Guest Post: Howard Pepper on The Great Emergence


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Special thanks to Howard Pepper for contributing this review of Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence. If you would like to contribute a book review of your own for the month of March, contact Rachel.

This is a book that was fascinating to me.  So much of it was of strong interest, and it is so well researched and packed with complex analysis and theory, that I chose to read it a 2nd time for deeper understanding, and parts of it a third time!  

The Great Emergence is a good summary of some of the broad strokes of Christian history, in the context of wider societal and technological change.  It is a helpful summary of some of the trends in the last ½ century of the American Church.  I do feel there are areas of lack of clarity and some speculation in analysis that I don’t agree with fully, or question.  With all that, still, I am somewhat reluctant to be critical because there is so much of value in the book.  But… 

Before going there, however, I want to encourage everyone to read the book.  It is an important one for every kind of Christian, especially those who are reform-minded or concerned about developments in church and culture.  It is not what I’d call an easy read, and it will stretch your vocabulary (a good thing in my “book”).  And I have a selfish motive for at least a good number on this blog to read it: I’m eager for more discussion on a number of points that can only be engaged if you’ve read the book.   

One of those points where the interpretations and insights of others would be welcome is this: I could never quite get clear on just who Tickle mainly had in mind as part of the emergence.  At times, it seems she is referring to virtually all Christians who are seeking new forms of Christian expression and/or belief, but at others, particularly in the last chapter, she does seem to narrow participants in the Great Emergence to those labeled either “emerging” or “emergent” specifically.  This would be a much smaller set of people than she, at other places, seems to include as emerging (but without such a label put on either by themselves or others).  So the apparently dual use of the terms, without explanation that I could find, made for some confusion. 

Similarly, I could not get clear on what she means by the “gathering center.”  It is certainly not a conceptual thing in her description, other than broadly Christian, as much as it involves values/style/orientation to authority and culture.  Given who all she seems to include as part of that center, it seems the only thing these Christians all share is interest in and/or action toward a different approach than all that has gone before, as to Christian community and expression.  But that would be true of individuals and groups in any part of her quadrant or later modified diagrams.  She goes into detail about various reforms and the various “locations” (in relation to her diagrams) of Christian groups and orientations. But still, just how she means “center” seems to elude me.  (It’s probably pretty simple and I’m just being dense.)  

I’d also like the book to give deeper answers, or at least probe deeper on how emerging Christians DO deal with questions of authority.  She brings up repeatedly the need among emerging Christians (seemingly in the broadest sense of emerging) to find what constitutes authority.  Yes, it may be in a lot of flux, but I tend to think more can be identified and explained about some coalescing new concepts of authority, beyond her few comments near the end that it is in some combination of Scripture and community.   

There are two final areas I’ll comment on in which I felt Tickle left out things of significance that would have helped fill out the picture she was trying to paint. One is the issue of consciousness studies and how they specifically impact this emergence, this change in worldviews; and specifically impact cosmology of life and the soul/spirit.  In fact, cosmology, whether of the physical universe or of spiritual beingness, was little touched on.  One might appropriately let this slide except that this IS a big-picture book, and it seems fitting to go to the things that are the biggest of all.   

Directly related to this, she did comment very briefly a couple times on the phenomenon of being “spiritual but not religious,” but seemed to connect it primarily with alienated Christians.  People like Robert Fuller, in a book with that phrase as title, find data to indicate that is a self-designation or fair description for 15-20% of Americans.  Only a portion of them, perhaps even a minority, consider themselves to have ever been Christian.    

A similar oversight is having almost no discussion of how broad “New Age” concepts, Buddhism and other Eastern thought have indirectly, if not directly, impacted Christianity, and continue to, toward reform and a willingness to seek common ground spiritually with those outside specifically Christian categories and practices.  In all these sources, as well as a sizable and growing group of religiously open scientists (including medical professionals and social scientists) who are often neither New Age/Eastern nor Christians, there is a particular, intense focus on learning about the nature of consciousness.  I think Tickle may incorporate this under what she refers to as considering what it means to be human, but again it’s just thrown out with little elaboration. 

