The Great Emergence – with the greatest respect, I demur

Perhaps the most well-announced book to be published this year in the American Christian book market, especially in Emerging circles, is The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle. It’s published by the Emergent Village imprint of Baker Books, so comes as the latest in a highly marketable succession of titles. I managed to pick up a copy not long after its publication and read it some weeks ago.  Phyllis Tickle has had an auspicious career in religious publishing and is in a very good place to act as an authoritative commentator of trends within contemporary American Christianity. So it’s with some trepidation that I am going to have to say why I think the book does not deserve the significance all the pre-publication marketing hype has given it.

Phyllis Tickle’s theory is a simple one: that every 500 years, an upheaval occurs that forces the Church to reconstitute itself in ways which will set the scene for the next period of half a millennium. It is her belief that the Church is presently passing through one of these upheavals, and that the Emerging Church movement is laying the foundation of what is to come. To claim that an easily-identifiable, if amorphous, contemporary movement has significance for the next half-millennium of global world Christianity is some claim indeed. The theory, therefore, demands some scutiny. Tickle’s reference-points are the birth of Christianity itself in the 1st century; the pontificate of Gregory the Great; the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism; The Reformation; and, today, the Emerging Church.

The first question which naturally arises, therefore, is whether the first four of these points in Church History all have sufficient significance to support the theory, for without it, the basic thesis of the book crumbles. Certainly, no-one is going to argue with two of these being of primary significance to Church History: the First Century and the Reformation. The question is over the signficance of the other two points in the 500-year schema.  There is no doubt that Gregory the Great’s pontificate was good for the Western Church. It marked the emergence of the Western church structure as a strong political, missional and social force at the very time when the rest of Western Europe was succumbing to the collapse of classical civilization; a collapse which took roughly two hundred years. The problem is that the pontificate began in 590 and ended in 604, about 100 years after the time the theory indicates it should have happened. So a 20% margin of error becomes apparent. [Since writing this review, Phyllis Tickle has responded in the comments below. If you are looking at the comment-free version, you should click here, to see where she says I’ve got it wrong, and my response.]

What of the Great Schism, which took place in 1054 (10% error margin)? The mutual anathematization between the Pope and the Patriarchate of Constantinople is largely of symbolic significance, for the Eastern and Western halves of the Church had been drifting apart intellectually since Latin theology emerged in the Third Century, bringing in a distinctly different agenda to that of the East. The move of the administration centre of the Empire to Constantinople and a series of sacks of Rome (by the Visigoths and the Vandals in the 5th century, and the Ostragoths in 6th) led inevitably to competition between the major sees. The formal excommunication only capped a half-millennium of growing mutual isolation between two ecclesial tectonic plates. It was not a crisis, or even a seminal period for the Church. It was just a new low. Indeed, even after the excommunication, cordial relationships were restored and things did not really reach their worst point until the sack of Constantinope during the Fourth Crusade (1203-1204). By choosing the Great Schism, therefore, is Tickle selecting events of symbolic, contemporary, or consequential importance? For if these distinctions are not clarified, to what extent is the theory useful at all?

In addition to these questions of the margin of error and actual significance of two of the four points in history upon which Phyllis Tickle bases her theory, even more questions surround her omission of other events which do not fit neatly into the 500-year schema. The rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy, the work of Thomas Aquinas and the triumph of Scholasticism between the 12th and 14th centuries transformed the nature of Western Christianity, yet barely get a mention. The emergence of post-biblical patrisitic thought in the 2nd to the 5th centuries, including such giants as Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers, is absent from the picture.  And although the conversion of Constantine, and Christianity’s toleration with the Edict of Milan of 313, is not exactly kosher from some Emerging perspectives, it is rather a difficult ‘hinge-point’ to ignore in the history of Christianity. Sadly, its dating is not easily divisible by 500, not even with a 20% error margin, so it gets left out of the picture.  Of the global expansion of Christianity through missionary expansion between the 18th and 19th centuries, we hear nothing. Occasionally, we get a hint that Tickle herself is aware of the inconvenience of these significant developments, so she suggests other happenings such as these belong to settled periods between the great moments of change, but by then the flaws in the theory are all too apparent. If such settled periods contain developments which sow a seed for new crises, all well and good. But when it is far from obvious from the evidence that the crisis always breaks on a 500-year cycle, there is nothing plausible left by way of a theory.

So why does the book need this unlikely theory at all? The purpose of the climactic chapter of the book is to proclaim that we are now at one of these once-every-500-year moments: The Great Emergence. Her 20% error-margin allows Phyllis Tickle the scope to embrace just about any event of the 20th century, and even the 19th century, as an overture to what she has to say about the present. We get a helter-skelter through recent American church history (the Rest of the World tends to figure with rather less prominence). However, it is clear that this is ultimately a tract about the Emerging Church. At this point, the hyperbole gets out of hand. The footnotes to this chapter inform us that Doug Pagitt is ‘one of Emergent Christianity’s most influential and brilliant thinkers’. However, this is nothing compared to Brian McLaren, whose A Generous Orthodoxy is ‘an analog to Luther’s ninety-five theses’.  With such giants among us, we are walking in a once-every-half-millennium moment. So hold onto your hats.

The publication of the book worries me, not because of the implausible nature of its view of history, but rather because of its strong links to the movement which it seeks to fete. History, when read free of a grand narrative, is a humbling thing. One realises that the concerns and battles which fill our days, though perhaps important, must in the end be set alongside the long list of persons, events and concerns from earlier times. It is nigh-on impossible to make a judgement on the significance of present events when set in the train of this long, long story. The Great Emergence is not so much a grand narrative as a grandiose narrative. It is futurology masquerading as history, forcing the latter into an unlikely and unsuitable corset of teleology. Of course, all historians betray as much about their own time and concerns as those which they narrate. Published, as it is, under the Emergent banner and feted by those of whom it speaks, the events surrounding the publication of this book are saying a lot about how the present leaders of the American Emerging Church see themselves. Like Phyllis Tickle, I have a great respect for these people; as indeed do I for the author’s standing as an eminent commentator on American Christianity. But amid the book’s hyperbole, which reduced me at times to a state somewhere between laughter and tears, am I alone in detecting more than a little self-importance? The brand of Emerging Christianity which Tickle describes began as a gentle protest in the face of an over-dominant, comfortable and formulaic Evangelicalism in America. If, as I fear, it may now be succumbing to the perennial hybris of Religious Movements That Have Become Significant, it is likely to find that Church History will take a slow, leisurely time in proving, with its ruthless inertia, how relatively insignificant most of us are in God’s wider scheme of things.

Share Button

10 replies on “The Great Emergence – with the greatest respect, I demur”

  1. Hi Paul, this is a great critique of the work, which does to my mind suffer from some of the shortcomings you describe. I’ve not read the book, but I have heard the author go through her basic thesis, which did strike me as slightly oversimplified and needing a large margin for error.

    I think the work would have benefited from some peer review, which might have removed some of the hyperbole and tightened up some of the argument.

    I also share your concern that it seems likely to push forward ’emergent’ into a ‘significant movement’ way of thinking.

    Hats off though, at first glance its a tidy theory!

  2. Hey Paul… I’m only on part one but whilst I find the imagery helpful in terms of cultural transformation (perspectives and schema) I too questin the 500 year cycle… it feels “somehow “too good to be true”

  3. Popular writing frequently describes “things that vary through time” as cycles–here in the US one of our vice presidential candidates (cough, cough) said something about climate change being cyclical (it isn’t, even though some phenomena that affect it are cyclical) and nobody batted an eye (at least not over that!). “Cycles” sounds just so much cooler than variability that may be caused by lots of different things and might be only weakly periodic. It’s a temptation to sensationalism that exposes the writer as either wishful or desperate. Also I think people do, as you say, generally overstate the importance of current phenomena.

  4. Thanks for your comment Steve. She does indicate, in the introduction, that the book primarily focusses on the USA. Most of the book is concerned with building up to the final section and giving it the significance that she does. However, she draws on the history of World Christianity, so by implication what she is describing in America must have significance for global Christianity.

    Obviously, Phyllis Tickle realises that there must be more to what she calls “The Great Emergence” than Emergent! However, because she permits herself such flexibility in throwing into this stage of the book everything she considers relevant from the past 150 years (beginning with Michael Faraday in the mid-1800s) the net effect is that the Great Emergence appears to be a random series of events that Phyllis herself has selected. Given that this is a selection of about a century and a half worth of material, one starts to wonder in what sense is anything “emerging” and if so, emerging from what?

