In one of his sermons titled, “The God of All Creation,” which I assume was given near the end of his ministry but before he published The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer shares his desire to leave behind a legacy of thinking loftily about God:
“I want you to pray about something for me will you do this? I don’t often introduce personal matters but I want you to pray about something. I wish you’d pray that God would help me and let me live long enough to write a book on the attributes of God devotionally considered. I have that in my mind and I want to do it . . . . I’d like to do this; I’d like to leave to this generation an elevated and large conception of the great God Almighty in His three persons. I’d like to die and let the world say not “Wasn’t Tozer smart! Wasn’t he eloquent! Wasn’t he witty!” but to have them say, “We praise the O, God! We acknowledge thee to be the Lord! . . . . It’s this that I want to do. I want to leave behind me a flavor of God. . . .”
We would do well in this hour of heresy and compromise to listen to men of the past like Tozer who drank deeply of the Spirit of God and whom God used to articulate a vision of His greatness, and who also encouraged the Church to elevate its view of God.
So, how is it that I have become focused on Phyllis Tickle and, more specifically, her theology and approach to Scripture? Her claim to fame is that she is the founding editor of the Religion Department of PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Her pedigree is long and you can read more about her on her website. But, more importantly for our interests, she is one of the very public representatives of emergence Christianity and it is in this capacity that she has made several statements that are of concern to me and, in my estimation, to the believing Church.
It was because of my concerns, and because I was beginning to write about her and reference her in my classes, that I decided to contact her through email, asking several pointed questions, to which she graciously and generously responded.
This article will chronicle my early exposure to Tickle’s theology, begin to share her answers to my questions, and thus begin a series of articles reflecting on Tickle, her theology (and more particularly her hermeneutical approach to Scripture), and emergence Christianity. She is quite prolific, having written many books and given many interviews, etc., and while I will not be able to master all of the material pertinent to my concerns, I believe we can get a genuine idea of where she stands and why her views might be of concern to those of us who have defined evangelical Christianity in a different way than she has.
I had heard about Phyllis Tickle a few years ago but only in passing. Then, a colleague showed me a video of her being interviewed by Gabe Lyons. It didn’t take me long to realize that Tickle was saying things that concerned me and that should be of concern to the believing Church. Lyons’ first question went like this:
Lyons: “Recently in the news we hear this discussion about Christian America somehow coming to an end. There’s been a lot of news articles even written about it called ‘The end of Christian America.’ What would be your perspective on even what this idea of Christian America really even is?”
Tickle: “Well, I think my perspective to some extent is, ‘How quickly can we hold the services?’”1
Tickle immediately admitted that her response was “perhaps not the right answer and maybe a smart one” as in smart aleck I think. It would seem she has quite a sense of humor. Still, her quip signaled to me that some kind of “deconstructionist” approach to the church was present and that it warranted further investigation.
In this interview, Tickle sounds very evangelical. In The Sinking Ship of Evangelicalism2 I claimed that she did not want to be called evangelical. I was apparently wrong about that. In my correspondence with her, I pointed out that I had been writing about her and invited her to read it and correct what she thought was wrong. She responded by saying,
“The web sites you sent me were, and are, interesting. Yours made me chuckle right off the bat when you defined me as not an evangelical. One of the things I routinely say to audiences by way of defining who and what I am before they commence listening to what I have to say, is that I am an evangelical Episcopalian. There really is such a thing, and I really am one.”3
While my statement was incorrect on its face, I was writing less from a perspective of a reporter and more from a deductive standpoint. If I were to reword my statement it might go something like this:
“Based on what I am hearing from Phyllis Tickle through her writings, her sermons, and her video interviews, she is obviously abandoning the title evangelical as well, if she ever thought of herself as one.”
To borrow a phrase coined by Tickle herself, I think my sentiments are actually true if not factually true. If I am allowed further opportunity to question Ms. Tickle, I would like to ask her to define evangelical. Perhaps we will be able to answer that question fairly accurately ourselves before we’re done here.
Some further statements in the interview added to my concerns. Asked about how the church should go about being effective in a post-Christendom American context, she said:
“Now we don’t have to say, ‘Please come to church with me.’ Yuck! You know, uh, we can say, ‘Let’s go have a beer, or let’s go have Starbucks, or let’s do something, and let’s talk and let me tell you [about God].’”4
For Tickle, this is a communal, more relational, more humble approach. She labeled it “missional,” “pub theology,” and “water cooler theology.” She also characterized this new way of doing church by saying, “Unscrew the pews, open the space, and let’s dance.”5
It’s not that I don’t see value in much of what Tickle said, and you have to remember, at this point I was unaware of her stance on Gay Christianity, or her unique hermeneutical approach to Scripture. I was just hearing someone I did not know speak in deconstructive terms about the Church and the pastor in me heard an alarm go off.
Part of my concern here is that I hear in her words strains of something that George Barna wrote years ago in his book Revolution. Though the book is replete with problems and what I consider to be troubling statements, three stand out from the rest and paint a picture of disdain for the local church.
Barna Statement #1
“Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and within boundaries, to God). What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.”6
Barna Statement #2
“But, as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.”7
Barna Statement #3
“Ultimately, we expect to see believers choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.”8
Now, Phyllis Tickle is not George Barna and, as far as I know, Barna does not figure into emergence Christianity in any official way. But, in general, I am leery of the “abandon the local church” model, which I did detect, wrong or right, in Tickle.
The Andrew Marin Interview
Next was an interview with Andrew Marin, the founder of The Marin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to build bridges between the LGBT community and, among other groups, the Church. Here, we get an idea of Tickle’s hermeneutic. Two things stand out: her support of Gay Christianity and her view of absolute Sola Scriptura: Scripture only and only Scripture.
Andrew Marin: “As a representative of the church, capital ‘C’ church here, what would you like to say to the broader church about the Gay or Lesbian community?”
Tickle: I would like to say first of all . . . yes I am Episcopalian . . .but my assignment . . . is the Holy Trinity Community Church, United Church of Christ Community Church, which is an all-inclusive, Bi, Gay, Trans, Lesbian church, and about 80% of our members are in that category and about 20% are not. So, I come with some personal experience and obviously, I’ve been a member of that communion for ten years now, and serve them as a Lector, Reader, and also as a lay Eucharistic minister. So, I’m not sure I can be called a representative of the Church capital ‘C’ without some prejudice . . . to it. But, the Church itself is gonna have to come to grips with the fact that we have changed over the years, we have evolved, the law. We now admit divorce. Our Lord does not speak much about sexuality, but He’s very clear about divorce. It’s the only thing He’s really clear about. [As concerns sexuality?] And we have managed because out of compassion, and I certainly am for that change, out of compassion and out of common sense and out of a recognition that our times and ways of being are different from those. We have managed to get around the divorce issue and now even ordain divorced clergy, and that kind of thing. The same thing is going to happen with the gay issue. It’s in process. But you can look right from the 1850’s you can see a progression of change. In the 1850’s Churches split over the slavery question and it was true, honest, it was religious difference, it was Scriptural differences of opinion. The Bible doesn’t say ‘Go own people,’ but it certainly recognizes slavery as a possibility and it even provides for it and sort of condones it if you will. We got over that cause it didn’t make sense. We got over feminism or we got over the need for equality of the genders. And again the Bible’s pretty clear, Paul is certainly clear about the role of the genders, and it didn’t work in our society. So, this is the last . . . and so there’s a sort of progression if you will of sociological shifts over the last hundred and fifty years, hundred and sixty years, and this is the last, I tell audiences, it’s the last puck in a deadly game, the last playing piece, if you will, in a deadly game, and if anybody on either side of the issue fails to understand what really is the issue and the issue really is absolute sola Scriptura, Scripture only and only Scripture. Did God put a period at the end of Revelation or did He put a comma? And once you understand that when we make this change, and we will make it, there’s no question, I mean it’s essentially a dead issue . . . . but the truth of it is we’re gonna get over this. We just have to understand that when we do, it’s the last, it is the last playing piece. It’s the last stance if you will for sola Scriptura . . . and you know if we’re bright we will recognize that divorce wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to the human race or to the human home but it was a necessary adjustment and we’ve paid a price for it but we probably would have paid a greater price if we’d not had it, I think the same thing is true here.”9
It still strikes me as odd to hear someone saying out loud what Tickle says in the Marin interview.
The Bart Gingerich Article
This article, written as a report of sorts on the national gathering of the proponents of emergence Christianity which happened earlier this year (Jan. 11-12 ) in Memphis, TN. The article reports Tickle as having “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.”
In the area of authority, Gingerich reported that Tickle said, “We need to address the authority issue, and we don’t know [sic] have that answer yet . . . . Scripture will play a part. The Holy Spirit will have a role in establishing authority in emergence Christianity . . . . Emergents . . . believe the Scripture is actually true. Most people in the pews want it to be factually true.”
Then, we get a glimpse into Tickle’s hermeneutic when, according to Gingerich, Tickle “commended the group for avoiding the ‘arrogance…that God can be trapped in our understanding,’ 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.’”
Finally, as pertains to the Doctrine of the Atonement, Gingerich reports:
“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.’
These three sources launched me on an investigation of sorts, and ultimately led me to reach out to Ms. Tickle in an effort to hear from her directly on the issues raised in these sources.
In the next article, I will share the questions I asked Ms. Tickle and begin to share some of what she communicated back to me. After summarizing the sources for this article, I am even more interested to hear from Tickle her definition of evangelical.
Recently, I made an effort to contact Phyllis Tickle. In case you don’t know who she is, she is the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, the author of several books, very visible on the web (just Google her), and for our interests here, one of the leading voices of a movement called Emergence Christianity. I wanted to contact her because I was (and still am) concerned about some things she has written and said. I had already some of my concerns in classes and in blog posts here at ccithink and I wanted to solicit her input and inform her that I have been and plan to continue discussing her theology. To my amazement, Ms. Tickle got back to me almost immediately. She was gracious and addressed my concerns
In an upcoming series of articles, I will share the questions I asked of Ms. Tickle, the answers she gave me, and the reasons for my ongoing concern. For these articles I will also draw on her many videos, articles, and interviews given as well as some of her books.
Upcoming In House Symposium on Gay Christianity
One of the challenges hurling toward the believing Church is the growing presence of gay Christianity. On a date still to be decided, the “fellows” of the Christ and Culture Initiative with gather to discuss the various questions and challenges facing the Church concerning this subject.
If you have well worked out thoughts on this subject, pro or con, or questions that you would like for us to consider, you are invited to submit those thoughts and questions by emailing them to email@example.com. The deadline for submissions is May 15, 2013.
Last year I read H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic text, Christ and Culture. For years I had been meaning to read it but, truthfully, it is not the easiest read. But last year, it came alive! Not so much because of Niebuhr’s insights1 but because it so eloquently raises the question: What is to be done about the problem of Christ and culture?2 The question is profoundly important and constantly addressed—either consciously or subconsciously—by Christians and non-Christians alike; by religious and non-religious persons alike; by pop stars and prominent atheists, by actors and professors, by scientists and, of course, preachers of every ilk. My concern for the believing Church and an American culture increasingly hostile towards it,3 prompts my entry into this fray.
And so, for some time now, my question has been, Who do we look to for solutions to the complexities that arise where Christ and culture intersect? It is not hard to anticipate some of the potential answers to that question. For example, someone might suggest that we look to the Holy Spirit for our answers—sort of the “you do not need anyone to teach you” approach from 1 John 2:27. A respectable answer as long as that text is balanced with other texts. For example, in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11, we see that God has appointed and gifted some to be teachers. So, as we balance these texts with one another we can clearly see that we have an anointing from the Holy Spirit that enables us to discern between falsehood and truth and even to discern the content that would come from teachers. But we don’t observe a prescribed ethos of individualism that sees all Christians simply listening to their own voices.
Another response to the above question of Who do we look to? Might be, We look to our pastors! And so we do. But not every is pastor equipped and gifted at surveying the spiritual/cultural landscape and helping the Church and the culture at large to know what it should do, though we should expect to find that some are. But what happens when insightful pastors are not widely known or are simply not as good at communicating their insights as those are who tend toward heresy? Similarly, we might also expect that the professors in our Christian universities and seminaries would help in this area, and of course many have, but not all of them. In fact, some of the most egregious attacks against the believing Church are coming from inside evangelicalism.4
In 1 Chronicles 12:32 we learn about the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Who are the modern “men of Issachar”? Chuck Colson, who died last year, was one of those men. He cultivated an awareness of the relevant issues where Christ intersects with culture, did his due diligence at researching and thinking through the issues from all sides, and fostered meaningful dialogue within and between the Church and the culture in an effort to help them know what they should do. Surely there are many men and women whom God can use in this perilous hour to fill this need for modern men and women of Issachar?!
Sadly, there are many inside the Church who are leading the believing Church astray. Men and women whom we have otherwise trusted are calling for the end of Scripture as the Church’s final authority and the end of an orthodox view of the atonement, calling it a “bloody sacrifice” that “no longer plays.”5 They are leading an assault on the Church’s understanding of Genesis 1-3, even removing our confidence in Adam and Eve and humanity as God’s special creation, bringing into question what we believe about original sin, the fall, and the need for the sacrificial death of Jesus.6 Some are saying that the Church might as well accept same-sex marriage and homosexuality as normal and open its arms to gay Christianity, saying the Church will simply “get over it.”7
The Christ and Culture Initiative is an effort to call together qualified men and women “of Issachar,” either through electronic means such as this blog or in actual convocation, who have been gifted and anointed by God to think through the complex issues that arise where Christ and culture intersect, to dialogue with one another and even with opposing voices through interviews and print concerning these issues, and to thoughtfully, lovingly, yet truthfully and firmly, inspire and challenge the Church and the culture through response.
1 I don’t agree with all of his conclusions but he does offer some important insights; I think the text is frequently misunderstood by modern readers.
2 Niebuhr calls this the enduring problem.
3 I actually mean two things here. I am concerned that the American culture is growing in its hostility toward the believing Church, but I am also concerned for American culture.
4 The believing Church must now of necessity begin to see itself as post-evangelical due to the marring of its true meaning by those who are peddling heresy from inside the Church and due to a media that either cannot or will not make the distinction between what used to be genuine evangelicalism and what now is not.
5 See Bart Gingerich’s coverage of the National Conversation on Emergence Christianity, in Emergence Christianity Comes to Memphis, http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/01/18/emergence-christianity-comes-to-memphis/ quoting Phyllis tickle. When I wrote Ms. Tickle, asking for transcripts, recordings, or video of the event, she replied: “There was no video taken . . . there was an audio which was taken for archival purposes only and will not be released. These decisions were made, I believe, in the interest of being sure that all who wished to speak or make comments or explore issues within the conversation could do so without concern for any post-conference continuations out of context.” See also Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, pages 98-101.
6 See the many articles found on the biologos.org website. See also Gingerich’s article.
7 Watch a 2009 Andrew Marin interview with Phyllis Tickle where Tickle says, “The truth of it is we’re going to get over this.” Andrew Marin, by the way, is the founder of The Marin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to build bridges between the LGBT community and, among other groups, the Church. Google the “I’m sorry campaign.”