November 15, 2009 Volume 23, Number 17
Phyllis Tickle tells a story that's difficult for many evangelicals to hear
By Doug Koop | Editorial Director
Phyllis Tickle makes people uncomfortable. Correct that. The 75-year-old mother of seven is charming and engaging, polite and congenial. It's the message she delivers that is extremely disconcerting, including to many Christian believers in conservative Protestant congregations.
Tickle is an author and speaker who at this stage of her life is using her formidable gifts to declare the signs of the times to any and all who will lend her an ear. Speaking primarily to Christian audiences, she forthrightly describes how massive shifts in our cultural environment are affecting the way we understand and proclaim our faith. She presents this core message quite succinctly in The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (BakerBooks, 2008).
Looking at the grand sweep of history, Tickle observes that major cultural upheavals occur every 500 years, and that we're in the middle of one right now. Five hundred years ago was the time of Martin Luther and the Great Reformation; 500 years earlier The Great Schism occurred; 500 years before that ushered in the Great Decline; and another 500 years takes us back to the Great Transformation, the time of Jesus Christ. Tickle calls what's happening now "The Great Emergence," a term that names "a vast shift in culture affecting every part of life including, but not limited to, religion."
And every time these shifts occur, says Tickle, the fundamental question is: what authority? The Reformation answer to the question of authority was sola scriptura (by Scripture alone).
And this is the nub of the matter for contemporary evangelical Christians. An especially unwelcome part of Tickle's message declares something we hold sacrednothing less than the Bibleto be less commanding than we have thought. She is saying that, for many Christians today, our holy book no longer carries the full weight of authority typically accorded it. That's tough to hear. We're accustomed to calling ourselves people of the book, believers who "stand alone on the word of God."
Scripture is not going away. The Bible is still trustworthy and will continue to be significantly authoritative for disciples of Jesus as the decades and centuries unfold. But in the future it will not so commonly be the last word in discussions of the divine as in the centuries just past. Within a hundred years or so, a new locus of primary authority will come to the fore.
This shift is in process right now. It's not a matter of whether any one of us agrees or disagrees with these developments. Tickle is describing the realities of our era, and many of them are discomfiting. But the trajectory of history, she explains, serves to remind us that things like this have happened before. Each epoch has both rough spots and benevolences; each answer to the question of authority has its upsides and downsides. "Protestantism's great gift was universal literacy," she observes. "Its curse was divisiveness." She is similarly forthright in saying "emergent Christianity is not perfect. It isn't anymore wonderful than any other form. It has problems."
While many Christiansespecially conservative Protestantsare dismissing the message and rejecting the messenger, we do so at our peril. Tickling may not be comfortable, but neither is it deadly.
Indeed, Tickle is a Christian with a profound message of enduring hope. The patterns of history she's studied reveal that each time the upheaval happens, "a new, more vital form of Christianity" emerges, that the previously dominant expressions of Christianity re-form and improve. And the inevitable result is that Christianity grows and spreads. She avows that the faith of our fathers and mothers always proves bigger, stronger and more powerful than any of the forms through which human beings gain access to it.
Ultimately, Christians are called to be people of hope. We live by faith, not by sight, and have never truly been able to base the conduct our lives and beliefs on definitive certainties. Nonetheless, we can and do live in the confident assurance that Jesus Christ is Lord, and the Living Word will endure forever. On this we stake our hope.