Monday, September 09, 2019

Phyllis Tickle, and Theories In General

I listen to a podcast out of First Methodist in Houston, and one of the pastor participants is very fond off the late Christian writer Phyllis Tickle.  In particular she likes the idea that the Church has this "giant rummage sale" every 500 years, getting rid of old junk, but good things come out of it.  At one level, what's the problem?  It might explain some things, it provides a structure for understanding church history - which aids in memory - and there's not anything obviously heretical or even unorthodox about it. It's okay for a variety of understandings to circulate in the church, right? North Park University* gave her an honorary doctorate, after all.  How bad can she be?

I hadn't known until I read the above that the idea was originally the Episcopalian Mark Dyer's. Such formulations do not actually start with the idea that there was this big change in the Church in 500, and there was one in 1000, and there was another in 1500 after that, so we should look around and see what is happening in 2000 that we should be paying attention to.  It works in the opposite direction.  We think that what we care about now is one of the most important things in church history - it's big, really big - and search for comparisons.  For Protestants, we naturally look to the Reformation, which was a big deal in Northern Europe, anyway.  2000AD,...1500AD, was there anything oh golly gee, yes! There was the Great Schism in 1054! And so around 500AD... what was the big change?  Why, the fall of the Roman Empire of course.  Except the Roman Empire only fell in the western half, and the Eastern Empire and Eastern Church didn't have this big change. Do they not count?  And 476-1054 is closer to 600 years.  And the Syriac and Coptic Churches cared even less. But when seeking patterns, such things are mere unimportant details.

Or going in the other direction, the American colonists thought another whole new era was coming in starting in the 1600s and into the 1700s, that God was providing a New World to reflect his will, and this affected the founding of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as well. Many Americasn still much believe that a great change in the world happened in 1776, which is close enough to exactly halfway between the 1500 and 2000 nodes. The British started worldwide missions around 1800, including especially Methodists and Baptists. Numerous American sects thought we were entering the last age of the Church in the 1800s and have kept teaching it until now, which is where all those endtimes and prophesy people now are intellectuall descended from.

In between those middle times, the Spanish and Portuguese in the 1400s, and somewhat the rest of Europe, believed that defeating the Moslems, maybe by sailing around behind them and finding Prester John and surrounding them, would bring in the New Jerusalem. When Ferdinand and Isabella finally kicked the Moslems out of Grenada they thought they were bringing in a new age, that had nothing to do with any Renaissance, Reformation, or printing presses. And from 1100-1400 there was the Age of Crusades, which largely puzzled the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The refounding of the Holy Roman Empire in 800AD was supposed to be a reestablishment of God's rule, or at least the beginning of that.  The point being that we do this in every era.  We think the world is trying to turn to some new thing, and we always think it is deeply tied to whatever we are doing this week. This is Woodstock Nation (or the Age of Aquarius) in the 1960s, or the Late Great Planet Earth of the 70s, or before that The War to End All Wars, the emergence of the Ubermensch, or the Soviet New Man. All of this is retrofitting the Church to fit our favorite topics. That's the danger, because it feeds into our natural narcissism that what we are interested in is of course the most important thing happening. 

Phyllis Tickle's favorite thing was emergence in the Church, related to but not synonymous with the Emerging Church.  She, and the people she liked being with, saw these changes in worship, in understanding of Scripture, and in ways of "doing church," as the phrase used to be, as the really major events, the moving of the tectonic plates of the church. It confirmed their bias that what they were already doing was the Great Work of God for our generation, when it's all just imposing our narrative on world events. Phyllis Tickle and the others preaching emergence get a huge confirmation bias that what they do is the white-hot center of God's work.  500AD...1000AD...1500AD....It must be true!  This is God's plan for the Church today!

It's like astrology, or MBTI, or Enneagrams to me (sorry Bethany, you are going to have to create distance from Enneagrams now that you are RCC.  Vatican says so. If your personality theory causes you to sin, pluck it out.). These theories are always therefore dangerous.

The age of greatest persecution of Christians is the 21st C, and I'm betting those Christians don't give a rat's ass about most of emergence or underrepresented voices, excepting maybe their extremely underrepresented dead friends and relattives. My own worry is that the American church is becoming increasingly entertainment-focused and I don't have a clear idea how to either use that or push back against it. Others will have different central conflicts they interpret the Church by. Duke University seminary now has a labyrinth to walk.  I'm sure someone finds this Very Important.

(I wrote on the Emerging Church over a decade ago and I might bring those posts back.  Short version:  I like the EC's diagnosis but not their prescriptions.)

*My denominational college, which she is not affiliated with.


james said...

I dunno about "rummage sale," but there do seem to be crises in the church that come every few hundred years. The gnostic infections don't fit the pattern, though.
But O(400-500) there was a great debate (and split) about the nature of Jesus.
O(900-1100) there was a great debate and split over the nature of final authority in the church.
O(1500) there was a great debate and split over the nature of salvation.
And O(now) there's a great debate over the nature of man. It remains to be seen whether this will be one of the scisming debates--the factions that deny that man has a given nature seem to be both less fertile, and less popular in the new Christendom, so this may prove to be a local dispute that has no great bearing on history. Maybe the real "great debate" of our era will be about the role of the Holy Spirit in church and the rise of Pentecostalism.

Some things are too big or too close to see.

james said...

A note on perspective, about the American Revolution: "This was a Good Thing in the end, as it was a cause of the British Empire, but it prevented America from having any more History."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I remember that book.