Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Review: The Great Emergence

Although the subtitle of this latest book by Phyllis Tickle is "How Christianity is Changing and Why," the book is about so much more. The book's thesis is that the western Church is going through an upheaval and rearrangement, the likes of which have not been seen for 500 years.

Even more surprising, Tickle argues persuasively that similar transformations have occurred every 500 years, each one leading to huge and fundamental changes in religion, but also in society, culture and the individual person's life.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed his treatises to a church door and initiated the Great Reformation. 500 years before that the church split into the east and the west: Eastern and Greek Orthodox on the one hand, Roman Catholicism on the other. Going back 500 more years we arrive at the fall of the Roman Empire and the ushering in of the dark ages.

And 500 before that is the time of Jesus himself, a transformation so great that even the way we number our years was changed as a result. If we consider the whole Judeo-Christian world, the pattern extends even further: 500 years before Christ was the fall of the temple in Jerusalem, and 500 years before that we have the reign of King David.

Tickle takes us through a broad and far-reaching review of history, laying out the case that we are now in a time she calls The Great Emergence, and have been for several decades now. Just as Martin Luther's ideas would not have spread without Gutenberg's printing press, the ideas arising at this current time would not be spreading without the web.

And just as Luther's ideas rejected the existing authority structures in the church at the time, so to now do the activities of those involved in The Great Emergence reject the authority structures of our time. The Internet and Web 2.0 technologies are making this rejection which started in the 1960s even more pervasive.

As we all know, the Reformation also ushered in an age in which Science became the dominant force in our culture. The names that come to mind are known to all students: Newton, Copernicus, Galileo. Tickle discusses several key events in Science in the last hundred years that have ushered in the next great age of transformation. Most of us would also have no trouble naming the scientists responsible for this latest turn of events: Darwin, Freud, Einstein.

This is a short book, less than 170 6"x9" pages, but packed with many thought-provoking ideas. Toward the end of the book, on p. 152, Tickle touches on the possibility that what is happening to the church is a natural event:

" this case, the Church, capital C, is not really a 'thing' or entity so much as it is a network in exactly the same way that the Internet or the World Wide Web or, for that matter, gene regulatory and metabolic networks are not 'things' or entities. Like them and from the point of view of an emergent, the Church is a self-organizing system of relations, symmetrical or otherwise, between innumerable member-parts that themselves form subsets of relations within their smaller networks, etc. etc. in interlacing levels of complexity."

She goes on to draw the clear conclusion: what this means is that no one individual or hierarchical structure is in charge:

"No one of the member parts or connecting networks has the whole or entire truth of anything...each is only a single working piece of what is evolving and is sustainable so long as the interconnectivity of the whole remains intact."

This is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in history, the intersection of religion and science, the current state of Christianity, or any number of other topics. I predict people will be talking about this book for years and you just might want to be among those who read it first.


  1. Thanks for the review! Sounds like it's right up my alley!

  2. Your review has inspired me to read this.Thanks