Emergent Christianity Comes to Memphis

on January 18, 2013
(Photo Credit: Flickr)
Writer Phyllis Tickle praised McLaren’s iconoclastic contributions to religious dialogue. (Photo Credit: Flickr)

At a national gathering on emergence Christianity (their term, not ours), noted writer Phyllis Tickle compared Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy to Luther’s 95 Theses and St. Anselm of Canterbury to an Islamist imam. The grandmotherly guru of post-evangelical Christianity was the star of the conference, sharing her characteristically saucy humor at her home parish of St. Mary’s in Memphis. She joined nearly four hundred attendees, including such luminaries as Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lauren Winner, and Doug Pagitt. A keen observer and chronicler of what she calls “the Great Emergence,” Tickle identified possible obstacles for the emergent movement to tackle in the coming years.

The founding editor of the Religion Department of Publisher’s Weekly explained, “What began as a conversation has become a movement…It won’t stay that way…What we’re talking about is a new tributary of Christianity.” Tickle instructed that, every five hundred years, Western civilization (especially members of Latinized Christianity) “goes through a rummage sale” and experiences significant paradigm shifts in all of life. “In the last forty years, things are starting to come apart,” she observed. She spent hours narrating an intellectual history of science, mathematics, politics, philosophy, and theology. She highlighted the breakdown of certainty, the erosion of authority to individualism, and especially the apparent downfall of Protestant biblical inerrancy. While the nimble and progressive emergence movement is perfectly situated to ride the relevance wave in the coming decades, more reactionary elements will experience a “realignment”—she mentioned that John Piper and Tim Keller are among the leaders of this countermovement. Ultimately, she foretold a “coming age of the Spirit,” in which dogmatic orthodoxy and claims to absolute truth (outdated artifacts from the ages of the Father and the Son) would melt before a loving communion of uncertainty.

Tickle offered important recommendations for emergent Christians. First, she intoned, “We need to address the authority issue, and we don’t know have that answer yet.” Using literary theory, emergents have excelled in tearing down claims of authority over their lives. They consider the Magisterium, confessions, creeds, and inerrancy as inadequate—they believe one can live life in contradiction with most or all of these foundations. “Scripture will play a part. The Holy Spirit will have a role in establishing authority in emergence Christianity.” Earlier, she claimed, “Emergents…believe the Scripture is actually true. Most people in the pews want it to be factually true.” Tickle commended the group for avoiding the “arrogance…that God can be trapped in our understanding.” The emergent thinker labeled the Bible as “patriarchal” (“only a fool” would think otherwise), condemned the concept of a closed canon of Scripture, and still supports homosexuality even though “the Bible is not in favor of homosexuality—it just isn’t. The approval is not there.”

Second, she advised, “You and I and our children and grandchildren are going to have to form a theology of religion.” Like many Christians, emergents struggle to be committed believers living alongside other people of earnest faith—all without falling into civil unrest. Nevertheless, the Episcopal lay woman criticized former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey for calling on European courts to address English courts who are attacking the religious liberty of Christians and caving in to Sharia law. Tickle preferred the opportunity to lump Islam into the Judeo-Christian stream, creating the category of “Abrahamics.” “Can we do that without universalism?” she inquired, “Christian universalism is an oxymoron looking for a place to park…We need something more than the elephant getting feeled up by the five blind Hindus [sic].”

The noted speaker also contended, “We need to devise a new doctrine of the atonement.” Informing the audience that there are at least six kinds of atonement theory, she excoriated the penal substitutionary view of redemption. This “bloody sacrifice” approach is the evangelical staple, teaching that Christ took upon God’s wrath against Law-breaking sinners upon himself as a substitute, thus purchasing grace and mercy for believers. “It won’t play anymore,” Tickle stated. She traced this view back to the broader satisfaction theory of St. Anselm of Canterbury. According to her revision, after failing to stave off the First Crusade, Anselm decided to write his Cur Deos Homo to comfort soldiers doomed to die in the Holy Land. She audaciously analogized, “It was like the way some radical imams tell suicide bombers that, if they strap twenty grenades on and blow themselves up, they’ll get twenty virgins in paradise.” However, emergents have so deconstructed this view of redemption and its offshoots that they have lost a coherent explanation for the Incarnation and crucifixion.