    My PhD was based on a revival movement which “emerged” in the 1830s. In the writings of the day, there was an enormous sense of “kairos”, which was arising from the romantic reaction to the events of the end of the 18th century – not least the French Revolution which deeply traumatic to the European sense of the world hitherto. The Rationalistic view was perceived as giving rise to grave threats to the social and religious order of the day. The revival movement, under Edward Irving, was a romantic response to this, with God breaking in to restore the Church back to its pristine state.

    Of course, with hindsight, one realises that just about every generation that has ever lived has believed it was passing through a “kairos”. I’m reminded of John Wimber’s idea of there being a Third Wave. Looking at the situation of Charismatic churches in the USA today, one can only comment that “the wave” obviously looked big while it was far off to sea, but when it came real close it wasn’t quite going to be good enough to ride on.

    But this sort of theory is always going to sell books I suppose. But to be honest, I think there are more important things to be getting on with than theorising our own importance.

  5. Paul, in general my position is that negative coverage should be allowed to stand just as written, leaving the judgement of the thing in question to the wisdom of the group. I still think that is a valid position, in general, and am violating it here only because of an out-right error in fact…and, please understand, it is the error and only the error thatI would hope you would correct or post an erratum notice on.

    In THE GREAT EMERGENCE, Gregory the Great is introduced-somewhat humourously, I had thought– because of “the Great” play in his name. He is also discussed very, very specifically as one of the ones who cleaned up the upheaval of the fifth and early sixth centuries, not as one who was in anyway involved in it, much less in tripping it. It is the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the disbanding of the Roman Senate in 480, the movement of church documents and activities out of Rome itself and to the hinterlands by men like Benedict etc. that were the tsunami.

    I am not quite sure how you could have read into the material in THE GREAT EMERGENCE a conclusion so diametrically opposite to the one drawn there; but I would, of course,be grateful if you should find it possible to correct the error.

    Thank you,

    Phyllis Tickle

  6. Dear Phyllis

    Thank you for a gracious response to a negative review (I hope the whelter of positive reviews the book is having makes up for the odd negative one, such as this.)

    I have linked to your comment in the main text, so your correction should be plain to anyone reading the review for the first time. I have re-read the section of the book to which you refer, noting the humourous reference. But I am still in a state of wishing to “demur” over the theory as a whole. I just think the idea of 500-year cycles isn’t sufficiently justified by a looking at the evidence. For example, referring to Chalcedon, the key theological work was done, arguably, between 381 and 431, and that the papal intervention of the greatest significance for the Council was that of Leo 1, who – ironically – would fit the 500 year “window” even better than Gregory. As I say in the review, Gregory the Great (and I’m happy, without humour, to call him “The Great”) was important for the future development of the Westermn Church, but his contribution was not qualitatively different from other contributors who had come before him.

    To summarize my position: I think we need to treat with an almost overwhelming caution any theory of cyclical or even patterned history, especially when it is potentially useful to lend political significance to contemporary persons and church phenomena.


  7. “the great emergence” the title pretty much makes the case on its own. I think being wary of anything with an emphasis on its own self importance is wise but I think this has been attribute allways present in the US emergent movement, probably because of self importances’ large stakehold in the american identity as a whole. I mean books like “the new christians:dispatches from the emergent frontier” it’s pretty clear that there are some fairly large intentions. even back in a new kind of christian brian mclaren presented the movement as the new form of christianity for the postmodern era or at least the john the baptist style herald of the way christianity would end up being

    the whole 500 year thing is probably a bit grandiose but even a humble evaluation of the present would suggest it is not mad to suggest that postmodernism is or was a least the begining/passing period/herald of massive cultual and possibly paradigm shift in atleast again the western world. Hence the christian movement grappaling with aclimatising to growing up in such culture will allways be somewhat interesting. what is a preposterous sudgestion is to isolate such interest merely to the usa (in such a now global world surely such a seismic event would have many global strand that together make up the whole) and in particular to emergent who love’m as many do definatly aren’t the be all and end all of whats going on

  8. Paul,
    Great thoughts here. I have been introduced to the emerging church recently and as much as I want to embrace their openness, I have become somewhat uncomfortable with their confidence in themselves and all they trying to change. They are open to questioning (which is good) but don’t often stop to find any answers. I found that “The Great Emergence” says that all this questioning is good since it brings this important change but doesn’t provide any inspiration for answers.
    Your comments helped me clear up some of my thoughts about this. But there is more to think through.

Comments are closed.