The final omission (or under-coverage) I’ll mention is making only passing references to re-formation of doctrine/theology specifically.  Only at the end does she merely mention the “…coming conflict between traditional Christian and emergence theology…” (p. 161).  She does touch on a few of the aspects of what that does and will involve, but only ever-so-briefly.  I realize her aim was an overview, but it did lead to the impression, for me, that she might not realize just how crucial a role theological understandings and formulations will continue to be.   

I’ve done a relatively small amount of reading of noted “Emergents” (her “orthonomy” oriented members within the larger grouping of them and “emergings,” who are more “theonomy” focused).  In that reading, along with material about them and the movement, my sense is that their underpinnings of authority and of specific theology are actually distinctly NOT Evangelical in any typical sense (while perhaps Dan Kimball and others as “emerging” ARE).  However, many Emergent leaders seem to be reluctant to be cut off, or perceived as cut off from Evangelicalism. (Similarly, theological radicals like Pinnock or social/political ones like Campolo seem to want to stay “in the fold,” even when threatened with banning, shunning, or pressure to conform.)   

The Emergents have no other “home” or mooring point and seem to resist getting into the position of starting a new sect or distinct “movement,” not attached at least loosely to conservative Protestant Christianity (or whatever Tickle’s “center” is, which she herself says originated primarily within the quadrant she labels “conservative”).  I’d have loved to have seen Tickle jump into and discuss this issue in some depth…. Maybe some of you will do so, I hope.  

A final point on theological underpinnings.  Here I will speak primarily in relation to Brian McLaren, whose thinking I know better than other Emergents or emerging Christians, having read a few of his books, heard him speak and interact in a group setting, etc.  He does seem to be perhaps the theologically most informed and sophisticated of the main leaders of both “wings” of the emerging movement.  In what I have read of his work, plus a smattering here and there of related authors, I have not found what I think would be logical, suitable, and important: a serious look into what is sometimes called “the myth of beginnings” of Christianity. 

It is somewhat related to and overlapping with the “quest for the historical Jesus,” which Tickle does speak about some.  But in some regards, it is foundational to that very quest, and thus at least as important, perhaps more so in that the historical Jesus research itself has gone about as far as is productive, for now.  It is also foundational to the points of emphasis of McLaren and others about the nature of the Kingdom and the core message and ethos of Jesus.   

I realize this may not be clear or meaninful to some readers and I can’t take the space here to go into it other than to say that a good segment of biblical scholarship for a couple decades at least, has properly broadened its pursuits in an interdisciplinary manner, into probing for better understandings of the nature and formative, growth processes of the earliest groups of Jesus followers and how they ultimately became Jewish Christian groups, or started as mixed Jewish/Gentile groups (as via Paul, et al.).  The entire picture of  what has guided Christian development theologically, and elements of the foundational assumptions orthodoxy still operates from, tends to be radically modified when an historically, sociologically, literarily focused study is made of what is often called “Christian origins.”  If nothing else is, this is germane, in a vital way, to The Great Emergence. It’s time for both scholars and lay people to stop sticking their heads in the sand in relation to it.  Tickle seems to have set things up to discuss it, but then missed the grand opportunity, perhaps out of ignorance regarding it.

Howard had a strong religious upbringing in evangelical Christianity and developed his beliefs and practices in that framework via both personal study/spiritual practice, and formal education (B.A, M.A.-MFCC, Biola Univ.; M.Div., Talbot School of Theology; 2 years Ph.D. coursework, Claremont School of Theology).  He did primarily church and educational ministry and professional counseling (mostly with Christians), until about age 45 (1995).  By then, his continual studies in theology, psychology, science and cosmology had led him to a more universal, inclusive kind of spiritual worldview and practice which he continues to develop, with particular interest in Christian views and spirituality.

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