Finally, Tickle warned her peers, “For the first time in history, we don’t know what a man is.” Setting him apart for thinking, memory, emotional affiliation with a tribe, and language have all fallen away to scientific research. Moreover, drugs can change someone into a completely different person. She rhetorically pondered, “Maybe I’m just a wash of chemical over neurons in my head.” In short, Tickle outlined that contemporary men do not know what a soul is. She concluded that end of life issues, abortion, capital punishment, robotics, transhumanism, and other questions of personhood cannot be addressed until this question of the soul finds an answer.

Regardless, Phyllis Tickle has high hopes for the emergent movement. She deemed that Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy functions like the Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses (albeit without the ensuing papal bulls and peasant revolts). If McLaren truly is of similar stature to Martin Luther (a doubtful point), then perhaps Tickle is most like Martin Bucer: granting identity, unity, and self-awareness to a disruptive movement. However, instead of a reform for the entire Western Church, Tickle generally addresses dysfunctional Protestants who have read too much Derrida. Whereas Bucer strove to tie together Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Calvinism; Tickle attempts to unite such disparate chords as the neo-monastics, oldline “hyphenateds,” and the non-denominational “emerging.” Even if emergent Christianity’s presence is so far relegated to the bywaters of Anglo-America, the emergents themselves think highly of their matron.

Bart Gingerich is a research assistant with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter at @bjgingerich.

  1. Comment by Ray Bannister on January 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    So, she thinks Islam ought to be lumped in with Judaism and Christianity. Is she basing this on the warm relationship between Muslims and Jews in Israel? It’s hard to do a group hug when you’re dodging bullets.

    Age is supposed to bring wisdom. “We don’t know what a man is” and “loving community of uncertainty” aren’t much evidence of that.

    I think I’ll stick with my “patriarchal” Bible. I can’t see myself feeling much love for a “community of uncertainty, whatever that is.

  2. Comment by bravelass on January 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Except that, after her closing remarks on women, feminism and The Pill, her pastorettes and other cheerleader fan girls are hyperventilating about her betrayal of them and feminism

  3. Comment by Ray Bannister on January 20, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    “Pastorettes” – I like that!

  4. Comment by Troy on January 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Just another false prophet/profit.

  5. Comment by Helmut Hein on January 18, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    It is really sad when a person searches for truth while denigrating the objective truth which has already been provided.

  6. Comment by Bart Gingerich on January 19, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I don’t know if “objective truth” is really the issue here. I think there’s more of a crisis of lacking a proper understanding of subjective truth. http://www.amazon.com/Saving-Appearances-A-Study-Idolatry/dp/081956205X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358616921&sr=8-1&keywords=saving+the+appearances

  7. Comment by William W. Birch on January 19, 2013 at 11:55 am

    “Ultimately, she foretold a ‘coming age of the Spirit,’ in which dogmatic orthodoxy and claims to absolute truth … would melt before a loving communion of uncertainty.”

    I wonder: how *certain* is she of the *absolute truth* of this future vision? I’m dumbfounded by such an illogical, contradictory enlightenment. Oy!

  8. Comment by Bart Gingerich on January 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    The “a loving community of uncertainty” is the best I could glean from her description of the “Age of the Spirit.” I’m sure she could give a better apologetic, but I was mostly picking up a strain of Gnosticism.

  9. Comment by William W. Birch on January 19, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Oh, yes, I think you’re spot on!

  10. Comment by Ben Welliver on January 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    William, if you’ve ever read any of her books, you know that the words “illogical” and “contradictory” will pop into your head often. She claims to be a fan of “paradox,” which apparently means “nothing I write has to make sense.”

  11. Comment by William W. Birch on January 19, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Lol … yes, I’ve encountered that as well!

