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The Great Emergence: A Semi-millennial Rummage Sale Right on Time

Imagine that a brilliant contemporary of Martin Luther such as Melanchthon or Erasmus had written a book entitled The Great Reformation which explored the revolution occurring in the Christian church of their time. If they had our modern self-analyzing sensibilities, they might have traced their own theological fault lines and placed them within the larger tectonic activity created by the universe shattering discoveries of Copernicus, the earth shaking explorations of Columbus, and the empowering invention of Gutenberg. Had such a book been written with brevity, insight, and wit, it would have been a must-read for the relatively few literate individuals fortunate enough to be living through one of the deepest shifts in cultural and theological understanding ever.

In fact, we are living through just such a time and have the gift of exactly that kind of book. But don’t take my word for it. Read Phyllis Tickle’s newest work, The Great Emergence.

The title alone has the potential to define our current Christian experience in the same way Thomas Friedman defined our current global context with The World is Flat. Tickle sees the Great Emergence as the latest “rummage sale” in a series of semi-millennial cycles. Looking back, she focuses extensively on the Great Reformation, which is the previous event we are most familiar with since we have been living in its wake. Five hundred years prior to the Great Reformation, the Great Schism divided the Western and Eastern Christian traditions. Five centuries before that, Gregory the Great’s institution of monasticism reinvented Christianity and preserved culture after the fall of Rome. And of course, this occurred approximately 500 years after the coming of Jesus, which was recognized as so completely transformational the calendar itself was reset.

Tickle also recognizes that Jewish scholars would continue tracing these semi-millennial cycles back to the time of the Babylonian captivity when the prophets spoke, and beyond that to the transition from the Judges to the beginning of the Davidic Dynasty, etc. She also surmises that a similar cyclical pattern could be described in Islam. However, the focus of The Great Emergence is on Christianity and specifically its North American context. She discusses the current scientific discoveries, philosophical concepts, and cultural practices which have disrupted the “cable of meaning that keeps the human social unit connected to some purpose and/or power greater than itself.”

These discoveries, concepts, and practices, she says, have punched holes in the covering communal story and common imagination, revealing the inner cables of spirituality, corporeality, and morality to the probing eyes and grubby fingers of society. When we have finished fiddling, and assuming society holds together long enough to complete the century long mending process, the repaired cable should hold until the next major shift. Some have suggested the mending process may be more rapid this time, given our nearly instantaneous global interconnections. However, the level of complexity in the conversation and the number of voices able to become involved may more than offset the gains of more rapid access to one anotherís thoughts.

This global conversation offers a way to conceptualize movements such as Emergent and the Emerging Church, both of which are arising in the wake of the Great Emergence. These terms are notoriously difficult to define, much to the consternation of those who think they oppose whatever it is that happens to be emerging. Tickle writes, “when pinned down and forced to answer the question, ‘What is Emergent or Emerging Church?’ most who are will answer, ‘a conversation,’ which is not only true but will always be true.” So, Emergent and Emerging Church can be described as related conversations within the broader phenomenon of the Great Emergence. (Tickle also offers an intriguing theological distinction between these two phenomena that would only be of interest to those passionate about differentiating between them. So, I will leave that until you read the book.)

And, you will find the book very readable. If there is a fault, it is that Tickle encompasses so much with brilliant clarity and amazing brevity that she leaves readers longing for more. Perhaps this succinctness explains the fact that Seventh-day Adventists are only referenced in relation to our church buildings being a place in which Emergents have been known to gather, along with other atypical locations such as public parks, football stadiums, and high school gyms. Or, perhaps Seventh-day Adventists are mentioned only in passing since our denomination has tended toward isolationism and many of our conversations have been rather insular, setting up parallel and in many ways similar conversations to answer our own questions rather than becoming involved in the wider Christian conversation, much less in the public square, to address our common issues.

In order to help us enter this conversation, Tickle’s book explores the big questions of the Great Emergence: “What is it?” “How did it come to be?” and, “Where is it going?” In the process, Tickle takes us on a whirlwind journey through history, science, society, and faith. She describes the central and overarching question in every time of upheaval as “Where now is our authority?” Since Luther, sola scriptura has been the resounding protestant answer. Yet this once unifying cry has been dealt a series of blows beginning with race and slavery; continuing to gender inequality, divorce, and women’s ordination; and now to the final stand over “the gay issue.” Tickle writes, “Of all the fights, the gay one must be – has to be – the bitterest, because once it is lost, there are no more fights to be had. It is finished. Where now is the authority?”

That is the question we are answering. In describing how we are answering and will answer this question, Tickle references network theory, describes crowd sourcing, and uses terms such as global, radical, relational, and non-hierarchical. The answer then to the great question of our time may not actually be discovered in our conversation through community. Rather, our expanding conversation through community may actually be the answer.

Brenton Reading writes from Birmingham, Alabama, where he works as a radiologist.

You can buy The Great Emergence through our Amazon affiliate account and support Spectrum with your purchase.

The Emergent Discussion

The discussion that follows here is in response to this review as well as to the review of Faith Undone and Ryan Bell’s blog entry, The (Adventist) Church Emerging.

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