treatment of tithing and reference to the "strong odor of institutional self-interest." Her take on the emergence approach to the subject of monetary giving? "Laudable indeed." Also, she has a rather surface-level take on the cyber versions of emergence: "Church in virtuality is to church in corporeality as banking in virtuality is to banking in corporeality." Just as "the banking gets done either way," church, apparently, can get done either way. But that's way too simplistic an analysis of both virtual reality and the doctrine of the church. In general, Tickle tends to accept, if not applaud, rather than question.
My point is not that the traditional church was or is pristine. Quite the opposite. Nefarious motives and practices, and even abuses, may be abundantly found. But what is gained by the stark contrast Tickle presents of emergence good, traditional bad? Does that approach truly assist emergence Christianity to become biblically faithful? Also, while it is one thing to say emergence is a new tributary in the kingdom of God, it is quite another to call emergence Christianity "this new thing God is doing." Much like any country claiming "chosen-nation" status will act according to its own predilections under the cover of its "divine mandate," so any church movement that assumes the blessing of God will lack the necessary traits of self-reflection and self-criticism. Emergence Christianity, like any and all forms, needs an assessment that asks hard questions.
This slides into my second criticism, that the present is simply too privileged. We are simply too close to emergence Christianity to compare it to the Reformation. (Not to mention: Comparisons of Brian McLaren to Martin Luther simply need to stop.) We have no way of seeing what its legacy may be, and we should refrain from giving it a status it might not deserve. It strikes one as a rather modern idea to think so highly of the present moment and one's own significance.
More substantially, the privileging of the present affects not only the way Tickle views emergence Christianity, but also the way she reads Scripture. This gets to the heart of the matter, the question of authority. Tickle articulates the consensus view of Scripture held by emergence Christianity when she describes Scripture as "received, during discernment, prayer, and teachings, into their own beingness." This goes back to her understanding of the question of authority—the twin factors being Scripture as the authoritative text, and community as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture.
Tickle is not calling for a union of equals; she wants to give Scripture a higher place than community. But isn't she risking the opposite outcome? After all, Scripture, on her account, does not stand over or above emergence groups; it is always within the community and subject to the community. How does that not lead to Scripture on our own terms?
Of course, the people of God do participate in Scripture. It is the Living Word, and we do—or at least we should—enter into it. But how do we enter in? How do we delineate that relationship? The church cannot afford a fuzzy answer to that question. Nor can it afford a wrong answer. I'm not being an extremist here or committing the slippery slope fallacy. I'm honestly asking: How does the emergence view of Scripture not lead us to accepting Scripture on our own terms?
Of course there will always be a difference between our interpretation or appropriation of—or more importantly, our obedience to—the text and the text itself. But to do away with any distinction, to always and only see the text as in conversation with the present, is problematic.
Tickle offers a helpful description of emergence Christianity, and in that task she succeeds rather nicely. But once her book moves beyond description, she misses some opportunities to raise important questions. No one likes hard questions, but where would we be without them?
Stephen J. Nichols is research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College and the author of Welcome to the Story: Reading, Loving, and Living God's Word (Crossway).