A Passion for the Reign of God–A Review of Emergence Christianity

by Elizabeth Michael

emergence christianityI heard Phyllis Tickle speak at the Festival of Homiletics this spring.  The speaker introducing her went through a long list of her credentials and accolades and then asked her, “What is your passion?”

I expected to hear that Tickle was passionate about her small farm in Tennessee, knitting, rock-hopping, and sea-salted dark chocolate, or some such things.  (After all, who of us hasn’t wrestled with that last line of a bio, which conventionally includes friends/family/pets, a favorite creative pursuit, a slightly obscure physical activity, and a rather innocuous guilty pleasure?)  Instead, I found myself sitting up straight when I heard her response: “What is my passion?  Still, though it may sound ridiculous, the reign of God.”

That answer got me to pull Tickle’s books out of my “good intentions” pile and open them.

A few years ago, Tickle’s writing popularized the concept of semi-millennial cultural tsunamis: she posited that every 500 years, almost as clockwork, the Western world has experienced periods of enormous upheaval in which every piece of culture has been reconfigured.  Five hundred years ago it was the Reformation, 1000 years ago saw the Great Schism, 1500 years ago witnessed the Great Decline and Fall, and 2000 years ago birthed the Great Transformation.  This, then, is one of Tickle’s gifts to the heart wearied by anxiety for the church and culture in our age: we are right on schedule.

Indeed, it is not the church alone that experiences upheaval: economic, political, and social life are disrupted right alongside ecclesial life.  The upheaval of our own times, christened the Great Emergence, has been the subject of a few of Tickle’s books.  Her latest, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters, published in 2012, serves as an “interim report” on the church-that-is-becoming.

Those who still find themselves uncertain of what emergence Christianity is will find in this volume a helpful introduction.  Here Azusa Street, Taize, New Monastics, the by now infamous SBNR crowd, and theology-on-tap groups find a place in Tickle’s chronicle.  Here the “emerging” and “emergent” camps are differentiated.  Here are considered, if not answered, questions of our present moment: How will Christian community look in an Internet age of anonymous intimacy?  What does the deinstitutionalization of Emergence Christianity mean for the future of professional ordained clergy?  When an Emergence culture finds meta-narratives suspect, what is to become of Christianity’s Grand Narrative?  What does “growth” mean to the church-that-is-becoming?

It is perhaps telling that the final section of the book, “And Now What?” is also the shortest.  Looking ahead to the inevitable reconfiguration of all that is currently being disrupted, Tickle is not prescriptive and minimally predictive.  She identifies impending dilemmas to be revisited, among them atonement theory and the question of what it is to be a human being.  She wonders about the implications for the church of an Emergence culture skeptical of hierarchy and disinclined toward membership.  Most incisively, she raises the question that follows inevitably in the wake of every tsunami: where now is our authority?  Or, put another way, how then shall we live?  The volume is only an interim report, after all.  There is more to come, and readers are left with the implicit responsibility of living into the questions.

Were its first 200 pages useless, the book would be worth purchasing for the annotated bibliography and afterword alone.  The robust reading list offers further fodder for those so inclined; it is evidence of Tickle’s careful scholarship.  But the brief afterword evinces not only her scholarship, but also her faith.  She writes of the mystery of the Trinity and of the story by which she lives her life; she writes like a person passionate about the reign of God.

Elizabeth Michael is privileged to serve as Associate Pastor at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC.  She does love sea-salted chocolate but is striving to be still more passionate about the reign of God.

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