The Great Emergence

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I love listening to Phyllis Tickle. I’ve listened to her speak a number of times over the years (via mp3) and have loved every instance. I believe The Great Emergence is the first book by her I’ve read, though I do have The Words of Jesus waiting on my shelf. I also realize that everyone under the sun has already read and reviewed this book. I’m a latecomer. It took me a while to buy it and then with this minor matter of a celiac diagnosis, my reading has fallen behind the curve lately. 😉

With this particular book, I find myself in the odd position of wanting to like the book more than I actually did. Instead I found it something of a mixed bag. I do think she accurately captures the spirit of the present age and the tension within which we all live in the West and particularly in the US. Those are the parts of the book I found myself almost cheering along with. On the other hand, I found the historical perspective a bit light and the whole 500 year cycle somewhat contrived. Those were probably my least favorite parts of the book.

The section of the book that tried to tie together a whole host of disparate historical events while leaving out many significant realities of the era in order to create a “crisis” around 500-600 CE similar to that which occurred in the Great Schism and the Reformation was the least compelling. I have the disadvantage, I think, of a lot of familiarity with both the imperial (and contra-imperial) history and the Christian history of that era. I just don’t see the same sort of either societal or Christian crisis at that point in time, certainly not working in conjunction. Yes, the West did have some pretty serious societal issues at that time and ongoing. But that was not mirrored in the Christian schism. At that point in time, the See of Rome, largely consumed by those other societal issues, pretty much acted in conjunction with the great Sees of what is known now as Orthodoxy. The schism had as much to do with the politics of the Roman Empire, in its capitol of Constantinople, and with misunderstandings over the actual Greek meanings of the words used. The Armenian state, for example, was caught in a war against Persia at the time and the bishops of its church were unable to attend the council. When they received the council’s results in writing later, they interpreted it as a resurgence of Nestorianism and rejected it accordingly. The monophysite heresy did largely die out over time and never took permanent hold in either the Chalcedonian or non-Chalcedonian churches. The Oriental Orthodox church is not monophysite, nor are they continuing something older or even different than Orthodoxy. Rather their theology is best understood as miaphysite, which is theologically consistent with Chalcedon though it uses different language.

I think there is a deeper misunderstanding of the first thousand years of Christianity embedded within these issues. Toward the end of the book, Phyllis Tickle writes of the impact of Constantine in a way that simply does not fit the historical realities of the time. Further, she seems to attribute the renewed rise of gnosticism, the incorporation of Greek philosophical ideas, the rise of the image of an angry God, and the loss of a Jewish character to Christianity to Constantine rather than to the era of the Great Schism, which is when it actually happened in the West. I don’t disagree with the charges she raises, but they are largely exactly the same charges the Eastern Church has raised against the Western Church when it has been able to interact and speak at all between Islamic and Communist oppression, not something that entered the Church when Constantine made Christianity a legal religion.

With that said, I think her analysis of the Western Church over the last thousand years is pretty accurate for the brief space in which she has to write in this book. Her analysis of the way the postmodern mind deconstructs the structure established in the Reformation (attempting to base authority on a text) is, as they say, spot on. And we are certainly in the middle of both a societal upheaval and an upheaval in our understanding of religion today in the US – beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So I guess I give this book one thumb up. It’s worth reading and it’s a quick read. But read it with a grain of salt, especially when it’s discussing the first thousand years of Christianity.