  12. Comment by J S Lang on January 19, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    I hate to criticize someone who reminds me of my grandmother, but here goes: This author’s grasp of theology and Christian history is very shaky. She repeats the truism (not truth) that Anselm invented the theory of substitutionary atonement, when in fact it’s found right in the New Testament, and articulated by Augustine and Athanasius long before the time of Anselm. I’ve never heard anyone connect Anselm’s book Cur Deus Homo with the Crusades, so I’m guessing this is another truism, not truth, that the Emergents like to circulate. (They must figure that, since the Crusades are regarded as so horrible in liberal circles, anyone connected with the Crusades must be a Bad Guy. The Emergents all denounce the substitutionary theory because, according to them, it makes God look bad, a hateful king sacrificing his own son in a gruesome fashion. Apparently in their desire to appear hip and cool, Emergents say this “barbaric” doctrine is unacceptable to modern minds, which I guess means THEY find it barbaric, but the New Testament is what it is, and there’s no way to have Christianity without the cross. Tickle says that doctrine “won’t play any more.” Says who? As we see clearly in Paul’s letters, the gospel from the beginning was a “scandal” to most people who heard it, and it never has “played” to the majority. Frankly, in my contacts with people in their 20s and 30s, the idea of one person dying in place of another isn’t so difficult to grasp. I’m not prepared to say the Emergents aren’t Christians, but their eagerness to discard the core doctrines of the faith is disturbing, to say the least. What a pity more Christians aren’t familiar enough with the Bible and Christian history, so they would be able to spot the errors in what the Emergents are teaching.

  13. Comment by Jeremy Baines on January 19, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    According to her, Emergents think the Bible is “actually true” while the people in the pews want it “factually true.” If this is what passes for deep thought by the Emergents, I’ll definitely side with the people in the pews. I’m waiting for one of the Emergents to make the case that 2 + 2 = 5, which I bet is “actually true.” Is it just me, or is there something about the Emergents that smells sort of, oh, Gnostic? Be one of the morons in the pews with the “factual” Bible, or move up to the Emergent level of higher thought.

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  17. Comment by C Scott Fowler on July 23, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    Mr. Gingerich, I appreciated your article. I have my own concerns about Emergence Christianity and Ms. Tickle’s influence and have been doing my own research. Your article was one of the things I had in mind when I emailed her with several questions to which she responded at length. I also directed her to your article and I know in fact that she has read it and responded to me to some degree about it. You can read my ongoing assessment of Ms. Tickle and her “dangerous hermeneutic” at


    Your article here is referenced several times in those articles.

  18. Comment by Project Samizdat on March 6, 2016 at 2:00 am

    The late Phyllis Tickle’s ideas need to be put in historical and cultural context – especially her focus on a new ‘mystical scientific worldview’:


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  21. Comment by Essie on November 4, 2017 at 1:26 am

    So pretty much the assumptions of liberal Protestantism but based upon post-modernism and not modernism? The assumptions-in the blank century we have to revision Christianity according to the assumptions of fill in the blank(post-modernism) and the classic faith is/will die out.

    None of this is new, maybe to people who grew up in neo-fundamentalism or conservative evangelism but people have been peddling this type of thinking since the Unitarians and Universalist in the 18th century, so far it and liberal protestanism hasn’t caught wave besides upper middle class white Americans and some Europeans, who are largely just straight up not religious. Actually it’s funny how Evangelism, Pentocalism/the charasmatic movement and Liberalism began around similar times (or soon after) yet Liberalism is the only one that has stayed stagnant.

    As post-modernism itself is no longer a major discussion among the intellgesia and even average people are somewhat questioning some of it, I doubt the Emergent church will even last a hundred years. Post-modernism with it’s self-contradictory nature, hyper individualism and ultimately nihilistic roots, isn’t something that will give staying power. If anything populist post-modernism has bread a end to dominate institutional religion and the need to identify with it at all, but not a totally replacement of normative Faith with something like the Emergent church. Basically it will bread/is breading a spiritual but not religious and religious divide.

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