Books predict different futures for Western Christianity
Three authors explore the present condition of the Western church, each proposing a different cable to keep the church from running aground.
In “The Great Emergence,” Phyllis Tickle introduces the cable as a metaphor about why the church is changing and suggests where those changes are leading. The cable connects the church to “some purpose and/or power greater than itself.”
Three strands make up the cable — spirituality, corporeality (church practice) and morality. Wrapping the strands are two layers of insulation — shared story (our understanding of our own history) and imagination (our worldview).
As founding editor of Publisher’s Weekly’s religion department, Tickle has a uniquely broad perspective on American Christianity. As an Episcopal lay minister, she is invested in the outcome of religious shifts.
Tickle argues we are in a 500-year cycle of “Great” changes fundamentally altering church structure. As the Great Schism separated the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and the Great Reformation separated Catholicism from Protestantism, so current changes will produce a new church permutation.
Tickle begins her analysis by showing how the cable was similarly eroded in earlier great changes in Christian history. She then focuses on the current great change, showing how the cable of our culture has been eroded.
Knowledge, for example, has been challenged by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Joseph Campbell’s theories of myth and Albert Schweitzer’s “Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Add Heisenberg’s principle and “‘uncertainty’ became the only fact that could be accepted as fact.”
The result is doubt. Can we believe our doctrines? Can we believe Scripture? Can we believe our ways of doing church? As doubt erodes the cable, a new church emerges.
Ultimately, the question is about authority: “Each time of re-formation has the same central question: Where, now, is the authority?” The Great Schism gave the Pope authority. The Great Reformation gave authority to “Scripture alone.” Where is our authority now?
Tickle then looks forward, envisioning a church emerging that is comfortable with paradox, likely to find authority “in Scripture and the community.” She envisions a “gathering center” of Christians from various traditions uniting around a shared vision for a renewed Christianity rather than sharing denominational allegiances or doctrines.
Tickle’s analysis is sweeping. For some this will provide a grand vista of our current situation. For others it will not provide enough depth. She acknowledges the risk of overgeneralization, yet given her experience in the development of ideas, her overview is welcome, if incomplete.
Robin Meyers’s “Saving Jesus from the Church” is an example of what Tickle describes as the erosion of the metaphoric cable. Meyers specifically questions the issue of Scripture’s authority.
As part of the Jesus Seminar, Meyers distinguishes between historical and mythological parts of the New Testament. He believes that biblical writers embellished the story of Jesus to make him look divine, and today we must strip off those embellishments to discover the real Jesus.
The result is to have two characters: Jesus, “the Jewish peasant from Galilee,” and Christ, “the preexistent divine Savior.” Christ is a myth; Jesus is a great teacher to be followed.
Meyers does have legitimate critiques of American Christianity. One need not go far to see that “faith is a ‘product’ now in a consumer culture, a vindication of war and a guilt-alleviating justification for lavish lifestyles.”
But he uses this critique as evidence that conservative Christian doctrines are invalid, rather than demonstrating the facts surrounding the nature of Jesus/Christ.
The arguments Meyers uses have been around for decades and have been redressed many times. “Saving Jesus” will be easily dismissed by any who have even slight commitment to the New Testament.
In a very different strain, Mike Erre’s “Death by Church” reinforces the metaphoric cable Tickle introduces.
Erre describes “what ails the Western church” and then offers “anchors, postures and pictures” as remedies. He says the church has lost contact with those outside it, ceasing to give “life, light, and hope to the world.” We have neglected what it means to follow Christ in this life, focusing so much on “forgiveness and the life to come (that) real discipleship to Jesus becomes optional.”
The lack of discipleship is manifest in churches run by values of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Church attendance, not radical discipleship, has become the focus. As the church moves into greater conflict with the culture, Christians will be called to more serious discipleship.
Erre offers improvement based on a robust theology of the kingdom of God — shoring up readers’ Christian world view (a layer of insulation on Tickle’s metaphoric cable). God is nothing less than Sovereign, and so his followers — the church — are those who acknowledge his sovereignty and give allegiance to God alone.
Erre re-frames worship, communion, baptism, and other Christian experiences as connections to the Christ story and marks of allegiance to God. He thereby re-weaves at least two inner strands on the metaphoric cable — spirituality and corporeality.
Authority is in the biblical narrative, particularly in the story of Election, Exodus and Diaspora. “We, like the nation of Israel of old, find ourselves in exile, living as aliens and strangers within the culture of the world,” he writes.
His call to discipleship will be attractive to those looking for more than “business as usual” church. His commitment to the Bible will connect him with those seeking moorings rooted in Scripture.
In the end, “The Great Emergence” gives a helpful overview of how Christianity is developing. “Saving Christ” severs our cable and sets us adrift. And “Death by Church” provides a useful vocabulary for those wishing to move toward a “gathering center” of faith and practice.
MARK PARKER is assistant vice president of Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn.